Thomas Betterton

Definition

Theater

  • (1635 - 1710) English actor-manager usually consideredthe leading figure of the Restoration stage. He adapted several ofShakespeare's works and in his day was unrivalled for his Hamlet,Lear, and Sir Toby Belch. He created about 130 new characters forthe stage and was the first actor buried in Westminster Abbey.

    The son of Charles I's cook, Betterton became a member ofJohn Rhodes's company, which in 1660 reopened the Cockpit at DruryLane. The next year he joined Davenant's company at Lincoln'sInn Fields to appear in Love and Honour; for his performanceas Prince Alvaro, Charles II loaned Betterton his coronation suit.

    In the same year he first played Hamlet, a role he would returnto with acclaim until the age of 74, making him the oldest Hamlet on record. Despite having small eyes, a low voice, and an "ill figure...clumsilymade", Betterton was immensely powerful in the role. He wasrenowned for actually turning white when he met the Ghost in Act I.His fellow actor Barton booth, playing the Ghost, was so astonishedby Betterton's reaction that he was unable to continue for severalmoments. "Instead of my awing him," Booth later recalled,"he terrified me." Other actors were similarly affected.Robert Wilks, playing in The Maid's Tragedy with Betterton,was so struck by his dignity that he could barely say a word.

    Davenant died in 1668, and Betterton led the company to theDorset Garden Theatre; in 1682 it merged with the company at DruryLane. In 1695 he successfully reopened the theater in Lincoln'sInn Fields with the premiere of Congreve's Love for Love. In1705 he moved to the new Queen's Theatre in the Hay, a building designedby John Vanbrugh, whose play The Confederacy Betterton producedthere.

    Betterton was a close friend of Archbishop Tillotson, whoonce asked him why his own sermons could never move the congregationas much as the actor's words affected the audience. "That Ithink is easy to be accounted for," said the actor. "'Tisbecause you are only telling them a story, and I am showingthem facts."

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