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Lewis, William Thomas

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Born in Ormskirk, Lancashire, about 1746, William Thomas Lewis was the son of William Lewis, a linen draper turned actor. After the elder Lewis’s death Mrs Lewis became Mrs William Dawson, and she and her family were strolling players in Ireland. Young William Thomas Lewis played juvenile parts – Peter in “Romeo and Juliet” and Fleance in “Macbeth” to name two – in 1756, and about 1759 he was sent off to Armagh for schooling. He acted in Dublin in the 1760s, and in February 1771 his Belcour in “The West Indian” caught the attention of the play’s author, Richard Cumberland. Cumberland liked Lewis’s comic talent, found him ‘young, handsome, and volatile,’ and recommended him to David Garrick at Drury Lane in London. Garrick was not interested, but Lewis received a contract from Covent Garden and made his first London appearance, as Belcour again, on 15 October 1773. Critics liked his fire and spirit but felt Lewis went too far and needed to reign in his energy. He went on that season to appear as Aimwell in “The Stratagem”, Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet” (G0425), Prince Hal in “Henry IV part 1” and Valentine in “Love for Love”, among other characters. The management found him promising, and Lewis spent the following 35 seasons there, acting at least 194 parts in comedies, tragedies, and farces, among them Claudio in “Much Ado”, Edgar in “King Lear”, Archer in “The Stratagem”, Mirabel in “The Way of the World”, Cassio in “Othello”, Plume in “The Recruiting Officer” and Charles Surface in “The School for Scandal” – an impressive repertoire to which he added, year after year, many characters in new plays. Lewis, like his step-father, was also involved in theatre management – as deputy manager at Covent Garden by 1782, a position he held for 21 years and in which he was greatly admired by his colleagues. He also managed in Liverpool with Knight. For his labours he received good pay: £20 weekly by 1793-94. Some critics found Lewis too much the same in too many parts, but most seem to have agreed with George Frederick Cooke that Lewis was ‘humorous, whimsical, and at the same time elegant’ – a rather neat balancing act for a comedian. Lewis died on 13 January 1811, leaving a wife (Henrietta Amelia, née Leeson, an Irish actress) and at least six children. (BDA) [EAL]
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