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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Master Betty

By Laurence Hutton (1843–1904)

[Born in New York, N. Y., 1843. Died in Princeton, N. J., 1904. Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and the United States. Edited by Brander Matthews and Laurence Hutton. 1886.]

THE EXACT position of the Infant Phenomena on the stage it is not easy to determine. They occupy, perhaps, the neutral ground between the monstrosity and the amateur, without belonging to either class, or to art. As being professional, though in embryo, they cannot share exemption from the severe tests of criticism with those who only play at being players; and as being human, though undeveloped, they cannot be judged as leniently as are the educated pigs or trained monkeys, from whom some disciples of Darwin might claim them to have been evolved.

In no case is the Phenomenon to be emulated, to be encouraged, or to be admired. How great a nuisance the average prodigy is to his audiences all habitual theatre-goers know; how much of a nuisance he is to his fellow-players Nicholas Nickleby has shown; and what a bitter burden he is likely to become to himself, his own experiences, if he lives to have experiences, will certainly prove. Loved by the gods—of the gallery—the Phenomenon, happily for himself and for his profession, as a rule, dies young. He does not educate the masses, he does not advance art, he does nothing which it is the high aim of the legitimate actor to do; he does not even amuse; he merely displays precocity that is likely to sap his very life; he probably supports a family at an age when he needs all the support and protection that can be given him, and if he does not meet a premature death, he rarely, very rarely, fulfils in any way the promise of his youth.

A decided distinction, however, should be made between the phenomenal young actor or actress who walks upon the stage in leading parts—a child Richard, or an infant Richmond—and the youthful member of the company, born of dramatic people, who, never attempting what is beyond his years or his stature, plays Young York or Young Clarence to support his father in leading roles, says his few lines, gets his little round of applause, is not noticed by the critics, and goes home, like a good boy, to his mother and his bed. It is as natural for the child of an actor to go upon the stage as it is for the son of a sailor to follow the sea. But while the young mariner, put before the mast, is taught the rudiments of his profession by the hardest and roughest of experiences, the Young Roscius is given command of the dramatic ship before he can box the dramatic compass, or tell the difference in the nautical drama between “Black-Eyed Susan” and the “Tempest.”

William Henry West Betty, the most remarkable and successful of Phenomena, was also one of the most melancholy and ridiculous figures in the whole history of the stage. He was not so much absurd in himself as the cause of extravagant imbecility in others. He was born at, or near, Shrewsbury, on September 13, 1791. The following year he was carried to the north of Ireland, and in the summer of 1802 was taken to see Mrs. Siddons play “Elvira,” at Belfast. With the performance and the performer he became “rapt and inspired,” and possessed with that passion for the stage which nothing but cruel failure, or death, has ever been known to extinguish in child or man. On August 16 in the following year he was permitted by his father to appear in public at the Belfast Theatre, choosing the character of Osman in the tragedy of “Zara.” He exhibited not the slightest sign of fear or embarrassment, and although only eleven years of age went through his part without confusion or mistake. The applause was tumultuous and long continued; and thus suddenly arose the star which was destined to outshine every other planet in the firmament, until it was as suddenly eclipsed forever, by the shadow of its own mature mediocrity. On November 28 Betty made his first appearance in Dublin, at the Crow Street Theatre, as Young Norval. He was carried triumphantly to Cork, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester; and on December 1, 1804, in the character of Selim in “Barbarossa,” at Drury Lane, and at a salary of £50 a night, he set all London mad.

The excitement he created has only been equalled by the craze over the South Sea Bubble. Hundreds gathered under the piazza as early as ten o’clock in the mornings; when the theatre doors were opened the crush was so great that women, and even men, were killed by the crowd; the silence when he was on the stage was so deep and the interest so intense that his slightest whisper could be heard in every part of the house; the First Gentleman in Europe led the applause; the receipts at the box-office were considered fabulous; his own fortune was made in a single season; lords and ladies and peers of the realm were among his worshippers; royal dukes were proud to call him friend; George the Third and his Queen gave him an audience; Mr. Home, the author of “Douglas,” declared him a wonderful being who for the first time had realized the creator’s conception of Young Norval; he was considered greater than Garrick in Garrick’s own parts; John Kemble, Mrs. Siddons, Mrs. Jordan, Cooke, and Kean played to empty benches when at the rival house; bulletins were issued, when he was ill, stating the condition of his health; the University of Cambridge selected him as the subject of a prize ode; and Parliament itself adjourned, on motion of Mr. Pitt, to see him play Hamlet, at Drury Lane; than which no higher compliment could have been paid by England to mortal man.

Betty played alternately at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, his salary after the first performance being raised to £100 a night. And the gross receipts for twenty-eight nights were £17,210.11 (about $86,000). His parts, during his infancy, were Norval, Hamlet, Romeo, Frederic (in “Lover’s Vows”), Octavian (in the “Mountaineers”), Rolla, Tancred, Richard III., Osman (in “Zara”), and Selim; and some idea of the intelligence of the baby who was “Cooke, Kemble, Holman, Garrick, all in one,” may be gathered from the fact that he studied and learned and played the part of Hamlet in four days! London recovered from its madness before the beginning of Betty’s second season; the provinces, growing saner by degrees, were not cured for two or three years. He retired from the stage at Bath, March 26, 1808, at the age of seventeen; and was entered a Fellow-Commoner at Christ’s College, Cambridge, in the summer of the same year. In the month of February, 1812, Betty reappeared upon the boards at Bath, as the Earl of Essex; he played occasionally in London, more frequently in the provinces, but with indifferent success, and August 9, 1824, at Southampton he finally quit the stage. That he was a commonplace actor during the twelve years of his professional life as a man, there seems to be no question. He died in London on August 24, 1874, after having outlived himself for half a century, and his own fame for seventy years.