Charles Macklin: the Irish-speaking actor who became ‘father of the modern stage’

Despite killing a fellow actor over a wig, he dominated 18th-century London theatre

How Charles Macklin, an Irish-speaking Catholic from the Inishowen peninsula in rural Donegal, became one of the greatest actors of the 18th-century London stage is a dramatic tale that features murder, rioting, legal wrangling and, most of all, sheer bloodymindedness.

He was an actor, dramatist, theatre manager, entrepreneur and business owner, elocution teacher, advocate for actors’ rights, and a central figure in the London Irish diaspora for most of the century. His acting career spanned an astonishing seven decades (at least – his earlier life is a little murky) but the “mad Irishman”, as he was referred to early on in his career, was never far from the public eye.

But a more nuanced assessment of his life and times reveals him as a central figure in mediating a positive Irish identity to British audiences during the Enlightenment.

Born Cathal McLaughlin sometime in the 1690s, he appeared first on the London stage in 1725 and slowly established himself in the city’s theatres. But he was thrust into the public eye in 1735 when he was charged with the murder of a fellow actor in a backstage row over a wig. In the ill-tempered fracas, Macklin thrust a stick through his colleague’s eye and his subsequent urination onto the wound (at the injured man’s request) enhanced the notoriety of the deed. Macklin represented himself at his trial and with the help of some character witnesses, he managed to get the charge knocked back to manslaughter and received a nominal punishment. The incident, horrific as it was, did little to impede his rising star although it was never forgotten.

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Macklin acted alongside David Garrick, the great English actor of the age, but he also served as his acting teacher, coaching him for Garrick’s breakout role as Richard III in 1741. Macklin championed a naturalistic style of acting, one that eschewed the declamatory “sing-song” and highly stylised approach of the post-Restoration period and rather replicated the patterns of ordinary speech and cultivated the natural expression of emotions. Garrick secured his fame with Richard III but Macklin’s portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice on Saturday, February 14th, 1741 was arguably as significant and was certainly more courageous.

When he appeared on the Drury Lane stage that evening, Macklin faced a deeply sceptical audience who had got wind of his plans for a radical reimagining of the character. Moreover, he had to act alongside James Quin, a fellow Irishman but of the old school of acting and playing the titular merchant, who was openly hostile.

The play had supposedly not been staged in London since Shakespeare’s time and it was supplanted by Lord Lansdowne’s “improved version”, The Jew of Venice (1701). In this version, Shylock was played as a clown in the commedia dell’arte tradition. Macklin had decided to play it straight: his Shylock was a snarling and spiteful figure that shocked and thrilled contemporary audiences. It was also an unequivocal success, commercially and critically. George II was reported to have had nightmares after seeing the performance and even suggested to his prime minister to send recalcitrant MPs to Macklin if he wanted to get them back in line.

There was a force to the performance that chimed with the growing sense of Shakespeare as the national bard, a process that unfolded through the 18th century. Alexander Pope was said to have exclaimed “This is the Jew / That Shakespeare drew”. Macklin’s fame was now assured and he would play the role for 50 years. His final performance was in 1789, aged at least 89 years of age.

Not for nothing was he known as the “father of the modern stage”. But his success had broader consequences as Macklin’s reappropriation of Shakespeare was a powerful statement of Irish civility and culture that helped shake off notions of Irish ignorance and barbarism still lingering from the 17th century.

Challenging tired ideas of Irish barbarism was a recurring motif in his life and work. His great short comedy, Love à la Mode (1759) reworks an early scene from The Merchant of Venice with the rich heiress Charlotte (played by Macklin’s daughter, Maria) wooed by an Englishman, a Scotsman, an Irishman and a Jew. The others conspire to expose the Irishman as an ignorant and violent savage but his wit and sincerity confound both their traps and the audience’s expectations.

Sir Callaghan O’Brallaghan proves himself noble in spirit, courageous, verbally dextrous, and loyal to the king. At the close of the play, Charlotte, determined to test her suitors, feigns poverty and the Irishman is the only suitor who stays true. Macklin’s character was both a proud Irishman and ardent monarchist, seeing no contradiction in this hybrid identity. Love à la Mode was a resounding success and remained part of the repertory into the 19th century. Most recently, it was restaged in Smock Alley in 2018.

Macklin’s faith in British institutions did not make him an uncritical citizen of the British state. His The True-born Irishman (1761) sternly reprimanded those Irish with foppish affectations for London fashions (it was later adapted by Brian Friel as The London Vertigo [1990]). His next major play, The Man of the World (1781), was the only play of the century that was twice refused a performance licence by the Lord Chamberlain’s Examiner of Plays.

Macklin’s play was a scathing attack on parliamentary corruption and the venality of pernicious Scottish politicians such as Lord Bute, a controversial and short-lived prime minister of the early 1760s (taxing gin helped end his short-lived stint of office). There had been indignant complaints after Love à la Mode’s Sir Archy Macsarcasm annoyed the London Scots community and this play’s Sir Pertinax Macsycophant, another outrageous Stage Scotsman played by Macklin himself, did not improve matters.

But the controversy over Macklin’s ethnic stereotypes meant that many missed the play’s overarching concern with reimagining a post-ethnic Britain, an Enlightened polity where one’s adherence to values of disinterested patriotism and meritocracy would ensure societal progress and stability. Macklin was frustrated by the myopia of some readers of his play and wrote to the Lord Chamberlain to explain his motivation:

“The Author’s chief End in writing the Man of the World was to ridicule & by that means to explode the reciprocal national Prejudices that equally soured & disgraced the Minds both of English & Scotch Men. Mr. Macklin flattered himself that the Exposing of an absurd Scotch Father’s Obstinacy in national Prejudices, wou’d be such as Lesson to such kind of men as to make them less frequent in the Indulgence of those offensive, unsocial Humours.”

Macklin saw Britain as a land rife with ethnic prejudice but equally one full of extraordinary opportunity and possibility. For many Irish contemporaries of Macklin – such as Oliver Goldsmith, Catherine Clive and Richard Brinsley Sheridan – theatre was the forum where they could achieve fame and fortune while dramatising Britain’s fault lines and suggesting avenues of amelioration. Yet Macklin’s voice was the most strident of his generation in his willingness to speak truth to power not simply for himself, but for the London Irish diaspora, his theatrical colleagues and society at large.

This aspect of his career has been underplayed despite much evidence of a man who actively pursued the Enlightenment motto of “daring to know”. The “Mad Irishman” accumulated an impressive library of over 3,000 books on history, literature, philosophy, law, science, among other subjects. He opened a coffeehouse and debating society business in the 1750s, credited with being the first such establishment where women were not only allowed attend but encouraged to contribute.

He won a number of landmark court cases to improve the lot of actors, defending his right to earn a living by the stage after Scottish rioters sabotaged a 1773 production of Macbeth (payback from the unforgiving London Scots), and asserting the copyright to his plays, which were being mercilessly pirated. In the 1780s he involved himself in London Irish patriot circles; by attending meetings, he brought star quality and helped ensure media coverage of their political activities.

Macklin's reputed belligerence has cast a shadow over an extraordinary life. But if we reconfigure his achievements under Enlightenment categories such as tolerance, liberty, self-improvement and advocacy, and across the many theatres of Georgian London life, he emerges as one of the most important Irish cultural figures of the 18th century. That his starting point was the 17th-century Donegal Gaeltacht makes him remarkable.

David O'Shaughnessy is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at NUI Galway. Charles Macklin and the Theatres of London, co-edited with Ian Newman, will be published by Liverpool University Press on March 1st.