At the beginning of 1789, while France was on the verge of a revolution, the actor George Frederick Cooke found himself being slighted by Elizabeth Whitlock.
Cooke was acting in Newcastle, where he had been almost single-handedly responsible for the success of the Theatre Royal there. When it came time for his benefit performance on March 23rd, it seemed likely that all of his fellow actors would graciously accept invitations to perform with him.
Taking advantage of an actor's prerogative to use his benefit to take on roles that he might not ordinarily play, Cooke decided to play the title role in Joseph Addison's Cato for the first time. He approached Whitlock, the leading actress in the company, and asked her to play Marcia. The role is not particularly large, but it is the leading female part in the play. Whitlock declined.
Undaunted, Cooke engaged another actress for the part. While Whitlock might have lacked a certain amount of tact, there was no reason for the matter to extend beyond the walls of the theatre. Unfortunately for her, it did. A number of ladies, appalled by Whitlock's ingratitude toward the man who had done so much for the theatre in Newcastle, withdrew their support for her benefit.
Faced with declining popularity, Whitlock resigned her own benefit for the season, supposedly to show she had no pecuniary motives, but more likely to avoid playing before a half-empty house. This made matters worse, and with public sentiment turning more and more against her, Whitlock eventually agreed to play the role. That night, she made a public apology from the stage, but then retreated after the audience expressed their hostility. After much ado, she performed the role, skipping a number of her own lines, and ending the whole affair in disgrace.
I recount this little anecdote, because it gives an idea of how rough and tumble the world of theatre could be in Cooke's day. Audiences could be an actor's friend one day, but then turn on him the next. Cooke was a brilliant performer, but he also struggled with alcohol his entire life, and he could be his own worst enemy. Ultimately, the bottle brought him down, and all the talent in the world could not save him.
Cooke was known for playing villains, particularly Richard III, but also Shylock, Iago, and other Shakespearean bad guys, as well as Sir Giles Overreach in Philip Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts. He was drawn to classic plays and did not support the gifted playwrights of his own day. Cooke once wrote of the wonderful Matthew G. Lewis play The Castle Spectre:
I hope posterity, if they read it, will not believe it could repeatedly attract crowded houses, when the most sublime production of the immortal Shakespeare, even for one night, would be played to empty benches, at least to empty boxes:—But it certainly is the best treat for empty skulls.
On Halloween night, 1800, Cooke made his debut at Covent Garden in the role of Richard III. He could have made a home in London long before that, but quarrels with fellow actors kept him out in the provinces. Fortunately, his return to the capital was a success. A letter he received, and kept until the day he died, carried a warning, though:
The public are your friends:—look to them alone; for while you merit their patronage you will ever experience it.
An implied warning here was that if he ever ceased to merit the patronage of the public, Cooke would be lost, just as poor Elizabeth Whitlock was after the Newcastle Cato affair.
Over the next few years, Cooke engaged in an intense rivalry with John Philip Kemble, the leading tragic actor of the day. Cooke saw himself as Kemble's equal, but while he had an intensity Kemble lacked, Cooke did not have as great a range. He also allowed his temper to get the better of him—especially when he was drinking.
In 1802, Cooke saw the Newcastle episode repeat itself, only this time it was in London, and he himself was on the losing end of the audience's wrath. Cooke declined to perform in a benefit performance of another Lewis play, The Harper's Daughter, which is an adaptation of Friedrich Schiller's drama The Robbers. Kemble's nephew Henry Siddons ended up reading the part in the performance while Cooke disappeared for more than two weeks, presumably getting drunk every night.
Cooke returned in time to play the title character in King John, which was being done as a benefit for the remarkably talented actress Harriett Litchfield, who was playing Constance. Cooke on occasion angered Litchfield, but the two remained on good terms throughout their lives. According to a report in the Morning Chronicle, the audience was not as ready to forgive. They hissed Cooke on his first appearance, and—like Whitlock in Newcastle—he had to apologize to them directly.
In that instance, Cooke claimed he had been ill, and the audience allowed him to continue, even giving him hearty applause by the end of the show. As time went on, though, Cooke's "illnesses" became understood as euphemisms for bouts of drunkenness.
Eventually, Cooke left Britain to tour in the United States. In 1810, he performed in America for the first time, making his debut at the Park Theatre in New York, once again in his most famous role of Richard III. The theatre was packed, but by the end of the winter, the novelty had worn off and houses thinned in bad weather. Cooke was living the life of an exile. He was not wanted at home, and did not feel welcome abroad, either.
In 1812, Covent Garden invited Cooke to return. Though his antics had become legendary, management missed the box-office draw he could provide. By that time, however, it was too late. Cooke died on September 26, 1812 at the age of 56. A post-mortem found his liver had almost ceased to function.
Cooke's body was buried in the so-called Stranger's Vault of St. Paul's Chapel in lower Manhattan. According to biographer Arnold Hare, the great actor Edmund Kean (who was an admirer of Cooke) while visiting New York in 1820 arranged for the remains to be moved to the center of the churchyard where a suitable monument could be erected.
Legend says that when they dug up the body, the skull was removed and used as a prop in Hamlet, eventually making its way to a medical museum. Kean also took a bone for himself. (In some versions of the story, it was a toe bone, but Hare asserts it was a finger bone.) Mrs. Kean subsequently threw it away.
The remains of the remains are still there outside St. Paul's Chapel, which narrowly missed being destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I went down there this afternoon. Unfortunately, all of the grass is currently fenced off, so I couldn't get very close to the grave, but I did snap this picture:
The plaque on the monument says it was erected in 1821. Kean was in America from 1820 to 1821, so either year could be correct. I am inclined to doubt Hare's biography, but 19th-century gravestones can be notoriously inaccurate.
Unfortunately, the man at the church gift shop, though very eager to help, was not able to provide any information about the Stranger's Vault. He did give me a number to call to contact the church archives, though, so perhaps I'll be able to get more information next week.
Until then, rest well, Mr. Cooke. I hope you found some peace in death that you rarely had in your lifetime.