Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/King, Thomas (1730-1805)

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KING, THOMAS (1730–1805), actor and dramatist, born 20 Aug. 1730, in the parish of St. George's, Hanover Square, London, where his father was a tradesman, was educated at a grammar school in Yorkshire, whence he proceeded to Westminster School. According to the school-list preserved in the Harleian MSS. at the British Museum, Thomas King was in the second form at Westminster in 1736. Genest says (Account of the Stage, iv. 259): ‘A gentleman told me that King's father kept a coffee-house, and that King, when a boy, had often brought him a dish of coffee.’ Other accounts are that King was born in a northern town in which his father lived, and that he was descended from a respectable family in Hampshire. Articled to a London solicitor, he was taken to a dramatic school, and conceived such a fancy for the stage that in October, or, according to another account, May 1747, in company with Edward Shuter [q. v.], he ran away, and joined on sharing terms a travelling company at Tunbridge, where for the sum of fourpence he recited a prologue and an epilogue and acted the two characters of Hamlet and Sharp in the ‘Lying Lover’ of Garrick. After a short experience of acting in barns, in the course of which (June 1748) he played in a booth at Windsor, directed by Yates, he was seen by Garrick, who, on the recommendation of Yates, engaged him for Drury Lane. His first part was the Herald in ‘King Lear,’ presumably on 8 Oct. 1748. On 19 Oct., when Massinger's ‘New Way to Pay Old Debts’ was given for the first time at Drury Lane, he played Allworth, the occasion being disingenuously announced in the bills as his first appearance in any character. Salanio in the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ Cinthio in the ‘Emperor of the Moon,’ Truman in the ‘Squire of Alsatia,’ Tattoo in ‘Lethe,’ Clerimont in the ‘Miser,’ and Don Philip in ‘She would and she would not,’ followed during the season, in which also he was the original Murza in Dr. Johnson's ‘Irene,’ and played a part in the ‘Hen-Peck'd Captain,’ a farce said to be founded on the ‘Campaigners’ of D'Urfey. During the summer he played, with Mrs. Pritchard, Romeo, Benedick, Ranger, and George Barnwell, with much success, at Jacob's Well Theatre, Bristol. There he was seen by Whitehead, who formed a high estimate of him. On his return to Drury Lane he found himself announced for George Barnwell. During his second season he played, among other parts, the Younger Brother in ‘Comus,’ Rosse in ‘Macbeth,’ Claudio in ‘Much Ado about Nothing,’ and Ferdinand in the ‘Tempest,’ and was the original Duke of Athens in ‘Edward the Black Prince,’ by William Shirley, and Valeria in the ‘Roman Father’ of Whitehead. He also played in the ‘Little French Lawyer’ and the ‘Spanish Curate,’ converted after Garrick's fashion into farces. At the close of the season he went with a Miss Cole, a pleasing actress, to Dublin. His first appearance under Sheridan at the Smock Alley Theatre took place in September 1750 as Ranger in the ‘Suspicious Husband.’ Except for one season, beginning in September 1755, when he was the manager and principal actor at the Bath Theatre—a fact unrecorded by Genest—King remained at Smock Alley Theatre for eight years, and while there rose to the highest rank in comedy. Tom in the ‘Conscious Lovers,’ Jeremy in ‘Love for Love,’ Mercutio, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Autolicus in ‘Florizel and Perdita,’ the Miser, Abel Drugger, Duretête, Marplot in the ‘Busy Body,’ Scrub, Lord Lace, Tattle, Osric, Trinculo, Iago, Bayes, and Harlequin in the ‘Emperor of the Moon,’ were among his parts. On 23 Oct. 1758 he appeared at the Crow Street Theatre as Trappanti in ‘She would and she would not.’

The difficulties and dissensions of the Dublin theatres at length drove him back to Drury Lane, where, as Tom in the ‘Conscious Lovers,’ he appeared on 2 Oct. 1759. He had greatly improved in style, and was assigned leading parts. With occasional visits to Dublin or to country towns, and with one season at Covent Garden and a summer visit to the Haymarket, he remained at Drury Lane, of which he became the mainstay, until 1802. On his reappearance at Drury Lane he was accompanied by Miss Baker, a hornpipe dancer, who then made her first appearance at Drury Lane. He married her in 1766, and she retired from the stage 9 May 1772. Genest gives a list of King's characters, which is confessedly incomplete. Nevertheless it extends to nearly one hundred and fifty parts, and embraces the whole range of comedy, from Falstaff, Sir Peter Teazle, Sir Anthony Absolute, and Puff, to Ben in ‘Love for Love’ and Scrub, from Benedick and Sir Harry Wildair to Parolles, Bobadil, and Cloten. At Drury Lane King was, on 31 Oct. 1759, the original Sir Harry's servant in ‘High Life below Stairs,’ and on 12 Dec. the original Squire Groom in Macklin's ‘Love à la Mode.’ He took part during the same season in the first production of Murphy's ‘Way to Keep him,’ and ‘Every Woman in her Humour,’ attributed to Mrs. Clive. Scribble in Colman's ‘Polly Honeycombe,’ Florimond in Hawkesworth's ‘Edgar and Emmeline,’ Sir Harry Beagle in Colman's ‘Jealous Wife,’ and Captain Le Brush in Reed's ‘Register Office’ were also among his original parts in the following season. But not until his performance of Lord Ogleby in the ‘Clandestine Marriage’ of Garrick and Colman, on 20 Feb. 1766, was the highest rank allotted to him. Garrick studied the part and resigned it to King, who accepted it with reluctance. Garrick was pleased with his conception, and his performance was declared to be in the same pre-eminent class with Garrick's Hamlet and Kemble's Coriolanus. In July 1766 King broke his leg, and was unable to act until the following November. His reputation attained its climax on 8 May 1777, when he was the original Sir Peter Teazle in the famous first representation of the ‘School for Scandal.’ Of that representation it was said a generation later that ‘no new performer has ever appeared in any of the principal characters that was not inferior to the person who acted it originally’ (Genest, v. 555). King also spoke Garrick's prologue. On 29 Oct. 1779, in the scarcely less famous original cast of the ‘Critic,’ King was Puff. Other original characters, to the number of about eighty, which he took at Drury Lane, and nearly all of which were of primary importance, include Mask in Colman's ‘Musical Lady,’ Prattle in his ‘Deuce is in Him,’ Spatter in his ‘English Merchant,’ Rufus Rubrick in his ‘Spleen,’ Sharply in Mrs. Sheridan's ill-starred piece, ‘The Dupe,’ Glib in Garrick's ‘A Peep behind the Curtain’—which, on the strength of the line spoken by King,

I, Thomas King, of King Street, am the poet,

was for some time assigned to the actor—Cecil in Kelly's ‘False Delicacy,’ Dr. Cantwell in the ‘Hypocrite,’ Bickerstaffe's alteration of the ‘Nonjuror,’ Muskato in Kenrick's ‘'Tis well it's no worse,’ Belcour in Cumberland's ‘West Indian,’ Mortimer in his ‘Fashionable Lover,’ General Savage in Kelly's ‘School for Wives,’ Nightshade in his ‘Choleric Man,’ Jack Hustings in his ‘Natural Son,’ Governor Tempest in his ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ Sir John Trotley in Garrick's ‘Bon Ton,’ Sir Miles Mowbray in his ‘First Love,’ Sir George Boncour in Fielding's ‘Fathers,’ Gradus in Mrs. Cowley's ‘Who's the Dupe?’ Sir Clement Flint in Burgoyne's ‘Heiress,’ Don Alexis in Mrs. Cowley's ‘School for Greybeards,’ Gabriel in Holcroft's ‘Seduction,’ Sir Paul Panick in Edward Morris's ‘False Colours,’ Sir Adam Contest in Mrs. Inchbald's ‘Wedding Day,’ the Fool in ‘Vortigern,’ Sir Solomon Cynic in Reynolds's ‘Will,’ Sir Marmaduke Maxim in Hoare's ‘Indiscretion,’ and Sir Valentine Vapour in ‘Fashionable Friends.’

To these must be added the parts he played in his own pieces. ‘Love at First Sight,’ a not very brilliant ballad-farce, by him (8vo, 1763), was acted at Drury Lane on 17 Oct. 1763, King playing in it Smatter, a servant who personates his master. In a short preface King says it was conceived, written, and delivered to the managers within fifteen days, and neglects to add that it was forgotten within a similar space. ‘Wit's Last Stake’ (8vo, 1769), his second farce, was given at Drury Lane on 14 April 1768. It is an adaptation of ‘Le Légataire Universel’ of Regnard, and its great success was due to King's reading of the part of Martin, the Crispin of the original, a servant who personates a man supposed to be dying, and dictates a will by which he himself benefits. Under the title of ‘A Will and no Will, or Wit's Last Stake,’ it was revived on 24 April 1799 for King's benefit, on which occasion King was Linger the invalid, and Bannister, jun., Martin.

Upon the death of William Powell [q. v.] King bought his share in the King Street Theatre, at which during the summer seasons of 1770 and 1771 he was actor and sole manager. He then sold his share to James William Dodd [q. v.], and purchased of the builder for 9,000l. three-fourths of Sadler's Wells, in which he was associated with Arnold. He made some changes in the performances, raised the prices of admission, and provided horse patrols, to guard through the dangerous district the fashionable visitors whom he attracted. His prices, three shillings boxes, eighteenpence pit, and a shilling gallery, entitled the visitor to receive a pint of wine at an added cost of sixpence. In 1778 King sold his share, and was succeeded by Wroughton. As successor to Garrick he was elected, on 14 Feb. 1779, master of the Drury Lane Theatrical Fund, and held the office until September 1782, when, on acceptance of the management of Drury Lane, he resigned it, the discharge of the functions of the two offices being held incompatible. His earnings as an actor were at that time 700l. a year. As manager and actor he found them reduced to 564l. 13s. 10d., being one-eighth share of the profits, his guaranteed remuneration. In June 1783, accordingly, he laid down his functions and issued an address, dated from Gerrard Street, in which he contradicted a rumour that he was about to retire from the stage, though he admitted it was ‘barely possible’ he might not act at Drury Lane during the coming season. He is said, accordingly, to have acted at Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as in Dublin. Mr. James C. Dibdin, the historian of the Edinburgh stage, does not mention his presence in this year, and speaks of his performance of Lord Ogleby on 28 March 1789 as his first appearance in Edinburgh. In October 1783 it was announced in the newspapers that King was not connected with the management of Drury Lane, but that his abilities and long service induced the management to offer him for his performance, advice, and attention a very liberal salary, stated to be 1,200l., but in fact only a thousand guineas. He delivered on his reappearance an address in verse, by Cumberland. In 1785 he seems to have resumed his management of Drury Lane, and is said to have been responsible for the successful pantomime of that year, ‘Hurly Burly, or the Fairy of the Well,’ for which he received 165l. In September 1788 he again resigned the management and his connection with the theatre, announcing as his reason, in an explanation which appeared on 13 Sept., that his authority had been nominal rather than real. Of Sheridan, who was authorised to negotiate with him, he spoke pleasantly, but said that when appointments were made he found Sheridan ‘in a great hurry or surrounded by company,’ until his patience being exhausted he wrote relinquishing his engagement in all its parts, and, for fear of being induced to reconsider his determination, left town. On 20 Nov. 1789 he made, as Touchstone, his first appearance at Covent Garden, and the same evening was the original Sir John Trotley in ‘Bon Ton.’ After playing several of his best-known characters, he appeared for his benefit on 2 Feb. 1790 as Sancho in ‘Lovers' Quarrels,’ an alteration, attributed to himself, of Vanbrugh's ‘Mistake.’ On 23 Oct. 1790, as Lord Ogleby, he reappeared at Drury Lane, and during the rebuilding of the theatre went with the company to the Haymarket Opera House. On 2 Aug. 1792 he played at the Haymarket Falstaff in the ‘First Part of King Henry IV,’ and on the 23rd was General Touchwood in ‘Cross Partners,’ a comedy announced as by a lady. In September 1792 he rejoined the Drury Lane company, then playing at the Haymarket, and in March 1794 appeared with them at their newly built home, where he remained till the close of his career. On 24 May 1802, for his last benefit, King played his great character of Sir Peter Teazle. At the close he spoke, amidst lively demonstrations of sympathy, an address written for him by R. Cumberland. When, much exhausted, he reached the green-room, Mrs. Jordan presented him with a silver cup worth a hundred guineas, subscribed for by the company. Around the rim were engraved the lines from ‘King Henry V’ (act v. sc. 2), ‘If he be not fellow with the best king, thou shalt find the best king of good fellows.’

About 1783 King had a villa at Hampton, and was at that date robbed by highwaymen on his journey home. He took to gambling in middle life, with disastrous results. One night, when he had recovered 2,000l. of his heavy losses, he made an oath, in the presence of Garrick and his wife, that he would never touch dice again. This he kept until the death of Garrick. In 1785 he entered his name at Miles's Club in St. James's Street. Shortly afterwards he yielded to the old temptation, lost all his savings, was compelled to forego a proposed purchase of a share in Drury Lane, to sell his villa at Hampton, and remove to a house in Store Street. There he died on 11 Dec. 1805. On the 20th he was buried in the vault of St. Paul's, Covent Garden. His pall-bearers included Pope, Moody, Wroughton, Palmer, Powell, H. Siddons, and other actors. A benefit for Mrs. King followed, and brought a respectable addition to a limited income. She died on 30 Nov. 1813.

Apart from his incapacity to resist the temptation to gambling, King was a worthy and an honourable man. Davies gives him exemplary eulogy: ‘No man ever exerted his abilities to greater satisfaction of the public, or consulted the interests of his employers with more cordiality and assiduity. … Booth's character of the great actor, Smith, may be applied with justice to Mr. King: “By his impartial management of the stage and the affability of his temper he merited the respect and esteem of all within the theatre, the applause of those without, and the goodwill and love of all mankind”’ (Dram. Misc. iii. 372). Dibdin likens King to Préville as regards his performance of valets, and adds: ‘King is a performer who has thrown novelty into old characters, consequence into new, and nature into all’ (Hist. of the Stage, v. 348). Of his acting, as of his life, he says that integrity is the guiding principle, and he credits King with the exercise of benevolence, good humour, and every other sacred virtue. Hazlitt describes his acting in later life as leaving ‘a taste on the palate sharp and sweet like a quince; with an old, hard, rough, withered face, like a John-apple, puckered up into a thousand wrinkles, with shrewd hints and tart replies;’ he was ‘the real amorous, wheedling, or hasty, choleric, peremptory old gentleman in Sir Peter Teazle and Sir Anthony Absolute; and the true, that is the pretended, clown in Touchstone, with wit sprouting from his head like a pair of ass's ears, and folly perched on his cap like the horned owl.’ Churchill satirises King in his customary fashion for shamelessness acquired in Ireland.

His countenance is said to have been expressive of benignity and of archness, his action slow, his voice musical. In method of speech he was sententious, conveying always an idea of epigram. He was consequently most in request of any actor for the delivery of prologues, epilogues, and occasional addresses. King was also a fair singer. Besides the pieces mentioned, the ‘Secret History of the Green-Room’ credits him with the authorship of an interlude called ‘A Dramatic Oglio’ (sic), which was received with much favour. He also recited, at his benefit at Drury Lane on 29 April 1796, ‘Kitty Connolly and Jack the Painter,’ versified by himself. King kept a diary, now untraceable, in which were preserved some curious facts concerning Sheridan's management of Drury Lane. He announced, and then withdrew, a pamphlet called ‘A Word or two at Parting, or a Letter to R. B. Sheridan, Esq.,’ &c., and was rather fond of addressing the public upon his grievances, real or imaginary. Some letters of his in the ‘Garrick Correspondence’ show that, though his relations with Garrick were friendly, there were occasional divergences of interests or opinion. Other letters appear in the ‘Manager's Note-Book’ contributed to the ‘New Monthly Magazine.’

[Works cited; Genest's Account of the Stage; Biographia Dramatica; Thespian Dictionary; Theatrical Biography, 1772; Hazlitt's Dramatic Essays; Dutton Cook's Hours with the Players; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Dramatic Censor, 1770; Monthly Mirror, various years; Theatrical Inquisitor, various years; Bernard's Recollections; Life of F. Reynolds; O'Keeffe's Recollections; Jenkins's Bristol Stage; Dibdin's Edinburgh Stage; Georgian Era.]

J. K.