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date: 21 July 2024

Macready, William Charlesfree


Macready, William Charlesfree

  • Richard Foulkes

William Charles Macready (1793–1873)

by John Jackson, 1821 [in the title role in 2 Henry IV]

Macready, William Charles (1793–1873), actor and theatre manager, was born on 3 March 1793 at 3 Mary Street (now 45 Stanhope Street), Euston Road, London, the fifth of the eight children of William Macready or M'cready (1755–1829) and his first wife, the actress Christina Ann, née Birch (1765–1803). He was baptized at St Pancras parish church on 21 January 1796, when his date of birth was erroneously given as 1792. William Macready senior was the son of a prosperous Dublin upholsterer, with whom he served an apprenticeship before taking to the stage. Following provincial engagements in Ireland, he joined the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin in 1785 to take over the part of Egerton to the Sir Pertinax McSycophant of the irascible and elderly (at least eighty-two) Charles Macklin in The Man of the World. Macklin used his influence to help Macready secure engagements in Liverpool and in Manchester, where on 18 June 1786 Macready married Christina Ann Birch at the collegiate church. Miss Birch came from genteel stock. Her grandfather, Jonathan Birch, was vicar of Bakewell in Derbyshire; two of her paternal uncles were clergymen; and her father, who died—badly off—when she was three, was a surgeon. On her mother's side she was descended from William Frye (d. 17 May 1736), president of the council of Montserrat.

On 18 September 1786 the elder Macready—again through Macklin's good offices—appeared at Covent Garden as Flutter in Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Stratagem; he remained in the company for ten years, never progressing from the ranks of supporting player, though he did enjoy some success as an adapter of old plays. Mrs Macready did not appear on the London stage. The couple's first three children died in infancy; their fourth child, Joanna, survived only until her seventh year, though she lived on in the memory of her younger brother William, whose birth in 1793 was followed by that of Laetitia in 1794 and Edward in 1798. While still a member of the Covent Garden company the elder Macready ventured into management, first at the Royalty Theatre, Wellclose Square, London, and next—in June 1795—at the newly opened theatre in New Street, Birmingham. Following a quarrel over his salary Macready left Covent Garden in 1797 and, after a further unsuccessful attempt at the Royalty, devoted himself to provincial management in Birmingham and beyond (Leicester, Sheffield, and Manchester), in support of which his wife resumed her stage career.

Early life and education

William Charles Macready was, in his own words, 'got out of the way' (Macready's Reminiscences, 2) and sent to school at an early age. When he was six he transferred from a preparatory school in Kensington to an establishment in St Paul's Square, Birmingham, where he distinguished himself by memorizing and reciting long extracts from Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope, marred only by his abuse of the letter ‘h’. In the school holidays his favourite recreations were performing some of his own compositions with his siblings and witnessing such luminaries as Thomas King, Sarah Siddons, and Elizabeth Billington performing in his father's theatre. On 3 March 1803 he entered Rugby School, where his mother's cousin William Birch was a master.

At the beginning of the Christmas holidays Macready was devastated by the news of his mother's death, which had occurred on 3 December 1803. His parents' motives in sending Macready to Rugby had been to educate him for a more respectable profession than the stage, which Macready told his headmaster, Dr Inglis, he very much disliked. Nevertheless, with his cousin Tom Birch, he absented himself from school to see the Infant Roscius, Master Betty, as Richard III in Leicester; Macready also assisted with (by borrowing books and costumes from his father) and performed in plays; and, under Inglis's successor, John Wooll, he won prizes for recitation and on speech day 1808 played the title role in the closet scene from Hamlet. That year Birch wrote to Macready's father of his son's 'wonderful talent for acting and speaking', which 'may be turned to good account in the Church or at the Bar; it is valuable everywhere' (Trewin, 22–3).

These hopes were dashed by the decline in the elder Macready's fortunes, as a result of which he withdrew his son from Rugby School at the end of 1808, Birch discharging the debt of over £100 for school fees. Though cut short, Macready's time at Rugby was immensely important to him throughout his life. It gave him the educational background—'he knew enough Greek to astonish a dinner party with a quotation from Homer' (Archer, 11)—to mix in cultivated society, and it fired him with a determination to elevate the stage to a status comparable to that of the other professions to which he had aspired.

Early career

Aged fifteen, Macready had to bide his time before making his professional acting début. He learned some juvenile roles in readiness and spent a short time in London, observing leading actors perform and taking fencing lessons, though this was a skill of which he never became master. Late in 1809 he was confronted with the task of salvaging the fortunes of his father's Chester company, which had not been paid for three weeks. Macready emerged—successfully—from the experience with the precepts about the hazards of theatrical management and the importance of financial probity which were to inform the rest of his career. By the summer of 1810 the elder Macready, who had spent a short time in prison for debt, was able to resume his Birmingham management, and it was there, on 7 June 1810, that William Charles Macready made his first appearance on any stage, as Romeo.

Macready's image as Romeo was captured in a portrait by Samuel De Wilde: a chubby-faced boy, in a costume including a broad flowered sash, almost under his armpits, an upstanding ruff, white kid gloves, white silk stockings and dancing pumps, and a large black hat with white plumes. After a faltering, mechanical start, Macready, encouraged by sympathetic applause from the audience, got the measure of his role and achieved what the audience, the critics, and the young actor himself recognized as a remarkable début. During the next four years as the juvenile lead in his father's company he played more than seventy different roles. In Newcastle upon Tyne early in 1811 he performed Hamlet, observing that 'a total failure in Hamlet is a rare occurrence' (Macready's Reminiscences, 37), and though, with a self-criticism which characterized him throughout life, he described his début in the role as 'my crude essay', it was pronounced a success. Also in Newcastle the young actor underwent the daunting experience of appearing opposite Mrs Siddons, as Beverley to her Mrs Beverley in Edward Moore's The Gamester and as Young Norval to her Lady Randolf in John Home's Douglas. Understanding and encouraging on stage and off, Mrs Siddons gave Macready some parting words of advice: 'You are in the right way, but remember what I say: study, study and do not marry till you are thirty!' (Archer, 21)—both of which injunctions he heeded.

Macready also performed with John Philip Kemble, Dorothy Jordan, and Charles Mayne Young; he adapted Scott's Marmion for his own benefit. Relations between father and son, who were both quick-tempered, became strained, and on 29 December 1814 Macready began an engagement in Bath, where his roles included Romeo, Hamlet, Hotspur, Richard II, and Orestes (in Ambrose Philips's The Distressed Mother). In the spring of 1815 Macready was in Glasgow and there he met—and scolded for not knowing her lines—a pretty nine-year-old girl, Catherine Frances Atkins (1803/4–1852), who was to become his first wife. In Dublin—in April 1815 and again in February 1816—Macready commanded a salary of £50 a week and was attracting the attention of London managers. Having declined an earlier offer from Covent Garden, he took an engagement there for five years at a weekly salary rising from £16 to £18, making his début as Orestes in The Distressed Mother on 16 September 1816.


Macready made a nervous start, a top-heavy auburn wig emphasizing his chubbiness. Leigh Hunt described him as 'one of the plainest and most awkwardly made men that ever trod the stage. His voice is even coarser than his personage' (Trewin, 44). Certainly the young Macready was not handsomely endowed physically, but other critics commended the power, harmony, and moderation of his voice, the expressiveness of his eyes, and the sharp intelligence of his characterization. Edmund Kean, conspicuous in a private box, joined in the warm applause, and the play was ‘given out’ for repetition the following Monday and Friday. Montevole in Robert Jephson's Julia, or, The Italian Lover on 30 September augmented his reputation, after which Macready was put to a sterner test, alternating Othello and Iago with Charles Mayne Young. His Othello (10 October) was creditable, but, in what was for him a new role, as Iago (15 October) he was judged to be tame—in Hazlitt's description 'a mischievous boy' whipping the 'great humming-top' which was Young's Othello. The quality of roles assigned to Macready by the Covent Garden manager, Henry Harris, who dubbed him the ‘Cock Grumbler’, was variable. He was deemed to be unsuited in appearance to romantic and heroic roles and was often cast as the villain in melodramas and more ambitious pieces. Macready confided his dissatisfaction to his diary, wondering whether to quit the stage and make a trial of his talents in some other profession. But, even in roles which he despised, he enhanced his reputation. On 15 April 1817, as Valentino, a traitor, in Dimond's Conquest of Taranto, he outshone Junius Brutus Booth, whose engagement at Covent Garden had deprived Macready of roles he might otherwise have expected to play. As Pescara in Sheil's The Apostate (3 May 1817), he won the praise of the German scholar Ludwig Tieck; he also met the great French actor Talma at the conclusion of John Philip Kemble's farewell season. Gradually better roles came his way—Romeo to Eliza O'Neill's Juliet, and Richard III (25 October 1819), in which he inevitably invited comparison with Edmund Kean. Colley Cibber's version was still preferred to Shakespeare and, as so often happened on big occasions, the first few scenes eluded Macready. He gained in confidence, and by Richard's death the actor's victory was complete.

Macready's success as Richard III restored the fortunes of Covent Garden, but when, following the death of George III, King Lear was restored to the repertory, Macready refused Harris's offer of the title role—in competition with Edmund Kean at Drury Lane—playing Edmund instead (13 April 1820), with Booth taking Lear. Macready's opportunity came with Sheridan Knowles's new play, Virginius. He took charge of rehearsals, the intensity of which was resented by senior actors unused to taking orders from anyone, let alone from the youngest member of the company. His careful preparation, as both actor and stage-manager, paid dividends: Virginius (17 May 1820) was a triumph and remained in his repertory to the end of his life. For his benefit (9 June 1820) Macready made his début as Macbeth, which was to become his favourite and most successful role. On tour in Scotland that summer he was supported by the fourteen-year-old Catherine Atkins, whom he induced his father to engage for the Bristol company of which he was then manager.

Back at Covent Garden for the 1820–21 season, Macready failed as Iachimo in Cymbeline (18 October 1820). In Richard III (12 March 1821) he partially reinstated Shakespeare's text, but in The Tempest (15 May 1821) he countenanced further maltreatment by Reynolds of the DavenantDryden perversion. In his London début as Hamlet he presented a lachrymose, self-pitying, inky cloaked Dane (8 June 1821), but scored a success as the King in 2 Henry IV, staged as a coronation attraction, a performance captured in John Jackson's portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery). Having fulfilled his original five-year contract at Covent Garden, Macready renewed his engagement for a further five years, beginning in the autumn of 1821. The 1821–2 season was idle and inglorious for him, the only noteworthy event being a successful revival of Julius Caesar, in which he played Cassius. In spring 1822 Charles Kemble, by his brother John Philip's gift, became co-proprietor of Covent Garden. The already uneasy relationship between Macready and Charles Kemble deteriorated when Macready returned from a European vacation and found the Covent Garden regime much reduced by ill-advised economies. Many senior members of the company defected to Drury Lane, where R. W. Elliston trebled their salaries. Macready remained at Covent Garden, performing the title role in Mary Russell Mitford's Julian (15 March 1823) and adding Cardinal Wolsey and King John to his Shakespearian repertory. Increasingly dissatisfied, after a heated exchange of letters and pamphlets with the Covent Garden management, he terminated his contract and joined the other refugees at Drury Lane, at a salary of £20 a night.

Macready made his Drury Lane début in Virginius on 13 October 1823, followed by his London début as Leontes (3 November 1823) and another—inferior—piece by Sheridan Knowles, Caius Gracchus (18 November 1823). His only other new part was the Duke in Measure for Measure (1 May 1824). In the autumn of 1823, following her father's death by drowning, Catherine Atkins had become Macready's betrothed. Although Macready had attained thirty years of age, he postponed his marriage, at his sister Laetitia's suggestion, if not insistence, so that his bride-to-be could benefit from a period of study and improvement under her future sister-in-law's supervision. The wedding ceremony took place at St Pancras Church on 24 June 1824. Laetitia lived with the Macreadys throughout their married life, surviving her sister-in-law by six years.

Macready appeared at Drury Lane intermittently for thirteen years, during which he did not add materially to his reputation. His success as Remont in Sheil's expurgated adaptation of Massinger's The Fatal Dowry (5 January 1825) was interrupted by serious illness (inflammation of the diaphragm) which caused concern for his life. He recovered to play the title role in Knowles's William Tell (11 May 1825), which, though turgid and long-winded, provided him with some effectively overwrought scenes suited to his style. Following some provincial engagements, a period of rest in a country retreat near Denbigh, and a short season at Drury Lane (10 April to 19 May 1826) in which he undertook no new roles, Macready, with his wife and sister, sailed from Liverpool on 2 September 1826 for New York. He made his American début, under the management of Stephen Price, at the Park Theatre, New York, on 2 October 1826, as Virginius, and was warmly received by the public and the press. While in New York he attended a performance of Julius Caesar in which Mark Antony was played by a vigorous 21-year-old called Edwin Forrest, whom he met socially. By the time he took his farewell benefit in New York on 4 June 1827, playing Macbeth and Delaval, Macready had appeared in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Albany, and other American cities, in all of which he had been enthusiastically received.

Back at Drury Lane—under Price's management—Macready appeared as Macbeth (12 November 1827), a performance which impressed the German visitor Prince Pückler-Muskau for its striking excellence in the murder scene, the banquet scene, and the last act. He could salvage little from either Reynolds's historical patchwork play Edward the Black Prince (28 January 1828) or Lord Porchester's Don Pedro (10 March 1828). On 7 April 1828 Macready appeared in Paris as Macbeth, partnered by Harriet Smithson, whose previous performances in that city had been greatly admired (particularly by Hugo, Dumas, and Berlioz), but her Lady Macbeth was exposed as tame, and feeble beside Macready's fiery and energetic Thane. Macready returned to Paris in June and July, adding to his laurels—he was judged the equal of Talma—as Virginius, Tell, Hamlet, and Othello.

After returning home, Macready devoted himself principally to starring engagements in the provinces. His father died on 11 April 1829 and for two years Macready, with Richard Brunton, held the lease of the Theatre Royal, Bristol, until his stepmother, Sarah Macready, took it over in her own right in 1833. Macready's first child, Christina Laetitia, was born on 26 December 1830; he was now in a financial position to support a family, his income in 1828 amounting to £2361 and in 1829 to £2265. On 18 October 1830 he appeared at Drury Lane for the first time in two years, and on 15 December he triumphed over the unpromising raw material of Lord Byron's play Werner to achieve a major success as the gloomy, conscience-stricken title character. In 1831–2 Macready's appearances amounted to only fifty-two, compared with ninety-nine in the previous season. The highlight of the 1832–3 season was Othello (26 November 1832), with Edmund Kean in the title role infuriating Macready (Iago) by resorting to the old trick of upstaging—standing a few paces further upstage than his interlocutor, who was consequently forced to appear in profile to the audience. Strained though their professional relationship had been, Macready was a pallbearer at Kean's funeral on 25 May 1833.

Even though Macready's recent achievements had not been outstanding, retirements and deaths combined to place him, at the age of forty, at the forefront of his profession. Unfortunately, the control of the two patent theatres (Covent Garden and Drury Lane), which had enjoyed a monopoly over legitimate drama in London since the restoration of Charles II, was now in the hands of one man, Alfred Bunn, whose character and habits were altogether antipathetic to Macready. Macready naturally resisted Bunn's attempt to reduce the large salaries which he considered to be the ruin of the stage. Furthermore, Bunn was determined not to let his principal tragedian rust in idleness, and exacted fifteen appearances from Macready between 5 and 30 October 1833. On 21 November Macready, struggling against illness, insufficient rehearsal, and deplorable mounting, played Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. Shortly afterwards he offered to pay Bunn a premium in exchange for release from his contract, but the manager declined. However, he did enjoy some remission in the number of his performances leading up to Bunn's much-heralded production of Byron's Sardanapalus on 10 April 1834. For his benefit on 23 April Macready made his metropolitan début as King Lear, having played the role in Swansea the previous year. Though purged of Tate's absurdities, this was still an incomplete text (without the Fool), but Macready had begun his assault on one of the peaks of the Shakespearian repertory, which, eventually, he was to conquer.

On 21 September 1835 Macready signed a contract with Bunn for Drury Lane (Covent Garden having passed out of Bunn's control). Although Macready had a veto over roles which he deemed to be of a melodramatic character, he was still subject to Bunn's will in the classical repertory. He could find no spark in Jaques (3 October), but off-stage, at the end of act III of Richard III on 29 April 1836, his anger was ignited by the sight of Bunn attending to his managerial duties. Macready denounced the manager as a 'damned scoundrel' and struck him in the face. Although he had been caught unaware, Bunn seemed to be getting the upper hand in the ensuing struggle before the two men were separated. Macready unburdened both his anger and his shame in his diary: 'this most indiscreet most imprudent, most blameable action' (Macready's Reminiscences, 380). The incident reverberated through the press. Bunn sued Macready for assault. The barrister and playwright Thomas Noon Talfourd appeared for Macready, and, though his attempt to present his client as the victim was unconvincing, the actor got off relatively lightly with damages of £150. The warm reception which greeted Macready when he appeared as Macbeth at Covent Garden on 11 May 1836 was indicative of public sympathy. Nevertheless, at the end of his performance he publicly expressed his self-reproach and regret for his intemperate and imprudent act.

Regrettable though the incident with Bunn undoubtedly was, it proved to be the turning of the tide in Macready's affairs which, taken at the flood, led on to fortune, for at Covent Garden he laid the foundations of what were to be the major achievements of his career. In Benjamin Thompson's The Stranger on 18 May 1836 he appeared for the first time with Helen Faucit, his future leading lady. On 26 May, after the first performance of Ion, by his erstwhile defending counsel Talfourd, he conversed at a celebratory supper with Wordsworth, Walter Savage Landor, Mary Russell Mitford, Clarkson Stanfield, John Forster, and Robert Browning, to whom he said: 'Will you write me a tragedy, and save me going to America?' (Archer, 99). The result, Browning's Strafford, was performed on 1 May 1837, before which, on 4 January, Macready and Helen Faucit had appeared in The Duchess de la Vallière, by another recruit to the theatre from the ranks of literature—Edward Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton). From the Shakespeare canon King John (6 October 1836), with Macready as the King and Helen Faucit as Constance, had emerged as a play worthy of further attention.

Early days as theatre manager

Macready now nerved himself to take the decisive step of entering into management, with the hazards of which he had been familiar since childhood. He did so at a peculiarly difficult time, for, though the recommendation of the 1832 select committee on the dramatic literature to abolish the patent theatres' monopoly had been defeated in parliament, its eventual implementation was not in doubt. In assuming the management of Covent Garden Macready was asserting not only his professional leadership, but also the status of the patent houses as national theatres devoted to higher ideals than commercial advantage. Charles Kean declined Macready's invitation to join the company, but Samuel Phelps, James Anderson, George Bennett, Mary Amelia Warner, Priscilla Horton (later Reed), and Helen Faucit accepted. The opening production was The Winter's Tale (30 September 1837), in which Macready made a slow start as Leontes, but he and his carefully rehearsed company brought the evening to a commanding conclusion. He gave reprises of his established roles—Hamlet, Virginius, and Macbeth—but his Henry V (14 November) had no gleam of the famous revival to come. Since he regarded a strong musical side as an integral part of a patent theatre's repertory, Macready staged John Pyke Hullah's new comic opera The Barbers of Bassora (11 November) and T. B. Rooke's new dramatic opera Amilie, or, The Love Test (2 December). No royalist, he eschewed the practice of raising seat prices for a royal command performance, and as a consequence the house for Queen Victoria's visit to Werner on 17 November was uncomfortably overcrowded. This, alas, was exceptional and as Christmas approached Macready was said to have lost £3000. The coffers were replenished by the pantomime Harlequin and Peeping Tom of Coventry, of which Clarkson Stanfield's diorama was the centrepiece, but Macready had not entered management to stage spectacle, pantomime, and opera, and on 25 January 1838 he staked his reputation on a revival of King Lear. Rehearsals had begun on 4 January; every aspect of the production received Macready's painstaking attention, none more so than the Fool, to whose overdue restoration he was committed. Initially he cast Drinkwater Meadows, but he seized on George Bartley's suggestion that a woman should play the part, and allotted it to Priscilla Horton. John Forster, who described the Fool as 'interwoven with Lear', hailed Macready's performance as 'the only perfect picture we have had of Lear since the age of Betterton' (The Examiner, 4 Feb 1838).

Introducing new plays

The encouragement of new dramatists was as central to Macready's enterprise as the restoration of the classical repertory. Since mid-November 1837 he had been discussing a new play with Edward Bulwer, and their surviving correspondence reveals the extent of the actor's contribution to the work. The Lady of Lyons opened on 15 February 1838, but the author's identity was not revealed until 24 February, by which time, after an uncertain start, the play's success was assured. Bulwer's refusal of royalties reflected the commitment of Macready's circle to his enterprise: Stanfield had accepted only half (£150) of the payment due to him for the pantomime diorama. The success of The Lady of Lyons (thirty-three performances) afforded Macready time and money to mount a large-scale production of Coriolanus (12 March 1838), in which the scenery and crowd effects eclipsed his own lacklustre performance as Caius Marcius. For his benefit on 7 April he staged Byron's The Two Foscari and on 23 May he introduced Sheridan Knowles's new play, Woman's Wit, or, Love's Disguises, which was enthusiastically received. During his first season as a manager Macready had devoted fifty-five of the 211 acting nights to performances of eleven Shakespeare plays. Had he not been opposed to the long-run system, he could have exploited the success of King Lear and Coriolanus further.

Shakespeare at Covent Garden

Macready maintained substantially the same company for his second Covent Garden season, which began on 24 September 1838 with Coriolanus, in which he ceded the title role to John Vandenhoff. The first great effort was The Tempest (13 October), but, although Macready banished Dryden and Davenant, he also dispensed with the dialogue of the first scene in favour of a spectacular shipwreck. Macready's partnership with Bulwer was resumed with Richelieu, on which the two men collaborated for several months prior to its successful première on 7 March 1839. Following a rapturous first night, at which Bulwer no longer hedged his bets under the cloak of anonymity, Richelieu ran for thirty-seven performances with Macready as Richelieu, Helen Faucit as his ward, Julie de Mortemar, and Samuel Phelps as Father Joseph. For Miss Faucit's benefit on 18 April As You Like It was staged, but Macready's major Shakespearian work of the season was Henry V (10 June). His own performance as Henry was merely conventional, but Clarkson Stanfield's pictorial illustrations of Chorus's speeches significantly advanced the art of scenic design to critical and popular acclaim, though Macready restricted performances to four a week. The excessive caution of his proposition to the Covent Garden proprietors for a third season suggests that he did not desire or intend it to be accepted. At a public dinner at the Freemasons' Tavern on 20 July 1839, with the duke of Sussex in the chair and Dickens, Bulwer, and Richard Monckton Milnes present, Macready proclaimed that his poverty, not his will, had obliged him to desist from management. His achievements were considerable: the restoration of Shakespeare's plays and their staging on a hitherto unexampled scale; the encouragement of new drama, Bulwer in particular; and, while ensuring that his own pre-eminence was not challenged, a high standard of ensemble acting—all of this within a policy dedicated to maintaining a repertory commensurate with a national theatre and opposed to the exploitation of long runs. At this time Macready sought the post of reader of plays in the lord chamberlain's office. His autocratic and irascible temperament made him ill-suited for such a function, but perhaps he thought it would afford him the opportunity to shape the nation's drama without incurring the financial risks of management. In the event, Charles Kemble was succeeded by his son John Mitchell Kemble.

Return to acting

For the next two and a half years Macready worked as an actor, principally at the Haymarket Theatre under Benjamin Webster. He appeared in two further works by BulwerThe Sea Captain, or, The Birthright (31 October 1839) and Money (8 December 1840)—with the writing and staging of which he was closely involved. Bulwer's contemporary comedy of manners, Money, had been postponed because of the death of Macready's daughter Joan on 25 November 1840. Other personal matters intruded: it was during this period at the Haymarket that Macready was the subject of backstage gossip—by Ellen Tree, Mary Warner, and Harriette Lacy—concerning his relationship with Helen Faucit. The young actress's nightly visits to Macready's room after the performance were avowedly for help with her studies, but even Macready could not entirely discount his protégée's feelings for him or suppress completely his own susceptibility to what he described, in a poem inscribed in her album, as Miss Faucit's 'holier charm' (Trewin, 168).

Managing Drury Lane

The days of the patent theatres' monopoly were now clearly numbered, and Macready, who in his evidence to the 1832 select committee had advocated reform rather than abolition, was tempted to seize one last opportunity to manage one of the great metropolitan houses. On 4 October 1841, encouraged by Dickens, Forster, and the rest of his loyal coterie, Macready took Drury Lane, but the refurbishments required were such that the season did not open until 27 December. He regrouped many of his Covent Garden company with the additions of Miss Fortescue, Marston, Compton, Hudson, and the Keeleys. Following a careful revival of The Merchant of Venice (27 December 1841), albeit without either Morocco or Arragon, Macready retrieved The Two Gentlemen of Verona (29 December 1841), but it was with Acis and Galatea (5 February 1842), arranged and adapted from Handel with sets by Clarkson Stanfield, that he achieved his first great success. Other features of the season were Douglas Jerrold's new play The Prisoner of War (8 February)—no role for Macready, but the Keeleys in fine form—and Gerald Griffin's Gisippus, which sustained twenty performances with Macready in the title role and Helen Faucit as Sophronia.

Macready's second Drury Lane season opened on 1 October 1842, when his sombre Jaques took his place in an elaborately mounted (the Forest of Arden by courtesy of Clarkson Stanfield) and strongly cast As You Like It. This was followed on 24 October by a lavish production of King John with Macready at his best as the subtly sinister John, Helen Faucit a high-souled Constance, and Phelps exuding manly pathos as Hubert. William Telbin's scenery set the standard for Victorian pictorial revivals of Shakespeare's histories, and was complemented by historically accurate costumes, attributed by Charles Shattuck to Colonel Charles Hamilton Smith. The importance of the two revivals was both immediate and far-reaching, as Charles Shattuck indicates:

But taken as a whole—the arrangement of the text, the ensemble playing, the stage decoration, the stage management, and the overall conception—King John was, together with As You Like It which had opened the season three weeks earlier, the finest work that Macready had ever put together.

Shattuck, Macready's King John, 2

Macready fared less well with new plays. Westland Marston's The Patrician's Daughter (10 December 1842), in which he played Mordaunt, proved a barren success, as did Browning's A Blot in the 'Scutcheon (11 February 1843), in which he did not appear. For his benefit on 24 February 1843 Macready, whose forte was not comedy, made the surprising choice of Much Ado about Nothing; his Benedick was described by James Anderson (Claudio) as being as melancholy as a mourning coach in a snowstorm. Unsparingly, the evening was concluded with Comus. By 6 May it was apparent that Macready could not come to satisfactory terms with the Drury Lane committee for the continuation of his management. He made his valedictory appearance on 4 June 1843 as Macbeth. At a dinner at Willis's Rooms on 19 June, the duke of Cambridge presented Macready with a testimonial in the form of a massive and elaborate piece of silver in which Shakespeare and the tragedian both featured prominently. In response Macready proclaimed, 'I aimed at elevating everything represented on the stage', and accepted 'this crowning gift' as an assurance that 'whatever may have been the pecuniary results of my attempts to redeem the Drama, I have secured some portion of public confidence' (Macready's Reminiscences, 527). At Drury Lane, Macready had abided by the same guiding principles—restoring Shakespeare, encouraging new plays, improving standards of acting, scenery, and soon—as he had at Covent Garden, and in doing so he had secured a greatly increased portion of public confidence, not only for himself, but also for the profession which he had so reluctantly joined and of which he was now the undisputed leader. But Macready had made little, if any, money as a manager, and it was to the accumulation of sufficient funds to ensure a dignified and comfortable retirement that he devoted the remaining years of his career.

At home and abroad

On 5 September 1843 Macready sailed from Liverpool for America. Samuel Phelps, who under Macready's management had smarted from having his talents held in check, declined to accompany him, recognizing his own opportunity at home during Macready's absence. John Ryder went instead, to play seconds and help with the tour arrangements. In New York the English actors were visited by Edwin Forrest, whose marriage to Catherine Sinclair at St Paul's, Covent Garden, Macready had attended in June 1837. Macready opened at the Park Theatre with Macbeth on 25 September 1843 and proceeded to Philadelphia (where he met Charlotte Cushman), Boston, Baltimore, St Louis, New Orleans, and Montreal. He played an extensive repertory, his heavy Shakespearian parts being particularly well received. He was befriended by Emerson, Longfellow, and other men of eminence and returned home after a year's absence some £5500 the wealthier.

In December 1844, accompanied by his wife, Macready went to Paris to carry out engagements with Helen Faucit. Their performances in Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Virginius were warmly received; Théophile Gautier, George Sand, Eugène Delacroix, Hugo, and Dumas all expressed their admiration. After returning to England early in 1845, Macready devoted the next three years principally to provincial engagements. In London he undertook a series of short engagements (usually for a stated number of weeks at three nights a week) at the Princess's Theatre in Oxford Street, under the management of J. M. Maddox. His repertory was predominantly Shakespearian, but on 20 May 1846 he created the role of James V of Scotland in The King of the Commons by the Revd James White of Bonchurch. On 22 November 1847 he appeared in his own botched arrangement of Sir Henry Taylor's Philip Van Artevelde. On 7 December 1847 Macready returned to Covent Garden to play the death scene of King Henry IV in a programme entitled 'Shakespeare Night' to raise funds for the purchase of Shakespeare's birthplace. Back at the Princess's in spring 1848 there was little rapport with his leading lady, Fanny Kemble. From 24 April to 8 May 1848 he appeared for Mary Warner at the Marylebone Theatre, and on 10 July he took a farewell benefit at Drury Lane, commanded by the queen, in which Charlotte Cushman played Queen Katharine to his Wolsey. Receipts totalled over £1100, the house being so crowded that some disturbance marred the occasion.

Disastrous farewell tour of America, 1848–1849

This disturbance presaged Macready's ill-fated farewell visit to America, on which he set forth from Liverpool on 9 September 1848, again accompanied by John Ryder. There were rumours of hostility towards Macready, but his first performance on 4 October (in New York as Macbeth) was warmly received. Unwisely, Macready made a curtain speech thanking his audience for having refuted his detractors. The speech was seized upon as a challenge by James Oakes, a friend of Edwin Forrest, who was generally perceived as the source of anti-Macready feeling. Oakes published a lengthy piece in the Boston Mail (30 October) setting out Forrest's grievances, foremost that Macready had treated the American actor with indignity during his 1845 visit to London and that Macready or John Forster had packed the Princess's Theatre with a hostile claque. During Macready's engagement (20 November to 2 December 1848) at the Arch Theatre in Philadelphia, Forrest appeared at the Walnut Theatre, duplicating Macready's role wherever possible. The two actors published rival accounts of what had taken place in 1845 and Macready began an action against Forrest. While awaiting documents from England, Macready continued his tour, visiting Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, New Orleans, and St Charles, without incident until, in Cincinnati, half a raw carcass of sheep was propelled onto the stage by a ruffian in the gallery. Even this was only a drunken gesture, and the audience rallied indignantly round the actor.

During the performance of Macbeth at the Astor Place Theatre, New York, on 7 May, the stage was rained with copper cents, eggs, apples, potatoes, and a bottle of horribly pungent asafoetida, which splashed Macready's costume. By the third act chairs were being thrown from the gallery and, though Macready stood his ground apparently unmoved, the performance was abandoned. Meanwhile, at the Broadway Theatre, Edwin Forrest had completed his performance—as Macbeth—uninterrupted. Macready's next appearance was announced for 10 May, when posses of police were stationed in the auditorium. Trouble-makers—fewer in number—who had infiltrated the auditorium were ejected by the police, but this further incited the mob outside, who bombarded the theatre with loose paving stones. Troops retaliated in self-preservation, and between seventeen and twenty rioters were killed and many others injured. Macready finished his performance, thanked his supporters, and then, having changed clothes with another actor, made his escape, accompanied only by Robert Emmett, initially by carriage to New Rochelle, then to Boston, and ten days later home to England. Macready had shown considerable courage, but he had also been characteristically tactless and self-assertive. He was, furthermore, the victim of a nationalist undercurrent sweeping America to which the unfavourable accounts of the country by Frances Trollope and Dickens had contributed. The Astor Place riot and the circumstances surrounding it were to be the subject of Richard Nelson's play Two Shakespearian Actors (1990).

Final appearances and last days

Following his return to England, Macready undertook farewell performances in the provinces and in London. In two seasons at the Haymarket Theatre (8 October to 8 December 1849 and 28 October to 3 February 1851) he gave reprises of his Shakespearian repertory and his contemporary successes Richelieu and Virginius. On 1 February 1850 he performed at Windsor Castle in Julius Caesar, playing Brutus to the Antony of Charles Kean, whose appointment as director of the Windsor Theatricals he had deeply resented. The definitive farewell performance took place at Drury Lane on 26 February 1851, with Mary Warner (Lady Macbeth) and Phelps (Macduff) supporting Macready's valediction as Macbeth. The occasion reverberated with excitement and enthusiasm, but Macready remained dignified and in his curtain speech steadfastly avoided any show of simulated sorrow. The inevitable public dinner followed on 1 March, with Bulwer in the chair, speeches by Dickens, Thackeray, and Bunsen, and the recitation by Forster of Tennyson's sonnet 'To W. C. Macready':

Farewell, Macready, since this night we part,Go, take thine honours home …Thine is it that our drama did not die,Nor flicker down to brainless pantomime,And those gilt gauds men-children swarm to see.Farewell, Macready, moral, grave, sublime …

Macready retired to a substantial house in Sherborne, Dorset. On 18 September 1852 his wife died unexpectedly while the couple were visiting Plymouth; many of their children went prematurely to the grave. In Sherborne, Macready busied himself with the abbey church, of which he became a church warden; the Sherborne Literary Institute, of which he was a board member; and an evening school, of which James Fraser, later bishop of Manchester, wrote as a member of the 1858 royal commission on popular education:

the only really efficient one [night school] that I witnessed at work, the only one full of life and progress and tone of the best kind, was the one at Sherborne which owes its origin and its prosperity to the philanthropic zeal and large sacrifices of money, time, and personal comfort of Mr Macready.

Report of the Assistant Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State of Popular Education in England, 1861, 2.52

On 3 April 1860, at the age of sixty-seven, Macready married Cecile Louise Frederica Spencer (d. 1908), many years his junior, at Clifton parish church. Shortly afterwards the Macreadys moved to Wellington Square, Cheltenham. A son, Cecil Frederick Nevil Macready, was born on 7 May 1862; he pursued a military career, becoming a general and a baronet. For the last two years of his life Macready was an invalid—his hands were paralysed and his speech was blurred, though his mind remained active—and he died at 6 Wellington Square, Cheltenham, on 27 April 1873. He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery on 4 May. In 1914 Nevil Macready destroyed what would have been his father's richest legacy, his copious and uninhibited diaries, lest they might be injudiciously used. Sir Frederick Pollock's edition (2 vols., 1875; 1 vol., 1876) was highly selective, and though William Toynbee (1912) was more inclusive he omitted some important passages from the Pollock text. J. C. Trewin's abridged collection (1967) includes extracts from sixty-four manuscript pages discovered in 1960 and subsequently deposited in the Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection. Despite its incompleteness, 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 was a complex individual. He had his father's quick temper, of which he was fully aware, although he was not always able to curb it in his professional dealings. His education at Rugby School encouraged his aspirations to the status of a gentleman, and while he resented being obliged to abandon his hopes of the church or the bar as a career, he equally resented any supposed slur upon his personal status or that of his enforced calling, the theatre. He cultivated his own learning and way of life in concert with his friendships with leading intellectual, literary, and artistic figures of his day (Carlyle, Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray, Forster, Browning, and Bulwer), but, though this benefited the theatre, it also set Macready apart from the rest of his profession. His two periods of management were informed by high principles: he conducted his enterprises as national theatres, eschewing crude commercialism. He materially advanced the art of the theatre in all its facets: his rehearsals were unprecedented in their length and rigour; his attention to mise-en-scène set standards for generations to come; his acting versions marked a significant advance in the restoration of Shakespeare's texts; his encouragement of Browning, Bulwer, and Knowles resulted in plays of serious literary intent; and his engagement of actors of the calibre of Phelps, Ryder, and Helen Faucit produced a generally high standard of ensemble acting, even if Macready was sometimes swayed by jealousy of potential rivals. As an actor, although he was not endowed with great physical advantages, Macready had a good figure, a strong stage presence, an expressive face (especially his eyes), and a commanding voice, which, though not naturally musical, was capable of varied modulation. He avoided the excesses of the Kemble school of stately declamation, striving to introduce naturalistic familiarity, often through over-abrupt transitions from the declamatory to the conversational. He was also prone to insert the letter ‘a’ indiscriminately—thus Burnam Wood was seen 'a-coming'. His greatest quality was his intellectual ability to penetrate and to express the psychological nature of his characters; thus Macbeth's moral decline was charted from the erect martial figure of act I to the self-abased murderer, with crouching form and stealthy felon-like step, at the end. Macready was ill-suited to comedy, but as a tragedian he scaled the Shakespearian peaks of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear. In contemporary drama he succeeded in investing the works of Knowles, Bulwer, and others with a vitality and stageworthiness which compensated for, and even disguised, their deficiencies. For nigh on twenty years Macready dominated the English stage. Although he was a reluctant member of the acting profession, in it Macready achieved an eminence comparable to the leaders of the other professions to which he had aspired, and it was in large measure thanks to him that, by the end of the nineteenth century, the theatre enjoyed the status and esteem which had been denied it at the beginning.


  • Macready's reminiscences, and selections from his diaries and letters, ed. F. Pollock, new edn (1876)
  • W. Archer, William Charles Macready (1890)
  • J. Pollock, Macready as I knew him (1884)
  • The diaries of William Charles Macready, 1833–1851, ed. W. Toynbee, 2 vols. (1912)
  • N. Macready, Annals of an active life, 2 vols. [1924]
  • G. H. Lewes, An actor and the art of acting (1875)
  • J. W. Marston, Our recent actors, new edn (1890)
  • C. H. Shattuck, ed., Bulwer and Macready: a chronicle of the early Victorian theatre (1958)
  • C. H. Shattuck, ed., William Charles Macready's King John (1962)
  • A. S. Downer, The eminent tragedian William Charles Macready (1966)
  • T. Martin, Helen Faucit (1900)
  • T. Martin, Essays on the drama (1889)
  • J. C. Trewin, Mr Macready (1955)
  • The journals of William Charles Macready, ed. J. C. Trewin (1967)
  • G. Scharf, jun., Recollections of the scenic effects of the Covent Garden Theatre (1838)
  • W. H. D. Rouse, A history of Rugby School (1898)
  • The Era
  • d. cert.
  • C. H. Shattuck, The Shakespeare prompt books (1965)
  • Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, 5/67 (1826)


  • BL, corresp.
  • Harvard U., prompt books
  • Hunt. L., letters
  • Mander and Mitchenson theatre collection, London
  • Princeton University Library, New Jersey, corresp. and papers
  • Gwent RO, corresp. with J. E. W. Rolls
  • Herts. ALS, letters to Lord Lytton


  • G. Clint, oils, 1821, V&A
  • J. Jackson, oils, 1821, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. Inman, oils, 1827, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • W. Behnes, marble bust, 1843–4, NPG
  • H. P. Briggs, oils, 1844, Garr. Club
  • G. Wightwick, drawing, 1869, NPG
  • watercolour, 1870 (after photograph), NPG
  • J. Boaden, oils (as Orestes), Garr. Club
  • P. Hollins, plaster bust, Royal Shakespeare Theatre
  • D. Maclise, oils (after , 1849–50), V&A
  • D. Maclise, oils, Drury Lane Theatre, London
  • D. Maclise, portrait (as Werner), V&A, theatre collections
  • attrib. D. Maclise, watercolour, NPG
  • Mason, photograph, NPG
  • Woodman, engraving (as Romeo; after S. De Wilde), Harvard TC
  • illustrations (as Macbeth), repro. in Downer, The eminent tragedian
  • portraits, repro. in Scharf, Recollections
  • print (as King Lear; with Helen Faucit as Cordelia), repro. in Trewin, Mr Macready
  • prints, BM, NPG

Wealth at Death

under £18,000: resworn probate, Dec 1873, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Harvard theatre collection, Harvard University, Nathan Marsh Pusey Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Harvard University
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Garrick Club, London
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Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Hertford
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British Museum, London
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Huntington Library, San Marino, California
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National Portrait Gallery, London
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, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
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British Library, London