"We Commence ... with One of the Oldest and Most Agreeable of Our Remembrances - Mr. T. P. Cooke"
Cronin, Maura L., Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film
As any historian knows, the changes made to history can at times be dramatic. Myth and fiction seep into our understanding and consequently, retelling of historic events. Nationalism is often involved in this process. As a culturally collective ideology, nationalism (re)constructs history through the imagination. (Re)creating events, places and people, it forces transformation according to the needs of the nation. The Battle of Bunker Hill, for example, when (re)constructed through the early colonial American nationalistic imagination, is transformed from a military defeat into a triumphant victory. This (re)construction of history not only affects culturally collective narration, but can similarly impact upon personal recounting of an event as well. The aging mother, for example, can (re)construct her son's death as a meaningful and necessary occurrence when put into traditional nationalistic terms: he died for his country. As a tool that can be used on both an individual and a culturally collective level, nationalism - especially when it employs the use of imagination - is a powerful force.
Thomas Potter (T. P.) Cooke, the famous English actor of the 182Os and 183Os, helped to promote one such known revision of historical fact, and in this case too nationalism was a driving force. Joining the theatrical profession in January 1804, Cooke first worked at the Royalty Theatre, Astley's and the Lyceum under Laurent the clown. He then made an appearance in 1809 at the Surrey and in 1816 he played Diego in The Watchword; or the Quito Gate. Although Cooke gained popularity at the outset of his career for his portrayals of monsters, vampires and other supernatural creatures in gothic melodramas, he soon turned to the role that would make him famous: the sailor. In 1822 Cooke acquired the role of'Long Tom Coffin' in The Pilot- an adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's novel written by Edward Fitzball' - for Covent Garden. He continued playing sailor roles, and in 1828 he gained tremendous success as "William" in Douglas Jerrold's Black Ey'd Susan. Although he continued to play supernatural beings throughout his career, he was so popular in the sailor's part that one gentleman writing in 1899 called him 'the best representative of the British sailor ever seen on the stage.'2
George Rowell asserts that English actors at this time were judged by their performances in Shakespeare, but this is not necessarily true of all actors. Actors like Cooke or the famous O. Smith, who played at theatres such as the Surrey and the Adelphi, were certainly judged by other means. They gained popularity playing in melodrama. What their audience wanted was strong renditions of melodramatic characters - characters which spoke to them and their world, characters that made them laugh and cry, characters related to their hopes or fears - whether it be the villain, the hero or - as in Cooke's case - the Jolly Jack Tar.
As Michael Booth tells us, the tar is:
. . . heroically brave, will gladly die for his country, is contemptuous of the enemy and proud of his captain and his ship . . . which he is glad to leave only to see once again his Sal or Susie of Mary, faithful these many years on shore. The tar of melodrama has no pretence to social refinement and is all homespun honesty and bluffhess. A gay fellow except when concerned for his wife of sweetheart or old mother (and here he will weep or dash away a manly tear), he enjoys merry times with his messmates and in an instant will break into a ballad, a jolly hornpipe, or a tale of battle. He is adept at carrying the Union Jack into the fray, waving it about energetically and planting it on enemy property. He sees everything in terms of the sea, and speaks in a curious sea'' metaphor . . .3
As one might guess from this quote, and as will be discussed later in more depth, the stage tar was very different from any real sailor that ever set foot in England. He was specifically melodramatic. …