Portrait of Thomas Betterton

Portrait of Thomas Betterton

Thomas Betterton was the son of one of Charles I's cooks. He was on the stage for 50 years, yet just before he died he claimed modestly that he was 'still learning to be an actor'. Both Samuel Pepys and Alexander Pope hailed him as the best they had ever seen, and Pepys praised the restraint of his performances. Betterton's range of characters was extremely wide. He created about 130 new roles, aside from playing such leading parts in the older dramas as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello. Colleague and rival Antony Aston admitted, 'His voice was low and grumbling, yet he could tune it by an artful climax, which enforced universal attention, even from the fops and orange-girls'.

Betterton was always heavily involved in the politics of theatre management, as well as being a highly regarded actor. He made his debut in 1660, the year the theatres reopened, and in 1661 was hired by Sir William Davenant for the Duke's Company. When the King's Men collapsed, the two companies merged in 1682. The joint result, with Betterton as the artistic leader, played at Drury Lane until 1695, when the older actors, led by Betterton, left to set up their own company at Lincoln's Inn Fields.