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Thomas Barry Sullivan (1821–1891)

by Jean Gittins

This article was published:

Thomas Barry Sullivan (1821-1891), by Bradley & Rulofson

Thomas Barry Sullivan (1821-1891), by Bradley & Rulofson

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H12710

Thomas Barry Sullivan (1821-1891), actor, was born on 5 July 1821 at Birmingham, Warwickshire, England, son of Peter Sullivan and his wife Mary, née Barry. His parents, natives of Cork, Ireland, both died when he was 8, and he was brought up by his grandfather in Bristol. Educated at a Catholic school, at 14 he entered an attorney's office but after seeing W. C. Macready's Hamlet became obsessed with the idea of becoming a great actor. Known as Barry Sullivan, he joined a strolling company and made his way to Cork in 1837 where he played minor Shakespearian parts to Charles Kean's lead, supported the 'divine' Ellen Tree (who later married Kean) and, having a good light tenor voice, sang occasionally in opera. In November 1840 he left Cork for Scotland and by 1844 was playing leading roles; in the next seven years he made successful tours of Scotland and England. On 7 February 1852 he was well received as Hamlet at the Haymarket Theatre in London. In 1858 he went to America for eighteen months.

On 25 July 1862 Sullivan arrived in Victoria in the City of Melbourne making his début as Hamlet at Melbourne's Theatre Royal on 9 August. Local audiences, particularly the 'Irish party' gave him an enthusiastic reception but the critics were less responsive. The Argus described his performance as 'thoughtful, earnest, easy, artistic, and elaborate, but not great', but agreed that he appeared under adverse conditions: he had followed the favourite, G. V. Brooke, his voice had suffered from the sea voyage, and his supporting cast was very poor. Sullivan appeared as Richelieu, Richard III, Macbeth, and in alternate performances Othello and Iago, before going to Sydney where he opened at the Victoria Theatre on 29 September. Claiming later that his poor reception in Melbourne had 'induced him to stay and fight the battle out', he returned there to manage the Theatre Royal at the close of W. S. Lyster's open season. He opened on 7 March 1863 with The School for Scandal, produced 'in a style that would do credit to any theatre in the world', and continued with a range of Shakespearian drama as well as other British masterpieces. He later asserted he had played 1200 nights in Melbourne. Cheap prices (he instituted a 'shilling pit'), an excellent company and efficient presentation contributed to his success; even bitter rivalry from the Keans who opened at the Haymarket in October under contract to George Coppin, did not affect his popularity.

On 16 February 1866 Sullivan played his final night at the Theatre Royal. He was banquetted by leading Melbourne citizens and soon after left for London where for two years he managed the Holborn Theatre until stopped by financial losses. He played in London and toured North America several times but was most popular in Dublin, Cork, Liverpool and Manchester. He lived frugally, and his slight, wiry, flexible figure allowed him to play relatively young parts well into late middle age. His deeply pock-marked face did not lend itself to make-up but he had very fine, expressive eyes. In failing health after 1886, he was last seen on stage as Richard III in Liverpool on 4 June 1887. He suffered a stroke in August 1888 and received last rites, but did not die until 3 May 1891, survived by his wife Mary, née Amory, whom he had married on 4 July 1842, and by his two sons and three daughters. In Melbourne his death occasioned lengthy obituaries; he was remembered as an actor and manager of 'more than ordinary talent, combined with considerable force of character, great tenacity of purpose, untiring industry, and a dogged application to the business of his profession'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. J. Lawrence, Barry Sullivan: A Biographical Sketch (Lond, 1893)
  • C. J. Kean, Emigrant in Motley, J. M. D. Hardwick ed (Lond, 1954)
  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 Aug 1862, 17, 19 Feb 1866, 5 May 1891
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 14 Mar 1863.

Citation details

Jean Gittins, 'Sullivan, Thomas Barry (1821–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thomas Barry Sullivan (1821-1891), by Bradley & Rulofson

Thomas Barry Sullivan (1821-1891), by Bradley & Rulofson

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H12710

Life Summary [details]


5 July, 1821
Birmingham, Warwickshire, England


3 May, 1891 (aged 69)

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