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
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.