Tyrone Power, the actor who humanised the ‘stage Irishman’ stereotype
Character was a comic staple on stage: sentimental, buffoonish, cowardly but popular
Tyrone Power: 'Each of my characters are, according to my ability, painted from nature.'
References to Tyrone Power might bring to mind the American matinee idol who died in his prime in the 1950s, but his ancestor, born William Grattan Power in Co Waterford in 1797, was the originator of a formidable theatrical dynasty including the aforementioned film star, and theatre director Tyrone Guthrie.
William Grattan Power, also known as Tyrone Power, was from a wealthy family. After his father’s death, the family moved to Cardiff. A relative of theirs worked as a printer for local theatres, and it may have been this connection that sparked Power’s love of the stage. Power broke his mother’s heart by running away to become an actor at the age of 14, cutting his teeth in walk-on roles.
Much like his eponymous movie star descendant, William was eager to try his hand at high profile roles. His chance came at the age of 20 in 1818, in Margate, when he played the role of Looney Mactwolter in Colman’s The Wag of Windsor. Mactwolter was part of the “stage Irish” tradition, which has its roots in Shakespeare’s depiction of Macmorris in Henry V, a stereotype which evolved into a more negative parody during the Williamite invasion of Ireland, with poems such as James Farewell’s The Irish Hudibras adapting The Aeneid by changing the setting of the underworld from Hades to Fingal.
By the time Power came to take on the role of the ludicrously named “Looney Mactwolter”, the stage Irishman was a comic staple - sentimental, buffoonish and cowardly, but whose good nature meant he retained the audience’s sympathy. Power, with his Irish birth, his pleasant, open face and his easy agility, seemed perfectly suited to play the role. But his performance was so poorly received that he contemplated giving up the stage - and did so when his wife of two years, Anne Gilbert, came into some money later that year.
They sailed for South Africa and spent 12 months there, but Power failed to settle. The stage was calling him still, and the couple returned to England, where Power took roles on the London stage. In 1826, while working in supporting roles in Covent Garden, opportunity struck in suitably dramatic fashion with the sudden death of the day’s leading Irish comedian, Charles Connor. Power stepped into his role, to numerous plaudits, and from then on remained focused on Irish comedic roles in the works of O’Shaughnessy, Colman, and Sheridan.
In the 1830s Power began to write, penning a number of his own Irish comedies including Married Lovers and How to Pay the Rent, Paddy Carney and St Patrick’s Eve, alongside romances with evocative titles such as The Gipsy of Abruzzo.
Upon returning from a series of successful American tours, he published two volumes of his observations on American life, Impressions of America. Here, Power offers some intriguing observations on how his style - more naturalistic than the contemporary American style - went down in New York. A friend cautioned him, “that accustomed, as they had long been, to associate with the representative of my countrymen a ruffian with a black eye, and straw in his shoes, the public taste was too vitiated to relish a quiet portrait of nature undebased.”
The stage Irishman would evolve as a stereotype throughout the later 19th century, reaching its zenith in the popular melodramas of Dion Boucicault and its nadir in the racist cartoons of Punch. Unfortunately, Power himself would not live to see its evolution.
After a further trip to America in 1841 to perform at the Park Theatre in New York, he boarded the SS President. This was, at the time, the largest ship ever built. She was a passenger steamer, and due to her immense size, was top heavy. This meant her ability to deal with rough weather was compromised, and on Power’s return journey, the ship encountered a severe Atlantic storm, eventually disappearing completely. Power was among the 136 passengers lost. He was 43 years of age.
His legacy lives on in the strong theatrical tradition he founded, with his passion for the craft passed down to future generations. Theatre academics such as Richard Allen Cave have commented on his drive to humanise the stereotype of the stage Irishman. When advised by his American friend to play his roles with more “bustle”, Power demurred: “each of my characters are, according to my ability, painted from nature…’tis only for me to present the picture as it is; for them to like or dislike it.”
This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Jessica Traynor, deputy museum director at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum (epicchq.com) in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.