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War Among The Stars
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
Erudite William Macready was fine wine to Forrest’s whiskey. He, too, could let out a yelp that stiffened audiences in dread, but on the whole he softened the old bombast of his predecessors and introduced a muchneeded unity of character. Toward supporting players he was snappish at best—”a dreadful man to act with,” said one actress. In the role of Virginias he choked the villain blue until the poor fellow donned in defense a collar bristling with pinpoints. Macready the star performer upstaged his cast with heartless ease. If he played Iago, Othello faded to a pawn; if Othello, Iago became the occasion, and no more, for the Moor’s tremendous grief. As for his leading ladies, let them have lovely backs—the audience saw little else of them.
The slightest mishap in a performance drove Macready into a cold rage. Lady Macbeth’s beads broke and tinkled around his feet—he flung her into the wings with curses. A supernumerary missed his cue—he pulled the lad’s ears hard enough to draw a three-pound fine in court. His regret at these outbursts was sincere but never sufficient to correct them. After one miserable performance he sent the theatre manager reeling with a black eye and a twisted ankle. “Are you going to murder me?” gasped the man.
Of course he did not, for above all Macready wished to rate as a gentleman. He was contemptuous of everything about the theatre except his own acting. The profession had been thrust upon him when his actormanager father was jailed for debt, and he stuck with it because it paid him well enough to buy a country seat and so play the squire. A well-wrought role was money, applause was money, pre-eminence was money. Toward anyone, therefore, who threatened his place at the pinnacle of the English stage, Macready was bound to feel antipathy.
This was the man that Forrest chose to insult—with good reason, Forrest always believed.
For twenty years prior to the Edinburgh hiss the two had maintained a fragile cordiality. On the occasion of Forrest’s first appearance on the London stage in 1836 Macready had him to dinner with Robert Browning as another guest. “Eiked him very much,” Macreadyjotted in his diary, “a noble appearance, and a manly, mild and interesting demeanor. I welcomed him—wished him success”—but not too much, he probably added under his breath.
Forrest achieved the London triumph that Macready wished him openly and begrudged him at heart. His Spartacus in The Gladiator won a burst of bravos from the seats and shouts of “Welcome to England!” He had a physical immensity that audiences loved. As Othello he entered six feet tall, said one reviewer, and in action grew to seven. (His actual height was five feet ten.) When he staggered from Desdemona’s bed and fell backward into the footlights, his head striking the boards with a resounding thump, the spectators gasped in terror.
Macready was horribly jealous. The Times opinion that Forrest’s Lear was superb to the last palsied shake made him cry out in despair: “O, my God—what is this life? —what is my life—?” Hearing that the dramatic corps at Drury Lane had presented Forrest with a gold snuffbox, Macready scoffed in his diary that a clown had once gotten the same for doing somersaults.
Outwardly the rivals remained amiable. Forrest reported home that Macready had been entirely gracious. “Before I arrived in England, he had spoken of me in the most flattering terms, and, on my arrival, he embraced the earliest opportunity to call upon me, since which time he has extended to me many delicate courtesies and attentions, all showing the native kindness of his heart, and great refinement and good breeding.”
Anglo-American friction during the next decade made the uncertain peace between Forrest and Macready even more precarious. The memory of two wars rankled on both sides of the Atlantic (no United States naval vessel had paid a friendly call on Britain since 1812), and another threatened as Americans greedily eyed the unsettled boundary with Canada. In 1837 a brief revolt along the St. Lawrence was fed by men and munitions from Vermont; and in 1844 the electorate demanded Oregon territory to 54° 40′ or a fight.
For their part, the British were further incensed by financial losses on American investments. They had poured millions of dollars into the States in expectation of a quick return, only to have a panic in 1837 send business crashing. Corporations collapsed, banks closed. As late as 1845 seven states were still suspending payments on bonds, and two had repudiated their bonded debt entirely. Britains felt they had been “yankeed.”