Contents Index

The Acting of Thomas Potter Cooke

Harold J. Nichols

Nineteenth-Century Theatre Research, 5:2 (Autumn 1977)

{73} Studies of nineteenth-century acting have almost invariably focused upon the great tragedians and have neglected entirely the performers of popular melodrama. Although Michael Booth has provided a general description of melodramatic acting style,1 no attention has been given to the individual performers who created and popularized it. Questions about the style and influence of particular actors have been unasked and, consequently, unanswered. Foremost among these neglected individuals is Thomas Potter Cooke, who in his fifty-six years on the stage received critical and popular acclaim for his performances of both villains and heroes.

Cooke's popularity with nineteenth-century audiences was phenomenal, undoubtedly being comparable to that of the most popular film stars today. When the Theatrical Chronicle and Dramatic Review attempted to rate the popular appeal of the principal London actors in 1842, it described Charles Kean's popularity as "great," Ben Webster's as "middling," and Madame Vestris' as "great at wit," while the word for Cooke's was "wonderful."2 An impression of the enthusiasm of Cooke's audiences can be gleaned from the description left by an anonymous playgoer, who saw Cooke for the first time in 1854 when the star was sixty-nine years old:

The name of Mr. T. P. Cooke, as long as I can remember, has been an immense favourite with the public in all parts of England, and I have felt that were he to take his leave of the stage without my having witnessed him in one of his impersonations I should never forgive myself; . . . I did not expect to see in Mr. Cooke, at his present age, all that I had heard of him in former years, but I must say that, in my opinion, even now, it would be utterly futile in any other actor on the stage to attempt to rival him; so true to nature was the portrayal of the free-hearted, rollicking, jolly manner of British Tar. {74} The applause throughout the representation of the drama was almost deafening, and when this veteran actor (whose age I believe is approaching fourscore) commenced dancing the "sailor's hornpipe' with all the freedom and elasticity of one a quarter that age, the excitement of the audience was raised to such a pitch that not a single note of the music could be heard from the moment Mr. Cooke commenced dancing until he had finished. Such was the enthusiasm exemplified in the heartiest applause I ever heard, from all parts of the house.3
What elements characterized the style of this popular performer? And how did Cooke's style reflect significant trends of his time? It is to these questions that the present essay is addressed. Because of the ephemeral nature of the actor's art, any attempt to reconstruct an actor's style is conjectural, but fortunately there are four major types of evidence upon which the conjectures can be based. First, there are acting editions of the plays. These resemble promptbooks in describing the performance as presented at a particular theatre, but unfortunately they reveal only what actions were performed and not the manner in which those actions were executed. Second, there is pictorial evidence provided by toy theatre prints and contemporary illustrations. This evidence has limited value because the artists used certain conventional poses as the basis for their work. Therefore, it seems unwise to assume that any print necessarily represents a specific moment that was actually seen upon the stage. Still, an anecdote told by Westland Marston suggests that he, as a contemporary playwright and playgoer, believed the prints depicted general stances that were seen in the theatre.4 Thus, although the prints must be interpreted cautiously, they would seem to have some descriptive value. A third type of evidence is the commentary of contemporary reviewers. This evidence also leaves something to be desired, because when discussing melodramatic performers, most reviewers were content to give general impressions instead of describing particular moments in detail. Finally, there are memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies of the performers. Unfortunately, in Cooke's case this final type of evidence does not exist. Therefore, because of the unsatisfactory nature of much of the evidence, it is necessary to pass lightly over Cooke's minor roles and to deal primarily with the major ones, for which the first three types of evidence are available.

Undoubtedly one of the reasons for Cooke's success was the long apprenticeship that he served in minor roles prior to gaining prominence. Born on 23 April 1786, Cooke entered the navy at the age of ten and fought in several battles before leaving the service in 1802. In January 1804, he made his stage debut in a minor role at the Royalty Theatre. Performing at various minor theatres for the next twelve years, Cooke finally achieved a Drury Lane appearance on 19 October 1816, when he played Diego Monez in an insignificant melodrama entitled Watchword. Although The Weekly Dispatch {75} stated that he "gave several traits of talent,"5 many reviewers did not mention him.

For the next two years Cooke acted frequently in both melodrama and tragedy at Drury Lane. His roles were small and generally unnoticed by the critics, but Cooke probably used these years for developing and perfecting his style. Among his experiences was the opportunity to observe and play opposite Edmund Kean at the time when Kean was popularizing a flamboyant, energetic style of tragic acting in London. Although it would be difficult to prove that Kean influenced Cooke, it seems significant that the tragedian was especially noted for his use of "accent, look and gesture,"6 features which were to be important in the mature Cooke's performances.

After this lengthy apprenticeship in relatively minor roles, Cooke gained prominence in 1820 by portraying the title character in J. R. Planche's The Vampire. Opening on 9 August at the English Opera House, Planche's play dramatized the legend of the monster in human form who was doomed unless he married a virgin before the moon set. Although clearly cast as the villain, Cooke had an opportunity to enact compassion, for at one point the monster regretted the necessity of sustaining his own life with human blood. William Hazlitt described Cooke's acting in this role as "spirited and imposing,"7 while The British Stage called Cooke's performance "one of the most vigorous and effective specimens of melodramatic acting we ever remember to have witnessed; his expressive countenance and commanding figure are displayed to great advantage, and his whole appearance is extremely picturesque."8 In a later issue, the same periodical, undoubtedly prompted by Cooke's success as the Vampire, considered his acting style in general and noted that "his fine muscular figure and handsome expressive countenance"9 were especially suited for performing melodrama.

Cooke was particularly successful in two other villainous roles, Vanderdecken and Frankenstein's monster. Both of these parts were entirely pantomimic in nature, requiring unusually expressive gestures and facial expressions, which Cooke supplied capably. As Vanderdecken in Edward Fitzball's The Flying Dutchman, first produced in 1826, Cooke was praised by The Weekly Dramatic Register for "his signs, his attitudes, his fine form, and the varied, but powerful, expression of his countenance."10 Similarly, The Monthly Theatrical Review asserted that "his attitudes are so very expressive that though he is forbidden to speak, we are at no loss to understand his thoughts and his feelings, his hopes, his fears, and his mysterious designs; as soon, probably, as they may be supposed to enter his mind."11

The same features of Cooke's style are mentioned in the reviews of Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1823), adapted by R. B. {77} Peake, but as the monster, Cooke also portrayed tender emotions. For example, according to The Drama; or Theatrical Pocket Magazine, Cooke "powerfully embodied the horrible, bordering on the sublime or the awful. His exhibition of great strength, of towering gait, and of reckless cruelty, contrasted with the fiend's astonishment on hearing a "concord of sweet sounds,' and on beholding female forms, or in saving a human being from drowning, was masterly and characteristic." This reviewer also asserted that immediately following the monster's creation its "style of rushing on the stage amidst flame was truly terrific. Its subsequent change of feelings, with the varied scenes and treatment to which it is exposed, display admirable discrimination in the performer."12

Cooke's athleticism and his capacity for portraying tender emotion qualified him for roles other than the villain, and in 1825 he requested Edward Fitzball to dramatize James Fenimore Cooper's The Pilot. Somewhat reluctantly, Fitzball agreed, so on 3 November 1825, Cooke appeared as the nautical hero Long Tom Coffin at the Adelphi Theatre. The role made considerable use of Cooke's athletic ability. For example, in one scene Long Tom Coffin and Barnstable, his commanding officer, were attacked by a group of soldiers. (The original acting edition did not specify the number of attackers, but some later editions said six.) "The Soldiers approach as Barnstable draws his sword and defends himself bravely till he is overpowered by numbers. Tom also combats with his harpoon, and at length rushing up the rock appears where they cannot reach him. . . . They fire as Tom throws himself into the sea and disappears."13 Cooke's performance was highly praised, although the reviewers unfortunately spoke in general terms without mentioning specific aspects of his acting. The Weekly Dramatic Register asserted that Cooke "looks the British Sailor to the life, and we pronounce his performance to be inimitable,"14 and The Times (3 November 1825, p. 3) concurred by declaring that "there is probably not another actor on the stage who could play the same character . . . with anything like the same effect."

This success led Cooke to continue with nautical roles, and in October 1826, he created the sailor hero, Philip, in J. B. Buckstone's Luke the Labourer. Again his performance was highly praised, with The Weekly Dramatic Register declaring it to be "the best piece of acting we have seen from him. . . . There is a heartiness, a good humor, we might say an enjoyment in the acting, which at once realizes the picture."15

Cooke acted what was to become his most famous sailor role for the first time on 8 June 1829, at the Surrey Theatre, when he performed William in Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susa. The part was perfectly suited to Cooke's talents, since it allowed him for the first {78} time to combine his knowledge of nautical peculiarities, his athletic powers, and his capacity for pathos and tenderness. As Long Tom Coffin and Philip, Cooke had been merely a rescuer of damsels in distress but had been almost completely excluded from exhibiting tender emotions. As William, however, he portrayed a sturdy but love-smitten sailor who was separated from his young bride. Cooke's capacity to unite bravado and affection was praised by reviewers. According to The Times (1 December 1829, p. 3), his performance was "one of the cleverest things of the kind that has ever been exhibited. His singing and dancing are admirably in character and the more pathetic parts of his acting irresistibly moving." Similarly, The New Monthly Magazine called Cooke"s William "the most complete representation of a frank, unaffected sailor placed in the most affecting circumstances,"16 and The London Literary Gazette asserted that Cooke was "the best sailor that ever trod the boards -- in frolic and in affliction he is always true to nature, and to the peculiarities of the seaman. His hitch, his swing, his back-handed wipe, his roll -- in short, his every look, gesture, and motion are redolent of the blue water and the lower deck; and all this is qualified by great ability, and a degree of feeling which is far more like truth than acting."17

The latter review particularly emphasizes the physical action that was an important part of Cooke's characterization. Another critic indicates clearly that Cooke used considerable physical movement even when he expressed tenderness:

What a marvelous personation of a thorough-bred Tar is Mr. T. P. Cooke's! Does he look for one moment as if he had ever been a week at a time on firm land? How he keeps his whole body constantly upon the swing -- his limbs all apparently relaxed and ready to give way, yet, at a moment's warning hauled taut, and as stiff as steel. With what uncouth yet genuine tenderness, he fondles his little Sue -- cherishing her arms and waist, parting her hair, and holding her face in his two strained and rigid hands, while he gazes upon it like one tipsy with happiness! He can't keep his hands off her! but is ever touching, and then retreating to survey her upon every tack, accompanying his little actions of endearment with imperfect and undefinable noises. And what a genuine expression of good humor and truth, and heart in his smiles and tones of voice! . . . we never witnessed a more natural display of rude and unsophisticated love and tenderness, than his meeting and parting with Black-eyed Susan.18
The play was a stunning popular success, as indicated by its performance record. Between opening night and 29 November 1829, it was acted 150 times at the Surrey. Cooke then transferred his services to Covent Garden, which was in bad financial straits, and performed gratis for six nights. Then, beginning on 7 December Cooke performed Black-Eyed Susan twice each night, once at the Surrey and once at Covent Garden, for almost two weeks.

Although he never duplicated the success of Black-Eyed Susan, {79} Cooke created one other highly popular nautical role, Harry Hallyard in J. T. Haines' My Poll and My Partner Joe (1835). Once again, the role allowed Cooke to utilize the full range of his abilities, as there were both energetic and pathetic scenes. For example, the end of Act II contained a splendid battle between the British sailors and a band of pirates. "Harry snatches up the Sentinel's firelock, and discharges it at the Pirates -- one of them is seen at the top of the fort bearing a tri-coloured flag . . . a shell is thrown as if from the ship below -- it falls among the combatants -- Harry seizes it and hurls it into the fort -- an explosion takes place -- the fort is blown up -- torches are brought on -- Harry attacks and disarms the Commandant, whom he conquers -- the Pirates are subdued -- the fort bursts into flames -- Harry dashes through the fire, rushes to the top of the fort, seizes the Pirate with the tri-coloured flag, hurls him into the sea, and hoists the British standard, amidst enthusiastic cheers."19 In contrast, the end of Act III was a real tearjerker and contained what The Times (1 September 1835, p. 6) called "a great deal of true pathos . . . which it required considerable skill to represent with fidelity." The reviewer declared that Cooke deserved "the highest encomium" for his efforts.

With the creation of Harry Hallyard, Cooke's repertoire of roles was essentially complete. Although he still created a few new characters, he spent much of the remaining twenty-five years of his career performing six roles: the monster in Frankenstein, Vanderdecken, Long Tom Coffin, Philip, William, and Harry Hallyard. Rotating from one theatre to another for brief engagements Cooke continued to be a great audience attraction until he retired in 1860.

The reviews of these various roles indicate that the prominent features of Cooke's acting style remained relatively constant through the years. One of these features was Cooke's ability to strike effective poses or attitudes of both body and countenance. Unfortunately, although reviewers agreed on the picturesqueness of these poses, they did not bother to describe them. Some information can be gleaned from engravings and toy theatre prints of Cooke, although these must be interpreted with caution. The portraits of Cooke in various roles emphasize a broad stance with feet spread apart and one or both arms thrust to the side or upward. The breadth of the stance is particularly emphasized, for the arms are frequently thrust more toward the horizontal than the vertical (Figures 1, 2, and 3!!!). Furthermore, the entire torso is used in creating the attitude, for the chest and hips are often in a position that is effective in conveying tension but is outside of the normal range of body movement (Figures 2 and 3!!!). One reason for the effectiveness of these attitudes was probably Cooke's ability to contrast them with more relaxed moments, as described in the review of Black-Eyed Susan quoted above. It is interesting to note that the costuming {81} apparently displayed Cooke's muscular figure. This is particularly evident in the print of Frankenstein's monster, but even in the sailor roles the tight-fitting sleeves and pants emphasize Cooke's physical attributes.

Another important aspect of Cooke's acting was the energy that he threw into his roles. Reviewers consistently mentioned his "activity and athletic powers,"20 his "animated and imposing style,"21 or his "energetic pantomime."22 According to Westland Marston, it was Cooke's "thorough heartiness, "go,' and physical activity" that formed "the grounds of his success" (Marston, p. 8).

Finally, a characteristic that was constantly attributed to Cooke's nautical roles was their truth to nature. For example, The Times (8 December 1829, p. 2) claimed that "Mr. Cooke's delineation of nautical manners may be said to be, without disparagement to any other performer, the most perfect on the stage; whether it be pathetic or humorous, a song or a hornpipe . . . they are all sui generis, in perfect keeping, and characteristic in a high degree of the peculiarities of that singular race of beings. Mr. Cooke seems to have taken his nautical sketches from the life." Other reviewers used such phrases as "a fine natural piece of acting"23 or "distinguished by pathos, feeling, and nature"24 to describe Cooke's sailors. These assertions of naturalness probably resulted primarily from a unique characteristic of Cooke's nautical roles, the pathos and tenderness that he combined with the traditional athletic ability of the stage sailor. It seems significant that the claims of truthfulness were especially prominent in the reviews written after the production of Black-Eyed Susan. According to the Illustrated London News, the portrayal of sailors prior to that time had been "always qualified by a conviction in the audience that Jack was sure to win. Whatever might happen, he could never suffer!" Cooke, however, changed the stereotype: "With the date of his immortal William commenced the new school of the sailor, which could render Jack harmonious, and put a soul within his senses. Then, at last, we had the man -- the simple, fervent, genial, fearless, self-forgetting man -- who, ever reflecting his own element, could either brighten in the sunshine, or rise up grandly in the storm. We were able to appreciate this strange mysterious mixture of the childlike and the heroic -- who could be so boisterous in merriment, and so tranquil in disaster -- so unmanned at others' sufferings, and so rocklike midst his own."25

Through the addition of pathos to sailor roles, Cooke established a stereotype of his own, and from 1830 until about 1860 actors and playwrights modeled their sailors after Cooke. In 1851, a critic for Tallis' Dramatic Magazine (February 1851, p. 122) complained that "our stage sailors are very conventional creations, most of them made to order, after a pretty accurate measurement of the peculiarities of {82} Mr. T. P. Cooke. We should like to see something new in this direction. We suppose sailors are sometimes mean, savage, or cowardly fellows, like the rest of the world." Thus, Cooke's acting style had a significant influence on the portrayal of the British sailor for almost thirty years.

Cooke's significance for the theatre historian, however, lies not only in his influence on nautical melodrama, but in his reflection of social and artistic trends. Most important of these are glorification of the British navy and the influence of the romantic aesthetic. Cooke's popularity and, indeed, the general popularity of nautical melodrama reflect pride in and glorification of British naval power. In the years after 1815 the navy, traditionally the strongest branch of the British military, was in a state of decline. The American navy had fought the British to a standoff in the War of 1812 by winning thirteen naval engagements to England's twelve,26 while the Duke of Wellington had demonstrated the strength of Britain's land forces in the European campaign against Napoleon. Furthermore, the period from 1815 to 1850 was one of peace that gave the navy little opportunity to bolster its sagging reputation. Therefore, the vogue for nautical pieces can be seen as celebrating and expressing past naval prowess. This view is supported by the "Remarks" preceding Lacy's Acting Edition of My Poll and My Partner Joe. The author, George Daniel, notes: "In turning over the page of history, we contemplate with enthusiasm the martial prowess of our ancestors, who were called to defend not only their own nations through a long series of ages; . . . Whatever brings to our recollection the triumphs of the past deserves our gratitude. . . . Blessings on the memory of the bard, 'and palms eternal flourish round his urn,' who first struck his lyre to celebrate the wooden walls, and the brave, generous, Jack Tars of unconquered and inconquerable England" (Haines, p. 7). From one point of view, then, Cooke's popularity in nautical roles can be seen as a celebration of England's past naval glories.

Another contemporary trend reflected by Cooke is the influence of the romantic movement, an influence that is clearly evident in his acting style. In a study of nineteenth-century acting, Alan Downer has drawn distinctions between the stately, classical style of John Philip Kemble and what he calls "the First Romantic School" as represented by Edmund Kean. As features of the romantic actor's style, Downer lists "aside from excessive violence . . . an attention to detailed pantomime and an effort to naturalize the speaking of blank verse," the latter referring especially to "transitions," that is, sudden shifts in tone intended to destroy the verse's rhythm.27 All three features of this style have equivalents in Cooke's acting. First, Cooke's "violence" is evident from the constant references to his energy and physical activity. Second, the detailed pantomime can be seen in Cooke's ability to {82} perform expertly the silent roles of Frankenstein's monster and Vanderdecken and in his use of such mimic actions as the back-handed wipe, swinging walk, and other gestural details to create the nautical character. Finally, even the "transitions" have an equivalent in Cooke's acting, although Cooke's transitions were physical rather than vocal. As one critic stated, Cooke was always ready to shift instantly from a relaxed posture to a taut stance in preparation for action. A final indication of the romantic influence on Cooke is his addition of pathos to the traditionally tough sailor character, thus embodying the romantic duality of the physical and the emotional. One critic, cited earlier, described Cooke's sailors as a "mysterious mixture of the childlike and the heroic." Thus, Cooke's style appears to reflect the romantic aesthetic that was dominant in his time.

As a whole, this examination of Thomas Potter Cooke's acting indicates that similar study of other melodramatic performers might be fruitful. In spite of scanty and often unsatisfactory evidence, a description of the performer's style can be constructed and his influence upon the theatre of his day and upon other actors can be determined. In addition, the melodramatic actor's work reflects social and aesthetic trends that may help us better understand the nineteenth-century theatre.


1. Michael R. Booth, "The Acting of Melodrama," University of Toronto Quarterly, 34 (1964), 31-48; reprinted in Michael R. Booth, English Melodrama (London, 1965). There is also a fine general discussion of melodramatic acting in Conrad J. Bishop, "Melodramatic Acting: Concept and Technique in the Performance of Early Nineteenth Century English Melodrama," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1966.

2. Theatrical Chronicle and Dramatic Review, 3 (3 December 1842), 265.

3. Theatrical Journal, 15 (4 January 1854), 6.

4. Westland Marston, Our Recent Actors (Boston, 1888), I, 6-8.

5. The Weekly Dispatch, Undated clipping, Harvard Theatre Collection.

6. George Henry Lewes, On Actors and the Art of Acting (1875; rpt. New York: Grove Press), p. 14.

7. William Hazlitt, Criticism and Dramatic Essays of the English Stage, 2nd ed. (London, 1851), p. 138.

8. The British Stage, 4 (1820), 270-271.

9. The British Stage, 4 (1820), 333.

10. The Weekly Dramatic Register, no. 101, 9 December 1826, p. 385.

11. The Monthly Theatrical Review, no. 2, October 1829, p. 57.

12. The Drama; or, Theatrical Pocket Magazine, 5 (1823), 30-31.

13. Edward Fitzball, The Pilot (London, 1825), p. 42.

14. The Weekly Dramatic Register, No. 44, 5 November 1825, p. 42.

15. The Weekly Dramatic Register, No. 103, 23 December 1826, p. 402.

16. The New Monthly Magazine, 1 July 1829, pp. 296-297. Quoted in Andre T. Tsai, "The British Nautical Drama (1824-1843)," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1964, p. 87.

17. The London Literary Gazette, 3 October 1829, p. 654. Quoted by Tsai, pp. 87, 89.

18. Unidentified clipping in Harvard Theater Collection.

19. John Thomas Haines, My Poll and my Partner Joe (London, n.d.), p. 37.

20. The Drama; or, Theatrical Pocket Magazine, 3 (1822), 43.

21. Ibid., 137.

22. The Times, 29 July 1823, p. 3.

23. The Dramatic Magazine, 1 July 1829, p. 140.

24. Theatrical Times, No. 132, 11 November 1848, p. 345.

25. Illustrated London News. Undated clipping in Harvard Theatre Collection.

26. E. B. Potter and Chester W. Nimitz, eds., Sea Power, a Naval History (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1960), p. 223.

27. Alan S. Downer, "Players and the Painted Stage: Nineteenth Century Acting," PMLA, 61 (1946), 537-538.