Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Johnson, Benjamin

JOHNSON, BENJAMIN (1665?–1742), actor, was originally a scene-painter, and, after playing in the country, joined in 1695 the Drury Lane company, which had been weakened by the secession of Betterton and other actors. His first recorded performance took place as Sir William Wisewoud in Cibber's ‘Love's Last Shift,’ in 1696, in which year he was the original Captain Driver in ‘Oronooko.’ During following years, at Drury Lane or Dorset Garden, temporarily under the same management, he played, among many others, the following original parts: Coupler in Vanbrugh's ‘Relapse,’ 1697; Lyrick in Farquhar's ‘Love and a Bottle,’ and Alderman Smuggler in his ‘Constant Couple,’ 1699; Alphonso in Vanbrugh's alteration of Fletcher's ‘Pilgrim,’ 1700; Captain Fireball in Farquhar's ‘Sir Harry Wildair,’ 1701; Sable in Steele's ‘Funeral,’ and Balderdash and Alderman in Farquhar's ‘Twin Rivals,’ 1702; Sir Fumble Oldlove in D'Urfey's ‘Old Mode and the New,’ 11 March 1703; Sir Toby Doubtful in ‘Love's Contrivance,’ an adaptation of ‘Le Médecin malgré lui,’ by Mrs. Carroll (Centlivre), 4 June 1703; and Sago in her ‘Basset Table,’ 20 Nov. 1705. The following year, with a detachment of actors sent by Swiney, he went to the Haymarket, appearing probably, 17 Oct. 1706, as Obadiah in ‘The Committee.’ On 28 Nov. 1706 it was noted on the bills that he was engaged to act in this theatre only. Here, 3 Dec. 1706, he played Corbaccio in Ben Jonson's ‘Volpone.’ He was proud of the similarity of his name with that of the great dramatist, in whose characters he was especially successful. During this and the following season he played at the Haymarket First Gravedigger in ‘Hamlet,’ Moody in ‘Sir Martin Marrall,’ Waspe in ‘Bartholomew Fair,’ and Morose in the ‘Silent Woman;’ and was, 1 Nov. 1707, the original Sir Solomon Sadlife in Cibber's ‘Double Gallant.’ With the reunited companies he reappeared at Drury Lane, 15 Jan. 1708, playing Polonius. Foresight in Congreve's ‘Love for Love,’ Caliban, Gomez in the ‘Spanish Fryer,’ Bluff in the ‘Old Bachelor,’ and Ananias in the ‘Old Bachelor’ are a few only of the parts in which he was seen in 1708 and 1709. Once more at the Haymarket he was, 12 Nov. 1709, the original Sir David Watchum in Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Man's Bewitched;’ then, in 1710, returned to Drury Lane, where, with only one further break in 1733–4, in which season he played Shallow and some other parts at the Haymarket, he remained for the rest of his career. At Drury Lane he was the original Dypthong in Charles Johnson's ‘Generous Husband,’ on 20 Jan. 1711; Common Council-man in Settle's ‘City Ramble;’ Squire Thomas in Gay's ‘What d'ye call it?’ 23 Feb. 1715; Vellum in Addison's ‘Drummer,’ 10 March 1716; Dr. Fossile in ‘Three Hours after Marriage,’ assigned to Gay, Pope, and Arbuthnot, 16 Jan. 1717. In his later years few new parts were assigned him. He acted, however, Old Gobbo in Macklin's famous revival of the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ 14 Feb. 1741. About 1700 Johnson had visited Dublin, and towards the close of his life he resented the fact that he was not again engaged to accompany Garrick to that city. He played Foresight in ‘Love for Love,’ 25 May 1742, and took part in the performance of ‘The Rehearsal’ the following evening. This is supposed by Genest to have been his last appearance. He died in the following August.

Johnson was a sound, judicious, and competent actor, who remained on the stage until his seventy-seventh year, and never lost his hold on the public. Downes praises his Morose, Corbaccio, and Hothead in ‘Sir Courtly Nice,’ which parts gained ‘applause from court and city,’ and adds: ‘He is skillful in the art of painting, which is a great adjument, very promovent to the art of true elocution’ (Roscius Anglicanus, p. 52, ed. 1708). Downes also speaks of him as a true copy of Underhill, whom Sir William D'Avenant judged ‘the truest comedian in his company.’ After the retirement of Thomas Doggett [q. v.] he was entrusted by Cibber, Booth, and Wilks with the principal parts of that actor. Davies says that ‘he was, of all comedians, the chastest and the closest observer of nature,’ and ‘never seemed to know that he was before an audience’ (Life of Garrick, i. 33–34). Elsewhere Davies calls him ‘the Hemskirk or D. Teniers of the theatre,’ and says: ‘His large speaking blue eyes he fixed steadily on the person to whom he spoke, and was never known to have wandered [allowed his eyes to wander] from the stage to any part of the theatre’ (Dram. Misc. iii. 135). Besides parts in Ben Jonson's plays, his Gravedigger, ‘a true picture of an arch-clown,’ and his Gardiner in ‘Henry VIII’ are the subject of special eulogy. Davies pronounced his Captain Bluff as complete a piece of acting as he ever saw, and his Justice Shallow was said to all but hold its own against that of Cibber. Morose appears to have been his greatest part. He was tall and thin. Lloyd, in his poem ‘The Actor,’ embodies the praise of Davies. In his very rare ‘Comparison between the Two Stages,’ 1702, Lloyd writes: ‘Then there's the Noble Ben's Namesake is or might be a good Comedian, but he has the Vice of all Actors, he's too fond of his own Merit’ (p. 199). He also says that Johnson was tried with Betterton and Mrs. Bracegirdle for using lewd and profane language on the stage and was acquitted, while his companions were found guilty.

[Books cited; Genest's Account of the English Stage; Chetwood's General History of the Stage, pp. 174–6; Cibber's Apology, ed. Lowe.]

J. K.