EDWARD ALLEYN was one of the earliest of our celebrated English Comedians, having attained the summit of his profession before the year 1592, when the famous poet, Christopher Marlow, died; in whose play of The Jew of Malta, Heywood informs us that "the part of the Jew [Barabas] was performed by 'so inimitable an actor as Mr. Alleyn;'" and in the prologue, at the revival of this play at the Cock-pit, after Alleyn's death, he says:
We know not how our play may pass this stage,
But by the best of poets in that age,
The Malta Jew had being, and was made;
And he, then by the best of actors play'd.
In Hero and Leander one did gain
A lasting memory; in Tamerlane,
This Jew, with others many, th' other won
The attribute of peerless; being a man
Whom we may rank with (doing no one wrong)
Proteus for shapes, and Roscius for a tongue:
So could he speak, so vary.
The character of Barabas, the Jew of Malta, is a capital one; and to have gained the addition of 'peerless' by the performance of it, the actor must have been gifted with super-eminent powers, — Ben Jonson, who was seldom lavish of his praises, thus speaks of Alleyn, in his 89th epigram.
If Rome so great, and in her wisest age,
Fear'd not to boast the glories of her stage,
As skilful Roscius, and grave Aesop men,
Yet crown'd with honours, as with riches then;
Who had no less a trumpet of their name
Than Cicero, whose ev'ry breath was fame:
How can so great example die in me,
That, Allen, I should pause to publish thee?
Who both their graces in thyself hast more
Outstript, than they did all that went before:
As others speak, but only thou dost act.
Wear this renown, 'Tis just, that who did give
So many poets life, by one should live.
From a memorandum in his own hand-writing, it appears, that Alleyn was born September 1, 1566, near Devonshire-House, in the parish of St. Bartolph, without Bishopsgate; he must therefore have applied himself very early to the Drama, to have reached the degree of perfection ascribed to him before Marlow's death: possibly he was, like Field, Pavy, &c. trained to it from childhood. That he had a fine person, and an expressive countenance, his portrait, still existing, evinces; the other necessary endowments of genius, voice, feeling, &c. we may conclude him to have been possessed of from the following extract. In some MSS. of the Lord Keeper Puckering, in the Harleian Library, a writer of that age, speaking of Alleyn about the period of his zenith, says, that "he had so captivated the town, and so monopolized the favour of his audience by those agreeable varieties he could so readily command, in his voice, countenance, and gesture; and so judiciously adapt to the characters he played, as even to animate the most lifeless compositions, and so highly improve them, that he wholly engaged those who heard and saw him, from considering the propriety of the sentiments he pronounced, or of the parts he personated; and all the defects of the poet were either beautified, palliated, or atoned for, by the perfections of the player." But the highest praise due to this great man is, that having acquired a very considerable property by his acting; the profits of his theatre, called The Fortune, in Whitecross-street; his post of Keeper of the King's Wild Beasts, or Master of the Royal Bear-Garden; together with the dowry of two wives; he appropriated nearly the whole of it to the building and endowment of a college, at Dulwich, called The College of God's Gift; of which munificence the following pious memorial, in his own hand-writing, was found among his papers. "May 26, 1620, my wife and I acknowledged the fine at the Common-Pleas bar, of all our lands to the college: blessed be God, that hath given us life to do it." Heywood, in his Actors Vindication, commending many deceased players, concludes thus: "Among so many dead let me not forget the most worthy, famous Mr. Edward Allen, who in his life time erected a colledge at Dulledge for Poor People, and for the Education of Youth: When this Colledge was finisht, this famous man was so equally mingled with humility and charity, that he became his own pensioner; humbly submitting himself to that proportion of diet and cloathes, which he had bestowed on others." He died November 25, 1626, in the sixty-first year of his age; and was interred in the chapel of his own college.
The conclusion to be drawn from the life of this admirable actor and excellent man is, that, however narrow-minded and bigotted persons may have endeavoured to degrade the stage in the eyes of the ignorant; prudence, integrity, benevolence, and piety, are as compatible with the profession of a player, as with any other rank or degree in life whatever.