Chetwood, William Rufus (d. 1766), prompter, publisher, and author, was most probably born in England. Little is known of his early life, but his own accounts, and the fact that he wrote several seafaring adventures, indicate that he had travelled around the world as a young man, possibly as a sailor. His recorded impressions on Cantonese theatre also suggest an early interest in the stage. Frequently imprisoned for indebtedness in later life, he acknowledged that his misfortunes were the result of not heeding his father's advice at first setting out into the world (preface to The voyages . . . of Captain . . . Falconer, 1724).
It appears that Chetwood was initially apprenticed to a French upholsterer in Covent Garden, in whose premises he secretly performed plays with his friend Thomas Elrington (qv), born in 1688; one may therefore presume they were of an age. He then launched into a prolific publishing and bookselling career, which overlapped with his involvement in the world of theatre. After serving his apprenticeship with the notorious Covent Garden publisher Edmund Curll, one of his earliest publications was A poem on the memorable fall of Chloe's P—s pot (1713), attributed to Jonathan Swift (qv), and by 1719 he was operating from various locations in Covent Garden. He appears to have first gone to Dublin in 1714 when he became assistant manager to Joseph Ashbury (qv) at the Smock Alley theatre, and where his Life of Lady Jane Gray was published. He returned to London in 1715 and the same year was engaged as a prompter at Drury Lane, a position he held until 1741. However, he was also was engaged at the Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre, and had summer work at the Richmond theatre and a Southwark fair booth, where he also acted.
Chetwood was also a prolific writer, and his play ‘The lover's opera’ was performed as an afterpiece in Drury Lane on 14 May 1729. Other dramatic works assigned to him include ‘The generous free mason’ (1731), ‘The emperor of China, Grand Volgi’ (performed at the Bartholomew fair in 1731) and ‘The mock mason’, staged at Goodman's Fields in 1733 and Dublin in 1737. Though little is known of his initiation or lodge membership, he is credited as the first freemason to have written the libretto of an opera, and one with a masonic theme, six decades before Mozart's Magic flute (1791).
Chetwood's later writings on the theatre were to become a unique source of insights into a milieu he knew well, and his adventure novels were to prove popular for several decades. These included The voyages, dangerous adventures, and imminent escapes of Captain Rich. Falconer . . . and Thomas Randal, of Cork, a pilot (1724); the successful Voyages of Captain Robert Boyle (1726, in which Dampier appeared), re-edited until 1804 and translated into French; and The voyages, travels and adventures of William Owen Vaughan (1736).
During his last season in Drury Lane, he ran himself into debt, and, after being assisted with a benefit performance, travelled to Dublin in 1741. No details are known of a first marriage, save that he had one daughter, but on this trip to Ireland he was accompanied by his second wife, the actress Anne Brett, a granddaughter of Colley Cibber, whom he had married on 15 June 1738. They had at least two daughters, both of whom died in London during the period 1742–4. The manager of the newly rebuilt Smock Alley, Louis (Lewis) Duval (d. 1766), engaged him as director for the autumn and winter of 1741. Under Chetwood's direction, the theatre hired a machinist from London, and introduced equipment to move scenery that at the time was ‘publicly boasted of as a master-piece of mechanism’ (Hitchcock, 1.116), bringing the Dublin stage up to the best London and Paris standards.
After this time his whereabouts are uncertain, though by 1747 he was again in Ireland with his daughter from his first marriage, Richabella, an actress, who had married a fellow performer, the Irishman Tobias Gemea. In 1748 Chetwood toured Ireland according to the geographical pattern of opposing routes adopted by companies after 1735, the southern tour stopping first in Kilkenny. In the summer of 1753 he headed north, and was engaged as a prompter for a company of strolling players performing in the Vaults in Belfast. Throughout his career he is said to have assisted several leading actors, among them Kitty Clive (qv) and Spranger Barry (qv).
While in Ireland he also continued his literary pursuits. In 1748 he contributed an essay on the stage to Edmund Burke's (qv) Reformer. This was followed by his epistolary Tour through Ireland (1748) and a poem entitled Kilkenny, or, The old man's wish (1748). His General history of the stage in London and Dublin (1749), if not always an accurate record, was one of the earliest and most insightful Dublin stage histories of the eighteenth century; though essentially based on his personal impressions, it placed Irish theatre in a historical context and was one of the main sources used well into the mid-twentieth century. It includes memoirs of Joseph Ashbury, Barton Booth, John Barrington (1715–73) and Spranger Barry. In 1751 he published a collection of plays including James Shirley's (qv) St Patrick for Ireland, and in 1756 the Memoirs of the life and writings of Ben Jonson. By 1760 he was again in financially straitened circumstances, which resulted in his imprisonment at the Marshalsea prison of the Four Courts. Not for the first time in his life, a theatre benefit night was held to assist him at Smock Alley. Nonetheless, he died in poverty, on 3 March 1766, possibly still in the Marshalsea prison in Dublin.
Chetwood spoke warmly of Ireland and the Irish, and found that ‘this opulent city of Dublin has . . . every innocent diversion that may unbend the mind, equal to any city in Europe (General history, 77). Having sailed to most parts of the world, everywhere he had found the Irish ‘in places of Trust and Power, venerated and esteemed by all’ (ibid.).