Master Joseph Burke

By Anthony Sansonetti

Master Joseph Burke (1818-1902), better known as “the Irish Roscius,” was born in Dublin, Ireland,1 although his obituary in the New-York Daily Tribune tells us otherwise.2 His father, only ever referred to as “Dr. Burke,” was a celebrated physician3 and surgeon, respected for his noteworthy ability to cure the deadly fever of 1818.4 Master Burke was related to one of the most politically respected families in the county of Galway, Ireland,5 and his birth proved joyous and lucrative to his father seeing as, six months after his birth, Master Burke displayed a taste for music, especially the sound of the violin.6 Master Burke learned more about the violin and, with the help of a local violin instructor, made rapid progress with the instrument by the age of two.7 Three years later, Dr. Burke noticed that his son possessed great dramatic talent in the art of comedy, which Master Burke exhibited daily by rehearsing comedic songs before a mirror.8 To Dr. Burke Joseph was not simply a child, a little boy concerning himself with silly musical instruments, but rather an Irish child blessed with musical and other virtuosic talents that reflected his father’s pride of origin.9

Dr. Burke thus suggested that his son study the well-known parts of Tom Thumb and Lingo.10 Encouraged and supported by his eminent father, Master Burke made his debut as Tom Thumb and Lingo at the Theatre Royal in Dublin, Ireland, in his sixth year.11 This inaugural performance as child actor led to Master Burke’s unprecedented achievement in his representations of both Tom Thumb and Lingo as he travelled, from 1824-1829, to “overflowing houses” in Liverpool, Newcastle, Brighton, Margate,12 Sheffield,13 and numerous provincial theatres.14 During this string of performances, Master Burke was the staple infant phenomenon of England’s theatrical arena, performing the roles of popular comedic as well as tragic characters—Dr. O’Toole, Murtoch Delaney,15 Richard III, Shylock,16 Hamlet, and Romeo17 to name a few.

Years earlier, however, Dr. Burke ensured that his son also learned to direct an orchestra, sing, and dance ballet, in order to become a multitalented child performer.18 The fascinating use of Master Burke’s skills is illustrated most clearly by a benefit playbill, published in 1826 by a “Scottish theatre” in London, which states that Master Burke performed the role of Dr. O’Toole in the Heir at Law and the Irish Tutor, played the violin, led the orchestra, sang a duet, danced a French ballet, and sang “Little Burke” (an original song describing his own artistic progress on stage) during the course of a single evening.19 Though he mastered several art forms, the anonymous author of Master Burke’s memoir stresses that his artistic brilliance can only be found in the art of comedy insofar as there was a “vivacity” to Master Burke’s appearance and his performance style was “easy, happy, so utterly void of art;” and in these declarations the writer is quick to associate comedy with Master Burke’s convenient “home.”20

Months prior to Master Burke’s twelfth birthday Dr. Burke believed that his son was ready to leave Ireland and England permanently and conquer the United States of America,21 yet responses from New York, Washington and Cincinnati audiences varied. Master Burke acted in his first professional role in the United States at the Park Theatre, New York, where he performed selections of Douglas as Young Norval, led the orchestra in the overture to the musical Guy Mannering, played a solo on the violin, and sang pleasant-sounding tunes.22 N.M (Noah Miller) Ludlow, in his written records of personal and theatrical experiences amid the nineteenth century, remembers Master Burke’s “juvenile efforts” in New York and Washington as particularly brilliant in Irish characters—some old, others young—such as the humorous Looney M’Twolter and Sir Patrick O’Plenipo23 from The Irish Ambassador, a play about revitalizing “the pleasant memory of that happiest of Irish performers.”24

In this atmosphere of immense success, Master Burke could only trust in the powers of one agent: his father. But his music teacher Monsieur Ambroise, who had travelled with Master Burke and his father for extended periods of time in England, was with them in the United States, not as a leisured guest, but as a working member of Master Burke’s creative and managerial team.25

Ludlow chronicled a serious instance of public backlash against Master Burke while simultaneously providing us with a taste of Dr. Burke’s methods for managing his child’s career. The story goes that a well-liked cello player, who was also an avid and trusted member of Cincinnati’s theatrical scene, argued that Master Burke was not a true musician, so as to imply that Dr. Burke and, more importantly, his son were merely tricksters or frauds.26 To experiment with the validity of Master Burke’s musical talents, the cello player suggested that a fellow violin player should provide the child with a “strange” piece of music and ask him to sight-read it.27 Dr. Burke heard of this man’s accusation and put his son to the test.28 After Master Burke had sight-read this unfamiliar piece of music perfectly and proved himself worthy of praise for his undeniable talent, Dr. Burke, as an overt testament to his love for drama and spectacle, violently promised that he would wittingly “cut off” the cello player’s ears if his son’s unrivalled reputation continued to be tarnished by him or other prominent members of this theatrical sphere.29

What are we to make of Dr. Burke’s promise of his son’s successful futurity? Following months of extensive research, I could not gather clear-cut explanations for Master Burke’s historical allure: why was he called “the Irish Roscius” and where can we find this deep affinity between Master Burke and Master William Henry West Betty; that is, the first child performer to be compared to the illustrious Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus? 30 Perhaps a study of Master Burke’s initial appeal to “Irish” audiences is a useful place to start. Master Burke’s long career also poses the question, why did critics refuse to call Burke a “master” as he grew up?31 Did Master Burke lose his privileges to this title or is the role of master simply another juvenile character he performed? Then again, as Shakespeare puts it, “what’s in a name?”32


  1. T. Allston Brown, History of the American Stage (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald), 57.
  2. “Obituary: Joseph Burke,” New-York Daily Tribune, January 20, 1902, 7.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Biography of Master Burke, the Irish Roscius (Philadelphia: Shakespeare Press), 4.
  5. Ibid, 3.
  6. Ibid, 4.
  7. Ibid, 5.
  8. Ibid.
  9. N. M. Ludlow, Dramatic Life as I Found It (St. Louis: G.I. Jones and Company), 394.
  10. Biography of Master Burke, 4.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid, 5.
  13. Catalogue of the Collection of the Late Peter Gilsey (New York: D. Taylor & Co.), 40.
  14. Biography of Master Burke, 5.
  15. Ibid, 5-6.
  16. “Memoir of Master Burke,” The Dramatic Magazine, June 1, 1830, 130.
  17. Catalogue, 40-41.
  18. Biography of Master Burke, 6-7.
  19. Catalogue, 40.
  20. “Memoir of Master Burke,” The Dramatic Magazine, 130.
  21. Biography of Master Burke, 10.
  22. “Footlight Flashes,” The Salt Lake Herald, January 29, 1893, 14.
  23. N. M. Ludlow, 394.
  24. Kenny James, The Irish Ambassador: A Comedy in Two Acts (New York: Samuel French), 5.
  25. N. M. Ludlow, 394.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid, 395.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Bisset, Critical Essays on the Dramatic Excellencies of the Young Roscius (Birmingham: Knott and Lloyd), 4.
  31. “Obituary: Joseph Burke,” New-York Daily Tribune, 7.
  32. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (New York: Signet Classics), 2.2.43.

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