Drunken Actors

Covent Garden Theatre, painted c. 1821, where John Edwin the Elder often performed.

Snippets 145.  In almost every generation there has been an actor who is known for turning up drunk to work.  They often became famous for it, and all the more popular.  In Thomas Munden’s biography of his father, well-known actor Joseph Shepherd Munden, he wrote about one of Joseph’s contemporaries George Frederick Cooke (1756-1812) who was famed for his drunken comedy performances, and compared him to another comic actor who was at the end of his career when Munden was embarking on his, the “inimitable Edwin”: John Edwin the Elder (1749-1790).  The following quote is taken from Memoirs of Joseph Shepherd Munden.

In 1790 died, the, as he is called in the records of the times, “inimitable Edwin.” Very little is preserved which can give us a notion of his peculiar qualities. A writer, who seems to understand his subject, describes him as “a thin, tidy, dollish kind of man, with a quizzical, drollish air. He acted a sort of Fribble, a weak-headed dandy of those times. There was a quaintness about his manner which took possession of the town, although, in general, he played solely to the upper classes – the gallery.” He must have been much better than this criticism describes, for few comedians ever carried the town so far with them as Edwin did. It is undoubted that he was one of the best comic singers that ever trod the stage…

He is said to have been as fond of raising the glass to his lips as Cooke was. The late Stephen Kemble once asked rather jesuitically, if Cooke did not owe much of his celebrity to this vice and his utter disdain of public opinion. There might be something in this insinuation. The crowds who flocked to see Richard the Third, and Sir Pertinax Macsycophant were always in doubt whether they should have value for the price of their admission; since it was an even chance that, before the curtain rose, an apology would be made for Mr. Cooke who was suffering under “violent spasms.” This, unquestionably, created excitement, and rendered him a rarity, which his more regular rival, Kemble, was not. When he did appear, the rapture of the audience knew no bounds. In a similar way Edwin, as is described by the writer before referred to, “was brought to the stage door, senseless and motionless, at the bottom of a chaise. Brandon was then called in as practising physician. If they could put on him the proper dress, and push him to the lamps he rubbed his stupid eyes for a minute; consciousness and quaint humour awoke together; and he seemed to play the better for it.” Be that as it may, the public thought Edwin a great actor, and great without doubt he was, for the public are seldom wrong.

“Fribble” is a word that has largely fallen into disuse, meaning a foolish person.  It probably has the same origin as “frivolous”.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in 18th Century, 19th Century, Autobiographies, Books, England, History, Humor, Humour, Memoirs, Snippets and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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