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Betty, William Henry West

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Called ‘The Young Roscius,’ or Master Betty, William Henry West Betty was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, in 1791, and before the age of 12, on 16 August 1803, he appeared on the stage in Belfast as Osman in “Zara”. His success as a child performer in Dublin, Glasgow and Edinburgh brought the prodigal to London in 1804, when he appeared on 1 December at Covent Garden, at the age of 14, as Achmet in “Barbarossa” (G0066). Thus began the Master Betty craze, and it is said that his salary was immediately raised to £100. He played alternately at Covent Garden and Drury Lane that season as Norval in “Douglas” (G0067), Hamlet, Romeo, Rolla, Tancred and Richard III and other roles. He was so much the rage that William Pitt once adjourned the Commons so that members could see Betty play Hamlet, a role he supposedly mastered in four days. But he was a short-lived phenomenon and was gone from the London stage by 1808 and forgotten. He then attended Christ’s College, Cambridge. After a failed attempt to return to the stage Betty lived in obscurity off what was left of his squandered fortune until he died in London in 1874, at the age of 83. In his “Life of Mrs Siddons”, Thomas Campbell dismissed Betty as ‘An hallucination in the public mind, and a disgrace to our theatrical history.’ (See B0002 and B0157.)
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