William Charles Macready, a leading figure in the development of production techniques in the middle of the nineteenth century, was born in London on 3 March 1793. His father was the Irish actor-manager William Macready (1755-1829), who is noticed in the BDA (10: 39-44), and his mother was Christina Ann (née Birch), a provincial actress. The elder Macready acted at Covent Garden for ten years beginning in 1786 and also managed for a brief period the Royalty Theatre in Wellclose Square. After receiving some schooling in Kensington, Birmingham and Rugby, young Macready, though intended for the bar, turned to acting. He made his stage debut on 7 June 1810 in his father’s company at Birmingham as Romeo and for some four years played young leading characters like George Barnwell and Young Norval in “Douglas”. In 1811 at Newcastle he first acted Hamlet. There he also played Beverley to Mrs Siddons’ Mrs Beverley in “The Gamester” and Young Norval to her Lady Randolph. He developed a repertoire of over 70 roles during those years in the provinces.
Macready made his debut at Covent Garden on 16 September 1816 as Orestes in “The Distrest Mother”. A number of leading roles followed, including Rob Roy (B0058) in the stage adaptation of Scott’s novel, and by the 1820s he was recognized as one of the leading English actors. He was famed for playing Shakespearean roles, especially Hamlet, Othello, Iago, Lear and Richard II. His Benedick, Coriolanus, Shylock (B0059) and Antony were also well regarded. After seven years at Covent Garden, Macready’s unpleasant relationships with the management of that theatre caused him to engage at Drury Lane, where he made his first appearance on 13 October 1823 in the title role in “Virginius”. He remained at Drury Lane for thirteen years. His best and probably most successful new part there was the leading role in Knowles’s “William Tell” (B0060, B0061), a portrayal that drew extravagant praise.
In June 1824 Macready married Catherine Frances Atkins, a provincial actress. In September 1826 he and his wife, and her sister, set off to America, where on 2 October he was well received as Virginius at the Park Theatre in New York. He left New York in 1827, acted some roles successfully in Paris, and he was back at Drury Lane in October 1830. That December he played one of his most powerful roles, Werner in Byron’s tragedy. In November 1832 he acted Iago to the Othello of Kean, whom he much disliked, though he did appear as a pallbearer at Kean’s funeral.
Though he was an actor of great talent, probably Macready made his greatest mark in the history of the British stage as a manager and producer at Covent Garden from 1837 to 1839 and Drury Lane from 1841 to 1843. A meticulous and cultured man, Macready did his best to maintain a high quality of texts and production. He imposed strong discipline upon his actors, supervised thorough rehearsals, insisted on accurate costumes and scenery and rejected corrupted texts of Shakespeare’s plays in his notable revivals.
His achievements were marred by his second visit to America, in 1849, when his feud with the American tragedian Edwin Forrest erupted in the calamitous riot at the Astor Place Opera House in New York, when partisans clashed and 22 persons were killed. Macready barely managed to escape with his life, made his way back to England, and after some appearances in county towns, began a round of farewells. His last performance was at Drury Lane on 26 February 1851, as Macbeth (B0057). He retired to his country home at Sherborne, Dorset, and after his wife died in 1852 and he married Cecile Louise Frederica Spencer in 1860, he moved to Wellington Square, Cheltenham. He died at Cheltenham on 27 April 1873 and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery.
Macready had been passionate about his work, and often displayed quarrelsome propensities. But he was an actor in his time second only to Kean and a producer who influenced his theatre as Garrick had done in the prev