William Charles Macready

William Charles Macready (1793–1873)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 3, 318–319.

One of the foremost actors of his time, Macready was a close associate of RB—and frequent correspondent—from 1835 to 1843. In the latter year, they broke apart in a bitter quarrel over RB’s A Blot in the ’Scutcheon. Born in London on 3 March 1793, Macready attended Rugby School. He had hoped to proceed to Oxford, but found it necessary to discontinue his formal education and help his father in the management of several provincial theatres. Soon becoming an actor himself, he played the first of many Shakespearean roles—as Romeo, in Birmingham—on 7 June 1810. Eventually, after breaking with his father and taking stage roles in Bath and various other towns, he appeared on the stage in London on 16 September 1816 and went on to enjoy increasing success and popularity. He was manager of Covent Garden from 1837 to 1839, and of Drury Lane from 1841 to 1843. Noteworthy associates—besides RB—included Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Charles Dickens, John Forster, William Johnson Fox (q.v.), and Harriet Martineau. Macready played the title role in Julian, by Mary Russell Mitford (q.v.), in 1823, but turned down her Rienzi (1828). He made a successful tour of the United States in 1843–44. A later American tour was disrupted by a riot at Astor Opera House in New York, stemming from the animosity of American actor Edwin Forrest toward Macready. A number of deaths resulted, and Macready had to leave the country. His farewell stage performance in England was as Macbeth at Drury Lane on 26 February 1851. After a pleasant period of retirement, he died at Cheltenham on 27 April 1873. Macready’s first wife, Catherine Frances (née Atkins), who was often hostess to RB, died in 1852. His second wife, Louise Frederica (née Spencer), whom he married in 1860, lived until 1908.

The first meeting between RB and Macready occurred at William Johnson Fox’s home on 27 November 1835. Macready wrote in his diary entry for that day: “Mr. Robert Browning, the author of Paracelsus, came in after dinner; I was very much pleased to meet him. His face is full of intelligence.... I took Mr. Browning on, and requested to be allowed to improve my acquaintance with him. He expressed himself warmly, as gratified by the proposal; wished to send me his book; we exchanged cards and parted” (Macready, I, 264). Diary entries and correspondence show frequent contact between RB and Macready for some years thereafter, with RB a frequent visitor at Macready’s home in the village of Elstree. It was for Macready’s son Willie, aged 10 at the time, that RB wrote his “Pied Piper” (1842). In May 1836, the actor asked RB to “write me a tragedy.” The result was Strafford, first presented at Covent Garden on 1 May 1837 with Macready (soon to become Covent Garden’s manager) as the central figure. It is clear, however, that Macready was never fully satisfied—and was sometimes deeply discouraged—with RB as a playwright. On 8 April 1837 he wrote of Strafford in his diary: “I fear it will not do” (Macready, I, 386). On August 20 of the same year RB wrote of Macready to William Alexander Dow (letter 586) that “if our peppery friend and myself only quarrel when I broach the ungracious subject of players or plays we shall remain sociable till doomsday.” On 5 September 1839, Macready in his diary called RB’s King Victor and King Charles “a great mistake” (Macready, II, 23). On 3 August 1840, about The Return of the Druses: “Read Browning’s play, and with the deepest concern I yield to the belief that he will never write again—to any purpose” (Macready, II, 72). The year 1843 and A Blot in the ’Scutcheon ended RB’s hope that he and the actor would “remain sociable till doomsday.” The play’s opening on 11 February at Drury Lane, where Macready was manager, was preceded by quarrels over A Blot itself and as to whether Macready or Samuel Phelps would perform the leading role (Phelps did). The friendship was broken. Three years later (4 June 1846) Macready wrote in his diary of seeing “Browning—who did not speak to me—the puppy!” (Macready, II, 340). Years later, RB had an opportunity to see Macready’s diary entries concerning A Blot. By then, RB felt that what Macready had really wanted was for him—RB—to request withdrawal or postponement of the play. In a memorandum (Reconstruction, E532) accompanying a letter to William Archer dated 29 June 1888 he wrote of his own failure to realize the financial pressures which Macready, at the time, had been under: “one friendly straightforward word [from Macready] … how easy to have spoken, and what regret it would have spared us both!” The friendship was eventually resumed, to some extent. RB sent condolences upon the death in 1852 of the first Mrs. Macready (letter dated 23 September 1852); Macready did likewise upon the death of EBB in 1861; and the actor may have met with RB and EBB when they visited England in 1856, the possibility of such a meeting being mentioned in a letter from RB dated 14 August of that year. Finally, in his 1888 memorandum to William Archer, RB described Macready as “one of the most admirable and indeed fascinating characters I have ever known: somewhat too sensitive for his own happiness, and much too impulsive for invariable consistency with his nobler moods.”

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