Mr Macready and His Monarch

By Foulkes, Richard | Theatre Notebook, June 2011 | Go to article overview
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Mr Macready and His Monarch


Foulkes, Richard, Theatre Notebook


Queen Elizabeth I and Richard Burbage, King Charles II and Thomas Betterton, King George III and Sarah Siddons, Queen Victoria and William Charles Macready, King Edward VII and Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Laurence Olivier and Queen Elizabeth II. What if in each case the monarch and the leading actor of her/his day had kept diaries in which he/she recorded his/her impressions of each other even in some cases of the same theatrical performance, the monarch from the throne, the actor from the stage? Happily and literally uniquely this was the case with Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Macready (1793-1873), both of whom were diligent diarists committing their impressions of each other to paper for over twenty years between 1833 and 1851. Of all sources at the disposal of historians and biographers diaries, unless of course, as has sometimes been the case latterly, they are written with publication in mind, have the advantage of immediacy and candour. Such certainly was the case with both Macready and Victoria, especially in the former's case when his often disparaging private thoughts about his young monarch were at variance with the posture he struck in his public dealings with her and her officials.

By the 1830s Macready was the acknowledged head of the theatrical profession, a position that he retained until his carefully organised retirement in 1851 (Foulkes Macready). Although born into a theatrical family, the fifth of eight children of actor William Macready/M'cready and his wife Christina Birch, as a pupil at Rugby School William set his sights on a career in the church or law until a downturn in his father's fortunes resulted in his removal from Rugby, his enlistment in the family firm and--on 7 June 1810--his debut as Romeo in Birmingham. During a career that spanned over forty years and brought great acclaim and considerable financial rewards Macready struggled to reconcile himself to the lowly status of the profession into which he had been born and reluctantly enlisted. During the 1820s and 1830s Macready established himself as the head of this profession, successively managing the two great patent theatres Covent Garden (1837-39) and Drury Lane (1841-43). These theatres still enjoyed the monopoly on the staging of Shakespeare in the capital dating back to 1660, but finally abolished by the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843. Their status as National Theatres was fiercely contested at the time. As a manager Macready was innovative in several ways: restoring the text, holding painstaking rehearsals, paying detailed, historical attention to sets and costumes, making the auditorium comfortable and respectable for middleclass audiences and encouraging the likes of Robert Browning and Edward Bulwer Lytton to write plays (Foulkes Lives, 101-56). By the middle of the nineteenth century many European monarchs had court theatres which they heavily subsidised, but in England the extent of monarchical patronage was an occasional command performance and such less formal encouragement as accorded with their taste.

Macready was one of the first actors to establish an international reputation, visiting Paris in 1822 and 1844, performing before King Louis Philippe about whom as a professed republican Macready had mixed feelings (the patronage of the head of state was welcome even if he was a monarch) and making friends with George Sand. He visited republican America three times (in 18267, 1843-4 and 1848-9) and even seems to have considered retiring there, but on his final visit he was associated with Anglophile elitism and his rivalry with the American actor Edwin Forrest culminated in the Astor Place Riots, causing at least twenty-six fatalities (Cliff 240). Macready's motive had been to build up his funds for retirement and on his return he carried out a series of farewell performances, culminating in Macbeth at Drury Lane on 26 February 1851 and a grand dinner masterminded by Charles Dickens on 1 March. He had already settled on the impressive Sherborne House as his retirement home.

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