[The following passage from from the fourth chapter of the author's On Actors and the Art iof Acting (1875), which I have used in the Hathi DigitalLibrary Trust web edition. — George P. Landow]

Decorative Initial I n Edmund Kean and Rachel we recognise types of genius; in Macready I see only a man of talent, but of talent so marked and individual that it approaches very near to genius; and, indeed, in justification of those admirers who would claim for him the higher title, I may say that Tieck, whose opinion on such a matter will be received with great respect, told me that Macready seemed to him a better actor than either Kean or John Kemble; and he only saw Macready in the early part of his long and arduous career.

Of John Kemble I cannot, of course, speak. And with respect to Kean, while claiming for him the indisputable superiority in the highest reaches of his art, I should admit that he was inferior to Macready in that general flexibility of talent and in that range of intellectual sympathy which are necessary to the personation of many and various parts. In this sense Macready was the better actor. And he showed it also in another striking difference. Kean created scarcely any new parts: with the exception of Bertram, Brutus and Sir Edward Mortimer all bis attempts with modern plays were more or less failures. He gave the stamp of his own great power to Shylock, Othello, Sir Giles Overreach, and Richard; but he could not infuse life into Virginius or Tell, nor would he, perhaps, have succeeded with Werner, Richelieu, Claude Melnotte, Ruy Gomez, and the fifty other parts which Macready created. It is worthy of note that Kean was greatest in the greatest parts, and seemed to require the wide range of Shakspearian passion for his arena; whereas Macready was greatest in parts like Werner, Richelieu, Iago, or Virginius, and always fell short when representing the great Shakspearian hero

. Macready had a voice powerful, extensive in compass, capable of delicate modulation in quiet passages (though with a tendency to scream in violent passages), and having tones that thrilled and tones that stirred tears. His declamation was mannered and unmusical; yet his intelligence always made him follow the winding meanings through the involutions of the verse, and never allowed you to feel, as you feel in the declamation of Charles Kean and many other actors, that he was speaking words which he did not thoroughly understand. The trick of a broken and spasmodic rhythm might destroy the music proper to the verse, but it did not perplex you with false emphasis or intonations wandering at hazard. His person was good, and his face expressive.

We shall perhaps best understand the nature of his talent by thinking of the characters he most successfully personated. They were many and various, implying great flexibility in his powers; but they were not characters of grandeur, physical or moral. They were domestic rather than ideal, and made but slight appeals to the larger passions which give strength to heroes. He was irritable where he should have been passionate, querulous where he should have been terrible. In Macbeth, for example, nothing could be finer than the indications he gave of a conscience wavering under the influence of' fate and metaphysical aid,' superstitious, and weakly cherishing the suggestions of superstition; but nothing could have been less heroic than his presentation of the great criminal. He was fretful and impatient under the taunts and provocations of his wife; he was ignoble under the terrors of remorse; he stole into the sleeping-chamber of Duncan like a man going to purloin a purse, not like a warrior going to snatch a crown. In Othello, again, his passion was irritability, and his agony had no grandeur. His Hamlet I thought bad, due allowance being made for the intelligence it displayed. He was lachrymose and fretful: too fond of a cambric pocket-handkerchief to be really affecting; nor, as it seemed to me, had he that sympathy with the character which would have given an impressive unity to his performance—it was 'a thing of shreds and patches,' not a whole. In King John, Richard II., Iago, and Cassius, all his great qualities were displayed. In Werner, he represented the anguish of a weak mind prostrate, with a pathos almost as remarkable as the heroie agony of Kean's Othello. The forlorn look and wailing accent when his son retorts upon him his own plea, 'Who taught me there were crimes made venial by the occasion?' are not to be forgotten. Nor was the fiery impatience of his Cassius less remarkable; it was just the kind of passion he could best express.

In tenderness Macready had few rivals. He could exhibit the noble tenderness of a father in Virginius, as well as the chivalrous tenderness of a lover. None of the young men whom I have seen play Claude Melnotte had the youthfulness of Macready in that part; you lost all sense of his sixty years in the fervour and resilient buoyancy of his manner; and when he paced up and down before the footlights, describing to the charming Pauline with whom his Melnotte is memorably associated —Helen Faucit—the home where love should be, his voice, look, and bearing had an indescribable effect. It was really a rare sight to witness Claude Melnotte and Lear played by the same actor in the same week. The fretful irritability of the senile king was admirably rendered; he almost succeeded in making the character credible; and although the terrific curse was probably delivered by Kean with, incomparably more grandeur, the screaming vehemence of Macready was quite in keeping with the irritability of the earlier scenes.

He was a thorough artist, very conscientious, very much in earnest, and very careful about all the resources of his art. Hence he was always picturesque in his costume. Often, indeed, his 'get up' was such that, to use a common phrase, he seemed to have stepped from the canvass of one of the old masters.[32-36]


Lewes, George Henry. On Actors and the Art of Acting. 2nd ed. London: Smith, Elder, 1875. Hathi Digital Library Trust online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 22 April 2017.

Last modified 22 April 2017