Research Redux March 5, 2015

When you’re researching a novel set in the past, the details you churn up can often sound surprisingly contemporary.

Who called reviewers from The Times of London “despicable assassins of men’s reputations?”

Conrad Black?

No, the actor William Macready in 1838.

William Macready

William Macready

Lately, while working on my new novel, I’ve been reading Macready’s energetic diaries, now available online. Macready was one of the greatest actors of his day who, in 1837, took over the management of Covent Garden Theatre in London. The move threw him into an intense rivalry with the other famous actor-manager of the time, Charles Kean, who ran the nearby Drury Lane Theatre.

At Covent Garden, Macready tried to differentiate his company from Kean’s—these days, we’d probably say he branded it—by mounting Shakespeare’s plays in more or less their original versions. Since the late 17th century, acting companies had favoured bowdlerized versions of Shakespeare, including a famous rewriting of King Lear in which the Fool was cut out, a love story was added between Cordelia and Edgar, and a happy ending saw Lear reunited with Cordelia, both of them surviving the play’s slaughter. Macready was the first to restore both the Fool and the tragedy of Lear, only trimming the text slightly as some directors do today.

Yet despite Macready’s innovation—and staging that sounds like Broadway, with flashes of lightning and castles onstage—his Covent Garden Theatre was always on the brink of failing. This triggered Macready’s special hatred for The Times, which tended to pan him and plug his rival Kean, urging audiences toward Drury Lane.

Macready’s venom is still fun to read, and sounds surprisingly similar to the tone of modern artists lashing out at critics and trolls. (And Conrad Black.)

December 19, 1837: “Are not these newspaper reporters wretches? Is it easy to imagine men made up of viler materials?”

December 27, 1837: “Saw the newspapers, which were, I thought, reluctant admissions of success at Covent Garden. Have I not cause to loathe the name of a newspaper?”

February 5, 1838: “Acted Macbeth with a care and an energy that I have not done these many nights; and in the intervals of the scenes my heart was almost breaking, to think of the time, toil, and money that I have so heedlessly thrown away in so ungrateful a cause. An empiric like this Mr. C. Keane is paid £40 per night, and followed by crowds; an ignorant and infamous wretch like that disgusting beast is sustained in his system of open pillage on the actors, while all my labours, enterprise, and talent, such as it is, would only lead me and my children to beggary, if my fate now depended on the integrity and intelligence of the newspapers, or the taste of the public.”

Another recurring theme in Macready’s diaries is his worry that managing a theatre left him too little time for his art. Reading some entries, I was reminded of the way modern artists despair of the hours they (we) have to spend promoting their work on social media, which not only cuts down on working time, but arguably cheapens lives.

December 17, 1837: “The cares of management are distracting me from ruminating upon my art. My spirits very low, and my mind occupied with pondering on the sacrifice I have made, and the false step I have taken in embarking my property on this desperate enterprise.”

And this cri de coeur from December 31, 1837: “Since my entrance onto this unhappy speculation of management, my mind has, if not retrograded, certainly stood still. My care of my blessed children has been surrendered to others. I cannot but regret this and much more—such as the sort of conflict into which I am thrown by that degraded and vile character, whom I loathe to name (an impresario named Bunn)—as a serious cause of deep regret. I pray to God to shield and protect me through the remaining portion of my trying task! Amen!

Macready_as_King_Lear_London_CG_1838Macready lasted two years as an actor-manager at Covent Garden Theatre. He flits at the edge of my novel, since in real life, the painter who prepared the backdrops for King Lear was a friend of my main character’s father. Clarkson Stanfield was a theatrical and nautical painter who’s been getting some attention lately, playing a part in Mike Leigh’s recent and beautiful film, Mr. Turner. If for no other reason than his family’s friendship with Stanfield, I think my protagonist probably saw Macready’s Lear at Covent Garden. In any case, it’s fun to write a few pages supposing that he did.

Macready’s 1838 production of King Lear was the pinnacle of his long career, with critics saying that it highlighted his great talent for pathos. He acted until 1851 when he was 58 years old, and retired for 22 happy years with his second wife to his estate near Cheltenham, dying at the age of 80.