George Frederick Cooke

Definition

Theater

  • (1756 - 1812) British actor, whose brilliance on stagewas obscured by his reputation for drunkenness and erratic behaviour.After 20 years languishing in the provinces, he suddenly found successin 1800 playing Richard III at Covent Garden. When John Philip Kemble(see Kemble family) saw the performance, he vowednever again to play the part. Cooke remained at the theater for adecade but was constantly in trouble, in debt, or in jail. Duringone performance in Charles Macklin's Love à la Mode,he was too drunk to act and the show went on without anyone in thelead.

    Cooke was one of the first British stars to be exported toAmerica. He travelled to New York in 1810 to escape his reputation,appearing at the Park Theatre to great acclaim. His unreliability,however, wrecked his second New York season. On his own benefit evening,he tried to play Cato after a prolonged drinking bout and bewilderedthe audience by roaring out lines from Shakespeare interspersed withhis own incoherencies. Afterwards he explained, "I always havea frolic on my benefit day. If a man cannot take a liberty with hisfriends, who the devil can he take a liberty with?"

    Cooke later toured America and often spoke publicly on theevils of alcohol. He died in New York. Edmund Kean, a greatadmirer, removed the body to a new burial place in the city and erecteda monument. He also removed a toe-bone from the actor. When his DruryLane company met him on his return, he commanded: "Behold! Falldown and kiss the relic! This is the toe-bone of the greatest creaturethat ever walked the earth." Each fell upon his knees and kissedit. Kean preserved the hallowed toe for years until one day his wife,in a pique, tossed it out of the window into a well. He rebuked hermore in sorrow than in anger: "Mary, your son has lost his fortune.In possessing Cooke's toe-bone he was worth £10,000, now he isa beggar."

    This was not the only part of Cooke's anatomy to enjoy a posthumouscelebrity. According to the terms of Cooke's will, his skull had passedto one Dr Francis, an American friend, who gave it to a company ofplayers. So it was that, for many years after his death, Cooke continued tomake regular appearances in the graveyard scene from Hamlet.

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