Wednesday 27 April 2016

The Tragic Tragedian: William Brereton of Drury Lane

It's my pleasure to welcome Margaret Porter to the salon today with the tale of the tragic tragedian: William Brereton of Drury Lane!


Lo, Brereton comes—to his feelings a prey,
To damp our enjoyments, and darken our day;
The hand of disease has laid waste his weak mind,
To shew her great triumph o’er worth and mankind!
When lofty ambition his pray’r had enied, 
His senses were madden’d, his reason had died.
The Children of Thespis

William Brereton by Walton
William Brereton by Walton
William Brereton’s origins in no way hinted at the tragic fate awaiting him. He was born at Bath in 1751, the youngest son of Marion Edmonston and Major William Brereton, from a County Carlow family. For a time Master of Ceremonies of Bath’s Lower Assembly Rooms, the elder Brereton was a social fixture—gentlemanly, elegant, and handsome. Because of its popularity as a spa, the city’s Orchard Street Theatre attracted a sophisticated and fashionable audience, and there young William Brereton’s theatrical aspirations must have been born.

His father’s friend David Garrick, the eminent actor of the age, was dedicated to training youthful performers and prepared Brereton for the stage before employing him. At seventeen he made his debut at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the title role of Douglas, billed as “A young gentleman.” He was variously described as “a pretty figure,” but also as exhibiting a vulgarity unsuited to “the parts of cavaliers or men of fashion.” Nevertheless, Garrick consistently cast him, as did Richard Sheridan after succeeded him as the theatre’s manager.
Priscilla Hopkins as Selima
Priscilla Hopkins as Selima

Eventually Brereton’s eye landed on pretty, petite Priscilla Hopkins. Seven years his junior, she was the younger daughter of the theatre’s prompter--Garrick’s close associate—and an experienced Drury Lane actress. In girlhood Priscilla entered the family business and later created the role of Maria in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. Was Brereton trifling with her, or was he serious? Gossip reported that Priscilla had to “follow him to Bath” in 1777 to conclude their engagement, but her status within the Drury Lane company required her to go there for the summer season.

After a performance of Garrick’s play Bon Ton, the couple ran away together—Priscilla still dressed in her costume. Doubtless her parents and Garrick opposed the match. After the couple’s elopement and the ensuing scandal, marriage was a necessity. A month later, in London, Priscilla became William Brereton’s wife, yet for the remainder of the season she appeared on playbills as “Miss P. Hopkins”.

Whatever sentiment prompted their union, five years later it was threatened by a player more talented than either of them.  After distinguishing herself in the provinces and at Bath, Sarah Siddons was engaged at Drury Lane, and from 1782 onwards she claimed most of the meatiest female roles. One was Belvidera in Otway’s Venice Preserved, in which Brereton played Jaffier. The Morning Post reported, “When she reminded Jaffier of the hour when they were to meet, she said, ‘Remember twelve,’ with such a delicate glow of conjugal affection in her look, and at the same time, in such a heart-searching tone of voice that she absolutely threw most of her auditors into tears.”

In this and other parts the powerful actress roused in Brereton an unexpected, hitherto undetected brilliance. Their partnership in the popular tragedies became a sensation. Unfortunately, Brereton’s fascination with Siddons was not restricted to their professional life, and his infatuation with her brought about his downfall. Signs of mental instability emerged, compounded by excessive drinking. At least once he attempted suicide, evidently from his unrequited passion for the great Sarah.

In the summer of 1784 Brereton and Siddons performed together at Dublin’s Smock Alley theatre, with dire consequences. She refused to perform in his benefit without compensation, which in itself was contrary to custom. Agreeing to charge him £20 for the night instead of her usual £30, she subsequently pleaded illness. Her behaviour towards him prompted public scandal and private outrage, and was widely regarded as proof of her reputed stinginess. Theatre-goers on both sides of the Irish Sea felt that Brereton had been mistreated.
Sarah Siddons in 1784
Sarah Siddons in 1784
The players returned to London for the start of theatrical season, and on 5 October, they resumed their usual roles in a production of The Gamester. The play opened with Priscilla—in Londoners’ eyes a wronged wife—on the stage. When Siddons entered the scene the audience hissed her loudly, and the uproar delayed the play for some forty minutes. Siddons later recalled being “received with hissing and hooting, and stood the object of public scorn. Amid this afflicting clamour I made several attempts to be heard…my dear brother [Kemble] appeared, and carried me away from this scene of insult. The instant I quitted it, I fainted in his arms.” 

Kemble, Sheridan, and her husband urged her to resume her performance. She did so, mustering all her dramatic skills to mount a defence, declaring, “Ladies and gentlemen…the stories which have circulated about me are calumnies.”

Betsy Sheridan, sister of the manager-playwright, wrote in her diary:

She seems hurt to the soul but her feelings seem more of the indignant kind than any other. The Breretons have used her shockingly—Mrs B. was mean enough to sneak off the stage and leave her to stand the insults of a malicious party tho’ she knew the whole disturbance was on her account and that her husband had at least been obliged to contradict the reports that concerned him.

Brereton had published a letter of exoneration in London papers, but reading between the lines it can be seen as confirmation of what had occurred at Smock Alley. Understandably, the following summer he and Priscilla preferred to act in Brighton rather than Dublin. Increasingly unpredictable and erratic on stage and off, he forgot his lines, misbehaved in scenes with Priscilla, walked off during a performance, and threw rocks at a magistrate’s carriage.
John Philip Kemble
John Philip Kemble 

Surprisingly, he was employed the following season at Drury Lane. On 2 November he appeared opposite Siddons—perhaps the strain of it affected him, because the next night proved to be his final performance. Thirteen days later he suffered a relapse—reports circulated that he’d tried to strangle Priscilla. Tied in a straightjacket, he was taken from their house near the Strand and confined in a private home in Blackheath. His copious weeping on being separated from his wife indicates that despite all he remained deeply attached to her.

Eventually he was transferred to the Hoxton lunatic asylum, and descended deeper into madness. He was “in so nervous a state, that he can scarcely utter a sentence.” When his attendants encouraged him to talk of his stage career, “he would mention the name of Mrs Siddons, and sometimes of a picture he wished to have had drawn of her and himself.” He died on 17 February, 1787, at only 36 years, and was laid to rest in Shoreditch. 

Drury Lane Theatre
Drury Lane Theatre

Eight months later Priscilla received an unexpected proposal of marriage from John Philip Kemble, the great actor, tipped as the next manager of Drury Lane—and brother of the women who contributed to poor Brereton’s breakdown. The widow wed Kemble on 8 December, 1787, a marriage of convenience for each. Nearly a decade afterwards Priscilla left the stage, appearing in society with her increasingly prominent second husband. She outlived Kemble by many years, and died in 1845, aged 87.

About the Author

APledgeofBetterTimesCoverMargaret Porter is the bestselling and award-winning author of A Pledge of Better Times, a biographical novel of the late Stuart court, and eleven other works—several with theatrical settings. Her novel-in-progress features Priscilla Hopkins Brereton Kemble as a primary character. 

From childhood Margaret performed on stage and trained as an actress, in addition to studying British social history in the U.K. Prior to earning her M.A., she worked in theatre, film and television. 

As historian, her areas of speciality are theatrical and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. When not writing, researching, or travelling round Britain and other lands, she tends gardens filled with heritage roses. She also plays the mandolin.

Written content of this post copyright © Margaret Porter, 2016.

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