The Hall of Hams #25: William Macready

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The Hall of Hams is my series on some of my favorite actors who have brought the art of melodramatic acting into the modern era.

Today is the birthday of William Macready (1793-1873).

Macready is best known in this country for being the unwitting trigger of the Astor Place Riots of 1849, an international embarrassment in which New York’s great unwashed (think of Daniel Day-Lewis in The Gangs of New York) were up in arms over that theatre’s presentation of Macready in MacBeth (they preferred the native son Edwin Forrest who was appearing in the same role at the Broadway Theatre a few blocks away). The rivalry had been simmering for months, and had gotten rather ugly. When it exploded into violence (May 7, 1849), hundreds of people were involved, over two dozen people were killed and several dozen more injured. Obviously, this had to do with much more than Shakespeare; it had above all to do with matters of class: the elite and the foreign vs. the hoi poloi and the nativist (Also informing the debate was the fact that many on the anti-Macready side were Irish; anti-English sentiment was apt to be particularly strong amonst them). At any rate, suffice it to say that Macready’s third visit to the U.S. was his last, nor did Forrest ever dare to set foot in England again.

Macready was the son of a provincial theatre manager. Originally, he was preparing himself for a career as a lawyer, when financial problems called him home from school and he had to help his father run his business. At 17 he debuted in a provincial production as Romeo, was bitten by the bug and never looked back. After five years of regional success he came to London, where he rapidly became the leading tragedian of the age. He was manager at various times of both the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres, and is the man responsible for restoring Shakespeare’s original unhappy ending to King Lear (for 150 years the preferred one had been a doctored version in which Cordelia doesn’t die, and she and Lear are reunited). In addition to the great roles of Shakespeare he also supported the work of many contemporary playwrights. His retirement from the stage was considered so momentous a national event, that Tennyson wrote a poem for the occasion.

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