Anna Cora Mowatt and “Ion”

Part I: The Play Begins with a Punch

[This multi-part series of entries examines Anna Cora Mowatt’s experience playing the lead role in Thomas Noon Talfourd’s “Ion.” If you are unfamiliar with the play, a full cast recording of this classic drama is available at Librivox]

The story of Thomas Noon Talfourd’s solemn Grecian tragedy, “Ion,” making its way to the London stage begins, surprisingly enough, with an obnoxious theatrical manager getting socked in the kisser. Talfourd, who was in his forties when “Ion” debuted at Covent Garden in 1836 did not start out as a playwright. He was a lawyer. In fact, despite the success of Talfourd’s dramatic works, the law remained his primary occupation for the rest of his life. He is frequently referred to by contemporaries as “Serjeant Talfourd” because he was a serjeant-at-law, a member of an elite order of English and Irish barristers. Talfourd would go on to become a judge and a Member of Parliament.

Thomas Noon Talfourd, 1849
Thomas Noon Talfourd, 1849

When I was writing my series on entries on Anna Cora Mowatt’s history with the role of Pauline in Bulwer’s “Lady of Lyons,” I made quite a point of stating that Sir Edward – whom I dislike – is probably not the sole author of that play. Therefore, in all fairness, I suppose it is incumbent on me to divulge that Thomas Talfourd – who seems to have been a lovely person – was also the beneficiary of script doctoring services of the eminent actor William Charles Macready as well.

William Charles Macready, 1835
William Charles Macready, 1835

In 1835, William Macready was in need of a good lawyer. I have frequently mentioned that the actor was a perfectionist. He also had a bad temper. In his diaries, phrases like “I became very angry” and “I was quite annoyed” appear on almost every page. He frequently laments upbraiding his co-workers at the theater and resolving to maintain better control of his feelings. However a few dozen entries later, a diary entry will note a similar incident in which his frustration at others boils over into anger.

Alfred Bunn
Alfred Bunn

Alfred Bunn, who became the manager of both the Drury Land and Covent Garden theaters in 1833, was an individual who tried the patience of many in the theatre world. He had the right combination of good timing, sufficient resources, and proper connections to be able to secure the lease of two of London’s three patent theaters. Instead of considering himself fortunate and taking any criticism in stride diplomatically, Bunn seems to have decided that his success meant that his judgement was infallible, his taste was impeccable, and that his decisions should be taken as unquestioned mandates by the rest of London’s theatrical community. Stage journals from the period are full of complaints and brutal satires directed against Bunn.

Caricature of Alfred Bunn in "Punch"
Caricature of Alfred Bunn in “Punch”

Bunn sued the journal “Punch” for slander, won his case, and forced them to run an issue praising him and castigating themselves. Ouch!

Special issue of "Punch" edited by Alfred Bunn
Special issue of “Punch” edited by Alfred Bunn

Swedish singer Jenny Lind alleged she bullied by him. She brought a lawsuit against him, which she unfortunately lost. In retaliation, Bunn almost financially ruined her.

The incident with Macready is fairly illustrative of Bunn’s cavalier attitude that so infuriated everyone who had to deal with him. At this time, heavily censored and re-written versions of Shakespeare were still popular. Macready had established himself as an advocate of performance of the Bard’s work in its original form. After three months of escalating tensions between manager and actor, Bunn suddenly published notice that two days later Macready would be performing a highly abridged and bowdlerized text titled “The First Three Acts of ‘King Richard III.’”

Macready was beyond furious. He completed the performance as contractually required. Immediately after the show, when he stalked into Bunn’s office, the manager was sitting at his desk, smirking. Macready hauled off and backhanded that smart-aleck smile into next week. Bunn grabbed the actor, bit Macready’s little finger, then had the nerve to sue him for assault.

Cartoon illustrating fight between Macready and Bunn, 1836
Cartoon illustrating fight between Macready and Bunn, 1836

Here is where our mild-mannered, poetry-writing lawyer, Serjeant Talfourd, comes into the story.

Talfourd was part of Macready’s inner circle of long-time non-theatre world friends. In May of 1835, he completed what people who read the work described as a “dramatic poem” titled “Ion.” Talford gave the text to some of his companions to read. His friends included not only Macready but Charles Dickens, drama critics John Forster and E.L. Blanchard, poet Robert Browning, novelist William Makepeace Thackery, artist Douglas Maclise, and dramatists James Sheridan Knowles and Thomas Serle. Macready thought the poem was charming. In his diary he records;

May 7th – Read Talfourd’s tragedy of Ion; pleased with opening scenes and, as I proceeded, arrested and held by the interest of the story and the characters, as well as by the very beautiful thoughts, and the very noble ones, with which the play is interspersed. How delightful to read his dedication to his master and benefactor, Dr. Valpy, and the gentle outpourings of his affectionate heart towards his friends and associates; if one did not love, one would envy such a use of such abilities.1

John Forster sketched by Douglas Maclise, 1840
John Forster sketched by Douglas Maclise, 1840

Macready doesn’t make any more mention of the work until July when he says that Talfourd is determined that no one should play Ion other than the actor. Macready resolves; “I shall address myself to it.”2 He doesn’t get back to it until September. At this time, note that Macready is still calling the work a “poem” not a “play;”

Then sat down to read over attentively, and endeavor to reduce into an acting form and dimensions, Talfourd’s sweet tragic poem of Ion, which I accomplished, though it occupied more time than I anticipated. I expect to find him refractory on some points – and where some of the most poetical passages are omitted, it is difficult to persuade an author that the effect of the whole is improved; but imagery and sentiment will not supply the place of action.3

John Forster and Macready persuade Talfourd to accept the actor’s adaptation of his poem into play form. In October, Macready includes “Ion” in his list of new plays that he presents to Alfred Bunn for Drury Lane for the upcoming season. Bunn gives the actor a weak “maybe” on Talfourd’s tragedy.

“Ion” is scheduled to premiere on May 24th 1836. It is not clear from Macready’s diaries if the show is to be part Drury Lane’s regular season. The initial performance is to be a benefit for the actor. That single showing might have been all he was able to guarantee from Bunn given how poor their relationship was at that point.

Cover of script of "Ion" by Thomas Talfourd
Cover of script of “Ion” by Thomas Talfourd

In the winter and spring of 1836, tensions mounted between manager and star performer. In November, Bunn failed to re-hire Mary Huddart (later Mrs. Warner) an ally of Macready’s and one of his favored supporting players. In her place, he cast an actress in one production that Macready found so objectionable that the actor broke the terms of his contract and refused to take part in the performance. On another occasion, Bunn failed to replace costume pieces that Macready felt it was the manager’s obligation to supply. In February, the manager gave the actor less than forty-eight hours’ notice that he was to star in a production of “William Tell.” Macready again broke contract and refused to appear. Rumors spread in the company that Macready had recommended a pay reduction for all supporting players. The actor blamed Bunn for the allegation.

Animosity escalates until April 29th when Bunn forces Macready to play the abridged Richard III. The two fight in the manager’s office afterwards. On May 5th, Bunn sends Macready a note officially firing him for his “attempt to assassinate” him.4 The proposed production of “Ion” is cancelled.

Of course, since William Charles Macready is England’s most popular and successful actor at that time, he was in the process of negotiating a contract with another manager on the very day that he received the letter from Bunn. Macready included “Ion” as part of his terms with D.W. Osbaldiston, who was managing Covent Garden at that time. After all, Serjeant Talfourd was not only a good and loyal friend, he was an excellent lawyer. Macready had desperate need of both at this moment.

Actor/Manager David Osbaldiston
Actor/Manager David Osbaldiston

On May 11th, Macready begins a new series of performances. On the 14th, Bunn’s lawyers served him with papers. The actor grew more miserable as the day for his court case and the big day for the debut for his friend/playwright/lawyer drew near;

Talfourd talked much of his play; my cause seems quite an unimportant matter; he is right to revel in his happiness: he deserves it, he has earned it, and it is fit he should enjoy it. But the contrast of our several conditions now, and sixteen years ago, is most humiliating to me. I seemed then to have fortune and honour before me, and he was a clever, industrious young lawyer. I am now a wretch! He is all he can wish to be – courted and caressed by the wise, the illustrious, and the titled many! Bu he well merits all – all.5

Macready describes the day of the performance as follows;

May 26th- Rehearsed Ion with much care. Went to theatre and acted the character as well as I have ever played any previous one, with more of inspiration, more complete abandonment, more infusion of myself into another being, than I have been able to attain in my performances for some time, particularly in the devotion of Ion to the destruction of Adrastus, the parting with Clemanthe, and the last scene. But – as if events arise and are forgotten without leaving the benefit of experience in their passage – I lost my temper again to-night: a particular scene for a particular picturesque effect had been decided on in the morning, and when I came to look at its disposition, I found another, to which I had objected in the morning, substituted for it. I was foolish enough to be very angry, very much agitated, and yet all passed off, and I might have been so much better by the government of my temper, which effected nothing but my own exposure. Oh, how bitter – how very bitter is the reflection that follows these unwise, unworthy transports of passion! Was called for very enthusiastically by the audience, and cheered on my appearance most heartily. I said: “It would be affectation to conceal the peculiar pleasure in receiving their congratulatory compliment on this occasion. It was indeed most gratifying to me; and only checked by the painful consideration that this might be perhaps the last new play I ever might have the honour of producing before them. (Loud cries of ‘No! No!) However that might be, the grateful recollection of their kindness would never leave me.’ 6

Macready as Ion
Macready as Ion

Of course, the audience was right. “Ion” was really only marked the beginning of Macready’s career as a script midwife. He still had the rest of Talfourd’s works and all of Bulwer-Lytton’s plays to introduce to the London stage.

Perhaps due in no small part to the sensational publicity generated by the fight with Bunn and public sympathy that rallied to support Macready at his benefit, “Ion” was an instant hit with theatre-goers despite critics’ complaint that it lacked action.

Reviewers’ and audiences’ favorite part of the play was the romance between Clemanthe and Ion. The critic from the Morning Post captured the appeal of the chemistry between the two performers best in this quote;

His interviews with Clemanthe (Miss Ellen Tree), between whom and Ion a passion has grown up from their childhood, were most affecting. Theirs is such a love as angels may be supposed to feel, free from all stain of carnal thinking, and pure as the dreams of infancy. Their love forms by far the most interesting part of the play. When Ion has taken the determination to immolate himself, but without communicating his intention to Clemanthe, he endeavored to prepare her for the blow by calling up hopes of future joy, which even after his death may still endear the world to her, he suggests the happiness she may enjoy in the arms of a fond and faithful husband. He gazes, however, in ecstasy upon her beauteous features – calls to mind their days of childish play, of childish fondness and exclaims, “But no, you will not – you will not be another’s?” The state of feeling was so naturally, so tenderly, so powerfully expressed by this great actor as to draw down bursts of applause. Hands, hats, and handkerchiefs were in motion throughout the whole house and continued so for some time.7

Unfortunately, the actor’s appearance in court did not follow the same course as his triumph on the boards. Even though he had excellent legal representation, Macready lost his court case against Bunn. The judgement against the actor was a hefty £150. According to internet calculators, that amount is the equivalent of £19,549.73 or $26,957.12 in 2021 money.

“Ion” stayed in Macready’s repertoire for many years. His friendship with Talfourd, though, soured for some time after his loss in the Bunn case. After a few minor disagreements between the two, the actor wrote in his diary;

I cannot understand this sort of capricious siding with a person whom he has proved so base and worthless. When I compare the demeanor of Talfourd now, and his frank, unembarrassed heartiness, speaking out in looks, words, and actions, a year ago, I am reluctantly obliged to let got the half-belief, half-hope, to which I clung, that no change had taken place. I must say I now feel it too true. It is a painful admission, but one I am forced upon. In my own conduct I can find no grounds for this falling off; he is not a high-minded man; he is, and ever has been, compromising, in some cases to a degree of servility – I may almost say meanness. This has seemed to me arising from, and in some degree explained, if not excused, by his timidity of disposition. It is very painful to me to entertain such opinions, but I believe the “cooling” of this “hot friend” began in the ardour and successful issue of my exertions for his play, and settled in his own weak and timorous advocacy of my cause. He is not what he has been, when he had a play in prospect of performance, which performance could only have been effected by myself, and way undertaken solely because I believed it would make him happy. I have nothing in his case which I can accuse myself.8

Time was eventually able to assuage most of Macready’s bitterness and restore Talfourd back into his good graces. The two worked together on productions of “The Athenian Captive” and “Glencoe.”

The passage of time also enabled Macready to have the last word with Alfred Bunn. Working hand-in-hand with his powerful and influential circle of associates such as Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Thomas Noon Talfourd, John Foster, and Charles Dickens, Macready fought the Patent Act and was eventually able to break the monopoly Bunn held on London’s theaters. The actor became a theatre manager himself. By 1840, Bunn was bankrupt and was forced out of management entirely by 1848.

The moral is, be careful of pushing actors too far. They tend to have strong emotions, big imaginations, and plenty of friends.

Images of Macready, Alfred Bunn, and "Ion"
Images of Macready, Alfred Bunn, and “Ion”

1. Macready, William Charles. The Diaries of William Charles Macready 1833-1851, Vol. I. Edited by William Toynbee. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912). Page 227.
2. Ibid. Page 238.
3. Ibid. Page 246.
4. Ibid. Page 308.
5. Ibid. Page 317.
6. Ibid. Page 318.
7. “Theatres.” Morning Post. Friday, May 27, 1836. Page 3, col. 4.
8. Macready, William Charles. The Diaries of William Charles Macready 1833-1851, Vol. I. Edited by William Toynbee. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912). Page 362.

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