Brougham’s father is an amateur painter, and dies young. His mother is the daughter of a Huguenot, whom political adversity has forced into exile. He is the eldest of three children. Both of his siblings die in youth, and, the father being dead and the widowed mother left penniless, he is reared in the family and home of an uncle.
Brougham is prepared for college at an academy at Trim, County Meath, twenty miles from Dublin, and subsequently is sent to the University of Dublin. There he acquires classical learning, and forms interesting and useful associations and acquaintances. He also becomes interested in private theatricals. He falls in with a crowd that puts on their own shows, cast by drawing parts out of a hat. Though he most always trades off larger roles so he can pay attention to his studies, he takes quite an interest in acting. He is a frequent attendant, moreover, at the Theatre Royal in Hawkins Street.
Brougham is educated with the intention of his becoming a surgeon and walks the Peth Street Hospital for eight months. However, misfortune comes upon his uncle so he is obliged to provide for himself. Before leaving the university he, by chance, becomes acquainted with the actress Lucia Elizabeth Vestris.
Brougham goes to London in 1830 and, after a brief experience of poverty, suddenly determines to become an actor. He is destitute of everything except fine apparel and he has actually taken the extreme step of offering himself as a cadet in the service of the East India Company. But, being dissuaded by the enrolling officer, who lends him a guinea and advises him to seek other employment, and happening to meet with a festive acquaintance, he seeks recreation at the Tottenham Theatre where Madame Vestris is acting.
Brougham’s acquaintance with Madame Vestris leads to him being engaged at the theatre, and he thus makes his first appearance on the London stage in July in Tom and Jerry, in which he plays six characters. In 1831 he is a member of Madame Vestris’s company and writes his first play, a burlesque. He remains with Madame Vestris as long as she and Charles Mathews retain Covent Garden Theatre, and he collaborates with Dion Boucicault in writing London Assurance, the role of Dazzle being one of those with which he becomes associated. His success at small or “low” comic roles such as Dazzle earn him the nickname “Little Johnny Brougham,” a moniker which he embraces and which boosts his popularity with working-class audiences.
In 1840 Brougham manages the Lyceum Theatre, for which he writes several light burlesques, but in 1842 he moves to the United States, where he becomes a member of William Evans Burton‘s company, for which he writes several comedies, including Met-a-mora; or, the Last of the Pollywogs, a parody of John A. Stone and Edwin Forrest’s Metamora; or The Last of the Wamponoags, and Irish Yankee; or, The Birthday of Freedom.
Later Brougham is the manager of Niblo’s Garden, and in 1850 opens Brougham’s Lyceum, which, like his next speculation, the lease of the Bowery Theatre, is not a financial success, despite the popularity of such works as Po-ca-hon-tas; or, The Gentle Savage. He is later connected with James William Wallack‘s and Augustin Daly‘s theatres, and writes plays for both.
In 1860 Brougham returns to London, where he adapts or writes several plays, including The Duke’s Motto for Charles Fechter. In November 1864 he appears at the Theatre Royal in his native Dublin in the first performance of Dion Boucicault’s Arrah-na-Pogue with Boucicault, Samuel Johnson and Samuel Anderson Emery in the cast.
After the American Civil War Brougham returns to New York City. Brougham’s Theatre is opened in 1869 with his comedies Better Late than Never and Much Ado About a Merchant of Venice, but this managerial experience is also a failure due to disagreements with his business partner, James Fisk. He then takes to playing the stock market. His last appearance onstage is in 1879 as “O’Reilly, the detective” in Boucicault’s Rescued.
John Brougham dies in Manhattan on June 7, 1880.