James Sheridan Knowles

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Knowles, James Sheridan, a distinguished actor, dramatist, author, and preacher, was born in Cork, 12th May 1784. His father, James Knowles, first cousin of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was a schoolmaster of high reputation, and the editor of an edition of Walker's Pronouncing Dictionary, at which he is said to have laboured for thirty years. When only twelve years of age, James evinced considerable dramatic talents. In London (whither his father removed when James was quite a young man), he gained much from intimacies formed with Hazlitt, Coleridge, Lamb, and other literary men. He visited Dublin in 1808, and resided for a time with his relations, the LeFanus, who endeavoured to dissuade him from going on the stage. In 1809 he acted at Waterford, in company with Edmund Kean. There he played in tragedy, comedy, and opera, and having a good voice, succeeded well in the latter. In Waterford he published a volume of Fugitive Pieces of Poetry and his drama of Leo, or the Gipsy. His father and he afterwards established a school at Belfast. Sir Joseph Napier was one of his scholars, and praises his method of teaching: "His habits were altogether those of a child of genius — hence his discipline was irregular — he was neither our schoolmaster nor our schoolfellow — he was both, and sometimes more than both, but we loved him, and he taught us."

In Belfast he produced his drama of Brian Boroihme. Caius Gracchus followed in 1815. At the request of his friend Kean he now wrote his great tragedy of Virginius, which was brought out at Glasgow, and afterwards in London. William Tell appeared in 1825, establishing the author's reputation as one of the greatest dramatists of the age. Other works followed each other in quick succession, and he acquired a right to be considered a great actor as well as a great writer, by impersonations in his plays of The Hunchback and The Wife. He was also the author of several novels. He appeared at the principal theatres throughout the United Kingdom, his visit to Cork in 1834 being made the occasion of an ovation from his fellow-townsmen. Amongst indications of his warmth of heart may be mentioned the fact that on this last occasion he sought out his old nurse, and insisted on her occupying the best seat in the boxes during his engagement. In 1836 he visited America; some time after his return, ill-health obliged him to give up the stage, and he appeared as a lecturer on oratory and the drama. In his later years his mind received a theological bias; he wrote on religious subjects, and ultimately became a Baptist preacher. He died at Torquay, on 1st December 1862, aged 78. From 1849 he had been in the receipt of a pension on the Civil List of £200 a year. Besides numerous minor writings, his works in Allibone's list number twenty-six.

A posthumous play, Alexina, or True unto Death, in two acts, was produced in 1866. Allan Cunningham writes of Knowles: "The poetry of his dialogue is the poetry of passion; it is kindled up in him by the collision of events, and seems less proper to the man than to the scene; his language is to the purpose; it is but little ornamented. His dramas are full of impressive groupings, domestic incidents, the bustle of business, the activity of life; he subdues subject, scene, and language to the purpose and aim of his play. In this he differs from many writers, and differs for the better. His strength lies in home-bred affections: his Virginius, his Beggar's Daughter, and his Wife of Mantua, all bear evidence of this, and contain scenes of perfect truth and reality, such as no modern dramatist surpasses — he touches the heart and is safe."

Sources

16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859-'71.

40. Biographical Division of English Cyclopaedia, with Supplement: Charles Knight, 7 vols. London, 1856-'72.

116. Dublin University Magazine (40). Dublin, 1833-'77.

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