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Henry, John

The Oxford Companion to American Theatre

Gerald Bordman,

Thomas S. Hischak

Henry, John (1738–94), actor. 

Sometimes called the first matinee idol in America, although matinees were not given in his day, he was born in Ireland and had appeared both in Dublin and at London's Drury Lane before sailing to America, making his debut under David Douglass at the John Street Theatre in 1767 as Aimwell in The Beaux' Stratagem. Although a handsome and apparently accomplished actor, he seems to have been somewhat weak in his personal determination, so for a long while he was assigned relatively minor roles. After the Revolution he joined the younger Hallam in the management of the American Company and is thought to have been responsible for the production of William Dunlap's first play and was also the first professional performer to play Sir Peter Teazle in America, which he played with his “incurable Irish brogue.” In 1792 he encouraged John Hodgkinson to come to America, but Hodgkinson quickly turned against him, not only assuming his roles but forcing him to sell his interest in the American Company for $10,000. His attempts to regain his stature failed, and he drowned while sailing to New England, where he may have hoped to start another company. His personal life was flamboyant and led to much unfavorable gossip. He was the only actor of his time to maintain a private coach; Henry claimed he suffered from gout, although this seems highly unlikely, and the carriage was therefore a necessity. And scandal grew largely out of his romances with the Storer sisters. He married the eldest, had an affair with her younger sister, who bore him a child, then later married the youngest of the sisters, who went insane at the time of his death.