The Bay State Monthly/Volume 3/Issue 1/Sketch of the Life of Denman Thompson
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Vol. 3, Issue 1 (April, 1885): Sketch of the Life of Denman Thompson
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Throughout the United States whereever the name of New England is held in respect there is the name of Denman Thompson a household word. His genius has embodied in a drama the finer yet homlier characteristics of New England life, its simplicity, its rugged honesty, its simple piety, its benevolence, partially hid beneath a rough and uncouth exterior. His drama is an epic—a prose poem—arousing a loyal and patriotic love for the land of the Pilgrims in the hearts of her sons, whether at home, on the rolling prairies of the West, in the sunny South, amid the grand scenes of the Sierras, or on the Pacific slope.
That Denman Thompson was not a native of New Hampshire was rather the result of chance. His parents were natives of Swanzey, where they are still living at a ripe old age, and where they have always lived, save for a few years preceeding and following the birth of their children. In 1831 the parents moved to Girard, Erie County, Pennsylvania, when, October 15, 1833, was born their gifted son. The boy was blessed with one brother and two sisters, and death has yet to strike its first blow in the family.
At the age of thirteen years Denman accompanied his family to the old home in Swanzey, where for several years he received the advantages of the education afforded by the district school. For his higher education, he was indebted to the excellent scholastic opportunities afforded by the Mount Cæsar Seminary in Swanzey.
At the age of nineteen he entered the employ of his uncle in Lowell, Massachusetts, serving as book-keeper in a wholesale store, and in that city he made his debut as Orasman in the military drama of the French Spy.
In 1854, at the age of twenty-one years, he was engaged by John Nickerson, the veteran actor and manager, as a member of the stock company of the Royal Lyceum, Toronto. From the first his success was assured, for aside from his natural adaptation to his profession he possesses indomitable perseverance, a quality as necessary to the rise of an artist as genius. On the provincial boards of Toronto he studied and acted for the next few years, perfecting himself in his calling and preparing for wider fields. Then he acted the rollicking Irishman to perfection; the real live Yankee, with his genuine mannerisms and dialect, with proper spirit and without ridiculous exaggeration, and the Negro, so open to burlesque. The special charm of his acting in those characters was his artistic execution. He never stooped to vulgarities, his humor was quaint and spontaneous, and the entire absence of apparent effort in his performance gave his audience a most favorable impression of power in reserve. His favorite characters were Salem Scudder in The Octaroon, and Myles Na Coppaleen in Colleen Bawn.
In April, 1862, Mr. Thompson started for the mother country, and there his reception was worthy a returning son who had achieved a well-earned reputation. His opening night in London was a perfect ovation, and during his engagement the theatre was crowded in every part. He met with flattering success during his brief tour, performing at Edinburg and Glasgow before his return to Toronto the following fall.
From that time must be dated the career of Mr. Thompson as a star or leading actor and manager, at first in low comedy, so called, or eccentric -drama, and later, in what he has made a classic New England drama.
Mr. Thompson is the author of several very pleasing and successful comedies, but the play Joshua Whitcomb is the best known and most popular. The leading character is said to have been drawn from Captain Otis Whitcomb, who died in Swanzey in 1882, at the age of eighty-six. Cy Prime, who “could have proved it had Bill Jones been alive,” died in that town, a few years since, while Len Holbrook still lives there. General James Wilson, the veteran, who passed away a short time since, was well known to the older generation of today. The last scene of the drama is laid in Swanzey and the scenery is drawn from nature very artistically. Mr. Thompson is the actor as well as creator of the leading character in the play. The good old man is drawn from the quiet and comforts of his rural home to the perplexities of city life in Boston. There his strong character and good sense offset his simplicity and ignorance. He acts as a kind of Providence in guiding the lives of others. To say that the play is pure is not enough—it is ennobling.
The success of the play has been wonderful. Year after year it draws crowded houses—and it will, long after the genius of Mr. Thompson’s acting becomes a tradition.
Mr. Thompson is a gentleman of wide culture and extensive reading and information. Not only with the public but with his professional brethren he is very popular on account of his amiable character. Naturally he is of a quiet and benevolent disposition, and has the good word of everyone to whom he is known.
As one of a stock company he never disappointed the manager—as a manager he never disappointed the public.
In private life he has been very happy in his marital relations, having married Miss Maria Bolton in July, 1860. Three children—two daughters and one son, have blessed their union.
A book could well be written on the adventures and incidents that have attended the presentation of the great play since its inception. Nowhere is it more popular than in the neighborhood of Mr. Thompsons’s summer home. When a performance is had in Keene the good people of Swanzey demand a special matinee for their benefit, from which the citizens of Keene are supposed to be excluded.
In Colorado a Methodist camp-meeting was adjourned and its members attended the play en masse. Such is the charm of the play that it never loses its attraction.
Mr. Thompson is in the prime of life, about fifty years old. His home is in New Hampshire; his birthplace was in Pennsylvania. He made his debut in Massachusetts, and received his professional training in Canada; he is a citizen of the United States, and is always honored where genius is recognized.
Like the favorite character, Joshua Whitcomb, in his favorite play, Mr. Thompson is personally sensitive, kind-hearted, self-sacrificing; he never speaks ill of any one, delights in doing good, and enjoys hearing and telling a good story; he is quiet, yet full of fun; genrous to a fault. His company has become much attached to him.
In the village of Swansey is Mr. Thompson’s summer home; a beautiful mansion, surrounded by grounds where art and nature combine to please. The hospitality of the house is proverbial, but its chief attraction is its well-stocked library.