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Charles Macklin (26 September 1699 – 11 July 1797), originally Cathal MacLochlainn (in Irish, or Charles McLaughlin in English), was an Irish actor and dramatist who performed extensively at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Macklin revolutionised theatre in the 18th century by introducing a "natural- style" of acting. He is also famous for killing a man in a fight over a wig at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Born in County Donegal in Ulster in the north of Ireland, Macklin became known for his many performances in the tragedy and comedy genre of plays. He gained his greatest fame in the role of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Macklin enjoyed a long career which was often steeped in controversy before dying aged 98.
It is thought that Macklin was born near Culdaff, a village in Inishowen in the north of County Donegal in the province of Ulster, Ireland, in 1690, and moved to Great Britain in either 1725 or 1726; the dates in his early life are not entirely clear. According to William Archer in Eminent Actors, "at his death, Macklin was believed to be 97, but his biographers have endeavored to show that he was at least 107. The main lines of controversy are to be found in the 3 biographies of Congreve, Kirkman, and Cook". Thomas Kirkman and William Cooke, in Eminent Actors, assert that "William MacLochlainn, father of Charles Macklin, had a daughter and a son, who were born two months previous to the Battle of Boyne, which took place in 1690". Given this information, this would make Macklin 107 years old at his death. However, in his own words, he was born 'in the last year of the last century', making the year 1699 the year of his birth. In fact, The Monthly Mirror of February 1796, a year before his death, stated that: "Macklin, according to this statement, must be in his hundred and sixth year, or thereabouts, whereas he is in fact no more than ninety-seven". According to William Archer, author of Eminent Actors, there “were no registers of births, deaths, and marriages kept in Ireland in 1690”.
Given this information, we must once again go with the very words of Macklin himself who quoted “that he was born in the last year of the last century”. His early life may remain a mystery, but we can be certain of his age at death. His family’s surname was McLaughlin, but "seeming somewhat uncouth to the pronunciation of an English tongue,” he changed it for the English stage. He found various jobs as an actor in London, but, apparently, his thick Ulster accent was an obstacle to success and he could not find a steady theatre home until he was noticed in a small character role in Henry Fielding's Coffee-House Politician at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1725. It was after that fine performance, that would go unnoticed by a lesser actor, that he was snatched up by the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane as an actor and a resident acting manager, serving with James Quin. Their relationship was professional, but full of plenty of animosity. Macklin devotes a lengthy section of his memoirs to Quin, giving examples of their disagreements. Macklin admits that "nothing but the necessity of business could ever make them associate together". Even the necessity of business sometimes dissolved; however, after some contract and pay disagreements in the 1741–42 season, Macklin and nearly the entire Drury Lane resident company left and attempted to find work elsewhere.
Shylock and other roles
Macklin's most important role, the one that catapulted him to stardom in eighteenth century London, was Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. For several decades, the popular version of the play was a "fixed" text by George Granville, titled The Jew of Venice. In it, many roles were expanded, while Shylock and others were dramatically shortened. The eighteenth century audiences were used to seeing a comic Shylock, often dressing him in a red wig and a large nose, resembling the commedia dell'arte character Pantalone.
Macklin wanted a different path to playing this character. While Macklin didn't return to the Bard's script exactly as it was written, he did make his own edits to Shakespeare's script that were much closer than Granville's text. Instead of portraying Shylock as the usual comic pantolone, he played him as darkly villainous, serious, and highly satirical. Next, rather than dress Shylock as a clown, Macklin researched his role. He studied Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, and observed Jewish people in London. He learned that Italian Jews, especially from Venice, were known to wear red hats, so he took that as a basis for his costume. In seeking to portray Jews exactly how they looked, Macklin emphasised the notion of historical accuracy in costuming, which would later become and inherent feature of realism in the 19th century. What's even more interesting is that Macklin did not merely "study" the Jews. According to William Appleton, in An Actor's Life, "he actually interacted with them in marketplaces and learned to gradually adapt their way of speech".
Finally, opening night came. This faithfulness to Shakespeare's original intent for the character, combined with Macklin's revolutionary method of attempting some semblance of realism in his performance, resulted in uproarious applause. Macklin himself confesses, "On my return to the green-room, after the play was over, it was crowded with nobility and critics, who all complimented me in the warmest and most unbounded manner". King George II saw the production and was so moved he could not fall asleep that night. A bystander in the audience of the show admitted famously, "This is the Jew / That Shakespeare drew".
Many tried to replicate Macklin's performance of Shylock, but none of the six actors that attempted the role at the rival Covent Garden theatre from 1744 to 1746 were able to match nearly the acclaim that Macklin had received for his Shylock. Even Macklin was unable to match his performance. He did have a varied career, filled with at least 490 roles, but none of them were anywhere near the uproar his Shylock caused. Even his two closest in hype, roles from The Confederacy and Love for Love, were roles designed to emulate Shylock. He played Shylock for nearly the next fifty years, as well as Iago in Othello and the Ghost in Hamlet. In Ben Jonson's Volpone, he played the part of Mosca. He was the creator of Sir Pertinax Macsycophant, a famous burlesque character, and he was Macbeth at Covent Garden in 1772, in a production with authentic Scottish costumes.
Together with David Garrick, his student, friend, and partner, Macklin revolutionised acting in the 18th century. Garrick and Macklin eventually had a falling out in the mid-1740s, which derailed Macklin's rise whilst propelling Garrick's own career. Macklin, then the stage manager at Drury Lane, participated in an actor walkout. When the actors, led by Garrick, were forced to accept the owner's terms, they had to abandon Macklin, who, as the stage manager, should have quelled the actors' strike, rather than participated in it. Macklin felt betrayed by Garrick and the other actors.
Macklin retired from the stage in 1753, then opened a tavern at which he gave a nightly lecture followed by a debate, which Macklin called the British Inquisition. The evening began with a lecture by Macklin. According to some histories, Macklin claimed at one of these shows to have such a good memory that he could recite any speech after reading through it once. As a challenge, Samuel Foote allegedly wrote The Great Panjandrum, a nonsense poem designed to be particularly difficult to memorise. The word Panjandrum has since passed into the English language.
Macklin returned to the stage, but finally retired in 1789, when he found he was no longer able to recall the entire part of Shylock. He lived another eight years, supported by the income from a subscription edition of two of his best plays, The Man of the World and Love in a Maze.
He wrote many plays, including Love a la Mode (1759), The School for Husbands, or The Married Libertine (1761), and The Man of the World (1781). The True-Born Irishman (1763) was a hit in Ireland and a flop in England.
Introduction of naturalistic acting
Macklin revolutionised acting in the 18th century by introducing a natural style of acting, being the first actor of his generation to break away from the old declamatory style that had been the norm for centuries. According to Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb in Living Theatre, "the predominant approach to acting in the 18th century is usually described as bombastic or declamatory, terms that suggest its emphasis on oratorical skills". Due to this emphasis on speaking, rehearsal time was short, stage movement was standardised, and actors often spoke directly to the audience rather than characters onstage. Wilson and Goldfarb go on to say that there were a few innovators who were "opposed to the emphasis on declamation, stereotypical positions of performers onstage, and singsong delivery of verse; they wanted to create individual characters, and they wanted to have more careful rehearsal procedures". As a performer, Macklin was confined to the mainstream practices of 18th century theatre companies, but through training young actors, he was able to put his ideas into practice.
How Macklin trained his students
The introduction of naturalistic acting by Macklin can best be seen in how he trained his students. Appleton states that "Macklin believed acting a science, founded upon nature. He stressed the importance of a thorough knowledge of one's role, of propriety of dress, and of attention the business of the scene; the necessity of avoiding monotony of tone". It was not uncommon for Macklin to advise a student to unlearn all they had learned about acting. According to Appleton "Macklin made this the preliminary condition for all of his pupils. To hesitate was to be instantly dismissed. But once the condition had been agreed to, Macklin proved a dedicated teacher, willing to take infinite pains and often willing to instruct them for nothing". Most importantly, Macklin wanted his students to speak as they would in everyday life; basically transferring reality to the stage. Appleton portrays how Macklin trained his students to do this: “In the garden of his Dublin house, two of his pupils would stroll down two parallel walks while Macklin walked in the middle. They would walk for ten paces, and then exchange bits of conversation. They would repeat this many times until Macklin was satisfied in every particular”. In this way, Macklin drilled his students until they acquired an ease of speech and manner. To cope with projection in the theatres, Macklin would often recite from Milton's Paradise Lost or soliloquies from Macbeth or Othello, having his students to imitate him in clarity, speech, and volume. Appleton adds that "while he concentrated primarily on achieving clear and natural diction, he stressed as well the importance of mastering variety of tone and pause to indicate transitions of thought and associations of ideas". Macklin taught his students three fundamental pauses: moderate, longer, and grand. Each type of pause served an important function depending on the scene.
Macklin was one of the forerunners to stress the need to regularise rehearsals. Appleton states that "actors, compelled by the repertory system to know scores of parts, generally relied on conventional attitudes, gestures, and tones to carry them through a performance and felt little enthusiasm for this discipline. Sometimes they were absent from rehearsals. Often they arrived late, stumbled through their lines and drifted away". Macklin was not only concerned about his individual actors, but with the whole production, and so everyone had to come prepared and on time. This led to a relentless discipline unmatched in other students at the time. For the rest of his life, Macklin would continue to train his students with such intensity and passion and through them, make an important contribution to the English Theatre.
He married his former mistress, Ann Grace, in 1739. Their daughter, Mary Macklin (ca. 1734–1781), also became a popular actress. His wife Ann died in December 1758 and he married Elizabeth Jones later that year.
Macklin lived a tempestuous life, often involved in lawsuits, sometimes acting as his own lawyer. In 1735 he quarrelled with a fellow actor named Thomas Hallam, whom he accidentally killed by thrusting his cane through Hallam's eye. The pair had argued over a wig whilst performing a new farce, Trick for Trick. The incident occurred in the Scene Room of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in front of many witnesses and Macklin, after the sudden fit of temper, was sorry and arranged for a physician to attend to Hallam. Unfortunately, the cane had pierced through Hallam's eye into his brain and he died one day later. Macklin was tried for murder, conducted his own defence and, though not acquitted, escaped with manslaughter. The punishment for manslaughter was the branding of a letter 'M' upon the hand, by this period not with a hot but with a cold iron, although there is no evidence that this was actually carried out on Macklin. In 1772 he sued the organizers of a riot among the theatergoers who had demanded that he be fired. He recovered £600, but graciously chose to accept instead the defendants' purchase of £100 in tickets at three benefits for himself, his daughter and the management.
He lived a long life and may have died a centenarian, although that is not without doubt. While his second wife gave his birth year as 1690 on the memorial tablet installed in St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden, making him 107 at his death; others have suggested that he was born in 1699 or 1710. His memorial shows a dagger piercing the eye of a theatrical mask, a contrite reference to his altercation with Thomas Hallam.
Macklin's famous role as Shylock and introduction of naturalistic acting would later influence realism in the 19th century. If anything, Macklin's drive and discipline to perfect himself as an actor and teacher still inspires theatre practitioners today. Macklin was never afraid of the moment and took every opportunity to become better in his profession. Many will continue to play Shylock, but it is no doubt that Macklin will always be the Jew that Shakespeare drew.
Macklin is remembered today in his native Inishowen, where the Charles Macklin Autumn School is held each October in the village of Culdaff.
- A History of the Theatre, Glynne Wickham, 2nd Edition
- Appleton, p. 158
- Appleton, William. An Actors Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1960. Print.
- Archer, William. Eminent Actors. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Company, 1890. Print.
- Wilson, Edwin and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre: A History of Theatre. New York:McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2008. Print.
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Charles Macklin|
- Works by Charles Macklin at Project Gutenberg
- Tablet at St. Paul's Churchyard
- Charles Macklin article at Theatre History.com