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Gustavus Vaughan Brooke (1818–1866)

by H. L. Oppenheim

This article was published:

Gustavus Vaughan Brooke (1818-1866), by Jeffery Hawkins, 1861-66

Gustavus Vaughan Brooke (1818-1866), by Jeffery Hawkins, 1861-66

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H4307

Gustavus Vaughan Brooke (1818-1866), actor, was born on 25 April 1818 in Dublin. His father, a freeman of the city, died in 1827, leaving a widow Frances, née Bathurst, and four children; Gustavus was the eldest. As not unusual at that time, Brooke had played his first major stage parts before he was 14 appearing at the Dublin Theatre in the title roles of J. S. Knowles's William Tell and Virginius; in September 1832 he played Richard III. During the next years he toured the provincial theatres of England, Scotland and Ireland, playing the great tragic parts of Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and the nineteenth century melodramatic heroes. He appeared in London mainly in the minor houses, especially successful as Othello; in 1853 when he played Shakespeare for one week at Drury Lane, then at its lowest standard, critical opinion considered him a good but not first-class actor. Some critics had always denounced him as violent and mannered; his technique of painting character in large masses of light and shade was lacking in 'the more delicate expressions … and those nice phases of emotion which indicate the highest intellectual art'. His Richard III was judged to be too violent but in his Virginius and Othello the violence was balanced 'by passages of great pathos and poetical bits musically delivered'. Brooke was praised for his tall, commanding figure and the quality of his deep and sonorous voice, but even at that time irreparable damage to his voice, 'once magnificent, now broken and husky', occasionally became noticeable; it was blamed on his excessive drinking but may have been partly attributable to overstrain in his youth.

Late in 1851 Brooke sailed for the United States, making his début at New York's Broadway Theatre in his best part, Othello. In the following year his brief lesseeship of the Astor Place Opera House, New York, proved financially disastrous but it was followed by a successful and profitable tour of other major cities. When Brooke returned to England in June 1853 he was engaged by George Coppin to give two hundred performances in the principal towns of Australia and New Zealand. The company, consisting of Brooke and his wife Marianne Elizabeth Woolcott Bray, whom he had married in Birmingham on 17 October 1851, the leading lady Fanny Cathcart and Richard Younge, stage manager, sailed in the Pacific on 25 November 1854 and, after playing for one week at the Cape Town Garrison Theatre, arrived in Melbourne on 23 February 1855. The tour opened on the 26th at Melbourne's only theatre, the ten-year-old Queen's. Brooke played Othello with Younge as Iago, Fanny Cathcart as Desdemona and Mrs Charles Young, a member of the Queen's company, as Emilia. Critics and audience acclaimed him although in an otherwise enthusiastic review the Melbourne Argus, 28 February, noted that 'the sacrifice of Desdemona … was almost too painfully portrayed, and we suggest … that its fearful consummation should take place … out of sight'.

The successes of Brooke's Othello and Hamlet were followed by the title parts in The Stranger, Virginius, Macbeth, Rob Roy and Richard III; he also played Shylock, Iago and Romeo, although considered too old for the latter, and occasionally appeared in Irish comedy characters. After a brief season in Geelong, Brooke returned to Melbourne where the company was joined by the juvenile lead, Robert James Heir. They moved to Sydney where Brooke's over-publicized season at the Victoria Theatre opened on 10 May with Othello; Henry IV and King Lear were added to the Melbourne repertoire. On their return to Melbourne, Brooke appeared at Coppin's new prefabricated Olympic Theatre, opening on 30 July with The Lady of Lyons; there was serious competition from another new house, the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street. After Heir had married Fanny Cathcart, the couple left Brooke's company for an engagement at the Theatre Royal but he brought them back by a court injunction.

After the Olympic season ended in April 1856, Brooke extensively toured the goldfields, Hobart, Adelaide and Sydney, gaining great personal and financial success. In spite of his managerial failure in America, Brooke went into partnership with Coppin who had married Mrs Brooke's sister. Together they leased Melbourne's Theatre Royal and bought Astley's Amphitheatre and Cremorne Gardens. Brooke continued touring and his repertoire was widened by Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, etc. His next season in Sydney opened at the Lyceum on 1 January 1857 and continued at the smaller Victoria to April. There was now open criticism of Brooke's 'nauseous iteration of leave-takings' which began to deprive him of much of his hard-earned popularity. In 1858 six farewell performances in Melbourne were followed by a Sydney season at the Prince of Wales Theatre from July to October. In 1859 he lost most of his investments, and in 1860 was warned that 'neither the public nor managers will much longer tolerate his eccentricities'; too many performances were advertised as 'positively Mr. Brooke's last appearances' and he often was too drunk to play. His last Melbourne appearance came on 28 May 1861.

When Brooke returned from his long Australian tour, his acting style seemed to the English critics to have grown coarser. His manner had become stereotyped and reduced to a mere mechanical reproduction of the earlier expression of genuine feeling. While he had been away, the style of production had changed significantly and star acting no longer was sufficient without the novelty of staging and décor. Yet his worst failing was his 'conventional style of acting', which was found altogether out of date. He was advised not to try for success in the leading London theatres with his 'worn-out resources and exploded histrionic style'.

When Brooke last appeared at Drury Lane in 1861 he was going down rapidly; he often was drunk on stage, although Othello was the exception: 'in the wings he would be sometimes in an absolutely somnolent condition, but at his cue he would rouse himself by an effort of will most painful to witness'. In 1863 he married the American actress Avonia Jones, whom he had met while both toured Australia; the demands of her acting career did not allow her to exert much influence on Brooke. He always planned to return to Australia and his frequent leave-takings 'prior to departure for Australia' were becoming farcical. At this point of steady decline when he played at the smallest provincial theatres, Coppin engaged him for a two-year Australian tour. At his Dublin farewell Brooke even failed in Othello; his last appearance was in Belfast as Richard III on 23 December 1865. On 5 January 1866 he sailed from Plymouth in the London which sank on the 11th. Brooke helped in rescue operations and stayed behind when the over-crowded boats left. His death caused genuine grief in Australia where the actor and his public had been saved unavoidable disappointment by his premature death.

Select Bibliography

  • W. J. Lawrence, The Life of Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, Tragedian (Belfast, 1892)
  • newspaper indexes, manuscript catalogue and photographs under Gustavus Vaughan Brooke (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. L. Oppenheim, 'Brooke, Gustavus Vaughan (1818–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Gustavus Vaughan Brooke (1818-1866), by Jeffery Hawkins, 1861-66

Gustavus Vaughan Brooke (1818-1866), by Jeffery Hawkins, 1861-66

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H4307

Life Summary [details]


25 April, 1818
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


11 January, 1866 (aged 47)
at sea

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