Perhaps the most annoying disturbance which ever came into Booth’s theatrical life, and not a great disturbance at that, was the jealousy which existed between Wilks and himself. Wilks was impetuous, bad tempered and crotchety, and it is possible that the envy was, originally, rather of his own making. But be that as it may, Booth suffered many a pang from the successes of the more dashing Wilks, and the latter never lost an opportunity of thwarting his associate. We remember how the commonplace Mills was pushed forward, with the idea of hiding the genius of Barton, and Cibber refers more than once to this short-sighted policy of Wilks. “And yet, again,” he writes, “Booth himself, when he came to be a manager, would sometimes suffer his judgment to be blinded by his inclination to actors whom the town seem’d to have but an indifferent opinion of.” And thereupon Colley asks “another of his old questions”—viz., “Have we never seen the same passions govern a Court! How many white staffs and great places do we find, in our histories, have been laid at the feet of a monarch, because they chose not to give way to a rival in power, or hold a second place in his favour? How many Whigs and Tories have changed their parties, when their good or bad pretentions have met with a check to their higher preferment?”
The fact is that there was never any artistic sympathy between the two distinguished actors. Booth could play comedy, and play it quite well, but his soul was all for tragedy. On the other hand, while Wilks knew how to tread the sombre paths of high drama (he even made a creditable Hamlet), the comedian looked with more regard upon his own peculiar vein of work, the impersonation of the graceful, the genteel, and the elegantly picturesque. In one way the latter proved more generous than his rival. “It might be imagin’d,” runs on Cibber, “from the difference of their natural tempers, that Wilks should have been more blind to the excellencies of Booth than Booth was to those of Wilks; but it was not so. Wilks would sometimes commend Booth to me; but when Wilks excell’d the other was silent."[A]
[Footnote A: During Booth’s inability to act ...Wilks was called upon to play two of his parts: Jaffier and Lord Hastings in “Jane Shore.” Booth was, at times, in all other respects except his power to go on the stage, in good health, and went among the players for his amusement. His curiosity drew him to the playhouse on the nights when Wilks acted these characters, in which himself had appeared with uncommon lustre. All the world admired Wilks except his brother manager: amidst the repeated bursts of applause which he extorted, Booth alone continued silent.—DAVIES.]
But all these petty heartburnings and jealousies were buried in the grave of Wilks. That incomparable player, whose sprightliness seemed to defy the grim tyrant, and who could act the lithesome youth upon the stage even though he had to hobble to his hackney-coach when the piece was ended, made his last exit in the autumn of 1732. Booth followed on the same long journey in the May of 1733, after an illness during which the great patient was dosed with crude mercury, bled, plastered, blistered, and otherwise helped onward to his death. Verily, it is a wonder that the physicians of old did not extinguish the whole human race.