William Henry West Betty was the most celebrated child performer of all time. During the brief period of his ascendancy (1804 – 1806), he eclipsed all other actors on the British stage. He combined the allure of a contemporary pop idol with the credibility of a great classical actor. Although the story of the House of Commons adjourning early in order that its members could see him play Hamlet is undoubtedly apocryphal, its very prevalence attests to his popularity.
Betty was born on September 13th 1791. His parents were both landed gentry, his mother having inherited an estate in Shropshire and his father one in the north of Ireland. His father, however, was a spendthrift who, at an early age, squandered much of his fortune. There is no doubt that his constant need for funds later contributed to his exploitation of his son.
According to his earliest biographers, Master Betty began to exhibit signs of histrionic genius at the age of six and his theatrical ambitions were consolidated when his parents took him, aged eleven, to Belfast to see Mrs Siddons in the role of Elvira in Sheridan’s Pizarro. After the performance, he is reputed to have declared that ‘I shall certainly die if I may not be a player.’
At his son’s request, Betty’s father introduced him to Michael Atkins, manager of the Belfast Theatre. According to Atkins’ later testimony, ‘I never dared to indulge in the hope of seeing another Garrick but I have seen an Infant Garrick in Master Betty.’ This was the first instance of the identification with England’s greatest actor that would prove to be crucial to the boy’s success. Atkins, in turn, introduced the Bettys to the theatrical prompter, Thomas Hough.
Hough became the genius behind Master Betty’s career. He was his tutor, mentor and manager: a Svengali before the day. Two centuries later, he remains a shadowy figure, most likely a frustrated actor whose own ambitions were all piled onto his protégé. There was almost certainly a pederastic element in his attachment to Betty, a boy of exceptional beauty. This is suggested not only by the scurrilous lines of a pamphlet addressed to Betty applying for the post of his tutor after his father had dismissed Hough (‘For I’ve a wondrous rod in pickle/Your pretty little Bum to tickle’) but also by Hough’s uncharacteristic silence after the break.
In August 1803, Master Betty’s ‘Friends’ (a euphemism for his father and tutor) persuaded Atkins to engage the boy for four nights. Whether or not he became the talk of the town as was later alleged, his performances (among them, Romeo and Young Norval) were sufficiently accomplished to lead to engagements first in Dublin, then in Scotland, and later in the north of England. In view of his improbable success, two factors should be borne in mind. First, the theatre was the only popular entertainment medium at the time and the quest for novelty was, therefore, paramount. Second, the country was in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars and theatre managers had to resort to more desperate measures than usual to attract the public.
Master Betty made a triumphant provincial tour in the summer and autumn of 1804, breaking all box office records and proving to be a far greater draw than Kemble, Mrs Siddons or any other leading actor. This, in turn, led to a desperate race between the two London patent-houses, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, to secure his services. When Thomas Harris appeared to achieve victory for Covent Garden by offering the unprecedented sum of £50 a performance, Sheridan, then manager of Drury Lane, simply engaged the boy on his otherwise free days. Although disquiet at the arrangement was expressed by the Lord Chancellor among others, such was the clamour to see the boy perform that the objectors were swiftly overruled.
Master Betty’s arrival in London provoked an immense amount of press coverage. The Daily Advertiser’s headline ‘ARRIVED YESTERDAY – Young Roscius – The Wonder of the Age’ was typical. The frenzy with which he was greeted on his visit to the theatre was nothing compared to that with which he was greeted on his first appearance on the stage. A detachment of guards was dispatched to hold back the crowds. The Prince of Wales led the whole of fashionable society in applauding him (and was the first of the many royal admirers who later included the King and Queen). The artist, James Northcote, spoke for many when he wrote that ‘He and Buonaparte divide the world.’
There was, however, a more dubious ingredient in both Master Betty’s promotion and appeal. There is no question that his greatest success was in roles such as Young Norval, Romeo and Hamlet, in which his youth and innocence were an asset. Charles James Fox believed his Hamlet to be superior to Garrick’s. But, quite apart from the element of credibility (which was plainly absent when he was later encouraged to play Richard III and Macbeth), the youthful roles allowed him to wear costumes and make-up which emphasised his beauty. His father further traded on this by allowing certain men of fashion into his dressing room to watch him change. They were instrumental in fanning the flames of Bettymania. When the object of their desire proved to be recalcitrant, they helped to secure his downfall.
For two years, Master Betty stood at the height of fashion. He was taken to see Lady Hamilton perform her celebrated Attitudes, after which he is reputed to have remarked ‘I’m too old to be kissed, Ma’am.’ He was befriended by the actress, Mrs Jordan, and her royal lover, the Duke of Clarence. After one of his performances at Drury Lane, he was invited to a supper party by the Duke, which occasioned adverse comment in the press. In spite of his heavy burden of performances, he frequently performed at private parties. This took an inevitable toll on his health.
Such was his popularity that both Kemble and Mrs Siddons were forced to retire from the London stage during the two years of his ascendancy. Kemble who, as manager of Covent Garden, was obliged to be civil to the boy, was nevertheless accused by some of deliberately trying to ruin his performances by strategic fits of coughing. It is inevitable that professional actors felt threatened by the prevailing cult of amateurism, Even Mrs Jordan, otherwise Master Betty’s friend, is supposed to have exclaimed ‘Oh for the days of King Herod’ in the Drury Lane Green Room.
Those days came soon enough: Betty’s fate was sealed shortly before his fifteenth birthday. Fashion proved to be an even more fickle goddess than fortune, puffing him up only to blow him down. In time, his novelty value wore off. Desperate managers, by engaging a host of infant prodigies, including a Young Roscia, a Young Orpheus and an Infant Vestris, exposed the original to ridicule. Kemble himself delivered the coup de grace by engaging the eight year old Miss Mudie (who was so small that the actor playing her lover had to go down on all fours to embrace her) to play The Country Girl at Covent Garden. Meanwhile, Betty’s father’s dismissal of Hough left the boy particularly vulnerable to attack. And, of course, his reaching puberty destroyed his appeal for a significant (and powerful) section of the audience.
Betty’s fall was as dramatic as his rise. He quit the stage and, in 1808, entered Christ’s College, Cambridge. On graduation, he lived with his family (his father died in 1811) and made an attempt to adapt to the life of a country gentleman. In February 1812, however, he embarked on a comeback in Bath. He was offered a surprisingly handsome engagement at Covent Garden, but the press attacked him with a venom which spoke less of the present than of the past. It should be noted, however, that Macready, not always the most generous critic of his fellow actors, was lavish in his praise of Betty’s talent.
Although Betty never acted in London again, for the next ten years he continued to accept provincial engagements. In 1821, after an arrangement for him to reappear at Covent Garden had been dropped, he attempted suicide. Although he seems finally to have accepted the end of his theatrical career, he never lost his theatrical ambitions and, in 1835, either ignorant of or deliberately blind to the irony, he placed his fifteen year old son Henry on the stage. History failed to repeat itself. Betty died at the age of eighty-two, after more than sixty years of obscurity.