George Frederick Cooke gave his first professional performance at a theatre in Brentford, London in 1776. From there he toured extensively including a spell in Dublin where he landed larger parts and his reputation grew.
Unfortunately Cooke also had a taste for alcohol and in 1794, whilst sharing his views on performance technique with another young actor, he lost his temper with the landlady of the house who refused to provide him with more ‘whiskey punch’. Furniture was thrown, mirrors and windows were broken and although no charges were brought against him Cooke’s self-esteem and reputation were dented. As a way of avoiding temptation he signed-up for the army where he lasted twelve months before writing to his old contacts for money to buy himself out.
Today Cooke would be treated for alcoholism and we would recognise that he was suffering from a disease that needed to be treated but for an actor in the 18th century it was just him and his will.
Cooke and his journal
In his more lucid moments we can see that Cooke was an intelligent man, very capable of interpreting text and characterisation. He kept a journal, although his lifelong addiction to drink meant that his entries were sporadic but what he did write was very eloquent, such as his views of the acting profession ‘There are actors and actresses and some of them in what are called respectable situations, who are not only destitute of the embellishments of education but are absolutely incapable of reading their native language. This will ever be the case while the drama remains in its present unprotected state; the opinion of a great part of mankind being, that after a person has failed in every attempt they have made in life, even as mechanics an servants, the stage is still open as a last and sure resource. And such is the petty and absorb ambition of some, that, for the sake of strutting their hour before the public, they will starve in little itinerant companies, rather than acquire a decent subsistence by following the employments they were bred to.’
Cooke even manages to reflect on drunkenness, comparing the drunk to a criminal ‘When a man reconciles to himself by making degrees of sin, he is in the utmost danger of advancing to, instead of receding from, the most abominable depravity. It is a doubt with me, whether a gamester or drunkard be the most vicious character, or the most dangerous to society. The former, without defanging his faculties exerts them all for the avowe purpose of plundering every one he plays with, his dearest friends not excepted, if such a wretch can have a friend; and when, by superior villainy, or some unforeseen chance, he is in his turn beggared, he is ready fitted for the most atrocious crimes, robbery, murder or suicide. Drunkeness in addition to the high degree of wickedness attached to it, has the melancholy and woeful effect of degrading the human beneath the brute creation.’
Cooke was also a huge fan of David Garrick and analysed what made him a success and in his own performances strived to achieve the same ‘Why was Garrick so wonderfully great? It was because he had a like strong conviction, or rather feeling, of the true and false manner. To avoid all possible song, or whine, to deliver the words in the tone and manner of men discoursing with each other under the influence of passion, and to understand all the various and distinct feelings which the successive words of a sentence must have in the minds of persons who speak such word, were the indefatigable studies of his life.’
Covent Garden calls
For 24 years Cooke had gained steady employment as a actor working in all the major towns and cities and then on 31st October 1800 his luck changed. Cooke was invited by Mr Lewis, the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, to play Richard III, a part that he had played many times in the provinces.
Covent Garden Theatre was one of only two theatres (the other being Drury Lane) licensed to perform ‘spoken drama’. For many actors these were the only two theatres that mattered and to be invited to perform was the highest accolade an actor could receive.
Cooke was a huge success in the part and his career was in the ascendancy. He was 45 years old. Cooke remained part of the Covent Garden company for the rest of the season playing Shylock, Iago and regularly reviving Richard III.
However, his success and fame were worrying signs for his closest friends who were concerned about the company he would keep, as Mr T. Ward from Chester wrote: ‘Although I never doubted your success let me congratulate you on your first appearance at Covent Garden Theatre. As I told you in a former letter, you have it in your power to please. You have done so. The public are your friends look to them alone – for while you merit their patronage, you will ever experience it. Be not therefore persuaded into company; that is, tavern company: for there are those who will under the mask of friendship, endeavour to obtain your society in such places or at their houses, knowing the easiness of your temper, to betray you into excess to undo you with the town. ‘
At the end of the season Cooke embarked on a provincial tour, selling himself as a leading man to any company that will pay him. During the tour Mr Lewis, the Covent Garden manager, sends him a letter confirming that his presence is required back at London for the start of the season but the letter is not received and Cooke subsequently arrives back in London a month late having spent the last few weeks in ‘tavern company’. Lewis was a forgiving type of person and Cooke rejoined the company playing his usual repertoire the next day and duly apologised to the audience for his lateness.
In 1803 John Kemble, previously the actor-manager of the Drury Lane theatre returned from a tour of the continent and ‘concluded negotiations with the proprietors of Covent Garden theatre, by which he became a proprietor, an actor, and the acting-manager of that house. A further consequence was that Mrs Siddons, his sister, and Mr Charles Kemble, his brother joined the company.’ Cooke now had competition for leading roles but Kemble thought highly enough of him to retain his services in the company.
For the next few years Cooke’s life follows a predictable pattern. He earns a great deal but drinking and gambling are his vices and despite his high earnings he gets into debt and by 1807 Cooke is in court and given a five month custodial sentence, meaning that he once again misses the start of the theatre season. This time Lewis, or Kemble, was less accommodating and despite Cooke being released from prison in December, it was March before he was on stage and therefore earning, again.
In his 54th year Cooke had a developed staple repertoire that included Richard III, Shylock, Sir Pertinax MacSycophant, Iago, Sir Archy MacSarcasm and Falstaff. These were all well known to London audiences but now they were looking for something else and someone new. Cooke’s popularity started to decline.
Following a fire the previous year a newly rebuilt and refurbished Covent Garden theatre opened in September 1809. To mark the occasion the management had raised the prices of the pit whilst keeping the gallery prices the same. The upshot was a mob who attended the re-opening night and did all their power to disrupt the evening’s entertainment. These disturbances continued every night for the rest of the week until the Lord Chamberlain, concerned about civil disobedience, ordered the theatre to be closed until the matter was resolved. A committee was convened and on October 2nd announced the justification for the price hike and the theatre was duly opened again on 4th October. The pit audience was still not happy and continued to disrupt the performance but without resorting to heckling, this time just singing. The management responded by trying to exclude the known trouble makers but this led to clashes and the police were called nightly to intervene. These became known as the OP (Old Prices) Riots. People wore OP badges and even William Corbett, the political pamphleteer, wrote in support of the OP protestors and against the divisive tactics of management who had raised prices only for the poorest. The OP riots ended on the evening of 14th December when Kemble attended a meeting of OP supporters and publicly apologised.
These disturbances did nothing for Cooke’s reputation or his finances, as his popularity slumped his alcohol intake rose. Several times he appeared at the theatre drunk and Kemble had to take his part for the evening. It wasn’t just the intoxication, Cooke was also aggressive when drunk and his arrival at the theatre created anxiety among the company who were uncertain as to what state he would walk through the door. Cooke had also become the subject of ridicule in the press, he had performed too often when he shouldn’t and they took great delight in finding fault with his Henry VIII in May 1810.
Cooke leaves for America
Cooke’s appearances at Covent Garden become fewer and in July he is approached by a Mr Cooper who has arrived from America with the objective of recruiting actors and actresses to perform in his theatre in New York. Cooper presents Cooke with a formal offer, 25 guineas a week for 10 months to perform in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston. Cooke though is still smarting from his loss of popularity and is therefore heartened when surrounded by sycophants at the local inn who are only too pleased to help the old actor spend his money. As a result Cooke embarks on a bender that keeps him off the stage for nearly two weeks. Cooper can see that Cooke has talent and is quick to see how the company he is keeping are jeopardising his career. As such Cooper conspires to abduct Cooke in the nicest possible way, finding lodging for him where he can sober up and allow the two men to have a serious conversation. This achieved, Cooke and Cooper set sail for New York on 4th October.
On the 21st November Cooke played Richard III to a packed and welcoming house of over 2000 people in New York In the weeks that followed he went through his repertoire to great applause and appreciation until 19th December which was chosen as his benefit night. It was decided to stage Cato a tragedy as well as selected scenes from his repertoire. However, Cooke failed to appear at rehearsals for Cato with disastrous consequences that left the audience turning away in disgust as his lack of professionalism. They failed also to support his Shylock three days later and it looked as if Cooke had blown his chances. Three more days were added to his New York appearance the following week and the box office receipts showed an improvement. At the end of December Cooke left for Boston.
His tour of Boston was completed without any real events other than Cooke’s advice to a young actor about the perils of alcohol. This was prophetic advice indeed. Back in New York Cooke prepared for the next leg of his tour in Philadelphia but passed his time drinking to excess and became so ill that he his departure was postponed and his recovery overseen by a doctor. On the day before departure a dinner was held and the said doctor gave Cooke permission to have a glass of wine, clearly not realising his level of dependence and addiction. Back his lodgings he continued drinking and got to his bed in the early hours of morning and was still in bed when his travel companion called at the agreed time.
Upon arrival in Philadelphia Cooke insisted on messing the management around regarding the day that he was perform. Twice it was delayed because he felt ill but that did not prevent him from dining and drinking ‘The party was principally theatrical, and after dinner, unfortunately the wine circulated more freely than the wit.’ The host of the party was Mr Wood a theatrical manager but he too had imbibed far more than he should have and with a loose tongue was holding court much to the dismay of the elder actor who in his own drunken state ‘would interrupt his hosts by striking his fist on the table and crying out with a tremendous shout “Hear me Sir!”.
‘Suicide by intemperance’
As Cooke continued his American tour back in New York, then Baltimore and Boston he regularly chastised himself for his not resisting the alcohol that he knew was making him ill. “I can’t help it. It’s too late now” he told a friend who was trying to make him see the sense of giving it up.
It was now July 1812 and the end of the season in New York. Cooke had recently received a letter, dated March, from London inviting him back to Covent Garden. Whether he was considering the move nobody really knows but Cooke had told friends that he didn’t want to die in America. In August he left for a holiday in Boston returning to New York in early September in preparation for the start of the new season but he was too ill to rehearse and on 26th September 1812 Cooke died, aged 57 years.
His Doctor confirmed the death as liver failure (his liver was so hard they could hardly get a knife through it) but went further and said he thought it was ‘suicide by intemperance’. Cooke was a great actor but he also had a disease for which there was little help in those days. His friends and admirers lavished him with wine, port and brandy not realising that were helping to kill him.
But that isn’t quite the end of the story. In 1821 Edmund Kean, the leading actor of his generation, was touring in America and discovered that his hero, Cooke, had been buried in the vault of St Paul’s Church in New York. Kean felt that Cooke deserved better and commissioned a monument to be built in his memory, which still stands today. It is also claimed that Kean removed Cooke’s skull and used it as the prop for Yorrick in Kean’s production of Hamlet at the Park Theatre in New York.
In the 1960s Cooke’s prompt book for his own performance of Hamlet, in 1785, was found. This represents one of the oldest prompt books with the actor’s own notes against the text. Cooke’s legacy still lives on.
Source: The main source for this article were the two volumes of ‘Cooke’s Memoirs’ written and edited by William Dunlap, 1813