William (Henry West) Betty

Definition

Theater

  • (1791 - 1874) Anglo-Irish child actor, whose performances convulsed the fashionable world in 1804 - 06. After making his debut in Belfast, the 12-year-old Betty was brought to London by his ambitious father, who found him a position at Covent Garden. Here, to the chagrin of Kemble and other established actors, he took leading roles in plays by Shakespeare, Sheridan, and others, to scenes of almost hysterical adulation. It is even said that a sitting of the house of Commons was suspended to allow members to see the Young Roscius (as he was billed) in all his glory. When Betty transferred to Drury Lane in 1805 the loss of receipts was apparently so great that Covent Garden was brought close to bankruptcy. Apart from his novelty value, Betty's greatest asset was his remarkable physical beauty; his acting talent seems to have been genuine but unequal to the adult roles in which he was placed. 'Bettymania' proved predictably short lived, as enthusiasm dwindled into indifference and finally into open contempt. After a short retreat from the stage, a series of unsuccessful comebacks, and a suicide attempt in 1821, Betty finally retired upon his considerable earnings. He would live for another 50 years.
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