Saturday, November 12, 2022

Talfourd's ION

In the latest issue of Theatre Notebook, Christopher Butcher has an excellent article on William Charles Macready bringing Thomas Noon Talfourd's play Ion to the stage.

Though the play shares its title with a tragedy by Euripides, Talfourd's take is quite different, and involves the young prince Ion sacrificing his own life for the good of the state. The author had the piece printed privately and circulated it among a number of notables, including Macready.

The actor was excited about the play, but recognized that audiences might consider him too old to play a young character like Ion. However, impressed by Macready's performance in another tragedy on classical themes, Virginius, Talfourd requested the star actor to appear in the starring role. Macready was only too happy to oblige.

Originally, the play was supposed to be performed for Macready's benefit night at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Unfortunately, Macready had a violent quarrel with the theatre's manager, Alfred Bunn. Macready had to turn to Talfourd for legal advice in the matter. The actor wanted out of his contract at Drury Lane, and so he ended up using Ion as a pretext for gaining his own dismissal. He wrote to Bunn demanding that the play be brought into rehearsal as soon as possible. Bunn fired Macready for his impudence, which is precisely what the actor wanted.

Even before Bunn had fired him, Macready had begun negotiations to appear at the rival Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Included in his contract was a stipulation that Ion be performed. Eventually, the date of the premiere was set for May 26, 1836, which was also Talfourd's birthday. Macready wanted the painter Clarkson Stanfield to provide the scenery, though he was unfortunately unavailable.

Ellen Tree agreed to play the role of Clemanthe, and the piece was advertised as being for one night only. Joanna Baillie, the most highly regarded dramatist of her day, was in the audience, as were William Wordsworth, Walter Savage Landor, Henry Crabb Robinson, Henry Hart Milman, Robert Browning, Sheridan Knowles, and Charles Dickens.

The play was a success, with the audience calling for the author to take a bow. Talfourd received numerous letters congratulating him, and plans were made for a lengthier run, rather than just the one-night-only event. Macready had introduced cuts that greatly reduced the role of Clemanthe, and when the play later began its official run, Helen Faucit replaced Ellen Tree. At first, Faucit was disappointed by her own performance, but Talfourd wrote her a kind letter that buoyed her spirits.

Ion was performed June 1, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 11 at Covent Garden, and would have run longer, except Macready had engagements elsewhere. It even led to a minor revival in Greek themes on the London stage. Though the play has been largely forgotten, Butcher's article brings new attention to this important moment in theatrical history.

Incidentally, if you want to read more about Macready, you can find plenty of information about him in my new book, Romantic Actors, Romantic Dramas. Though I don't have a full chapter on Macready, his career is discussed at length, as is the work of Baillie, Browning, Faucit, Knowles, Milman, and others.

And though I don't have an article in this issue of Theatre Notebook, my article "War, Pandemic, and Immortality: 1918 and the Drama of Eternal Life" appears in the latest issue of Shaw. Check it out!