Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Burton, William Evans

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BURTON, William Evans, actor, b. in London, England, 24 Sept., 1804; d. in New York, 10 Feb., 1860. His father, George Burton, was the author of “Biblical Researches” and other writings, and was likewise a printer. Burton was a pupil at St. Paul's school in his native city, an institution associated also with the dramatic names of Elliston and Mathews. At the age of eighteen, in consequence of the death of his father, the youth was called to take charge of the printing-office; and also to be the main-stay of a widowed mother. His first effort was to establish a monthly magazine. The attempt was a failure, but it brought him theatrical acquaintances, and under their influence he presently drifted toward the stage. The first step, as usual, was to join an amateur dramatic society, and it is said that about this time he gave a performance of “Hamlet” somewhere on the Strand. In 1825 he was associated with a provincial company acting at Norwich, and elsewhere in England, and he played low comedy. His aspirations at the start were for the tragic, and it is known that late in life he still at times entertained the fancy that nature had intended him to be a tragedian. This is a peculiarity of mental bias by no means unusual with actors; and it is furthermore to be observed that, in actual experience, tragic actors are often found to be cheerful, and even hilarious, as private individuals, while comedians are extremely apt to prove serious, pensive, and even melancholy. Burton was one of the funniest creatures that ever lived, but his interior nature was thoughtful and saturnine. He thought, felt, and understood tragedy, but when he came to act, he was all comedian. At the outset of his career he led the usual life of an itinerant actor. There is a tradition that in the course of his wanderings he once played before George IV. at Windsor. His first professional appearance in London was made, in 1831, at the Pavilion theatre, as Wormwood in “The Lottery Ticket,” in which part he was much admired, and which he then acted there upward of fifty consecutive times. Liston was then the reigning favorite in London (Munden, who died in 1832, being in decadence), and next to Liston stood John Reeve, upon whom it is thought that the earlier style of Burton was in a measure founded. In 1832 Burton obtained a chance to show his talents at the Haymarket — Liston having temporarily withdrawn in a pet — and there he played Marall to Edmund Kean as Sir Giles Overreach, and Mrs. Glover as Meg in “A New Way to Pay Old Debts,” a circumstance which he always remembered, and often mentioned with pride and pleasure. His talents as a writer likewise displayed themselves at an early age. In May, 1833, a play from his pen, called “Ellen Wareham,” was first presented, and it is mentioned that this piece had the somewhat unusual fortune of being acted at five different theatres of London on the same evening. In 1834 he came to the United States, making his first appearance in this country on 3 Sept. at the Arch street theatre, Philadelphia, as Dr. Ollapod and Wormwood. In that city he remained for four years, acting in many old standard plays, and continually advancing in the public favor. On 31 Oct., 1837, he made his advent in New York at the National theatre in Leonard street, enacting Guy Goodluck in “John Jones.” The theatre was under the management of James W. Wallack, and this performance was given for the benefit of Samuel Woodworth, author of “The Old Oaken Bucket.” Burton began a star engagement there on 4 Feb., 1839, as Billy Lackaday in “Sweethearts and Wives.” It was not until 1848, however, that he finally settled in New York, as a manager. On 10 July of that year he opened his theatre in Chambers street (it had been Palmo's opera-house, built in 1842), and from that time for eight years he was the leader of the dramatic profession in the United States. His theatrical company included, first and last, John Brougham, William Rufus Blake, Henry Placide, John Lester Wallack, George Jordan, Humphrey Bland, George Barrett, T. B. Johnston, John Dyott, Charles Fisher, Lysander Thompson, George Holland, C. W. Clarke, W. H. Norton, Charles Mathews, Daniel E. Setchell, Mary Devlin (afterward the first wife of Edwin Booth), Mrs. Russell (afterward Mrs. Hoey), Lizzie Weston (afterward Mrs. A. H. Davenport, and finally Mrs. C. Mathews), Mrs. Hughes (afterward wife of John Brougham), Mrs. Skerrett, Mrs. Hough, Mrs. Rea, Miss Raymond, Miss Agnes Robertson (afterward wife of Dion Boucicault), Miss Malvina Pray (afterward Mrs. W. J. Florence), Fanny Wallack, Miss Chapman, and Mary Taylor. Burton revived “Twelfth Night,” and other Shakespearian comedies in a luxurious style, and produced a great variety of plays in the best possible manner. The story of Burton's Chambers street theatre, indeed, is one of the brightest passages in the chronicle of the American stage. The stock system was maintained, and every detail of the work was planned and accomplished with sedulous care. Here it was that Burton made brilliant and memorable hits as Sir Toby Belch, Capt. Cuttle (with John Brougham as Bunsby and as Bagstock), Job Thornbury, Micawber, Sam Weller, Bottom, Lord Duberly, Mr. Toodles (first given Oct. 2, 1848), Jeremiah Clip, Touchstone, Aminidab Sleek, Caliban, Autolycus, and Falstaff. Burton acted Falstaff in the “Merry Wives of Windsor”; never in “Henry IV.” This enumeration, although it gives but a few of the characters in which he was preëminently fine, and in which he became widely famous, may serve to indicate the direction and the range of his faculties. The Chambers street theatre was closed on 6 Sept., 1856, and the comedian then opened the Metropolitan, which afterward became Winter Garden; but he did not luxuriantly prosper in the new house, and in 1858 he gave it up and reverted to “starring.” His last appearance in New York was made, on 15 Oct., 1859, at Niblo's Garden, where, for his benefit, afternoon and night, he played Mr. Toodles, Mr. Sudden, Toby Tramp, and Micawber. His last performance on any stage occurred on 16 Dec., 1859, at Mechanics' Hall, Hamilton, Canada, where he acted Aminidab Sleek and Goodluck in “The Serious Family” and “John Jones.” The former part was acted by Burton 600 times, and Mr. Toodles was acted by him 640 times, in the course of his professional career. His affectionate and reverent biographer, William L. Keese, whose “Life of Burton” was published in New York in 1885, enumerates 184 characters with which the great comedian's name was prominently associated. Burton wrote several works, “The Actor's Alloquy” and “Waggeries and Vagaries” among the rest, edited the “Literary Souvenir” in 1838 and 1840, established “The Gentleman's Magazine” in New York in 1837, of which periodical for a short time in 1840 Edgar Allan Poe was assistant editor, and published a “Cyclopædia of Wit and Humor” (2 vols., New York, 1858). He collected a magnificent library, especially rich in Shakespearean literature. He was twice married, and left a widow and three daughters. He was buried in Greenwood cemetery.