Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Buckstone, John Baldwin

BUCKSTONE, JOHN BALDWIN (1802–1879), actor and dramatist, was born at Hoxton on 14 Sept. 1802. In his eleventh year he was placed on board a man-of-war; but through the intervention of a relative, who objected to his entering on an arduous career at so tender an age, he was brought back and again sent to school. At the end of his school days he was articled in a solicitor's office, but he soon engaged in theatrical pursuits, and made his first appearance at Peckham, in a building half theatre, half barn, as Captain Aubri in the melodrama called ‘The Dog of Montargis.’ At the age of nineteen he made a successful appearance at Wokingham, Berkshire, in the character of Gabriel in the ‘Children of the Wood.’ His reputation as a low comedian gradually extended. Pursuing the career of a provincial actor for three years, he became acquainted in the course of that period with Edmund Kean, who seems to have appreciated his peculiar humour, and to have encouraged him to persevere in his calling. On 30 Jan. 1823 he made his first appearance in London at the Surrey Theatre in the character of Ramsay the watchmaker in the ‘Fortunes of Nigel.’ The statement that Buckstone made his début as Peter Smink in ‘The Armistice’ is not confirmed. From 18 Oct. 1824 until 1827 he was a member of the Coburg company. He joined in 1827 the company of Mr. D. Terry at the Adelphi, appearing as Bobby Trot in his own drama entitled ‘Luke the Labourer’ on 1 Oct. It appears that a year previously Buckstone had sent this piece to the manager of the Adelphi without any personal knowledge of him, and that the name and address of the dramatist had been lost. Terry, however, perceived the suitability of the drama for his purpose, and had produced it for the first time on 16 Oct. 1826. Buckstone was at length identified as the dramatist, and brought to the theatre to find his piece in rehearsal for a second time, and to take a share in its representation. At the Adelphi Buckstone was introduced by Terry to Sir Walter Scott, an event which gave him ambition for a general literary career. This theatre was also the scene of some of his best known dramas. He was the original Gnatbrain in Jerrold's ‘Black-eyed Susan,’ produced at the Surrey 8 June 1829. At the Haymarket, in 1833, was produced his drama called ‘Ellen Wareham,’ in which Mrs. Yates personated the heroine. Here, between his first appearance on 8 April 1833 and 1839, he also performed in several farces of his own, one of them, ‘Uncle John,’ including in its cast the eminent names of Farren, Webster, Buckstone himself, and Mrs. Glover. But he only performed at the Haymarket during the summer, and returned each winter to the Adelphi. In 1840 he paid a visit to the United States. After his return in 1842 he again connected himself with the Haymarket, fulfilling, however, during his absences from that house, a short engagement with Mr. Bunn at Drury Lane, and another with Madame Vestris at the Lyceum, where he played Box for the first time in the farce of ‘Box and Cox.’ During an engagement of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean at the Haymarket in 1848 the manager, with a view of strengthening the cast of ‘Macbeth,’ was ill-advised enough to put Buckstone into the part of the First Witch. The well-known and peculiar voice of the comedian, issuing from the grim figure of the witch, shook the house with almost unappeasable laughter. The old standard characters in which this actor excelled were Tony Lumpkin, Mawworm, Scrub, Marplot, Sir Benjamin Backbite, Bob Acres, &c., but he obtained a wide success also in many more modern parts, either in his own dramas or those of his contemporaries. Buckstone was not what is sometimes called an objective actor. To a great extent he was Buckstone in every character. It might be objected that on occasions his acting was somewhat too broad; but this defect was lost sight of in his infectious self-complacency and overflow of fun. Added to a countenance peculiarly fitted to express humour in all its varieties and transitions, he had an evident enjoyment of the droll conceptions he was embodying, which enhanced that of his audiences. He had sometimes a way of pausing before he uttered a joke, and, when he had wound up the house to expectancy, of discharging it with a rapidity and elation that were irresistible. While yet a youthful amateur he is said to have played Iago, at a little theatre in Catherine Street, Strand, to the Othello of Mr. Richard Younge. With his physiognomy, his voice, and other natural qualifications for broad comedy, Buckstone's juvenile interpretation of Iago must have been something to see and to remember. As a man he possessed the abundant geniality which he threw into his acting. He was never more at home than at a weekly club which he founded at the Haymarket Theatre. In 1853 he became manager of the Haymarket, and remained in that capacity until within three years of his death. His control of the theatre was in every way creditable. He surrounded himself with a body of actors, some of whom were famous, while none were undistinguished. Amongst these were Mr. Compton, Miss Sedgwick, Mr. and Mrs. Chippendale, Mr. William Farren (the second actor of that name), Mr. Howe, and, at a later period, Mr. Sothern, Mr. J. S. Clarke, Mr. and Mrs. Kendal, and Miss Ada Cavendish. He produced plays by Planché, Tom Taylor, Dubourg, Westland Marston, T. W. Robertson, Byron, Burnand, W. S. Gilbert, Oxenford, Mrs. Lovell, and Mrs. Catherine Crowe, authoress of the ‘Night Side of Nature,’ and in most of these works he himself played. He was scarcely better known as an actor than as a prolific dramatist. Of his stage productions, amounting to between one and two hundred, scarcely one was a failure, while many were unusual successes. He had great knowledge of stage effect, much humour, though of a broad kind, nor was he deficient in pathos, or in such characterisation as commends itself to audiences. Among his best known productions are ‘The Wreck Ashore,’ ‘Victorine,’ ‘The Dream at Sea,’ ‘Green Bushes,’ and ‘The Flowers of the Forest,’ performed at the Adelphi; ‘Married Life,’ ‘Single Life,’ ‘Rural Felicity,’ ‘Leap Year, or the Ladies' Privilege,’ ‘Second Thoughts,’ and ‘Nicholas Flam,’ performed at the Haymarket; ‘Popping the Question’ and ‘Our Mary Anne,’ brought out at Drury Lane. Buckstone was also a very humorous speaker. His addresses at the dinners of the Theatrical Fund and on his own benefit nights were always attractive. At one time he contributed a few papers to the periodicals. A sketch in the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ describing the career of an optimist perverted into a misanthrope by his experience of life, shows in its cynicism of tone and gravity of intention qualities far different from those which he displayed as an actor. In 1859 he wrote a preface to the Rev. Henry Bellows's ‘Claims of the Drama.’ After quitting the stage he sank into gradual decay, and died on 31 Oct. 1879.

[Notices of Buckstone in the Times, Daily Telegraph, and Daily News, 2 Nov. 1879; Era, 7 Nov. 1879; Pascoe's Dramatic List, 1879; Men of the Time, 1879; Bellows's Claims of the Drama, Melbourne, 1859; personal knowledge.]

W. M.