The actor Barton Booth was born about 1679 in Lancashire, the third son of John Booth. The family estate may have been impaired, and they moved to London, where Barton was placed with Dr Busby at Westminster School about 1688 and received a classical education that marked his acting style in later years. Young Booth’s first professional acting seems to have been the title role in “Oroonoko” at the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, in the summer of 1698. He began performing in Thomas Betterton’s troupe at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in London about the autumn of 1700, playing mostly secondary roles but making useful theatrical and social contacts and drawing notice as a hard-drinking but hard-working actor. By 1707 he was making his mark in such volatile parts as Shakespeare’s Hotspur and Laertes but also in roles requiring the majesty of the Ghost in “Hamlet”. The prompter John Downes in 1708 wrote that Booth was ‘A Gentleman of liberal Education, of form Venust; of Mellifluent Pronuntiation, having proper Gesticulations, which are Graceful Attendants of true Elocution; of his time a most Compleat Tragedian.’
That description is rather typical of the many comments on Barton Booth’s acting throughout his career at Drury Lane, where he became from 1708 a solid, stolid fixture for twenty years. By 1710 he was established in such important roles as Othello, Castalio in “The Orphan”, Valentine in “Love for Love”, Brutus in “Julius Caesar” and Horatio in “Hamlet”, and by the time he became a sharer in the Drury Lane management in 1713-14 he had added King Lear, Jaffeir in “Venice Preserv’d”, Pinchwife in “The Country Wife”, and, most importantly, the title role in Addison’s immensely popular “Cato”. His ‘line’ was firmly established, and he did little to expand his talent during the rest of his career. But he was evidently very good at what he did. His fellow actor and manager, Colley Cibber, claimed that ‘The tones of his voice were all musical, and he had so excellent an ear, no one ever heard a dissonant note come from him … And his articulation was so excellent, he was heard to the farthest part of the theatre when he almost whispered.’ Aaron Hill admired Booth’s control over his voice and body: ‘one would almost be tempted to borrow the aid of a very bold figure, and to express this excellence the more significantly … that the blind might have seen him, in his voice, and the deaf have heard him, in his visage.’ Booth was a very good actor who lacked that extra quality – charisma, we would probably call it – that we look for in the very best players.
Rough-hewn and wild in his early years, Booth settled down and sobered up about 1701, when his father died. Details are missing, but within a few years he was married, to the daughter of Sir William Barkham, and he took on the responsibility of helping to support his brother and sister. His wife died in 1710, and Booth, having established some useful social connections, began to manoeuvre for a portion of the Drury Lane patent.
The trio of actors who managed Drury Lane so successfully from 1713 to the early 1730s, Booth, Cibber, and Robert Wilks, made it the premier playhouse in England, partly because they were all hard-working and talented performers who complimented one another in their acting lines and won the admiration of their fellow players as well as their audiences. They also succeeded because they had the necessary business acumen to keep their theatre operating smoothly and profitably. Before and after them were periods of great difficulty, and not until David Garrick bought into the Drury Lane patent in 1747 did the company regain the dominance the triumvirate gave it. Exactly what part of the management Barton Booth took care of is not always apparent, for he was not the company’s leading man, like Wilks, nor one of the favourite playwrights, like Cibber. But Aaron Hill praised Booth for his learning and judgment, qualities that informed his acting and must have b