Snippets 208. Every so often a child actor rises to levels of fame that seems to eclipse that of their adult equivalents. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when a child actor makes a strong impact in a particular role then the international press becomes almost obsessive, so actors such as Macauley Culkin, Drew Barrymore, Haley Joel Osment and Christina Ricci became household names around the world. Some of these child prodigies carry on to have careers as adults. Some do not.
This is not entirely a modern phenomenon. One 1st December 1804 a thirteen year old boy named William Betty made his Covent Garden Theatre debut. His fame had already spread around the country, and he was said to possess a remarkable talent. What happened next is described in Memoirs of Joseph Shepherd Munden, a biography of a well-known actor during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, famed for his comedy performances. His biography was written by his son Thomas.
The anxiously-expected prodigy — the ” Young Roscius” — after a journey, which seemed an ovation, reached the London boards. His reception was so remarkable, that we trust we may be excused for departing for a space from our subject, and giving some account of his first appearance, from the pages of our useful friend, ” The Monthly Mirror” (vol 18, p. 420):
“The loud fame which preceded Master Betty’s arrival in London, produced a degree of curiosity unknown in the annals of the theatrical world. So great was the anxiety to behold this youthful performer, that several persons sought to conceal themselves in the house on Friday night, in the hope of remaining there, unperceived, until the returning night. So early as twelve o’clock on Saturday, the approaches to the various parts of the theatre were besieged by people clamorous for admission; and between one and two they became crowded. The managers, anticipating this result, had taken every precaution against its consequences. A great number of Bow-street officers and constables were called in to preserve the public peace, and prevent riot and confusion. A large party of soldiers were also stationed at the several doors, to protect the people against the necessary and fatal result of the indiscriminate rush of such an immense tide. About half-past four o’clock the crowd became so great, that most serious apprehensions were entertained for the lives of several persons, who were fainting away under the pressure, and to whom, in the midst of the impenetrable mass, no assistance could be afforded on the outside. It was therefore thought advisable to open the Bow-street door, though a full hour earlier than usual, with a view to accommodate the besiegers, and relieve them from the pressure which they had so long endured. In an instant the tide rushed in and took possession of the exterior door and the bar at the lobby, where the entrance-money is received. As only one can pass at a time, and some delay is necessary, for the receipt and examination of the money and tickets, the slowness of the movement of those in the van but ill accorded with the impatience of those in the rear. The pressure in that part of the lobby became infinitely greater, and its effects more alarming than they had previously experienced in the open street. They broke all the windows on each side of the entrance, for the benefit of the air; yet the heat and pressure still continued so great, as every moment to threaten suffocation. A board was now displayed, announcing that the boxes were all full. This communication, however, though corresponding with the fact, did not operate to diminish the pressure, and they continued rushing in with impetuosity until after six o’clock. One-half at least of all those who suffered this fatigue and danger, were obliged to return ungratified. Nearly the same confusion that prevailed without was observable within the house, in the early part of the night. The pit was almost instantly filled by persons who leapt into it from the boxes; and many battles took place with the Bow-street officers, who were endeavouring to secure the places for those who had retained them. The few parties who reached their seats were guarded by an escort of constables…”
“The pressure was so great in the pit, that several men were overcome with the heat, and lifted up into the boxes, from whence they were carried out of the house. Little of the first act of the play (Barbarossa) was heard.” At length the youthful hero entered. It is not possible to describe the tumultuous uproar of applause which marked his reception.
There was also a riot on the second night, with damage to the theatre and audience members injured. Four years later Betty quit acting to study at Cambridge. His return to the stage four years after that was received with unfavourable reviews, and he gave up acting until a second attempt at a comeback nine years later. This was also unsuccessful and he attempted suicide (ironically also unsuccessfully). He lived to the age of 82, but his fame was confined entirely to his childhood years.
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