BROOKE, Gustavus Vaughan (1818-1866)

BROOKE, Gustavus Vaughan (1818-1866)
was born at Dublin on 25 April 1818. His father, Gustavus Brooke, was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, his mother was Frances, daughter of Matthew Bathurst. He was educated at a school at Edgeworthstown under Lovell Edgeworth, a brother of the novelist Maria Edgeworth, and afterwards at Dublin at a school kept by the Rev. William Jones. There he showed talent in a school play, and when he was allowed to see Macready perform in Dublin in March 1832 he resolved that he must go on the stage. He interviewed Calcraft, the manager of the Dublin Theatre, and early in 1833 on account of the failure of Edmund Kean to fulfil his engagement at Dublin, Brooke was given an opportunity to appear in the part of William Tell. He was billed as "a young gentleman under 14 years of age" (he was really almost 15) and played with some success. Other appearances followed as Virginius and Young Norval. In October 1834 he appeared at the Royal Victoria Theatre, London, as Virginius with little success. He was in the provinces for three years, and then played a season at Dublin in October 1837. He had a qualified success, which was followed by a more successful season at Belfast in January 1838. He continued to play in the provinces and in Ireland, and in 1841 accepted an engagement with Macready's company in London, but finding himself cast for a small part declined to play. He returned to the provinces and refused several offers of parts in London before his appearance as Othello at the Olympic Theatre in 1848. During the intervening six years he had successful seasons at Manchester, Liverpool and other large towns, among his characters being Richard III, Romeo, Macbeth, Virginius, Hamlet, Othello, Iago and Brutus. He played Othello to Macready's Iago at Manchester. Later on he was with Edwin Forrest, and in October 1846 took the part of Romeo at Dublin to the Juliet of Helen Faucit. Other parts played with her included Claude Melnotte, Orlando, Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Sir Giles Overreach, Leontes and Faulconbridge. On 3 January 1848 Brooke had a triumphant success as Othello at the Olympic Theatre, London. In the same season his rendering of Sir Giles Overreach was pronounced by one critic as not falling far short of Edmund Kean's, and more than one writer called him the greatest tragedian of the day. Brooke, however, did not have the temperament to make the best use of his success. He was not a man of business and was drinking more than was good for him. After playing for some time in the country his magnificent voice began to fail, and in 1850 he was obtaining advice from a London specialist who would not allow him to appear more than once or twice a week. However, in November of that year he was playing with Helen Faucit again and drawing crowded houses. In October 1851 he was married to Marianne Bray. In December 1851 he went to America, and during the next 18 months had much success. On his return to England he played several of his old parts at Drury Lane, and for the first time, Macbeth, with such success that he not only re-established his own reputation but saved the fortunes of the theatre. In 1854 he met George Coppin (q.v.) and agreed to go to Australia. He left at the end of November and arrived at Melbourne on 22 February 1855. He stayed in Australia for more than six years. When he arrived he had a repertoire of some 40 characters, and before he left he had almost doubled the number. His voice had regained its beauty, his art had matured. Probably he did his best work while in Australia. The critics were unanimous in placing him as one of the great actors of all time, although occasional failures were admitted, Romeo being one of his less successful characters. He excelled particularly in tragedy, but also played comedy and Irish parts with success. In early life he was careless about money matters, but in Australia for a time lived comparatively carefully, and while in partnership with Coppin at one time thought himself to be a rich man. But his ventures were not always successful. He eventually lost everything, and unfortunately began drinking again. On his return to England about the middle of 1861 he played a season at Drury Lane, beginning in October with so little success that at its conclusion he found himself in financial difficulties. In February he married Avonia Jones, a young actress of considerable ability whom he had met in Australia. Unfortunately his dissipated habits continued and he was often in great difficulties. His wife, who had been away playing an engagement in America, got in touch with George Coppin, then on a visit to England, who offered him an engagement for two years in Australia. Brooke pulled himself together to play a farewell season at Belfast, and his last performance as Richard III on 23 December 1865 was enthusiastically received. He left Plymouth for Australia on 1 January 1866 in the S.S. London which went down in a storm ten days later. Brooke toiled bravely at the pumps of the sinking vessel, and when all hope was gone was seen standing composedly by the companion way. As the only surviving boat pulled away he called "Give my last farewell to the people of Melbourne". His wife, who felt his loss keenly died of consumption in the following October.
Brooke was five feet ten in height, of good figure, and handsome in feature. He had a beautiful voice and much fire and passion, but depending too much upon the emotion of the moment his performances tended to vary from night to night, and he did not always do himself justice. At his best he played upon his audience with a master hand, and no other actor ever had such a reputation in Australia. An excellent suggestion of his powers both as a tragedian and a comedian will be found in an article by James Smith (q.v.) in The Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol. III, p. 26.
W. J. Lawrence, The Life of Gustavus Vaughan Brooke; J. W. Marston, Our Recent Actors; The Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol. III; P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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