Havard, William (1710–78), actor and playwright, was born 12 July 1710 in Dublin, the son of a vintner; nothing more is known of his parents. After receiving a good education (evidenced by his later writings), he was apprenticed to a surgeon but soon abandoned that profession in favour of the stage. After a number of appearances in Smock Alley theatre, he left for London and on 20 August 1730 made his debut as Young Walworth in ‘Wat Tyler and Jack Straw’, at New Bartholomew fair in a booth operated by William Giffard. He soon joined Giffard's company at Goodman's Fields Theatre and on 10 December appeared as Fenton in ‘The merry wives of Windsor’. In his first season he played twenty supporting roles, and he went on to act on the London stage for nearly forty years. In 1737 he transferred to Drury Lane where – except for a brief stint in Covent Garden in 1756 – he remained until his retirement in 1769. He took mostly second and third rank parts, though he did appear on at least two occasions as Hamlet – on 3 May 1742 in Drury Lane, and in Dublin at Aungier St. Theatre on 11 July 1743. The highest praise for Havard's performances were that they were worthy, sober, and grave enough to enable him to portray kings and ministers – Horatio (‘Hamlet’) and Edgar (‘King Lear’) were particularly noted – but he lacked passion and was monotonous and predictable, causing Charles Churchill in his Rosciad to depict him as ‘poor Billy Havard’ whose ‘easy vacant face proclaimed a heart / Which could not feel emotions, nor impart’.
As playwright, he had erratic success. In 1733 he wrote and had acted by Giffard's company on 15 March a heroic tragedy, ‘Scanderbeg’, which he was accused of plagiarising from Thomas Whincop's play of the same name. It had only two performances and Havard was discouraged from writing for the next four years. To help Giffard from financial straits, he put his hand to another tragedy, ‘Charles I’, in 1737. Legend has it that he had to be locked up until the play was completed because he had grown too dissipated and luxurious to work, but this does not accord with the general view of him as cultivated and reliable. The play was performed nineteen times from 1 March 1737 to enthusiastic audiences; its pathos allegedly caused the death of a female spectator in York, and it was referred to by Lord Chesterfield (qv) in the house of lords in his speech against the 1749 theatre licensing bill: ‘A most tragical story was brought upon the stage, a catastrophe too recent, too melancholy and of too solemn a nature to be heard anywhere but the pulpit’ (cited in Highfill, Burnim, & Langhans, 185). The publisher John Watts was staggered to learn that an actor had written it, and refused to put his name on the spine; when Havard allowed the secret out, audiences apparently thinned. Nevertheless it ran to four editions in 1737 and was republished six times between 1765 and 1810. Havard revived the play for his benefit night in Drury Lane in 1740, and announced then that it was written in imitation of Shakespeare, something which might pardonably escape readers of its heavy metaphorical language. His third tragedy, ‘Regulus’, was performed at Drury Lane on 21 February 1744 and was only saved from complete mediocrity by David Garrick's performance in the title role. His only attempt at a farce, ‘Elopement’, was produced for his benefit in Drury Lane (6 April 1763) but never published.
On 22 May 1742 Havard married a widow and fellow actress, Mrs Elizabeth Kilby (d. 1764), with whom he lived at Hanover Square, Long Acre. His own bouts of ill health led the Gentleman's Magazine prematurely to announce his death in Dublin in July 1765 but he lived to take a benefit and recite an epitaph composed for his retirement (8 May 1769). His actual death took place in his lodgings on Tavistock St., Covent Garden, on 20 February 1778. He was buried in the churchyard at St Paul's under an inscription by the satirist Paul Whitehead. Garrick wrote him an epitaph published in Gentleman's Magazine (May 1779): ‘Howe'er defective in the mimic art / In real life he justly played his part / The noblest character he acted well / And heaven applauded – when the curtain fell’ – which might have been apt were it not virtually identical to an epitaph the author had composed for another actor, William Gibson (1713–71). Havard's portrait was engraved by E. Fisher in 1773, and Benjamin Wilson painted him as Edgar with Garrick as Lear.