Friday, March 3, 2023

Acted Macbeth very unequally

‘I flung my whole soul into every word I uttered, acting my very best and exciting the audience to a sympathy even with the glowing words of fiction, whilst these dreadful deeds of real crime and outrage were roaring at intervals in our ears and rising to madness all round us.’ This is the great British actor, William Macready, born 230 years ago today, writing in his diary about a performance of Macbeth in New York. During the show more than 20 people died in a riot caused by the rivalry between Macready and another Shakespearean actor, Edwin Forrest.

Macready was born on 3 March 1793 into a theatrical family, and educated at Rugby. Although he intended to go to Oxford, he joined his father’s ailing company, appearing as Romeo when only 17. Soon, though, he fell out with his father, went to Bath for two years, and then, in 1816, made his debut on the London stage as Orestes in Racine’s The Distressed Mother. His stature as an actor developed with leading roles such as Rob Roy, Richard III and William Tell. In 1826, he married Catherine Atkins, and they had two children who survived into adulthood.

Subsequently, in the late 1830s, Macready became manager of Covent Garden, and, in the 1840s, of Drury Lane. He was an important person in the development of the theatre, insisting on rehearsals, accurate costumes and appropriate sets. He also sought to employ original texts in his revivals of Shakespeare’s plays. Macready made several trips to the US. During the final one of these, in 1849, a longstanding dispute with the US actor Edwin Forrest erupted and caused a riot - in which at least 25 were killed - at the Astor Place Theatre.

Macready retired after a performance of Macbeth at Drury Lane in February 1851. His wife died the following year, and he remarried in 1860. His second wife, Cecile Louise Frederica Spencer, gave him one more son, Nevil. Macready himself died in 1873. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (with login), or many out-of-copyright biographies available at Internet Archive: Macready’s Reminiscences and Selections from His Diaries and Letters edited by Sir Frederick Pollock; A life of William Charles Macready by W. T. Price; Macready as I Knew Him by Lady Pollock; and William Charles Macready by William Archer.

Macready was a meticulous and interesting diarist, and kept a journal for much of his working life. Carefully selected parts of this were published soon after his death, in the volumes edited by Sir Frederick Pollock, as mentioned above. A fuller edition of Macready’s diaries was edited by William Toynbee and published in 1912 by Chapman and Hall in two volumes - these too are available at Internet Archive, and are the source of the extracts below. A further edition of the diaries came out in 1967, edited by J. C. Trewin - The Journal of William Charles Macready, 1832-1851- and published by Longmans. Much of this book can be read at Googlebooks.

However, this most recent edition was based almost entirely on the earlier published diaries, since the original manuscripts were destroyed by Nevil Macready. His daughter, Mrs Lisa Puckle, is quoted in the Trewin edition as saying ‘I can speak definitively on this, as . . . my father destroyed the diaries, and I helped him in case they should fall into the wrong hands. My grandfather wrote very freely at times.’ Trewin’s edition does, though, benefit from the addition of 64 manuscript diary pages, written during Macready’s second tour to the US, that were discovered in 1960. ‘Despite its incompleteness,’ the ODNB concludes, ‘Macready’s diary constitutes a major resource, not only for the author’s life and career, but also for the theatrical and cultural world of his day’.

Macready’s diaries have already featured in The Diary Review, in an article to celebrate Dickens’ bicentenary. Here are several more extracts. The penultimate and very long one below was written following Macready’s performance of Macbeth at the Astor Palace in New York on 10 May 1849. Wikipedia says this about the so-called Astor Place Riot. ‘The riot - which left at least 25 dead and more than 120 injured - marked the first time a state militia had been called out and had shot into a crowd of citizens, and it led to the creation of the first police force armed with deadly weapons, yet its genesis was a dispute between Edwin Forrest, one of the best-known American actors of that time, and William Charles Macready, a similarly notable English actor, which largely revolved around which of them was better than the other at acting the major roles of Shakespeare.’ For more on this see a New York Times review of the 1912 edition of Macready’s diaries.

2 January 1833
‘My performance this evening of Macbeth afforded me a striking evidence of the necessity there is for thinking over my characters previous to playing, and establishing, by practice if necessary, the particular modes of each scene and important passage. I acted with much energy, but could not (as I sometimes can, when holding the audience in wrapt attention) listen to my own voice, and feel the truth of its tones. It was crude, and uncertain, though spirited and earnest; but much thought is yet required to give an even energy and finished style to all the great scenes of the play, except perhaps the last, which is among the best things I am capable of. Knowles is ravished with his own acting, and the supposed support it has met with. I wish I was with mine.’

3 January 1833
‘Went home to breakfast. Spent an idle, but in all other respects a happy day. A well-spent day is pleasing while it lasts, and pleasant to remember when for ever gone; a day of mere pleasure is agreeable in its passage, but regret attends its close in the reflection that time which God has given for employment has been squandered, or lost in idleness. Compunction is injurious if unproductive of improvement; let my revision of this day enable me to be more resolute in my resistance of future temptations, and teach me for my own and my children’s good the necessity of blending activity with enjoyment. In my absence from home I am sometimes inclined to question the prudence of living so far from town; but when, on reaching home, I taste the fresh air of the country, look over its extent of prospect, feel in a manner the free range of thought and sense through the expanse of earth and sky surrounding me, I confess to myself, in the delightful sensations I experience, that such enjoyment is worth some sacrifice.

3 March 1833
‘I am forty years of age! Need I add one word to the solemn reproof conveyed in these, when I reflect on what I am, and what I have done? What has my life been? a betrayal of a great trust, an abuse of great abilities! This morning, as I began to dress, I almost started when it occurred to me that it was my birthday.

Last night I began reading parts of Faublas [by Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvrai], and, as is my custom with novels, sat up late and continued it in bed until half-past five this morning. I rose late, and was shocked and ashamed to think that I had wasted, or rather misused, so much precious time over such immoral, irrational and debasing stuff.’

18 January 1836
‘Went to rehearsal at eleven o’clock; was kept waiting for some time; found things in a decent state, but the Lady Macbeth bad beyond all former out-doings - detestable! Heard of Mr Woulds’ ill success, and his reflections upon the public from the stage in consequence! Mr Denvil, who was my Macduff with a pair of well-grown moustaches, told me of his having pitched Mr Elliot, a pantomimist, from a height of eighteen feet, in which the pitched Elliot gloried to that degree that he even suffered pain from the surmise that some of the audience might suppose it was a dummy that was thrown. Now, what is ambition in the pleasure its success conveys? Was the Duke of Wellington more inwardly gratified after a victory than this man would be if three or four rounds of applause were to follow him into the black hole into which Mr Denvil or any other person might pitch him? Gloria mundi! Proceeded to the theatre. The house was very fair, and I tried to act with the millstone of Lady Macbeth round my neck. Oh! - Muses! I acted Macbeth very unequally - some parts I thought I did very well; the scene before the banquet and the melancholy of the fifth act particularly. I should, however, say that it was not sustained.’

19 January 1836
‘Acted Hamlet. Oh, how unlike my London performances! The best thing in the play was the grave scene; I played it well, the rest was effort and not good. Still worse, I was morose and ill-tempered. Fie! fie! shall I never outlive my folly and my vice? I fear not.’

2 December 1836
‘Acted Othello with earnestness and spirit, but occasionally weak as to physical power; very much applauded, and in possession of the audience; heard that Mrs Butler was in the theatre before the fifth act, and from a feeling of pique which I cannot altogether account for, except that I thought her an impostor in the art, took particular pains with the last scene, and played it very powerfully; was much applauded, and heard a call begun for me as I left the stage. The prompter came to my room for me, but when I reached the stage I heard that Mr Kemble (!) had gone on; this was too good, so I observed that they would no doubt be quiet, and returned. This was either a most extraordinary freak in the audience, or a most consummate piece of Jesuitical impertinence in him - to make something of himself before his daughter. I was not very pleased, but showed no feeling about it.’

11 July 1842
‘Went in a gig to Brighton; the morning made the drive over the downs, through Seaford and Newhaven, very pleasant. Where is beauty wanting in this world, if we do but choose to see it? Waited an hour and a quarter for the railway train at Brighton, reading Philip Van Artevelde, the first part of which I finished before I reached London. Went over to the Bank and received my dividends, from which the Income Tax was deducted. Bear on, ye free people, enslaved to the worst cant that ever stultified mankind.’

24 July 1845
‘Went to Brighton by railroad; saw that disgusting person, Mr ___, a disgusting member of a disgusting family - one who belongs to “the order” of “noble by convention”; pah! Read on my whole journey to Eastbourne Carlyle’s Life of Schiller - some contrast both in the character of the biographer and of the subject of his description to these elegant specimens of the man-made aristocracy. Delighted with the book - excited by the author and deeply interested in the character and fate of Schiller. Came on in a fly to Eastbourne.’

10 May 1849
‘I went, gaily, I may say, to the theatre, and on my way, looking down Astor Place, saw one of the Harlem cars on the railroad stop and discharge a full load of policemen; there seemed to be others at the door of the theatre. I observed to myself, “This is good precaution.” I went to my dressing-room, and proceeded with the evening’s business. The hairdresser was very late and my equanimity was disturbed. I was ruffled and nervous from fear of being late, but soon composed myself. The managers were delaying the beginning, and I was unwilling to be behind the exact hour.

The play began; there was some applause to Mr Clarke (I write of what I could hear in my room below). I was called, and at my cue went on with full assurance, confidence, and cheerfulness. My reception was very enthusiastic, but I soon discovered that there was opposition, though less numerously manned than on Monday. I went right on when I found that it would not instantly be quelled, looking at the wretched creatures in the parquette, who shook their fists violently at me, and called out to me in savage fury. I laughed at them, pointing them out with my truncheon to the police, who, I feared, were about to repeat the inertness of the previous evening. A black board with white letters was leaned against the side of the proscenium: “The friends of order will remain silent.” This had some effect in making the rioters more conspicuous.

My first, second, third scenes passed over rapidly and unheard; at the end of the fourth one of the officers gave a signal, the police rushed in at the two sides of the parquette, closed in upon the scoundrels occupying the centre seats and furiously vociferating and gesticulating, and seemed to lift them or bundle them in a body out of the centre of the house, amid the cheers of the audience. I was in the act of making my exit with Lady Macbeth, and stopped to witness this clever manoeuvre, which, like a coup de main, swept the place clear at once. As well as I can remember the bombardment outside now began. Stones were hurled against the windows in Eighth Street, smashing many; the work of destruction became then more systematic; the volleys of stones flew without intermission, battering and smashing all before them; the Gallery and Upper Gallery still kept up the din within, aided by the crashing of glass and boarding without.

The second act passed, the noise and violence without increasing, the contest within becoming feebler. Mr Povey, as I was going to my raised seat in the banquet scene, came up to me and, in an undertone and much frightened, urged me to cut out some part of the play and bring it to a close. I turned round upon him very sharply, and said that “I had consented to do this thing - to place myself here, and whatever the consequence I must go through with it - it must be done; that I could not cut out. The audience had paid for so much, and the law compelled me to give it; they would have cause for riot if all were not properly done.” I was angry, and spoke very sharply to the above effect. The banquet scene was partially heard and applauded. I went down to change my dress, the battering at the building, doors, and windows growing, like the fiends at the Old Woman of Berkely’s burial, louder and louder. Water was running down fast from the ceiling to the floor of my room and making a pool there. I inquired; the stones hurled in had broken some of the pipes.

The fourth act passed; louder and more fierce waxed the furious noises against the building and from without; for whenever a missile did effectual mischief in its discharge it was hailed with shouts outside; stones came in through the windows, and one struck the chandelier; the audience removed for protection behind the walls; the house was considerably thinned, gaps of unoccupied seats appearing in the audience part. The fifth act was heard, and in the very spirit of resistance I flung my whole soul into every word I uttered, acting my very best and exciting the audience to a sympathy even with the glowing words of fiction, whilst these dreadful deeds of real crime and outrage were roaring at intervals in our ears and rising to madness all round us. The death of Macbeth was loudly cheered, and on being lifted up and told that I was called, I went on, and, with action earnestly and most emphatically expressive of my sympathy with them and my feelings of gratefulness to them, I quitted the New York stage amid the acclamations of those before me.

Going to my room I began without loss of time to undress, but with no feeling of fear or apprehension. When washed and half dressed, persons came into my room - consternation on the faces of some; fear, anxiety, and distress on those of others. “The mob were getting stronger; why were not the military sent for?” “They were here.” “Where? Why did they not act?” “They were not here; they were drawn up in the Bowery.” “Of what use were they there?” Other arrivals. “The military had come upon the ground.” “Why did they not disperse the mob then?” These questions and answers, with many others, were passed to and fro among the persons round me whilst I was finishing my hasty toilet, I occasionally putting in a question or remark.

Suddenly we heard a volley of musketry: “Hark! what’s that?” I asked. “The soldiers have fired.” “My God!” I exclaimed. Another volley, and another! The question among those surrounding me [. . .] was, which way was I to go out? News came that several were killed; I was really insensible to the degree of danger in which I stood, and saw at once - there being no avoidance - there was nothing for it but to meet the worst with dignity, and so I stood prepared. They sent some one to reconnoitre, and urged the necessity of a change in my appearance. I was confident that people did not know my person, and repeated this belief. They overbore all objections, and took the drab surtout of the performer of Malcolm, he taking my black one; they insisted, too, that I must not wear my hat; I said, “Very well; lend me a cap.” Mr Sefton gave me his, which was cut all up the back to go upon my head. Thus equipped I went out, following Robert Emmett to the stage door; here we were stopped, not being allowed to pass.

The “friend” was to follow us as a sort of aide, but we soon lost him. We crossed the stage, descended into the orchestra, got over into the parquette, and passing into the centre passage went along with the thin stream of the audience moving out. We went right on, down the flight of stairs and out of the door into Eighth Street. All was clear in front - kept so by two cordons or lines of police at either end of the building stretched right across. We passed the line near Broadway, and went on threading the excited crowd, twice or three times muttering in Emmett’s ear, “You are walking too fast.” We crossed Broadway, still through a scattered crowd, and walked on along Clinton Place till we passed the street leading down to the New York Hotel. I then said, “Are you going to your own house?” “Yes.” We reached it, and having opened the door with a latch-key, closing it after us, he said, “You are safe here; no one will know anything about you; you shall have a bed in ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, and you may depend upon all in this house.”

I sat down in the drawing-room, talking of the facts about us, and wondering at myself and my condition, secretly preparing myself for the worst result, viz., falling into the hands of those sanguinary ruffians. A son of Emmett’s was there, Robert; in about a quarter of an hour Colden came in. Several men had been killed, how many not certainly known yet. “You must leave the city at once; you must not stay here!” It was then a consultation between these excellent friends, I putting in an occasional opinion objecting or suggesting upon the safest course to pursue. At length it was decided, and Robert was sent out to find Richard, another son, probably at the Racket Club, to put the plan in execution. He was met by Robert in the street, and both returned with additional reports; the crowd was still there, the excitement still active. Richard was sent to the livery stable to order a carriage and good pair of horses to be at Emmett’s door at four o’clock in the morning, “to take a doctor to some gentleman’s house near New Rochelle.” This was done and well done by him; Colden and Emmett went out to reconnoitre, and they had, as I learned from Emmett, gone to the New York hotel, at the door of which was still a knot of watchers, and to Emmett’s inquiries told him, if any threats were made, to allow a committee of the crowd to enter and search the house for me. Emmett returned with my own hat, one from the hotel, and I had got Colden’s coat. An omnibus drove furiously down the street, followed by a shouting crowd. We asked Richard, when he came in, what it was; he said, “Merely an omnibus,” but next morning he told me that he asked the men pursuing, “What was the matter?” and one answered, “Macready’s in that omnibus; they’ve killed twenty of us, and by G we’ll kill him!”

Well, all was settled; it was believed that twenty had perished. Robert went to bed to his wife. Emmett went upstairs to lie down, which I declined to do, and with Richard went down into the comfortable office below before a good fire and, by the help of a cigar, to count the slow hours till four o’clock. We talked and he dozed, and I listened to the sounds of the night, and thought of home, and what would be the anguish of hearts there if I fell in this brutal outbreak; but I resolved to do what was right and becoming. The clock struck four; we were on the move; Emmett came down; sent Richard to look after the carriage. All was still in the dawn of morning, but we waited some ten minutes - an age of suspense - the carriage arrived. I shook the hand of my preserver and friend - my heart responded to my parting prayer of “God bless him” - and stepping into the carriage, a covered phaeton, we turned up Fifth Avenue, and were on our way to safety. Thank God. During some of the time of waiting I had felt depressed and rather low, but I believe I showed no fear, and felt determined to do my duty, whatever it might be, acting or suffering. We met only market carts, butchers’ or gardeners’, and labourers going to their early work; the morning was clear and fresh, and the air was cooling to my forehead, hot and aching with want of sleep. The scenery through which we passed, crossing the Manhattan, giving views of the various inlets of the sound, diversified with gentlemen’s seats, at any other time would have excited an interest in me, now one’s thought or series of thoughts, with wanderings to home and my beloved ones, gave me no time for passing objects. I thought as we passed Harlem Station, it would never have done to have ventured there. Some of the places on the road were familiar to my recollection, having been known under happier circumstances.’

15 May 1849
‘Read the telegraphic verdict on the killed: “That the deceased persons came to their deaths by gun-shot wounds, the guns being fired by the military, by order of the civil authorities of New York and that the authorities were justified, under the existing circumstances, in ordering the military to fire upon the mob; and we further believe that if a larger number of policemen had been ordered out, the necessity of a resort to the use of the military might have been avoided.” ’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 3 March 2013.

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