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Shot down by critics Frank McNally over fatally bad 19th century actor review

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John Keats was not the only one in his day to be the alleged victim of a deadly bad review (Irishmans Diary, February 18). He was also not the only person alleged to have been killed by the words of Galway-born writer and MP John Wilson Croker. If a Dublin gravestone from 1805 is to be believed, Croker had already struck.

His target on this occasion was an English actor, John Edwin (c.1768-1805), who married an Irish woman and was performing here at the time of his death. A child star, Edwin made his London debut at the age of nine in a play by Beaumont and Fletcher (the same Elizabethans who would give Keats the idea for his epitaph in water).

Some admirers believed he would eventually become a star in his own right.

In the meantime, he has been eclipsed both by his namesake father, a great English comedian of the 1780s, and by his wife, the Dubliner Elizabeth Richards, a famous actress on both sides of the Irish Sea.

These were the two prongs of the Crokers’ attack on Edwin jnr, which, like the last on Keats, and in keeping with journalistic convention of the time, was limitless.

While it was his prose that would have killed the poet, it is with a poem that Croker would have shot the actor. He established his satirical theme of mutual dependence on opposites, including darkness and light in the opening verse: No human goods without alloy, / Pain walks on the heels of joy, / And, as noted the philosophers, / Each other cause, like light and dark.

For there he moved to the wedding of the actor and actress: So the paradise that equally condemns fate / The thespian and the human state, / With Mrs. Edwin blessed our vows / But cursed us with her lubbard spouse.

Eventually the poem turned to father and son: But let’s spare him for a name / High on the comic fame rolls, / And on degeneration take / Compassion, for the sake of parents.

If Crokers’ intention was to spare Edwin jnr, however, he hadn’t fired enough.

After reading the poem, the actor sent an invitation to a drinking friend, like so: Come help me destroy myself with some of the most splendid cogniac (sic) I have ever exported to boost the morale of a Broken Heart.

No, that doesn’t quite sound like a suicide note, but more of a plan for a wild night out.

A coroner’s court could also have suspected that Edwin had started destroying himself long before. His father being an alcoholic would also seem relevant.

But the actor was indeed drunk to death on February 22, 1805 (16 years and a day before Keats’ disappearance in Rome). And his wife had no doubts as to the cause. When she erected a monument to her grave in St Werburgh Cemetery near Dublin Castle, she set the record straight, while playing both widow and coroner.

Here lie the remains of Mr. John Edwin of the Theater Royal, the epitaph started. His death was occasioned by the acuteness of his sensitivity. Before he was known enough to the public of this city for his talents to be properly appreciated, he suffered an illiberal and cruel attack on his professional reputation by an anonymous assassin.

This circumstance attacked his mind at the extinction of life. While he apparently enjoyed bodily vigor, he predicted his imminent dissolution. The consciousness of a brain torn in agony explains this foreknowledge and unmistakably establishes the cause of death.

Her diagnosis anticipated that made by Shelley and others in 1821. Indeed, a late 19th century Irish writer Elizabeth Owens Blackburne noted the similarities between Dublin’s grave and Keatss.

One of his novels begins in a building on Werburgh Street, overlooking the cemetery in the middle of which ostensibly stands a vertical slab, on which is inscribed an epitaph on One John Edwin, an actor, of the Fishamble Street Theater, who, as Keats, the third among the Sons of Light, was killed by the poison arrows of adverse criticism.

This third among the Sons of Light is a replica of Shelleys Adonais, who placed his friend alongside Homer and Dante on the poets’ all-time Olympic podium. But it’s not clear what Owens Blackburne is quoting between his inverted commas, unless it’s a later addition to the Graves Editorial.

And yet, recalling Edwins’ death in 1912, a theater historian in the Evening Herald wrote that the headstone for many years []was standing in St Werburghs, hinting that he was no longer standing then.

There is no suggestion as to what had happened in the meantime. Croker himself was long dead. He can hardly have been sued for defamation.

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