Jonathan Cecil

Rogues’ gallery

The distinguished writer Brian Masters in his handsomely produced book on the actors of the Garrick Club has set himself a formidable task.

The distinguished writer Brian Masters in his handsomely produced book on the actors of the Garrick Club has set himself a formidable task. Not only, until he reaches the mid-20th century, does he have to assess the art of long-dead actors from contemporary accounts; he is also writing a history of the theatrical profession from the time when actors were actually designated, in an 1822 Act of Parliament, ‘Rogues and Vagabonds’, until their gradual edging into respectability. This was symbolised by two events: the founding of the Garrick Club in 1831 and Henry Irving’s knighthood in 1895. Later, Masters enumerates 20th- century Garrick actors, many of whom he has known, and finally addresses club members’ influence over the theatre for more than a century and a half.

He has carried out his daunting task very well. The book is informative, thorough and enjoyable. The first Garrick actor to feature is the great Macready who despised the low status of actors but was as obsessed with his craft and the search for emotional truth as any latterday Stanislavskian. He was prickly, vain and jealous — not someone with whom one would care to have lunch. He invited his great rival, the saintly Phelps, to join his company in order to cast him in inferior roles. Yet, a mass of contradictions, Macready generously helped Phelps when the latter was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Phelps had a great success with his company at the Sadler’s Wells theatre — previously a very seedy venue. He pioneered the playing of Shakespeare’s plays as written, discarding ludicrous ‘improvements’ such as Nahum Tate’s happy ending for King Lear.

Phelps was the idol of the young Henry Irving who, after years of toiling in the provinces, became at the Lyceum the doyen of British theatre.

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