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Burke, Joseph (Master)

From the Dramatic Magazine.



This is the most extraordinary instance of precocious genius that has appeared in Europe during the present century. At seven years of age he was introduced to the late king of England, George the Fourth, at the Pavilion at Brighton, who expressed in warm terms his admiration of his musical powers. The London critics pronounce themselves at a loss which to admire most, his histrionic or musical talents.

“O ’tis a parlous boy.”

“I spare my praises towards him,

Knowing him his enough.”

Joseph Burke is descended from one of the most respectable families in the county of Galway, in Ireland; his father being nephew to Sir John Blake, and consequently first cousin to Valentine Blake, who represented the above county for some years. Mr. Burke is also, as we are informed, first or second cousin to Sir John Burke, whose family once possessed considerable estates in the county of Galway; but by adhering to the cause of Charles, they suffered in common with those who, having pledged the oath of allegiance to that monarch, refused to abandon his fortunes. The descendants, therefore, of the families who had been plundered of their possessions by Cromwell, were obliged to trust to their talents for means of subsistence, which they employed, of course, in various ways.

Master Burke made his debut, when only five years old, on the Dublin stage, in the year 1824, in the characters of Tom Thumb and Lingo.

His success was so complete as to prognosticate to his grateful friends the certainty of future fame. He shortly after appeared at the English Opera house and the Haymarket. At the latter theatre he met with considerable applause in the characters of Dr. O’Toole, Lingo &c. : he then quitted the metropolis and took the general provincial tour, where the versatility of his genius gave not only unqualified satisfaction to the general admirers of the drama, but obtained the encomiums of those whose powers were of matured excellence. Among others may be noticed the venerable O’Keefe, who, as a tribute to his talents, presented him (in the year 1826, at Chichester) with a pair of silver buckles, which he himself wore when a candidate for public favour ; he also gave him a lock of his hair, and requested that on his death it would be worn in a ring by him. We must now notice the theatre which may be termed the key-stone of his fame—for by the excellent management of Mr. Elliston, opportunities have been offered of exhibiting Master Burke’s talents in every varied hue. His first appearance at the Surrey was in 1827 : his principal character this season was in “The March of Intellect,” which drew many crowded houses: since that period he has performed numerous parts in tragedy, comedy, opera, burlesque, and farce.

We have now to speak of Master Burke’s professional attainments. On viewing him in the combined light of actor and musician, we certainly think we are warranted to declare that he is the most astonishing instance of precocious talents [Illegible] ever befell the biographer’s lot to record : for though there are many extraordinary examples handed down to us of early genius being evinced in ether of the above sciences, yet we believe they have never been so admirably united in one so young till now.

Although Mater Burke is only in his twelfth year, he possesses as fine a power of observation and as correct an idea of genuine humor as any actor we ever saw. His attitudes, too, are astonishing, varied, easy, and graceful ; while his by-play, self-possession, and attention to the business of the scene, even in the most difficult characters, are no less curious than gratifying to witness.

Though his tragedy is by no means devoid of merit, we think that the bent of his genius is decidedly comic ; there is a playful gaiety in his manner, and an archness and vivacity in his looks, all admirably adapted to the service of Thalia. Indeed, in some of his favourite performances, his acting was so easy, so utterly void of art, that the stage seemed his proper home, and the happiest imitation of the varieties of human life a part of his own nature. There is one character in particular which we will notice, for it induced us to make the above remark. It is in a farce called “At Home for the Holidays,” where Master Burke had to represent a young lad returned from school, who is allowed the absolute mastership of the family for one entire day. The glee he displayed when he compelled his old tutor to learn the lessons with which he had been teazed during the past month, was delightful ; and his audacious ease, high good humour, when he ordered the servants about, was extremely ludicrous.

Of his performance of Richard and Shylock we can only observe, that he spoke the dialogue with great correctness, evidently appearing to feel the sentiments he uttered, and displayed, in some of the impassioned scenes, that true energy which is as removed from the boisterous rant of certain actors we could mention, as the cool courage of a Henry differs from the braggadocia of a Pistol. We cannot better close this memoir than by the following extract from Mr. Strafford’s very interesting History of Music. “Master Burke is, at the age of twelve years, one of the finest violinists in the kingdom. The ease, the feeling, the brilliancy and fineness of his tone, and the scientific acquirements of this mere child, are allowed, by all who have heard him, to be most surprising.”

“Old Heads on Young Shoulders,” is a one-act piece, compiled by Mr. Moncrieff, in which Master Burke performs the part of a faithful servant, who is left in the care of a young lady (his master’s intended,) whom a party of ruffians have attempted to carry off. Master B. by assuming the disguises of a gardener, valet, cook, and a veteran seaman, contrives to intimidate the above ruffians into the belief that the house is full of company, till his master really arrives with his friends. Master Burke supported his characters very cleverly, and certainly by his acting, in a measure, contrived to dispel the author’s absurdity of a child frightening a band of robbers.

In this piece Master Burke appears to give instructions to the orchestra towards the composition of an overture, after the plan of De Begnis’ well known buffo scena. He also accompanied Miss Somerville on the violin, in two duets ; his efforts were rewarded by repeated bursts of applause.

The following is from the London Atlas.“This talented boy took his farewell of a London audience, at the Surrey theatre, on Tuesday evening, which was absolutely crowded in every part of Richard, as it appears, in the three last acts of the play ; that of Tristram Fickle in Weathercock ; of Shotto in Old Heads on Young Shoulders, and Jerry in a Day after the Fair. This evening’s task, therefore, included the assumption of no less than eighteen different characters. He uttered from memory, at least three thousand lines, and dressed no fewer than twenty times. Setting talents out of the question, what an undertaking for a boy of twelve years of age! He played a difficult overture on the violin, an accompaniment on the violoncello, and a prelude on the piano-forte in a manner which stamped him as a musician of no ordinary attainment. To conclude, he spoke such as address as a boy might speak-no straining after effect, but with the pathos and simplicity of a child, taking leave of his home and friends. He was much affected, and his feelings appeared to be shared by his audience.”

The New-York Mirror: A Weekly Gazette of Literature and the Fine Arts 11/27/1830: 166. Print.

Burke, The New-York Mirror: A Weekly Gazette of Literature and the Fine Arts, 11/27/1830, 166