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Gustavus Vaughan Brooke: a 'Tragedian' whose life ended in tragedy.

Norma Hampson is a long-standing volunteer at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive and has written this blog to share details from her current project: listing visitors from the early Birthplace visitor books. Meet G. V. Brooke, the Tragedian.

Norma Hampson

It is only natural that members of the acting profession would, if in the vicinity of Stratford-upon-Avon, wish to pay a visit to the birthplace of the Bard: particularly if, like Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, they had performed many of his characters. He, in fact, made two visits: the 19th of June, 1851, with his address as London, and the 30th of July, 1853, with his address as New York. In each instance, he penned his signature followed by the word ‘tragedian’, an occupation he named on both the 1851 census and on the New York passenger list aboard the America in December 1851.

Gustavus signature

Gustavus Vaughan Brooke was born on 25 April 1818 in Dublin where he received his education. A lucky break led to his first stage appearance at the early age of fifteen years at the Theatre Royal, Dublin. He continued to play various roles, with some success touring provincial theatres in England, but his first appearance in London at the Victoria as Virginius attracted little attention. However, the next decade brought stronger roles and eminence. Considered to be the greatest actor of his time, he played many of the Bard’s major roles, including Hamlet, Shylock, Iago, Othello, and even Romeo with Helen Faucit as Juliet.

G. V. Brooke as Hamlet

He sailed to New York in December 1851 and played Othello at the Broadway Theatre with great success, but a tour of that country (followed by a tour of Australia) was a disaster, and he returned to London penniless.

On the 23rd of February, 1863 in Liverpool, he married Avonia Jones, daughter of George Jones, an 'American Tragedian'. On the marriage certificate, Gustavus gave his occupation as 'Tragedian' and that of his own father as 'Gentleman'.

Little success in London, due to his old-fashioned style of acting, prompted him to set sail again for Australia with his sister. The vessel foundered on the 10th of January, 1866, and Brooke, described by the few survivors as manly and heroic, perished in the shipwreck.

His wife, meanwhile, had been touring in England and was performing in Dublin in 1866. She died in New York on 6 October 1867, and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston. She was described as a moderate and rather statuesque actress, with a musical voice and some tragic capacity marred by a tendency to declamation.

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