Bannister, John (1760-1836) (DNB00)

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BANNISTER, JOHN (1760–1836), comedian, born at Deptford 12 May 1760, was the son of Charles Bannister [q. v.] A taste for painting which he displayed while a schoolboy led to his becoming a student at the Royal Academy, where he had for associate and friend Rowlandson, the caricaturist. His theatrical bent, shown at times to the interruption of his fellow students, and, according to Nollekens, to the great disturbance of Moser, the keeper of the Academy, led to his abandoning the pursuit of painting, and adopting the stage as a profession. Before quitting the Academy he called upon David Garrick, who, two years previously, in 1776, had retired from the stage. Bannister's account of an interview which, though formidable, was not wholly discouraging, is preserved in the diary used by his biographer, Adolphus. Garrick manifested some interest in the young aspirant, and appears to have afforded him instruction in the character of Zaphna, a rôle ‘created’ by Garrick in a version by the Rev. James Miller of the ‘Mahomet’ of Voltaire. Bannister's first appearance took place at the Haymarket, for his father's benefit, on 27 Aug. 1778, as Dick in Murphy's farce, the ‘Apprentice.’ The character, a favourite with Woodward, who had died in the April of the previous year, suggested formidable comparisons, which Bannister seems to have stood fairly well. He recited on this occasion a prologue by Garrick, which Woodward was also in the habit of delivering, and wound up his share in the entertainment by exercising a strong power of mimicry which he possessed, and giving imitations of well-known actors. The following season, 1778–9, saw Bannister engaged with his father as a stock actor at Drury Lane, the début being made on 11 Nov. 1778 in the character of Zaphna (Seid in the original), commended to him by Garrick, with whom it was a favourite. Palmira was played by Mrs. Robinson, better known as Perdita, Alcanor by Bensley, and Mahomet by Palmer. On 19 Jan. following, according to Adolphus, but more probably, according to Genest, 19 Dec., he appeared, again in Voltaire, as Dorislas in a version by Aaron Hill of ‘Mérope.’ On 2 Feb. at Covent Garden he played Achmet in Dr. Brown's tragedy of ‘Barbarossa.’ His transference to these boards was attributable to a species of coalition between the two great houses then in practice. His only other appearance this season was for his benefit at Covent Garden on 24 April 1779, when he acted the Prince of Wales in the ‘First Part of Henry IV,’ and Shift in Foote's comedy, the ‘Mirror,’ and gave his imitations. While Drury Lane was shut, Bannister joined Mattocks's company at Birmingham, playing such characters as Macduff, Orlando, Edgar Lothario, George Barnwell, and Simon Pure. His first ‘creation’ of importance appears to have been Don Ferolo Whiskerandos in the ‘Critic,’ which was produced at Drury Lane on 29 Oct. 1779. An appearance in ‘Hamlet’ followed, and is not remarkable, except for the fact that Bannister had influence enough to induce the management to remove the alterations in the play made by Garrick. Whatever capacity Bannister possessed in tragedy that was not eclipsed by the established reputation of Henderson had shortly to yield to the growing fame of Kemble. Lamb, who in a noted parallel between him and Suett speaks of the two as ‘more of personal favourites with the town than any actors before or after,’ says Bannister was ‘beloved for his sweet good-natured moral pretensions,’ and adds that ‘your whole conscience was stirred’ with his Walter in ‘The Children in the Wood.’ Leigh Hunt speaks of him as ‘the first low comedian on the stage.’ So late as 1787 we find him still essaying George Barnwell, and during previous years such characters as Posthumus, Oroonoko, Chamont in the ‘Orphan,’ and Juba in ‘Cato,’ divide attention with happier efforts as Charles Surface and Parolles. By the year 1787 Bannister's social and professional position was established. Inkle in ‘Inkle and Yarico’ was created by him, and Almaviva in ‘Follies of a Day’ (La Folle Journée) and Scout in the ‘Village Lawyer’ (L'Avocat Patelin) added to his repertory. Brisk in the ‘Double Dealer’ of Congreve, Sir David Dunder in Colman's ‘Ways and Means,’ Ben in ‘Love for Love,’ Brass in the ‘Confederacy,’ Scrub in the ‘Beaux' Stratagem,’ Trappanti in Cibber's ‘She would and she would not,’ Speed in the ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ are among the parts that prepared the way for his conspicuous success as Sir Anthony Absolute and Tony Lumpkin, characters in which he was received with pleasure to the end of his career. In 1792 the wife of Bannister, whom he had married at Hendon on 26 Jan. 1783, and who, under her maiden name of Harper, had acquired some reputation, retired from the stage, the reason being her increasing family. Bannister still retained, in the height of his success, his taste for painting, and Rowlandson, Morland, and Gainsborough were his close friends. From this time forward his career was an unbroken triumph. The principal comic parts in the old drama fell by right into his hands, and his acceptance of a rôle in a new piece was of favourable augury. Bob Acres, Job Thornbury in ‘John Bull,’ Marplot, Caleb Quotem, Colonel Feignwell in ‘A Bold Stroke for a Wife,’ Dr. Ollapod, Young Philpot in the ‘Citizen,’ and Dr. Pangloss, are among his greatest performances; Mercutio being the only comic character of importance that seemed outside his range. In 1802–3 he was acting manager at Drury Lane. At one period, commencing 1807, he gave a monologue entertainment, with songs, entitled ‘Bannister's Budget.’ On 1 June 1815 Bannister retired from the stage, playing in Kenney's comedy, the ‘World,’ Echo, a character created by him, and affording room for a display of his mimetic gifts, and Walter in ‘Children in the Wood.’ He also spoke a farewell address. He died in Gower Street on 7 Nov. 1836, at 2 a.m., and was buried on the 14th in the church of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields in a vault with his father. The stage can point to few men of more solid virtue or unblemished character. His acting obtained the high praise of the acutest judges. Of the galaxy of comic actors which marked the close of the last and the beginning of the present century he was one of the brightest stars. A portrait of him, by Russell, R.A., in the Garrick Club, shows him with a bright and intellectual face, and a very well-shaped head.

[Adolphus's Memoirs of John Bannister, two vols. 1838; Genest's Account of the English Stage from the Restoration in 1660 to 1830, Bath, 1832, 10 vols.; Reminiscences of Michael Kelly, 2 vols., 2nd edit. Lond. 1826; Thespian Dictionary, 1805; Secret History of the Green Room, 2 vols. 1795; Dr. Doran's Their Majesties' Servants, 2 vols. 1864; Leigh Hunt's Critical Essays on the Performers of the London Theatres, 1807; Lamb's Essays of Elia, Works, vol. iii. ed. 1876.]

J. K.