BROWN, FREDERICK, actor and theatre manager; b. in London, son of D. L. Brown; d. 1838 in North Carolina.
Although known as the “Liverpool Roscius,” Frederick Brown in fact never completely fulfilled his early promise as a child prodigy. Short and slight with “a face of no marked constructiveness, but rather common in form,” he was considered a highly respectable and gentlemanly leading player, but was not of the highest rank. At Sunderland (Tyne and Wear) on 28 May 1814 he married the actress-dancer Sophia De Camp. His marriage connected him with prominent acting families. His wife’s sister Maria Theresa (Marie Thérèse), herself a well-known actress, had married actor Charles Kemble, younger brother of the famed John Philip Kemble and Mrs Sarah Siddons.
The Browns came to North America in 1816 and starred at the Federal Street Theatre, Boston, for the 1816–17 season. Their first appearance in Lower Canada was by “special engagement” with John Duplessis Turnbull’s stock company in Montreal during April 1818. That July, after a “most favourable reception” at the Fairbanks Wharf Theatre in Halifax, Brown returned to Montreal, where he remained from October to April 1819, with the exception of engagements in Kingston in February and his New York début at the Park Theatre as Hamlet on 9 March. In Montreal Brown was applauded for his versatility and was well received in his repertoire of Shakespearian roles and in the late 18th-century classics made famous by John Philip Kemble. His Othello, particularly, was closely analysed and even compared with Kemble’s.
Back in Boston for the autumn of 1819, Brown raised the ire of audiences by his indifferent playing of a series of secondary roles. Fearing a row, the management allowed him to return once more to Montreal, where between mid December 1819 and mid February 1820 he played major parts, scoring a particular success with the tragic George Barnwell in George Lillo’s The London merchant. On 4 May 1820 Turnbull’s playhouse burned down and Brown would not return to Montreal until 1825. He regained the respect of his Boston audience on 25 May 1821, when he replaced the legendary Edmund Kean as Richard III, after the great star had refused to perform. Brown’s name then began to appear along the eastern seaboard. In 1823 he supported the American actor Junius Brutus Booth in Philadelphia and in Richmond, Va, and during 1824–25 became, for the first time, a manager in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. He had less success acting in New York and was harshly criticized in October 1824 and again in May and June 1825. The poor notices may have helped him to decide to apply to manage the new Theatre Royal being built in Montreal.
The 1,000-seat, Georgian-style playhouse, on the site of present-day Bonsecours market, was constructed at a cost of £7,500. John Molson was the principal shareholder. The theatre opened on 21 Nov. 1825, just one week behind schedule, and Brown, the lessee, “received the warmest marks of approbation” for his playing of Vapid, the playwright in Frederic Reynolds’s The dramatist. However, the conscientious though relatively inexperienced manager was destined to lose money. The theatre’s extravagant appointments, its weekly overhead, the lavish size of the company (30 actors and actresses, 14 musicians, and backstage personnel), the ambitious repertoire heavily weighted with Shakespeare and avoiding the popular melodramas, and the relatively small English-language population in Montreal (10,881) combined to defeat the enterprise. Guest stars did little to stem the tide and the poorly heated theatre was discouraging to spectators when winter temperatures hovered around –32°F. As attendance dwindled so did newspaper coverage and some actors deserted to other theatres. Brown toured to Quebec from 6 to 21 Feb. 1826, to good response but limited returns. The 24-week season ended on 8 May but Brown retained the theatre until the autumn in hopes that an appearance by Edmund Kean would reverse his fortunes. Although the renowned star attracted crowds and gave Brown’s management a final flourish, his nightly fee nullified the gains. The Browns had supported Kean, playing, for example, Iago and Emilia to his Othello. On 3 November the citizens of Montreal accorded Brown a farewell dinner and gave him a gold ring in testimony of their esteem. He had played over 100 roles during the season of 1825–26.
From January to mid May 1827 Brown took many of his Montreal troupe to Charleston, where he managed the company, again unprofitably. He played at smaller theatres in New York during the summers of 1827 and 1833, although he was located primarily in the southern United States. Brown and his wife returned to Montreal several times between 1829 and 1833, a period when her brother Vincent De Camp took over the Theatre Royal for four limited summer seasons. On 9 July 1831 the Montreal Gazette’s theatre critic found Brown’s playing “greatly improved,” with “much less of the useless declamation which formerly rather injured . . . his acting.” The last record of Brown’s activity dates from the summer of 1834. While with comedians in Wilmington, Del., he penned some verses about the disrepair of a church which led to its restoration. Four years later he died in obscurity in North Carolina. His wife succumbed in October 1841 at Mobile, Ala.
Brown’s North American vicissitudes as an actor-manager were typical of those faced by the English touring professionals of the period. As an actor in the heroic style of the Kemble tradition, he must have been something of an anachronism at a time when melodramas and equestrian shows were becoming popular. As a manager, he is remembered for his attempts to give colonial Montreal quality theatre.
Univ. of Pa. Library (Philadelphia), Charles Durang, “History of the Philadelphia stage between the years 1749 and 1855” (mfm.). F. C. Wemyss, Chronology of the American stage from 1752 to 1852 (New York, ; repr. 1968). Baudoin Burger, L’activité théâtrale au Québec (1765–1825) (Montréal, 1974). W. W. Clapp, A record of the Boston stage (Boston and Cambridge, Mass., 1853; repr. New York and London, ). Merrill Denison, The barley and the stream: the Molson story; a footnote to Canadian history (Toronto, 1955). Franklin Graham, Histrionic Montreal: annals of the Montreal stage with biographical and critical notices of the plays and players of a century (2nd ed., Montreal, 1902; repr. New York and London, 1969). W. S. Hoole, The ante-bellum Charleston theatre (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1946). Glen Hughes, A history of the American theatre, 1700–1950 (New York, ). G. C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York stage (15v., New York, 1927–49), 3. Y. S. Bains, “The articulate audience and the fortunes of the theatre in Halifax in 1816–1819,” Dalhousie Rev., 57 (1977–78): 726–35; “Canadian newspaper reviews of Frederick Brown,” Journal of Canadian Studies (Peterborough, Ont.), 20 (1985–86), no.2: 150–58; “Frederick Brown and Montreal’s doomed Theatre Royal, 1825–26,” Theatre Survey (Albany, N.Y.), 24 (1983): 65–75; “The New Montreal Theatre: battling way back then,” Canadian Theatre Rev. (Downsview [Toronto]), 24 (1979): 64–68. Owen Klein, “The opening of Montreal’s Theatre Royal, 1825,” Theatre Hist. in Canada (Toronto and Kingston, Ont.), 1 (1980): 24–38.
© 1988–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
David Gardner, “BROWN, FREDERICK,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brown_frederick_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||David Gardner|
|Title of Article:||BROWN, FREDERICK|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 31, 2023|