Cooke, Thomas Potter

Cooke, Thomas Potter (1786–1864)

(pop culture)

Thomas Potter Cooke was perhaps the most prominent British stage actor in melodrama in the early nineteenth century and the first to play a vampire, Lord Ruthven. Orphaned at an early age, he was only ten years old when he joined the Royal Navy. During the next eight years he served aboard the H.M.S. Raven and H.M.S. Prince of Wales, participated in several battles, was commended for his gallantry, and on one occasion survived a shipwreck. Soon after leaving the navy he joined the London stage. He was quickly recognized as a talented performer. Critics noted that he was handsome and skillful and possessed of a noble bearing.

Cooke was already a veteran of the stage by the time he was selected to take the lead in James R. Planché’s The Vampire or the Bride of the Isles that opened at the English Opera House (a temporary name assumed by the Lyceum in 1817) on August 9, 1820, only two months after Charles Nodier‘s original adaptation of John Polidori‘s, The Vampyre opened in Paris. Plaché had done a hasty translation and adaptation of the French production whose setting in Scotland was retained because of the colorful Scottish dress, the ready availability in the opera house’s costume room, and Planché’s assessment that the audience would not care. They had developed a taste for regular doses of gothic melodrama over the preceding generation.

Cooke’s performance was outstanding and audiences offered several minutes of applause at the end of his performances. Although there were ten songs included in the script, he did not participate in the musical aspect of the play. Highlighting his movements on stage was a soliloquy detailing Lord Ruthven’s lack of self-esteem. During the soliloquy, he noted that he was a demon, walking the earth only to kill and feed, and said, “The little human that remains of heart within this wizard frame, sustained alone by human blood, shrinks from the appalling act of planting misery in the bosom of this veteran chieftain (by killing his daughter).” Cooke thus had the opportunity to portray a vampire with a range of emotions that could exercise his abilities. He capped his performance by his sudden disappearance through Planché’s vampire trap amidst flames of red fire, an effect that stunned the audiences of the period.

Cooke went on to become one of the first English actors to appear in Paris. He traveled to France in 1826 to star in another nonvampire melodrama. However, it appeared that in the wake of Monsieur Philippe‘s (the star in Nordier’s vampire play) sudden death in 1824, Cooke briefly assumed his role for a special performance in the summer of 1826.

Cooke’s early work in melodrama made him a celebrity in London, and he would go on to a long career that lasted into his seventies. He had a particular love for playing sailors, most notably Sweet William in Black Eyed Susan a role he assumed no less than 765 times. He last played the role at the age of 74. He died in 1846.

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