Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lee, John (d.1781)
LEE, JOHN (d. 1781), actor and manager of plays, is first heard of at the theatre in Leman Street, Goodman's Fields, where he played, 13 Nov. 1745, Sir Charles Freeman in the 'Stratagem,' and during the same month Ghost to the Hamlet of Furnival, and Hotspur in the 'First Part of King Henry IV.' He appeared during the following season, 1746-7, in 'Richard III', Cassio, Lothario in the 'Fair Penitent,' and Hamlet, and had an original part, 5 March 1747, in the 'Battle of Poitiers, or the English Prince,' a poor tragedy by Mrs. Hoper. His name appears, 14 Nov. 1747, at Drury Lane under Garrick, as the Bastard in 'King Lear,' and 3 Dec. as Myrtle in the 'Conscious Lovers.' During this and the following season he also played Ferdinand in Dryden's 'Tempest,' Belmour in 'Jane Shore,' Rosse in 'Macbeth,' Colonel Standard in the 'Constant Couple,' Young Fashion in the 'Relapse,' Young Rakish in the 'Schoolboy,' Paris, and Claudio in 'Much Ado about Nothing,' and in 'Measure for Measure.' Breaking his engagement with Garrick he made his first appearance at Covent Garden, 23 Oct. 1749, as Ranger in the 'Suspicious Husband.' He played during the season, among other characters, Axalla in 'Tamerlane,' Heartley in the 'Nonjuror,' the Dauphin in ' King Henry the Fifth,' Campley in the 'Funeral,' Romeo, Alexas in 'All for Love,' and Carlos in the 'Revenge.' The beginning of the next season saw him still at Covent Garden, where he played, 31 Oct. 1750, Granger in the 'Refusal.'
Garrick, however, compelled Lee to return to Drury Lane, where he reappeared, 27 Dec. 1750, as George Barnwell in the 'London Merchant.' Here he remained during this and the following season, playing secondary characters, except when he was allowed for his benefit on one occasion to enact Hamlet and Poet in 'Lethe,' and on another, Lear and Don Quixote. On 23 Feb. 1751 he was the original Earl of Devon in Mallet's 'Alfred.' Buckingham in 'Richard III,' Aboan in 'Oronooko,' and Lycon in 'Phædra and Hippolytus' were also assigned him. A man or extreme and aggressive vanity and of quarrelsome disposition, he fumed under the management of Garrick, who seems to have enjoyed keeping in the background an actor who was always disputing his supremacy.
In 1752 Lee went accordingly to Edinburgh for the purpose of purchasing and managing the Canongate Concert Hall. Through the interest of Lord Elibank and other patrons he obtained the house on exceptionally easy terms. He proved himself a good manager, reformed many abuses, and is said to have been the first to raise the status and morale of the Edinburgh stage. He set his face against gentlemen occupying seats on the stage or being admitted behind the scenes, and made improvements in decorations and scenery. 'Romeo and Juliet' was played in December 1752, and is held by Mr. Dibdin, the historian of the Edinburgh stage, to have probably been the unprinted version with which the memory of Lee is discredited. His adaptation of 'Macbeth' was printed in Edinburgh in 1753, and probably acted there. In February 1754 'Herminius and Espasia,' a new tragedy by 'a Scots gentleman' (Charles Hart), was produced with little success. In this Lee played. Mrs. Lee took her benefit 4 March 1754. On the 9th Lee played Young Devil in the 'Conscious Lovers.' A new alteration of the 'Merchant of Venice' (probably by himself) was given 15 April 1754, with Lee as Shylock and Mrs. Lee as Portia. In the summer Lee travelled with his company, and lost, he says, 500l. Unable to pay the third instalment of the purchase-money for the theatre, he applied to Lord Elibank, who, with some friends, advanced money upon an assignment of the theatre, which Lee was reluctantly compelled to grant. In the season 1755-6 he was seen as Richard III, Touchstone, Lear, and other parts; Mrs. Lee also playing some new characters. In February a disagreement arose between Lee and the 'gentlemen' who had advanced him money, and the theatre was seized by the creditors, who, waiting for an excuse to quarrel with Lee, had already engaged West Digges [q. v.] as manager. Lee was thrown into prison and his furniture sold. He lost an action which he brought against Lord Elibank, Andrew Pringle, John Dalrymple, and others, and quitted Edinburgh tor Dublin, where he was engaged by Thomas Sheridan for 400/. for the season. Lee played Hotspur, Lothario, and other parts, but the engagement was unsuccessful. In 1760-1 he was engaged in Edinburgh, where, in addition to his performances, he 'read [from] "Paradise Lost" by way of farewell.' He now swallowed his pride, and once more enlisted under Garrick at Drury Lane, making, as Pierre in 'Venice Preserved,' 'his first appearance for ten years.' Parts such as Pans, Laertes, Tybalt, &c, were assigned him, and he was the original Pinchwife in his own abridgment of Wycherley's 'Country Wife.' 26 April 1765, 8vo, 1765, Vernish in Bickerstaffe's alteration of the 'Plain Dealer.' 7 Dec. 1765, and Traverse in the 'Clandestine Wife' of Colman and Garrick, 20 Feb. 1766. In the summer of this year he was with Barry at the Opera House, where he played Iago tomrry's Othello. He competed, unsuccessfully, in 1766-7 for the patent of the Edinburgh Theatre. On 23 June 1768 he was Archer in the ' Mayor of Garret ' at the Haymarket, and the following 8 July the Copper Captain in ' Rule a Wife and Have a Wife.' In 1769, and probably in subsequent years, he was at Bath. From 1774 to 1777 he was at Covent Garden, where he enacted Bayes in the 'Rehearsal.' Benedick, Osman in 'Zara.' Adam in 'As you like it.' Wolsey, and the Duke in 'Measure for Measure.' In 1778-9 he managed the theatre at Bath, and played 'leading business.' Richard III, Macbeth, Com us, Jaaues, &c. In 1780 he was too ill to act, and he died in 1781.
Lee had a good face and figure and was a competent actor. Kelly praises him warmly, especially in Aboan, Vernish, Young Belmont, Iago, and Pierre, but owns he had some unpleasant peculiarities of speech. The author of the ' State of the Stage' in 1758 is held to refer to Lee in describing an actor who was 'emphatically wrong in almost everything he repeated.' Cooke, 'Life of Macklin.' pp. 167-8, speaks of Lee's Iago as very respectable and showing judgment, and credits him with good qualities and much knowledge of his profession ; but says that he * wanted to be placed in the chair of Garrick, and in attempting to reach this he often deranged his natural abilities. He was for ever, as Foote said, "doing the honours of his face;" he affected uncommon long pauses, and frequently took such out-of-the-way pains with emphasis and articulation, that the natural actor seldom appeared.' In addition to the abridgments before mentioned, which the 'Biographia Dramatica ' calls his 'literary murders, he condensed the Relapse' into a three-act comedy called 'The Man of Quality.' which was acted at Covent Garden 27 April 1773, and Drury Lane 15 March 1774, and printed, 8vo, 1776. He is also suspected of having tampered with many other dramatic masterpieces. While manager of the Bath Theatre erroused the ire of Kemble, who refused to act in his adaptations. He also published 'A Letter from Mr. Lee to Mr. Sheridan.' Dublin, 1757, complaining of the treatment he received during his Dublin engagement; an 'Address to the Public.' a four-page sheet, small folio, dated Edinburgh, 4 Dec. 1767; 'Mr. Lee's Case against J. Rich.' Lond. 1758, folio; 'An Address to the Judges and the Public.' Lond. 1772, 8vo; 'A Narrative of a Remarkable Breach of Trust committed by Noblemen, Five Judges, and Several Advocates of the Court of Session in Scotland,' Lond. 1772, 8vo; and a series of letters relative to the Edinburgh Theatre.
Lee's wife died early. By her he had five daughters, two of whom, Harriet and Sophia, are noticed separately. His only son, George Augustus Lee (1761–1826), was a partner in a well-known firm of Manchester cotton-spinners (Phillips & Lee). He honourably distinguished himself by his readiness in adopting new inventions in his factories. Boulton and Watt were among his friends, and the steam engines which his firm introduced into their works were said to be the finest specimens extant of perfect mechanism. Lee was the first to employ cast-iron beams in his mills so as to render them fire-proof, and he was one of the first large employers to introduce gas into their workshops (cf. Trans. Roy, Soc., 1808). He induced his work-people, who numbered a thousand, to raise and administer a fund for mutual relief in sickness (Annual Biog. and Obit. 1827.)