Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Digges, West

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DIGGES, WEST (1720–1786), actor, has been variously stated to have been the son of Colonel Digges, an officer of the guards, whose fortune was lost in the South Sea scheme, and the illegitimate son of the second John West, earl of Delawarr. A commission was obtained for him, and he was sent to Scotland, where he encumbered himself with a burden of debt of which he was never able to get rid. Theophilus Cibber, on his visit to Dublin, introduced Digges to Sheridan, manager of the Smock Alley Theatre. On 27 Nov. 1749, as Jaffier in ‘Venice Preserved,’ he made at that house his first appearance on the stage. His success was complete. He remained in Dublin for some years, playing such characters as Lothario, Lear, Antony, Macheath, and Hamlet. He paid frequent visits to Edinburgh, where, 14 Dec. 1756, he was the original Young Norval in Home's tragedy of ‘Douglas.’ Having a wife still living, he went through the ceremony of marriage with George Ann Bellamy [q. v.], and acted in Scotland for a time (1763) under the name of Bellamy. In Edinburgh he was imprisoned for debt, but succeeded in effecting his escape. His first appearance in London took place at the Haymarket as Cato, 14 Aug. 1777. Foote was present, and with characteristic cruelty caused a laugh and disconcerted the actor by saying aloud in reference to Digges's costume, ‘A Roman chimney-sweeper on May day!’ He appeared at Covent Garden, 25 Sept. 1778, as Sir John Brute in the ‘Provoked Wife.’ In 1779 he returned to the Haymarket, and was the original Earl of Westmoreland in Mrs. Cowley's ‘Albina, Countess Raimond.’ At the close of 1781 he quitted London permanently, and acted in Dublin. Rehearsing in July 1784 Pierre in ‘Venice Preserved,’ with Mrs. Siddons as Belvidera, he had a stroke of paralysis from which he never recovered. He died in Cork 10 Nov. 1786, and was buried in the cathedral. Digges was a well-formed and handsome man, portly in his later years, but with much natural grace. He was, however, rather formal in style, and his voice was imperfectly under control. In London he made no great reputation. Davies, speaking of his Wolsey, says, ‘Mr. Digges, if he had not sometimes been extravagant in gesture and quaint in elocution, would have been nearer the resemblance of the great minister than any actor I have seen represent it’ (Dramatic Miscellanies, i. 351). Colman the younger accords him high praise. Victor says his ‘Lear was a weak imitation of Garrick,’ and esteems him a better actor in tragedy than in comedy, as he was ‘a much easier fine gentleman off the stage than on.’ Boaden says of his Wolsey that it was a masterly performance (Life of Mrs. Siddons, i. 127), and of his performance of Caratach in the ‘Bonduca’ of Fletcher, altered by Colman, Haymarket, 30 July 1778, that ‘it was quite equal to Kemble's Coriolanus in bold, original conception and corresponding felicity of execution’ (ib. i. 164), and O'Keeffe says that he was the best Macheath he ever saw.

[Books cited; Genest's Account of the Stage; Victor's Hist. of the Theatres of London and Dublin; Hitchcock's Historical View of the Irish Stage; Colman's Random Records; Peake's Memoirs of the Colman Family; Jackson's Hist. of the Scottish Stage.]

J. K.