The first two week’s performances of the Cincinnati season were but indifferently attended, and it was not until Master Joseph Burke, the young Irish Roscius, presented himself to the Cincinnatians, that the receipts of the theatre equalled the expenses. But Master Burke drew effectually ; to use a common expression, he “drew like a fly-blister.” He was the greatest dramatic and musical phenomenon that I ever beheld (393) being at that age only twelve years of age. His first appearance on the stage at Cincinnati was in the farce of the “Irish Tutor,” in the character of Terry O’Rourke, which piece was performed on that night. Between the first and second pieces he appeared and played a “concerto” for the violin by De Beviot, after which he played a “grand overture,” violin obligato, with the full orchestra accompaniments. During his engagement he played the characters of Sir Abel Handy, in “Speed the Plough;” Dennis Brulgruddery, in “John Bull;” Doctor Plangloss, in the “Heir at Law;” Shylock, in the “Merchant of Venice;” Richard III.; Looney McTwalter, in the “Review;” Tristram Fickle, in the “Weathercock;” and other characters, in all of which he was astonishingly clever.
I cannot give estimate of Joseph Burke’s juvenile efforts better than to use the language of Mr. Ireland, author of the “Records of the New York Stage,” who speaks thus of him : “His [Master Joseph Burke’s] performance of Richard, Shylock, and Sir Giles was so good that none sneered at the absurdity of a child’s assuming such parts ; while his comedy, especially in Irish parts, was so full of native, genuine humor that he never failed to convulse his audience with laughter.”
Master Burke travelled with his musical teacher, Mr. Ambroise, and with his father, Dr. Burke, an eminent physician of Dublin. His father, the doctor, was very proud of his son’s talents, and well he might be ; and nothing would offend him sooner than for any one to attempt to decry his son Joseph’s abilities. An instance of this kind occurred in Cincinnati. We had in the band of the theatre an Englishman of the name of Me—, who was considered a very competent musician, particularly as a performer of the violoncello. After Master Burke’s first night of performance, there was a discussion among the musicians, in the “music-room,” relative to the merits of young Burke as a musician, and Mr. M. was heard to say that he did not consider the body a musician : that he had probably, with much care and labor, been taught to play a few pieces tolerably well, but put strange music before him, and it would be seen he was no musician. These remarks, by some means, reached the ears of Dr. Burke, and about the third morning after the opening performance of Master Burke, as soon as the rehearsal was over, and before the musicians rose to leave the orchestra, Dr. Burke stepped forward and addressed himself to Mr. M., saying, “I understand, sir, that you have said my son is no musician. Did you say so?” Mr. M. admitted that he had expressed himself to that effect. “Then,” (394) said Dr. Burke, “I will convince these gentlemen of the orchestra that you are mistaken. You call the violoncello your best instrument, do you not?” “Yes, sir,” said Mr. M. “Well, sir, I would like you to hear my son play on your instrument ; will you oblige me so much?” “Yes, sir.” The doctor, then addressing himself to the leader, “Will you, Mr. Jonas, have the goodness to select from among your orchestra music, none of which, probably, my son is familiar with, some piece wherein the violoncello is an important instrument, distribute the parts, and give the violoncello part to my son, and let this gentlemen see whether Joseph can play the part correctly?” This was done, and when they were through he requested they would oblige him so much as to play it over again, as he wished Mr. M. to take his instrument and play the part, that Joseph might hear him play it, and if possible profit by it.” This Mr. M. very sullenly consented to do. As soon as he took up the instrument to begin, Mr. Ambroise took a station behind him, but so he could look over the music-book. When about half through, Mr. Ambroise called out “Stop,” and addressing Mr. M., said, “You played two bars there wrong ;” and asked the leader to go back to a certain passage, and to play again from that point, with a request that he would pay particular attention to the playing of the violoncello. This was done, and when they had reached the bars where Ambroise had stopped them, the leader rapped, sopped the orchestra, and pointed out to Mr. M. the error he had committed. They then went on to the end. When they were through, Dr. Burke addressed the leader, and requested to know whether Master Burke had played the piece correctly, and receiving an affirmative answer, he then turned to Mr. M. and said, “You have asserted that Master Burke is no musician. Now, sir, we have proved that he is a better musician than you are ; and if I ever hear of your repeating this insult, by Ja—s, I’ll cut off both your ears.”
Master Burke’s engagement was a very successful one, and after two weeks’ performance he left us, with the warmest esteem of all those who knew him, and the highest admiration of all who had witnessed his professional accomplishments.
The next “star” that beamed upon the Cincinnatians was a dog-star, my own dog Nero, who had established himself as a favorite in that city three years before. His appearance in Carlo, the “Dog of Montargis,” drew a full house, notwithstanding the great draught that had been made upon the public purse by Master Burke (395).
Dramatic Life as I Found It (N.M. Ludlow — G. I. Jones and Company) 1880: 393-395. Print.