Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Farren, William

FARREN, WILLIAM (1786–1861), actor, was born 13 May 1786. His father, William Farren, who then lived in Gower Street, London, had been a tradesman and became an actor of some reputation, chiefly in tragedy. On 8 May 1777 he was the original Careless in the ‘School for Scandal’ at Drury Lane. On 27 Sept. 1784 he appeared as Othello at Covent Garden, where he remained until his death in 1795. On 13 May 1795 a performance was given for the benefit of his widow. The younger William Farren was educated under Dr. Barrow at the school in Soho Square. Inheriting from his father a sum of 8,000l. he was able to gratify a taste for the stage. He first appeared at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, then under the management of his brother Percy, near 1806, as Sir Archy MacSarcasm in ‘Love à la Mode.’ Thence he proceeded to Dublin. He bade farewell to Dublin, whither he more than once returned, 19 Aug. 1818, and on 10 Sept. 1818, as William Farren from Dublin, he made at Covent Garden, as Sir Peter Teazle, his first appearance on the London stage. Sir Anthony Absolute, Lovegold in the ‘Miser,’ Sir Fretful Plagiary in the ‘Critic,’ Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and many other parts were played in his first season, in the course of which he appeared eighty-seven times. At Covent Garden Farren remained until the close of the season of 1827–8. A summer engagement at the Haymarket began 17 June 1824 with Sir Peter Teazle, and continued for some years. At this house he had already appeared for a single occasion, 23 Aug. 1820, as Sir Anthony Absolute. At one or other theatre he played a great variety of comic characters. He also made such curious experiments as appearing as Meg Merrilies, and once even as Miss Harlow in the ‘Old Maid.’ Once also, in Birmingham, he made an unfortunate appearance as Shylock. His original characters during this time were principally in forgotten pieces of Dimond, Kenney, Lunn, Hyde, Morton, and Planché. His first appearance at Drury Lane, 16 Oct. 1828, as Sir Peter Teazle, resulted in an action against him by the Covent Garden management. He remained at Drury Lane until the season of 1836–7, playing a wider range of parts, as is shown by his assumption of Cantwell in the ‘Hypocrite,’ Sir Francis Gripe in the ‘Busybody,’ Polonius, Kent in ‘King Lear,’ Casca in ‘Julius Cæsar,’ &c. In 1837 he returned to Covent Garden, which he quitted a few years later to join Benjamin Webster as stage-manager at the Haymarket. On 31 May 1842 he played there Don Manuel in ‘She would and she would not,’ and on 11 July 1842 he ‘created’ an original part, Peter Britton in ‘Peter and Paul,’ a two-act comedy. On 24 Oct. 1843, at the close of his performance of Old Parr in Mark Lemon's piece of that name, he had on the stage an attack of paralysis, which deprived him of the use of one side. After some months' rest he recovered, and the following year he resumed his place at the Haymarket. From this time his articulation became indistinct and his acting generally impaired, without, however, greatly interfering with his popularity. After ten years at the Haymarket he became manager first of the Strand Theatre, and subsequently of the Olympic. The latter house he opened 2 Sept. 1850 with the ‘Daughter of the Stars,’ a drama, and a burlesque entitled ‘The Princesses in the Tower.’ His lesseeship terminated 22 Sept. 1853. He won in his later years much popularity as Grandfather Whitehead, a kind-hearted septuagenarian; as Squire Broadlands, an old English gentleman; Nicholas Flam, a lawyer; and other characters. On 16 July 1855 Farren, whose health had collapsed, took at the Haymarket his leave of the public in a scene from the ‘Clandestine Marriage,’ which formed part of a programme for his benefit, in which appear the names of the principal English actors. On 24 Sept. 1861 he died at his house, 23 Brompton Square. Farren in his later years was the best representative of the present century of old men. A hard wood at first, Farren took ultimately a high polish. An article in the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ 1 Oct. 1824 (probably by Talfourd), speaks of his range as narrow and disparages his efforts to play the characters of Terry and Dowton. His Admiral Franklyn the writer declares to be ‘only a testy old man.’ The Miser ‘he played like an animated mummy.’ His Lord Ogleby made, however, ‘amends for all.’ So early as 1820 Hazlitt detected the excellence of Farren's old men: ‘He plays the old gentleman, the antiquated beau of the last age, very much after the fashion that we remember to have seen him in our younger days, and that is quite a singular excellence in this’ (Dramatic Essays, ed. 1851, p. 125). When, in later years, his voice grew feeble and his step uncertain, he remained unrivalled in his line, and his Sir Peter Teazle, his Grandfather Whitehead, his Sir Harcourt Courtly in ‘London Assurance,’ and other similar characters remained to the last unequalled performances. Among his fellow-actors he was known as the ‘Cock-salmon,’ in consequence of his having answered to Bunn, who remonstrated against his demands, ‘If there's only one cock-salmon in the market you must pay the price for it. I am the cock-salmon.’ He seems to have been reserved in his habits, unsocial, intellectually dull, and careful in pecuniary expenditure.

Farren married early in life. In January 1856 he married, after the death of her husband, Mrs. Faucit (d. June 1857), an able actress at Covent Garden Theatre,. He left two sons, both known actors, Henry Farren [q. v.], whose daughter Ellen is still on the stage, and William Farren, who plays his father's line of characters, and has also a son on the stage. His elder brother, Percy Farren, actor or manager at Plymouth, Weymouth, Dublin, at the Haymarket, and at the ill-starred Brunswick Theatre, London, was also an actor of merit.

A portrait by De Wilde of William Farren as Lord Ogleby is in the Mathews collection in the Garrick Club. The same collection has a portrait of his father as Orestes, also by De Wilde.

[Genest's Account of the English Stage; Oxberry's Dramatic Biography; Biography of the British Stage; Theatrical Observer, Dublin, 1821 et seq.; Theatrical Times, 1846 et seq.; Vandenhoff's Dramatic Reminiscences; A Full and Accurate Account of the Destruction of the Brunswick Theatre, with the statements of the Rev. G. C. Smith and Messrs. William and Percy Farren, 1828; Morley's Journal of a London Playgoer; New Monthly Mag. passim; Dramatic and Musical Review, passim; Era newspaper, September and October 1861; Gent. Mag. November 1861; Macready's Reminiscences, by Sir Frederick Pollock; Cole's Life of Charles Kean; other works cited.]

J. K.