William Charles Macready may have been the first modern actor. At the time of his arrival on the English stage, in the early 19th century, a "proper" performance consisted of a series of set speeches, accompanied by gestures chosen from a common catalog -- clasped hands for love, outthrown arms for fear, slumped shoulders for despair, and so forth. Only a "great" actor could add original "points" of his own, and it was considered outrageous for any performer to go on acting while another was speaking. Texts were rewritten to suit the whims of the star -- there was, for example, a "Kind Lear" with a happy ending!
Macready changed all that, by pioneering a more-or- less realistic style based on real emotion and systematic "identification" with characters. Perhaps predictably, he was immediately panned by Hazlett for giving "too natural" a performance. But he persevered with his astonishing new ideas -- such as rehearsals of the entire cast, unadulterated Shakespearean texts, and ensemble performances where everyone acted all the time regardless of who happened to be speakin. (Some of these ideas might still be controversial in certain circles. In her book "Shelley," Shelley Winters describes the clash between her "Method" technique and the declamatory style of her former husband, European star Vittorio Gassman.)
With his innovations, Macready gained vast popularity, made lots of money, and revolutionized theatrical technique. Yet he never lost a deep-seated content for his own profession, which persisted to the very end of his fabulous career.
Five years ago, while playing Hamlet, Frank Barrie received a copy of Macready's diary as an opening-night gift. He was struck by the similarity between Macready's theatrical ups and downs and his own. "Here was an actor . . . a hundred and fifty years ago . . . experiencing the same irritations and elations which every actor knows today," writes Barrie in a program note. He was also impressed by the vulnerability that hid behind Macready's mask of "frigid dignity."
Barrie's one-man show "Macready!" draws on this diary for most of its material. The presentation is largely chronological, begining with Macready's birth and concluding with his retirement from the stage, all described and re-enacted as if Barrie/Macready existed outside of time -- a friendly apparition from the past, steeped in the theater of then and now.
In keeping with his subject, Barrie's own style seems rather broad, addressing the audience with a sweeping avuncularity that Macready might well have appreciated. Yet it's a carefully modulated performance tempered with difficult tricks -- as when barrie hits several levels at once, impersonating Macready playing Shakespeare on a bad night before a dull audience.
"Macready!" is most gripping when it emphasizes history over personality. For example, Macready conceived a fascination with the United States (like Charles Dickens) that was bitterly dashed by his experiences there. Macready was shocked by the treatment of blacks, and horrified by the rudeness of American audiences -- who threw a sheep carcas onto the stage in Cincinnati and staged a fatal riot in New York. In reliving incidents like these, "Macready!" plunges us vividly into the atmosphere and attitudes of anoher age.
The show is less engaging when it slips into long passages of flat biographical detail, or repetitious harangues about the virtues and vices of "the theatah." Macready's inner contradictions are never explained or even probed very deeply -- whence came such genius in a man who despised his own art? -- and the other figures in his life are but dimly drawn.
Still, the evening readily regains its momentum when Barrie movingly evokes Macready's attachment to his family, his deep friendship with Dickens, and his principled resistance to the temptation of a love affair. It even gets superbly funny at the most unexpected moments --as when Macready gets a profoundly meaningful letter from a lovelorn admirer in the same post that brings a demand from Queen Victoria for less expensive box seats! In its design and its detail, "Macready!" is a worthy and instructive show and an impressive display of solo virtuosity. Only a performer of Barrie's gifts could have brought it off.