Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Downes, John (fl.1662-1710)

DOWNES, JOHN (fl. 1662–1710), writer on the stage, was prompter to the company known as ‘The Duke's Servants,’ with which, under a patent from Charles II, Sir William D'Avenant [q. v.] opened in 1662 the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and continued in this employment until 1706. In No. 193 of the ‘Tatler,’ 4 July 1710, Steele speaks of receiving at the hands of Doggett [q. v.] ‘a letter from poor old Downes, the prompter, wherein that retainer to the theatre desires my advice and assistance in a matter of concern to him,’ and adds, ‘I have sent my private opinion for his conduct.’ The letter signed ‘J. Downes’ which follows is obviously by Steele. It supplies the information, doubtless correct, that Downes had from his youth ‘been bred up behind the curtain, and had been a prompter from the time of the Restoration,’ and establishes the fact that he was at that date alive. That a proposal had lately been made him to come ‘again into business and the sub-administration of stage affairs’ is also probable. The duties of ‘book-keeper,’ i.e. one who holds the book or manuscript of a play, necessitated his writing out the various parts of the different pieces given by the company, and attending the morning rehearsals and the afternoon performances. The information thus obtained, pieced out by that supplied him by Charles Booth, sometime book-keeper to the company of Thomas Killigrew, holder of the second patent from Charles II, enabled Downes to write his ‘Roscius Anglicanus, or an Historical Review of the Stage,’ London, 1708. Meagre as is the information supplied in this work, it is practically all to which we have to trust for our knowledge of the Restoration stage. The details furnished include the names of the actors comprised in the two companies, and the casts of the novelties produced, with statements as to the fortunes of the play, and an occasional expression of opinion as to the merits of piece or acting. Downes's style is singularly crabbed, confused, and inelegant, and is charged with the most marvellous latinism. The verdicts are, however, accepted; his inaccuracies are neither numerous nor important, and the only charge he has incurred is that he has been miserly in dispensing information the subsequent value of which he was in no position to estimate. Downes chronicles his attempt to be an actor. The experiment was made on the opening night of Lincoln's Inn Fields (1662), when he was cast for the character of Haly in the ‘Siege of Rhodes.’ The sight of the king, the Duke of York, and a brilliant assemblage of nobility filled him with stage fright, and spoiled him for an actor. His ‘Roscius Anglicanus’ was with other works reprinted by Waldron in a work entitled ‘The Literary Museum.’ It was accompanied with notes by Waldron and Tom Davies, the bookseller. The ‘Roscius Anglicanus’ was again reprinted, this time in facsimile, with an introduction by the writer of the present notice, in 1886.

[Books cited; Davies's Dramatic Miscellanies, 1784.]

J. K.