Brougham, John (1810–80), actor and playwright, was born 9 May 1810 in Dublin, in what appears to have been a respectable protestant family. His parents’ names are unknown, though his mother was said to be of huguenot extraction. It is possible that he was related to John Brougham (d. 1811/13), rector of Ballyhaise, Co. Cavan, who had been a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and was uncle of Henry Brougham, 1st Lord Brougham and Vaux, the statesman, orator, and author. John Brougham the actor is said to have been the eldest but only surviving child of a family of three, and it is probable that his father died young, leaving his mother badly off. He was educated at the diocesan school in Trim, Co. Meath, run by James Hamilton, uncle of William Rowan Hamilton (qv), though probably after William Rowan Hamilton was a pupil there. Brougham claimed he studied at TCD in 1826, but he did not take a degree. For a short time he studied surgery at the Peter St. school of surgery, until a change in family circumstances precluded more education and allowed him to follow his own inclination to go on the stage.
He moved to London, gave drawing lessons to earn a little money, and then made his stage debut playing several different roles in the Tottenham St. theatre production of ‘Tom and Jerry’, a popular play of the day. He then joined the husband-and-wife management team of Madame Vestris and Charles Mathews at the Olympic Theatre in 1831. Brougham stayed with Madame Vestris when she moved to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and worked with her until 1840, when he became the manager of the Lyceum Theatre. In 1834 he wrote a burlesque, the first of over 160 plays, musicals, burlesques, dramatic sketches, and adaptations. Few of them were published, and fewer are remembered, though almost all were successful and frequently revived.
Brougham is often compared to Dion Boucicault (qv); both were Irish-born dramatists who went to London (where they shared lodgings), and Irish and Irish-American identity are important themes in their work. Brougham claimed to have been the co-author of Boucicault's hit ‘London Assurance’ (1841), in which he made the role of Dazzle his own. Brougham took legal action to recover royalties he felt were due him; however, his claim was unsuccessful. He moved to New York in 1842, where he made his American debut as Felix O'Callaghan in the W. E. Burton company production of William Bayle Bernard's farce ‘His last legs’ (1839). He was called the successor to Tyrone Power (qv) when he appeared as Tim Moore in ‘The Irish lion’ at the Park Theater on 4 October 1842. It was the beginning of Brougham's success as a popular actor and playwright in New York. Brougham's best-known roles were as stage Irishmen such as Sir Lucius O'Trigger in ‘The rivals’ by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (qv). Though it was claimed that Brougham was the model for the character Harry Lorrequer created by Charles Lever (qv), Lever wrote in 1871–2 that in his creation of Lorrequer he was ‘in a great measure depicting myself, and becoming allegorically an autobiographist’ (Downey, 340).
As a playwright, Brougham became known for writing about Irish immigrants in America; ‘The Irish Yankee; or The birthday of freedom’ (1840) and ‘Temptation; or The Irish emigrant’ (1849) were audience favourites. American audiences were already familiar with the comic stage-Irishman, a creation of the English stage, with which the American stage-Irish immigrant type shared many traits. However, such characters, as developed in Boucicault's and Brougham's work, appeared in an American context, and the humour, like much other ethnic humour, depended on the contrast between the speech and culture of the immigrant Irish and those of the native Yankee. Brougham's Irish immigrants had most of the attributes of American stage-Irish stereotypes, but his portrayal of Pat in ‘The Irish emigrant’, poor but honest, along with similar sympathetic characterisations, developed Irish characters into more rounded roles, suitable for something more than burlesque treatment.
His novel stage portrayals of real public figures such as Daniel O'Connell (qv) and Father Mathew (qv), in which he dramatised their most famous oratory, likewise brought a more serious depiction of Irish personalities to the American stage. The New York Herald praised Brougham for his efforts ‘to elevate the Irish character and help to dispel the prejudice which exists against our fellow citizens of Irish birth’ (quoted in Harrington, Encyclopedia, 900), and a contemporary sketch of Brougham in the New York Irish journal The Emerald (1868) praised the playwright for ‘never descending to buffoonery with which we are too often insulted’ and ‘always upholding the honour and dignity of our country’ (298). Brougham's more nuanced and relatively sympathetic portrayals of Irish immigrants influenced later generations of Irish-American writers. The social-climbing Murphys in ‘The game of love’ (1855) anticipated the Mulligans in the comedies of Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart later in the century and can even trace descendants in the ‘lace-curtain Irish’ characters Jiggs and Maggie in a famous early-twentieth-century newspaper strip cartoon, ‘Bringing up Father’.
Audiences in the nineteenth century were eager to see their favourite performers play characters from their favourite novels, and Brougham obliged with skilful adaptations written for the great actors of the day. He had great success with his Dickens adaptations ‘David Copperfield’ (1850) and ‘Dombey and Son’ (1859), and in 1864 he created Lotta Crabtree's greatest triumph with ‘Little Nell and the marchioness’ from The old curiosity shop; she toured for years in the piece.
Some of Brougham's burlesques were very popular, and repeatedly performed. Two were written in response to the vogue for plays about Native Americans. Brougham wrote ‘Metamora, or The last of the Pollywogs’ (1847) as a send-up of Edwin Forrest's bombastic portrayal of the ‘noble savage’ in ‘Metamora, or The last of the Wampanoags’. It delighted audiences through the 1850s. He returned to the Native American theme in 1855 for his most popular burlesque, ‘An original aboriginal erratic operatic semi-civilized and demi-savage extravaganza, being a per-version of ye treue and wonderfulle hystorie of ye rennowned princesse PO-CA-HON-TAS, or the Gentle Savage’. ‘Pocahontas’ is a burlesque of the John Smith narrative of his rescue by the Native American princess Pocahontas and of the plays and romances that developed about her in the nineteenth century. Only loosely based on the historical Pocahontas, the play linked the legend to topics of the day such as immigration and abolitionism with parodies of popular ballads sung to Irish airs like ‘Widow Machree’ and ‘Rosin the bow.’
The most famous song in ‘Pocahontas’ was ‘Dixie’, Dan Emmett's ‘walk-around’ for New York's Bryant Minstrels, which was introduced as a spirited Zouave march in the 1861 New Orleans production of the play. It was an instant hit, and when the civil war started later that spring, ‘Dixie’ became the confederate anthem. ‘Pocahontas’ was revived for thirty years, with Brougham often playing the role of Pocahontas's father Powhatan. The play toured union army camps during the civil war and was performed on the opening night of the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in 1872. The dramatic structure, plotting, and musical traditions of the burlesque prefigure elements of later musical shows and films.
While Brougham was a successful actor and playwright, he was not an especially successful theatre manager, and definitely a failure as a businessman. He managed Niblo's Garden (a famous theatre on Broadway, founded in 1828 by William Niblo (d. 1878), an Irishman), before he opened his own theatre, Brougham's Lyceum, on Broadway at Broome St., New York, in 1850. That venture ended when the building next door was demolished and the public believed that the Lyceum was unsafe. Brougham's failed investment led to a heavy debt burden. In 1852 James W. Wallack took over the premises, renaming it the Wallack Theatre. Brougham's second theatre venture in the Bowery did not succeed.
Brougham left for England in 1860 and stayed there for the duration of the American civil war. There he acted in one of his most successful plays, ‘Playing with fire’ (1861), and he played Col. Bagenal O'Grady in Boucicault's famous play ‘Arrah-na-pogue’, which dealt with the 1798 rebellion. In 1865 he was back in New York playing at the Winter Garden Theater. He tried once more unsuccessfully in 1869 to manage his own Brougham's Theater, the old Fifth Avenue Theater, but it too failed, and he went back to acting until 1879. He appeared that year as the detective Felix O'Reilly in Boucicault's melodrama ‘Rescued’, which closed after a month. Brougham wrote sentimental lyrics such as ‘The box of shamrocks’ and ‘The land of St Patrick forever’ to stir his Irish-American audiences, and he also composed libretti for three operas: ‘Blanche de Nevers’, ‘The demon lovers’, and ‘Bride of Venice’. Brougham was also a writer and journalist; publications included his comic paper The Lantern (1852) and two volumes of occasional writings, A basket of chips (1855) and The Bunsby papers (1856), which the reviewer in the United States Democratic Review of 6 June 1856 described as Irish stories ‘told with admirable point and colored with the warm hues of Irish genius’ (520). Just before his death he was working on a play called ‘Home rule’ and on his autobiography, though little of his life story was completed. Life, stories and poems of John Brougham, affectionately edited by William Winters, appeared posthumously in 1881.
Brougham was a founder member of the Lotos Club, a private literary club, in New York in 1870. Mark Twain and Fitz-James O'Brien (qv) were members. Brougham served as president, hosted some of the Lotos weekly dinners, and edited, with John Elderkin, the Club's Lotos Leaves (1874) which includes Mark Twain's ‘An encounter with an interviewer’.
Generous, extravagant, and improvident, and noted for helping others get rich while he got poorer, Brougham lost much of his fortune in the collapse of the Duncan, Sherman & Co. Bank in July 1875. Brougham's theatre friends twice organised benefits to help him financially.
Brougham married first (1838) Emma Williams, actress; she returned to England without him in 1845. She visited New York twice in the 1850s, and died in 1865. Brougham married secondly (3 May 1844) Annette Hawley Hodges (née Nelson; d. 1870), a widow with at least one child. Phyllis Morris (née Hodges; b. 1842 in England), apparently a daughter of his second wife, took legal action to dispute Brougham's will, made on his deathbed, which left the rights of his plays to a friend, the soubrette Annie Deland.
He died 7 June 1880 at his home at 50 East Ninth St., New York, after months of declining health. He is buried in Brooklyn's Green Wood cemetery; his manservant James Ship was the chief mourner at a largely attended funeral.
There are at least six carte-de-visite photographs of Brougham taken between 1865 and 1875, and the New York photographer Napoleon Sarony captured Brougham in a variety of poses. There is a gravure portrait of Brougham playing the role of Sir Lucius O'Trigger. Portraits of Brougham appear in the Emerald article and in Harper's Weekly, 26 June 1880.