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TOM KING (d. 1804)

AMONG the stars of the second magnitude there was no more famous player in Garrick's company than TOM KING. In 1747, he being then only seventeen, he was strolling with Ned Shuter among the Kentish barns. When he joined Yates' booth at Windsor, Garrick heard of him as a very promising young man, and, always on the look-out for fresh talent, he sent for him, tested his capabilities at a private rehearsal, and engaged him for two seasons at Drury Lane. King made his first appearance in October, 1748. Being a novice, he had to play every kind of part, tragic or comic, as suited the convenience of the manager. For a wonder, he understood the bent of his genius, hated tragedy, and desired to confine himself entirely to comedy. Finding he could not obtain this in London, he accepted an engagement with Sheridan at Dublin. There he remained nine years, immensely popular both as an actor and a man. When he returned to London, in 1759, it was as a finished artist. He was equally admirable in old men and low comedy. His performance of Malvolio and Touchstone was said to have been unequaled. But it was as Lord Ogleby, in "The Clandestine Marriage," he attained his highest fame. The character was intended for Garrick, but whether from an indisposition to study, or because he could not see himself in it, he handed the part over to King. King declined it, and it was only after much persuasion he was induced to change his mind. Tate Wilkinson pronounces it to have been "one of the most capital and highly finished performances to which any audience was ever treated."

When Sheridan became lesee of Drury Lane, he made King his stage manager. But it was with only the shadow of power he was invested, and confessed he had not the authority to order the cleaning of a coat, or the addition of a yard of copper lace. Yet he held this doubtful position for several years, and until Kemble succeeded to it. He was the original Sir Peter Teazle, and although Sheridan was not satisfied with his conception, nor indeed with that of either Wroughton or Mathews, who succeeded him in the part, all contemporaries speak of it as a great performance.

Not until 1802 did he take leave of the stage, and the "School for Scandal" was the play he chose for the occasion. His brother actors presented him with a silver cup, upon which their names were inscribed, and this motto from "Henry V": -- "If he be not fellow with the best king, thou shalt find him the best king of good fellows." A parting address was written for him by Cumberland, and when he withdrew forever from the scene of his triumphs it was "amidst the tears and plaudits of a splendid and crowded house." He died two years afterwards, at the age of seventy-four, and lies in St. Paul's, Covent Garden.

"His acting," says Hazlitt, "left a taste on the palate sharp and sweet like a quince. With an old, hard, rough, withered face, like a sour apple, puckered up into a thousand wrinkles; with shrewd hints and tart replies; with nods and becks and wreathed smiles; he was the real amorous, wheedling, or hasty, choleric, peremptory old gentleman in Sir Peter Teazle and Sir Anthony Absolute, and the true, that is, pretended clown in Touchstone, with Wit sprouting from his head like a pair of ass's ears, and Folly perched on his cap like the horned owl." He was "a fellow of infinite jest." At Dublin, on tragedy nights, Sheridan forbade him the green-room; but at some time of the evening he would be sure to peep in at the door, dash in a joke, set everybody in a roar, and rush off before the solemn manager could hurl at him the vials of his wrath. He might have died the possessor of an ample fortune had it not been for his unconquerable passion for gambling, by which he is said to have lost £7,000. He had in his town-house in Great Queen Street, his villa at Hampton, and kept his carriage. He was at one time part proprietor both of the Bristol and Sadler's Wells Theaters; but, falling into the toils of an aristocratic blackleg, he was reduced to comparative poverty, and died in lodgings on Store Street, Tottenham Court Road, leaving his widow almost dependent upon the charity of friends. With the exception of that one fatal blot, his character stood high in the love and respect of all who knew him, as the cheerfulest and wittiest of companions, and as an upright and honorable man.

This article was originally published in English Actors: From Shakespeare to Macready. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1879.

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