Item of the Day: Dunlap’s Memoirs of the life of George Frederick Cooke (1813)
Full Title: Memoirs of George Fred. Cooke, Esq. late of The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. By William Dunlap, Esq. Composed principally from the personal knowledge of the author, and from the manuscript journals left by Mr. Cooke. Comprising original anecdotes of his theatrical contemporaries, his opinions on various dramatic writings, &c. Vol. I. London: Printed for Henry Colburn, British and Foreign Public Library, Conduit-Street, Hanover-Square; and sold by George Goldie, Edinburgh; and John Cumming, Dublin, 1813.
In the month of May, 1811, Mr. Cooke asked me, rather sportively, to be his Biographer, and I, in the same spirit, promised. Hen then said, that he had several manuscript journals, which he would put into my hands; but as nothing further passed, and the subject was not recurred to, I thought no more of it.
After his death, which happened during a visit I was making to New Jersey, the business was pressed upon me, and three manuscripts put into my hands. His “Chronicle,” or a retrospect of his theatrical life, including the first dramatic impressions made upon his mind, with their growth and consequences, was the most important of the three. This work is brought up to 1807. Accompanying it, were two books of diary, kept at different periods, after his coming to London; without connexion, and at first view, not very intelligible, or interesting. These were the materials upon which I was to build. I knew, however, that I could obtain every information, relative to his American engagement, and the subsequent events of his life; and that I possessed a fund of knowledge, derived from my connexion with the New York theatre, and my intercourse for many months with the subject of the work.
Under these circumstances, I undertook my labour, with the determination to exhibit a faithful picture of this extraordinary man, the events of whose varied life cannot but prove an impressive lesson to every reader. The man of genius will see that he must not rely upon genius along; and the man who is conscious of mediocrity, will be taught that he must keep a strict watch over his conduct, when he sees, that even the most brilliant talent, cannot avail to produce usefulness or happiness, without virtue and prudence.
If I have succeeded in portraying the image formed in my mind, by the knowledge I possess of Mr. Cooke, I have rendered service to the cause of morality, and consequently promoted human happiness.
Actors, and drastic writers, as connected with the subject of my book, necessarily form a part of it. I have given Mr. Cooke’s opinions upon them, as I found those opinions: my own, according to the extent and accuracy of my critical judgment.
An actor, as a subject of biography, is not important because he is an actor, but because he is a man who has been placed in situations interesting to his fellow men; and because his conduct, through an eventful life, if faithfully related, excites attention, interests the feelings, and strikingly indicates to others, the path they should pursue for the attainment of the world’s, and their own approbation. Much dramatic biography is censurable, as frivolous, or worthless, or hurtful to the reader; but there are respectable and valuable works of the kind, which though not perfect, add to the mass of innocent amusement, and useful information. In this last class, I would place Davis’s and Murphy’s Lives of Garrick, and Kirkman’s Life of Macklin. I hope the life of Cooke will at least rank as high, in a moral point of view, it must be my fault, if, from the character of the subject, it does not rank higher, as a work of entertainment.
After commencing my work, I found several other manuscripts of Mr. Cooke’s writing, of an earlier date than those I possessed, and of a more energetic and interesting character. These, with his books, and the parts from which he studied, marked by him in the hour of application, formed a rich mass, not only for the ornament, but for the more essential purpose of strengthening my fabric, and rendering it permanently useful.
By publishing my work both in England and America, I present to the many thousands, who have received delight from witnessing Mr. Cooke’s unrivalled talents, a mass of facts, which could not be given to them by any other person; and I have presumed that there is, throughout Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States, much curiosity respecting a man so eccentric in his conduct, and so eminent in his profession. The closing scenes of such a man’s life, are more interesting and impressive than the preceding acts. These scenes have come immediately under my observation, and the description of them is more peculiarly the gift which I could, alone, make to the public.
What value will be set upon it, is yet to be determined; I doubt not that it will be a fair one. When the public forms an unbiased decision on the merits of a literary work, it is seldom, if ever, erroneous.
August 1st, 1813.