Thomas Betterton, the great Restoration actor
Thomas Betterton was born in Tothill Street in the parish of St Margaret's in Westminster shortly before the beginning of the Civil war between the King of England and parliament. The theatresof London were all closed by order of parliament in 1642, so we can safely assume that the young Thomas never saw a perofessional performance.
Upon the death of lord protector Oliver Cromwell it seemed inevitable that the monarchy should be restored, and in 1660 Charles II, the son of the executed Charles I, was invited back to reign over England again. One of his first moves was to reinstate professional theatre in the capital, granting powers to two of his courtier poets/dramatists, William Davenant and Thomas Killigrew, to form acting companies. The young Thomas Betterton was working at that time for John Rhodes,Davenant's publisher and book-seller, and he was immediately recruited to play for Davenant. His natural talent and intelligence must have been obvious for he was immediately entrusted with leading roles alongside the few surviving leading players from the previous era, and it was not long before he was being regarded as the finest actor of his generation.
What was it about Betterton that made so many hail him as the greatest actor who had ever lived?
We know what he looked like. Engravings of Kneller's portrait were said to be 'very like', and sold well. Colley Cibber, a fan if ever there was one, flattered him: 'not exceeding the middle stature, inclining to the corpulent; of a serious and penetrating aspect; his limbs nearer the athletic, than the delicate proportion; yet however form'd, there arose from the harmony of the whole a commanding mien of majesty.' His colleague and rival, Antony Aston, remarked, less devotedly; 'Mr Betterton, although a superlative good actor, laboured under an ill figure, being clumsily made, having a great head, short, thick neck, stooped in the shoulders, and had fat short arms which he rarely lifted higher than his stomach ... He had little eyes and a broad face, a little pock-fretten, a corpulent body, and thick legs, with large feet. His aspect was serious, venerable and majestic -- in his later time a little paralytic. His voice was low and grumbling; yet he could tune it by an artful climax, which enforced universal attention, even from the fops and orange-girls.'
Pepys particularly praised Betterton's Hamlet: 'And so to the Duke's house [that is, Davenant's theatre]; and there saw Hamlet done, giving us fresh reason never to think enough of Mr. Betterton.' Cibber described him as 'an actor, as Shakespeare was an author, both without competitors! form'd for the mutual assistance, and illustration of each other's genius!' The playwright Rowe said: 'Whatever part he performs, he does it as if it had been written on purpose for him, and that the author had exactly conceived it as he plays it.'
A heavy, rotund man seems an unlikely figure to succeed as Hamlet, but his other Shakespearean successes included Brutus, Hotspur, Othello, and his Falstaff was extravagantly praised. Betterton was a hit in a variety of characters, and it would appear to be mainly as a result of his obvious intelligence, unshakeable probity, and above all his vocal prowess. The theatrical conditions of the time were demanding, the rhetorical gestures had to be expansive, and the unruly audience was as much intent on regarding itself as the play. It took a powerful presence and a compelling voice to capture and hold attention.
Witnesses' impressions give us some evidence how the voice was managed; much was made of the need for variety. In his biography of Betterton, which served as a manifesto of the actor's methods, Charles Gildon insists on training and practice, 'employ much care and time in learning the art of varying the voice, according to the diversity of the subjects, of the passions you would express or excite, stronger or weaker, higher or lower ... A good voice, indeed, though ill-managed, may fill the ear agreeably, but it would be infinitely more pleasing if they knew how to give it the just turns, risings, and fallings, and all other variations suitable to the subjects and the passions.'
His voice at the age of 22 was described as 'audible, strong, full and articulate, as in the prime of his acting.' And Cibber described him in his prime: 'In the just delivery of poetical numbers, particularly where the sentiments are pathetic, it is scarcely credible upon how minute an article of sound depends their greatest beauty or inaffection. The voice of the singer is not more strictly tied to time and tune, than that of the actor in theatrical elocution: the least syllable too long, or too slightly dwelt upon in a period, depreciates it to nothing; which very syllable, if rightly touched, shall, like the heightening stroke from a master's pencil, give life and spirit to the whole. I never heard a line in tragedy come from Betterton, wherein my judgment, my ear and my imagination were not fully satisfied.'
Restoration actors were not so concerned as we are today with minute psychological examination, as with expressing high points of gesture or vocal expression, their famous 'clap-traps.' However, despite prevailing fashions, the actor's aim of convincingly depicting human behaviour has always been essentially the same. Quintillian, the Classical author, recommended a speaker recall all the emotional and physical aspects of his subject, until the accumulation of detail began to fire his imagination. The ancient Roman actor Polus took his own son's ashes onto the stage in order to help him find the truth behind Electra's mourning. Betterton 'from the time he was dressed, to the end of the play, kept his mind in the same temperament and adaptness as the character required' (Aston). Gildon recommended that the player 'form in his mind a very strong idea of the subject of his passion, and then the passion itself will not fail to follow, rise into the eyes, and affect
both the sense and the understanding of the spectators with the same tenderness.'
All of this sounds perfectly acceptable to those of us brought up in the Stanislavsky tradition of using personal experience to identify with a role.
A version of this article by John H. Bartlett appeared in The Stage newspaper in 1995.