Henry Compton (actor)

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Henry Compton

Henry Compton (real name Charles Mackenzie) (22 March 1805 – 15 September 1877) was an English actor best known for his Shakespearean comic roles.


Compton was born in Huntingdon. His parents were John Mackenzie and his wife, formerly Mrs Elizabeth Symonds, and he was the sixth of eleven children. Through both parents, Compton was related to members of the medical profession.[1] After being educated at Huntingdon and at a boarding school at Little Baddow in Essex, Compton was apprenticed to his mother's brother, who was a cloth merchant in Aldermanbury, near London. Compton was unhappy with a life in trade and, desiring instead a life on the stage, ran away twice but was returned to his family each time. However, after running away for a third time in 1826, his family finally accepted his wish to become an actor.[2] He took his grandmother's maiden name, Compton, as his stage name.

Early career[edit]

Compton's first professional appearances were in Shakespeare plays in the provinces. He then began to specialize in low comedy roles in touring companies, where he played for over a decade. He first appeared in London at the Theatre Royal Lyceum and English Opera House in 1837, as Robin in the musical farce The Waterman.[3] After several further roles there, he joined the company at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1838, again playing in Shakespeare. Roles that followed included Tony Lumpkin, Gnatbrain in Douglas William Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan, Silky in Thomas Holcroft's The Road to Ruin, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, Mawworm in Isaac Bickerstaff's The Hypocrite, Marrall in Philip Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts, and Dr Ollapod in George Colman's The Poor Gentleman.[4]

By the early 1840s, Compton had earned the reputation of being the best Shakespearian clown of his age. He continued in seasons at Dublin, Ireland, at Drury Lane (playing Polonius, Sir Peter Teazle in The School for Scandal, Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, and Foresight in William Congreve's Love for Love), at Manchester and elsewhere. At the Princess's Theatre, London, where he performed for three years, he famously played Touchstone in Shakespeare's As You Like It in 1844. He was then at the Olympic Theatre, where he also remained three years. After the Olympic burned down, he moved to the Royal Strand Theatre. In 1853 he joined the company of John Baldwin Buckstone at the Haymarket Theatre, where he originated the role of Blenkinsop in An Unequal Match by Tom Taylor, Sir Solomon Frazer in Taylor's The Overland Route, De Vaudray in A Hero of Romance by Westland Marston, and Captain Mountraffe in Home by T. W. Robertson. He also played Mr. Cox in revivals of Box and Cox by John Maddison Morton with such success that W. S. Gilbert later wrote, "Mr. Morton's dialogue can only be properly given by Messrs. Buckstone and Compton, and in the mouths of any other actors it is, to those who have seen Messrs. Buckstone and Compton in the parts (and who has not?) a bore."[5]

In 1848, Compton married actress Emmeline Catherine Montague (d. 1911).[4] She had been a model for Daniel Maclise's paintings of Shakespearian scenes.

Compton in later years

Later years[edit]

In 1870, he was back at the Olympic in Taylor's Handsome is that Handsome Does, and in 1871 was in Partners for Life by H. J. Byron at the old Globe Theatre, where he performed in many plays thereafter. Compton's last role was in 1877 at the Prince of Wales's Theatre in Liverpool as Mawworm in The Hypocrite and Pangloss in George Colman's The Heir-at-Law.[4] One of his most famous roles was as the Gravedigger in Hamlet, which he played often in his career, including at the Lyceum Theatre with Henry Irving in 1875, his last London appearance. Compton was described as "an actor perfectly original in his style, and possessing a fund of dry, quiet humour that never failed to minister to the amusement of the playing public."[3]

When Compton became ill with cancer and was unable to work to support his family, his friends organised two benefit performances for him. The first was held at Drury Lane on 1 March 1877. This performance included scenes from Othello; Bulwer Lytton's comedy Money, featuring Compton's son, Edward Compton; Sheridan's The Critic with Charles Mathews as Mr. Puff; Morton's Lend me Five Shillings; Macklin's Man of World; and Trial by Jury.[6] Henry Irving, Joseph Jefferson, Squire Bancroft, Ellen Terry, J. L. Toole, Nellie Farren and many other leading stars took part. In Trial by Jury, conducted by Arthur Sullivan, W. S. Gilbert appeared as the Associate, Pauline Rita was the Plaintiff, W. H. Cummings was the Defendant and Arthur Cecil was the Usher. The chorus comprised leading stars such as W. S. Penley, George Grossmith, Kate Bishop and Marion Terry.[7] The benefit realised over £3250, a large sum by the standards of the day.[8] The second benefit, which was held at Manchester on 27 March 1877, was nearly as successful.[7]

Compton was the father of the actors Charles[9] and Edward Compton,[10] and the grandfather of actress Fay Compton.[11] and the novelist Compton Mackenzie.

Compton died in 1877 after a long struggle with cancer at the age of 72 in Kensington, London.


  1. ^  Knight, John Joseph (1887). "Compton, Henry (1805-1877)". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography 11. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 447–448. 
  2. ^ Mackenzie, Charles. My life and times, 10 vols. (1963–71), vol. 1
  3. ^ a b "Death of Mr. Henry Compton", The Musical World, p. 632, J. Alfredo Novello, 1877
  4. ^ a b c Knight, Joseph; rev. Gayle T. Harris. "Compton, Henry (1805–1877)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008, accessed 11 Oct 2008
  5. ^ Gilbert, W. S. Fun magazine, issue for 1 June 1867, pp. 128–29
  6. ^ Contemporary biography of Compton, 1877
  7. ^ a b The Era, 4 March 1877, p. 6
  8. ^ At least £250,000 in current values: see http://www.measuringworth.com/ukcompare/
  9. ^ "Actor Charles Compton Dead", The New York Times, 17 August 1897
  10. ^ "Edward Compton", Encyclopaedia Britannia (1911)
  11. ^ Curtis, Anthony and John Whitehead. W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, p. 221, Routledge, 1987 ISBN 0-7100-9640-2


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