Warner/Macready and “Hamlet” at the Marylebone

Mary Warner and William Macready in Hamlet at the Marylebone, 1848

As you may intuit from the title of this week’s blog, I am not yet ready to wrap up my series on Mary Warner, Walter Watts’ immediate predecessor as manager of the Marylebone Theater. Thanks to the invaluable aid of independent researcher, Elizabeth Rye, I am learning new information about Warner and her descendants that is still re-shaping my thinking on the Warners’ partnership with Walter Watts in the management of the Marylebone theater. Rye has even helped me uncover some key facts about Watts’ family and early life in London. I want to here publicly thank her for her invaluable assistance.

While I am digesting this information and trying to give every new revelation its proper weight, instead of pressing ahead to 1850, I want to instead inch forward to the spring of 1848 and take a little time examining the jewel crowing the end of Warner’s reign as queen of the Marylebone – Macready’s performance as “Hamlet.” I have said before that there were no signs of financial distress during Mary Warner’s time as manager of the Marylebone. I was wrong. The more press clippings I collected about this particular production, the more rumors I began to see of money trouble. Previous to this production, reviews always mention full houses. The budget shortfall at the end of the season seemed to have come as a surprise and disappointment to everyone. As a creative remedy for the situation, Warner departed from expectations for the Easter season. Instead of a high-budget, special effects heavy extravaganza, she called in a favor from a special friend and decided to be the only playhouse in town staging a full production of a serious drama.

Easter, like Christmas, was a theater-going holiday for early Victorians. The extravaganzas usually played during this time were very much like the Christmas pantomimes – full of fun and spectacle, high on corny jokes and low on plot, loaded with tumbling clowns and lots of pretty girls in short skirts, intended to cater to a loud, noisy crowd of “gallery gods” who came to drink and laugh. Instead, Warner, even though she was in dire financial straits, decided to stay true to the mission of the Marylebone to bring high-quality drama to this neighborhood. She challenged her audience to sit still and listen to three and a half hours of Shakespeare. Warner reminded her patrons of her promise to them in this advertisement for the production;

The Lessees, faithful to their purpose in opening this Theatre, of raising its character to its attractable point, have effected an arrangement, by which they are enabled to present to their Patrons the talent of an artist whose rank as the first Tragedian of the day is universally acknowledged. Mr. MACREADY is engaged for six nights, being the last engagement he will fulfill this season, previous to his departure for America.1

You may be able to see why I was fooled into thinking Warner was not in financial trouble. She does not back down from a challenge. Whereas another manager might have caved in and played to lowest common denominator tastes and crafted a sure-fire money-maker, Warner boldly and assertively re-frames the set-back she is facing as an opportunity for her audience to step up and demonstrate their commitment to supporting the kind of nominally elite theatre that had not been previously available in their neighborhood. Her audience is made up not just of “the carriage trade” who might consider making the trek from central London or the nearby ritzy suburb of St. John’s Wood to fill the box seats, but of working class folks from the Marylebone, Lisson Grove, and Paddington districts of London. In return for their loyalty, Warner is bringing these patrons the great Macready.

William Macready as Hamlet, 1850
William Macready as Hamlet, 1850

William Charles Macready was perhaps at the very height of his powers and popularity. The performance at the Marylebone would not by any means be the first time he had essayed the role of Hamlet. He had been playing Shakespeare’s Danish prince since 1823. A decade before, when reviewing a Covent Garden staging of this drama in which Warner and Macready starred, one critic resignedly stated:

It were now utterly superfluous to descant on the merits of Mr. Macready’s Hamlet; it has been a thousand times, and on all hands, canvassed, until nothing is left to criticism but iteration; for our own parts, we shall at present remark, and generally, in conformity with opinions frequently expressed, that the performance is not only one of his best efforts, but one in which he allows least pretext to the laudatores temporis acti to revert regrettingly to his great contemporaries or predecessors. Mrs. Warner’s Queen has not been equaled in latter times on our stage. She assumes a truly regal air in the part, which well becomes the once beloved consort of the great royal Dane, while it renders her degraded position the more monstrous. Mrs. Warner also imparted a fine pathos to the celebrated scene with Hamlet, which, on this occasion, was certainly the most effective portion of the play.2

Hamlet was one of Macready’s favorite roles. Despite the praise heaped upon it by this reviewer and many others, it was not entirely free from critique. Some found his take on the prince to be quite cold, although it was in some ways a highly sensual interpretation of the role; perhaps surprisingly so for this era. William Etty’s painting of Macready as the Dane depicts the actor as nude, draped only in a red toga. This, of course, was not a literal depiction of a costuming choice, but rather a metaphorical representation of the sometimes shocking emotional nakedness that Macready brought to the role.

Macready In the Role of Hamlet Wearing a Red Toga by William Etty
Macready In the Role of Hamlet Wearing a Red Toga by William Etty

Another painting by longtime Macready friend, Daniel Maclise, “The Play Scene in Hamlet,” first exhibited in 1842, was not intended to be a photo-realistic representation of any one specific production of the play, but rather the artist’s cumulative creative impression of the scene based on viewings of many different stagings by the tragedian’s company and his own imaginative embellishments. The figure of Hamlet markedly resembles Macready’s features as Gertrude’s face also recognizably suggests Warner’s.

Play Scene from Hamlet by Daniel Maclise
The Play Scene in ‘Hamlet’ exhibited 1842 Daniel Maclise 1806-1870 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00422

The pose of the central performer in this painting reflects Macready’s distinctive “Hamlet crawl.” Eyewitnesses report that as Claudius began to show signs of discomfort, the tragedian would coil into this sort of ready position and then “with body prone, and head erect, and eyes riveted on Claudius, he dragged himself nearer and nearer to him,”3 hissing his lines in an almost snake-like fashion. Again, this staging choice reflects an interpretation of Hamlet not as the sort of larger-than-life romantic hero we might expect an early Victorian audience to enjoy, but a more nuanced reading of the role. Looking back on his performance in 1888, John Marston says,

…Hamlet, as interpreted by this tragedian, was less the melancholy, musing Dane than he is generally represented. There was more of passion than of sentiment in the rendering. With Macready, the credulous faith, so bitterly dispelled, of the young optimist, was turned to gall. Thus to the end of the third act, a tone of glowing excitement or of keen irony were the features of the embodiment. Except for a touch of melancholy tenderness for a lost ideal in Ophelia, or the courtesy which his princely nature prescribed to his inferiors, Hamlet was, with him, a misanthrope.4

Detail from "Play Scene from Hamlet" by Daniel Maclise
Detail from “Play Scene from Hamlet” by Daniel Maclise

In 1849, the tragedian’s interpretation of the role had become freshly controversial. In March of 1846, American actor, Edwin Forrest, under the impression that Macready had unfairly denied him license to a couple plays and the actor’s friends in the press had purposefully sabotaged his latest tour of the U.K. with a bevy of bad reviews, retaliated by hissing what he termed Macready’s addition of a “fancy dance” to the play-within-the-play scene of a performance of “Hamlet” in Edinburgh. Forrest boldly clarified in a letter to the editor that he felt physical by-play added by the tragedian to heighten indications of the prince’s madness was inappropriately effete and an affront to the text itself.

A different actor of an entirely different temperament might have taken these six performances at the Marylebone as an opportunity to re-tool his performance for a potentially hostile U.S. audience loyal to Forrest. Not Macready. The tragedian had around a quarter-century of confidence in his interpretation. Barely a month later, Macready would narrowly escape bodily harm from angry mobs breaking in to the Astor Place Opera House after miserable weeks of being harassed by Forrest fans from city to city up and down the eastern seaboard.

The rivalry with the American actor seemed to be far from Macready’s mind in early April. From the reviews, it would seem that staging choices pointed the focus of the production at the Marylebone on Hamlet’s relationship with the two primary female characters in the play — Ophelia and Gertrude.

Cartoon from Punch of the closet scene from "Hamlet" 1845
Cartoon from Punch of the closet scene from “Hamlet” 1845

When female performers play characters younger than their actual age, audiences and critics typically cannot resist raising a ruckus. Male performers can often do so almost invisibly. The role of Hamlet has so much historical and literary importance attached to it that an actor in a high-profile professional company may not earn the opportunity to play the role of this undergraduate-aged prince until they are in their late 30s or 40s. However, since female performers are expected to be young and pretty, Ophelia and Gertrude are still cast as if Hamlet was in his 20s, as the text indicates. If you have seen “Hamlet” on stage or film, you can probably think of multiple examples of Danish princes who appeared a decade or two older than their sweethearts while looking around the same age as their mothers.

Fanny Huddart, niece of Mary Warner
Fanny Huddart, niece of Mary Warner

For the Marylebone “Hamlet,” Macready was fifty-two years old. Mary Warner, who played his mother, Gertrude, was forty-five. The role of Ophelia was played by Warner’s niece, Fanny Huddart, who was in her twenties. Miss Huddart bore a strong family resemblance to her aunt. So not only was not only was Macready playing Hamlet to a Gertrude who had frequently played his wife in other productions, his Ophelia looked like a young, pretty version of the woman playing his mother. Sigmund Freud would not be born until 1856, so no one commented on the strong Freudian tones underlying this interpretation, but they did talk about the extreme bitterness of Macready’s Hamlet. Marston says of him:

In the celebrated scene with Ophelia, true to his theory of the optimist turned pessimist, he was far more bitter than Charles Kemble or Charles Kean, yet the agony of his love pierced through the bitterness. In the closet-scene, though gentle at the close, he was sterner to his mother than were his stage contemporaries. His indictment of her was delivered with an arresting concentration that had nothing in it of violence or tumult, and with a mien lofty and unrelenting, as if he had been the commissioned angel of retribution.5

What Marston may be indicating by his “angel of retribution” metaphor is brought out even more clearly by this reviewer of the Marylebone production when he says,

Tears ran down many a fair cheek while he portrayed the harrowed feelings of a son, grieved more for the sin of a mother than for the unnatural murder of a much loved father.6

Although the very thought that Hamlet might be jealous of his mother’s relationship with Claudius would doubtlessly be unutterably appalling to these Victorians if someone had articulated it to them overtly, having an Ophelia who visually echoed Gertrude in the production obviously added an intensity to the scene where Hamlet confronts his mother. The tears that viewers shed at Gertrude’s “sinfulness” that seemed worse in that moment than Claudius’ murder of the old king might be an indication of a discomfort level that was registering on them subliminally.

Fanny Huddart was a talented vocalist who would later achieve more fame as a singer than as an actress. One reviewer complained that her voice was “too good” for Ophelia. Another complained that she “wanted the sorrowful, though loving simplicity of a true Ophelia.”7 I think it probable that neither of these performance choices were made by mistake. Perhaps the desired effect by the performers might have been to achieve an Ophelia who was also more of a parallel to Hamlet. Her singing is not broken and amateurish because her madness, like Hamlet’s, should hint to the audience that it too might be feigned in order to level accusations at the royal family of Denmark to their faces. The listeners should be left to wonder if her “mad” suicide was the result of reaching a “to be or not to be” moment and choosing “not to be.” The Marylebone production of “Hamlet” featured an elaborate funeral processional for Ophelia, drawing emphasis to this moment when Hamlet and Gertrude, joined in their grief for the sacrificial death of this lost, younger version of themselves, begin the journey towards reconciliation that culminates in the final act with them joining forces to defeat Claudius.

This performance itself was an important moment of reconciliation for Macready and Warner. After years of successful on-stage partnership, Warner had seen roles that had once been hers go to Helena Faucit. She had felt alienated by Macready’s attachment to the beautiful young star. When Sam Phelps proposed to break away from the tragedian’s company, she had joined the renegade crew and struggled to turn Sadler’s Wells from glorified booze-hall to a home of legitimate drama. When the theater was starting to turn a profit, Phelps too, turned to a younger actress, and managed to fire Warner from the organization she had helped launch. Warner seemed to have turned things around for herself professionally when she took the helm at the Marylebone, but there were troubled times ahead for her there too. When she asked for help, Macready was there for her. This production seemed to have reconciled past differences and rekindled memories of pleasant times gone by.

For the difficult fight Mary Warner would face in the days remaining to her, William Charles Macready would be at her side.

Mary Warner and William Macready in Hamlet at the Marylebone, 1848
Mary Warner and William Macready in Hamlet at the Marylebone, 1848

1. The Morning Advertiser, London. Monday, April 17, 1848. Page 2, col 1.
2. “Theatre.” The Sun, London. Tuesday, October 9, 1838. Page 3, col 2.
3. Marston, John. Our Recent Actors. Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington: London, 1888. Page 82.
4. Ibid, 80.
5. Ibid, 82.
6. “Marylebone.” The Evening Sun, London. Tuesday, April 25, 1848, page 1, col 5.
7. “Marylebone.” The Globe, London. Tuesday Evening, April 25, 1848, page 1, col 4.