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Thomas Betterton painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Thomas Patrick Betterton (ca. 1635 – 28 April 1710), English actor, son of an under-cook to King Charles I, was born in London.

Apprentice and actor

He was apprenticed to John Holden, Sir William Davenant's publisher, and possibly later to a bookseller named John Rhodes, who had been wardrobe-keeper at the Blackfriars Theatre. In 1659, Rhodes obtained a licence to set up a company of players at the Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane; and on the reopening of this theatre in 1660, Betterton made his first appearance on the stage.

Betterton's talents at once brought him into prominence, and he was given leading parts. On the opening of the new theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1661, Davenant, the patentee of the Duke's Company, engaged Betterton and all Rhodes's company to play in his Siege of Rhodes. Betterton, besides being a public favourite, was held in high esteem by Charles II, who sent him to Paris to examine stage improvements there.

In 1662 he had married the actress Mary Saunderson (d. 1712).

In appearance he was athletic, slightly above middle height, with a tendency to stoutness; his voice was strong rather than melodious, but in recitation it was used with the greatest dexterity. Pepys, Pope, Steele, and Cibber all bestow lavish praise on his acting. His repertory included a large number of Shakespearian roles, many of them presented in the versions adapted by Davenant, Dryden, Shadwell and Nahum Tate. He played Lear opposite Elizabeth Barry's Cordelia in Tate's modified version of Shakespeare's King Lear. Betterton was himself author of several adaptations which were popular in their day.

Actor and manager

From Davenant's death in 1668, Betterton was the de facto manager and director of the Duke's Company, and from the merger of London's two theatre companies in 1682, he continued to fulfill these functions in the new United Company. Enduring progressively worse conditions and terms in this money-grubbing monopoly (see Restoration spectacular and Restoration comedy), the top actors walked out in 1695 and set up a cooperative company in Lincoln's Inn Fields under Betterton's leadership. The new company opened with the premiere of Congreve's Love for Love with an all-star cast including Betterton as Valentine and Anne Bracegirdle as Angelica. But in a few years the profits fell off; and Betterton, laboring under the infirmities of age and gout, determined to quit the stage. At his benefit performance, when the profits are said to have been over £500, he played Valentine in Love for Love.

He made his last appearance on the stage in 1710, as Melantius in The Maid's Tragedy. He died shortly afterwards, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

References

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

THOMAS BETTERTON (c. 1635-1710), English actor, son of an under-cook to King Charles I., was born in London. He was apprenticed to John Holden, Sir William Davenant's publisher, and possibly later to a bookseller named Rhodes, who had been wardrobe-keeper to the theatre in Blackfriars. The latter obtained in 1659 a licence to set up a company of players at the Cockpit in Drury Lane; and on the reopening of this theatre in 1660, Betterton made his first appearance on the stage. His talents at once brought him into prominence, and he was given leading parts. On the opening of the new theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1661, Sir William Davenant, the patentee, engaged Betterton and all Rhodes's company to play in his Siege of Rhodes. Betterton, besides being a public favourite, was held in high esteem by Charles II., who sent him to Paris to examine stage improvements there. According to Cibber it was after his return that shifting scenes instead of tapestry were first used in an English theatre. In 1692, in an unfortunate speculation, Betterton and his friend Sir Francis Watson were ruined; but Betterton's affection for Sir Francis was so strong that he adopted the latter's daughter and educated her for the stage. In 1693, with the aid of friends, he erected the New Playhouse in the tennis court in Lincoln's Inn Fields. It was opened in 1695 with Congreve's Love for Love. But in a few years the profits fell off; and Betterton, labouring under the infirmities of age and gout, determined to quit the stage. At his benefit performance, when the profits are said to have been over £500, he played Valentine in Love for Love. In 1710 he made his last appearance as Melantius in The Maid's Tragedy; he died on the 28th of April, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

In appearance he was athletic, slightly above middle height, with a tendency to stoutness; his voice was strong rather than melodious, but in recitation it was used with the greatest dexterity. Pepys, Pope, Steele and Cibber all bestow lavish praise on his acting. His repertory included a large number of Shakespearian roles, and although many of these were presented in the tasteless versions of Davenant, Dryden, Shad well and Nahum Tate, yet they could not hide the great histrionic gifts which Betterton possessed, nor does his reputation rest on these performances alone. The blamelessness of his life was conspicuous in an age and a profession notorious for dissolute habits. Betterton was author of several adaptations which were popular in their day. In 1662 he had married Mary Saunderson (d. 1712), an admirable actress, whose Ophelia shared the honours with his Hamlet.

See Howe, Thomas Betterton (1891); The Life and Times of Thomas Betterton (1886).


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