Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

W. C. Macready in the Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

W. C. Macready in the Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

Article excerpt

In 1839, Dickens dedicated The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby to a close friend, "W. C. Macready, Esq." Macready was the leading actor of the day, renowned for his sensitive interpretations of Shakespearean roles, among them Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and Othello. He worked to prune Shakespeare's plays of alterations by Colley Cibber and Nahum Tate, and restore the original texts. Macready also did his best to encourage contemporary dramatists. He struggled to make Byron's Marino Faliero and Browning's Strafford succeed on the stage, and gave Sheridan Knowles, Thomas Talfourd, and Edward Bulwer Lytton at least a brief period of theatrical success. But it was his misfortune to preside over an arid period of English drama. Very little from the century between the death of Sheridan and the advent of Shaw and Wilde has survived in the dramatic repertoire, partly because managers preferred to have plays translated from French, since there was no copyright and so no royalties to pay: "'There, just turn that into English, and put your name on the title page,'" Mr. Crummles orders Nicholas, handing him the French play which the company performs a few days later (Nicholas Nickleby 288; ch. 23). Macready also struggled against the careless performance standards of the contemporary theatre, where rehearsals were often perfunctory, costumes and scenery inappropriate, and actors drunk or indifferent, even at the "national" theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

Dickens had applauded Macready in various roles from 1832 on. Novelist and actor met for the first time in June 1837, when John Forster brought "Dickens, alias Boz" to Macready's dressing room at the Haymarket Theatre (Macready 416). They immediately became friends, and from then on were frequently together. Their wives and children also became close, and Dickens and Macready each acted as godfather to one of the other's children. Dickens's dedication to Macready testifies to his "admiration and regard" for one who had become a close and valued friend and would remain so for the rest of his life, and at the same time recognizes the theatrical content of Nicholas Nickleby.

Macready's presence in Nicholas Nickleby is not confined to his brief appearance on the dedication page. What is said and not said in that dedication reflects a pervading issue in the novel. Despite his success as both actor and producer, Macready was deeply ashamed of his profession, partly because Victorian society did not consider an actor could be a gentleman, and partly because he feared that this was true. "I see a life gone in an unworthy, an unrequiting pursuit," he wrote in 1845, in a not untypical diary entry; "Great energy, great power of mind, ambition, and activity that, with direction, might have done anything, now made into a player!" (Macready 564).

Macready's father, a provincial actor-manager with some resemblance to Dickens's Vincent Crummles, raised his son to be a gentleman, and intended him for the Bar. He was educated at Rugby, where he acted in student plays, but at the same time acquired what William Archer calls "the morbid sensitiveness on the subject of his social status that tortured him in after-years" (Archer 12). His teachers and companions shared the prevailing prejudice against acting. In his Reminiscences he recalls successes in school performances of Monk Lewis's The Castle Spectre and Edward Young's Revenge, but remembers that one spectator declared, "'I would be uneasy if I saw a son of mine play so well.' I had, however, no thought of [acting] but as an amusement," he adds, "and my pride would have been wounded if a suspicion had been hinted that I could regard it in any other light" (Macready 18). But at sixteen he suddenly had to leave Rugby and go on the stage out of necessity, after his father's bankruptcy and brief imprisonment for debt.

Macready both shared and resented early Victorian society's prejudice against actors. …

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