An Old-Time Actor

Baltimore Evening Sun/July 22, 1910

Who remembers James Quin? Not even his brother actors! And yet, in his time, Quin was the acknowledged emperor of the English stage, a veritable Colossus among the mummers, the pride and boast of Drury Lane. Born in 1683 and bawling at the town until 1766, he bridged the gap between the old stage and the new, between the howling, eat-’em-alive tragic acting of the Restoration and the simpler, more naturalistic method of Charles Macklin and David Garrick. Quin had a voice like the bull of Bashan. When he played Cato the echoes could be heard at London Bridge He tore passions to tatters, and not only passions, but also the scenery, his own costume and the other actors’. When he tackled Othello the Desdemona wore chain mail.

It was in 1741 that Quin got his first body blow—the year of Macklin’s Shylock. Before that time the Jew had been played as a low comedian—and in a red wig! It was thus that Richard Burbadge had done him, and thus that he had been played to great applause by Quin, who was 35 years old when Burbadge died. In order to heighten the grotesquerie of the character, “The Merchant of Venice” had been rewritten in 1701 by an incredibly bumptious donkey named George Granville, Viscount Lansdowne. Quin as Shylock went in for heavy clowning. He made the merchant shriek and howl. He cavorted about the stage like a drunken elephant. The town liked it.

Macklin’s Shylock

But Macklin didn’t. He was a man of some education and of great natural intelligence, and the more he studied Shakespeare the more he became convinced that the poet had not planned Shylock as a merry Andrew. This conviction finally led him to announce a revival of “The Merchant” at Drury Lane, where he had become leading man, and to announce furthermore that he would play the Jew as a serious character. The news caused a great sensation, and most of the frequenters of the old playhouse were disposed to laugh. As for Quin, he plainly expected a ludicrous fiasco, and in order to see the fun at close range he accepted the part of Antonio. Macklin went back to Shakespeare’s text, threw away Shylock’s red wig and warned the company that there must be no clowning.

The whole enterprise aroused the town to breathless excitement, and on the first night—February 14, 1741—Drury Lane was packed to the doors. It was not exactly a hostile audience, for Macklin was very popular, but all the same there was a strong party on the side of tradition. Macklin peeped through a slit in the curtain and took heart. All the poets and scholars in London were there, and—“I wished in such a cause to be tried by a special jury.” He was. The verdict came in after the scene following the elopement of Jessica. The pathos and dignity of this new Shylock wiped out all memory of the older Shylock’s humors. Thunders of applause shook the house. The crowd cheered Macklin as no actor had ever been cheered before Notables by the score thronged to the green room to wring his hand. “I was not worth 50 pounds at that time,” said the great reformer afterward, “but let me tell you I was Charles the Great for that night!”

The Triumph of Macklin

Quin was beaten, and at once the old style of acting fell into disfavor. Alexander Pope and the other wits became the partisans of Macklin. The call went forth for naturalism, as it has gone forth in our own day. The old strutting, the old pomposity, the old blood-curdling shrieks—these things began to make playgoers laugh. In the latter part of 1741 Macklin received a powerful recruit in the person of David Garrick, who made his debut at Goodman’s Fields on October 19. Garrick soon left Macklin far behind, but it is to the latter that all credit must be given for sounding the revolt against the ancient conventions.

But to return to Quin. He was unhorsed by Macklin, but by no means overwhelmed, and for 25 years longer he remained a notable figure on the English stage. It is a wonder that no one has ever undertaken a full-length biography of him Mention of him is frequent in all of the old stage chronicles, and enough examples of his wit have been preserved to make a thick volume. He was a man of education, an Irishman who had been destined for the bar, but who, on dissipating his patrimony, had become a strolling player. In his palmy days he was the first gourmet of London, and many a story is told of his prodigious feasting.

A Famous Gourmandiser

On one occasion, when passing down the Thames, Quin pointed at the arch of Westminster bridge and exclaimed, “Oh, that my mouth were that centre arch and that the river ran claret!” Another time, when he was invited to go fishing, he declined on the ground that it was a barbarous sport. “If some superior being,” he explained, “should bait a hook with venison and go a-quinning, I should certainly bite—and what a sight I should be, dangling in the air!” He used to make long trips to Portsmouth for the single purpose of eating the fish caught there. Once he ran up a bill of $750 in eight weeks—an enormous sum for that time. His favorite meat was pork. He used to say that he wished he were a Jew, that he might enjoy not only the delicious flavor of swine’s flesh, but also the notion that, in eating it, he was committing a crime.

Garrick wrote a capital epigram upon Quin’s gourmandising, and there are many other references to the Lucullan repasts in the literature of the time. He was himself a great hand at epigram, and was, in addition, an extraordinarily skillful debater. Some of his best rejoinders are quoted in the letters of Horace Walpole, who was one of his most sincere admirers. But he met his match when he ran afoul of John Rich, manager of Drury Lane. The two quarreled, and Quin retired to Bath, where he set up a company of his own. Hearing some time later on that Rich was eager to bury the hatchet and take him back, he wrote “I am at Bath” on a sheet of paper, signed his name and sent it to Rich. Rich’s answer was equally brief. It was “Stay there and be d–.”

When Quin Lost a Fight

Quin was a brawler as well as a wit, and in his youth he killed two men. In later life he had a fight with Macklin (who had also done some blood-letting) and was soundly trounced. The battle took place in the green room at Drury Lane, and when it was over Quin’s eyes were closed, his nose was crushed flat and he had lost several teeth.

An interesting fellow, living in an age of interesting events! Why doesn’t someone devote a volume to him?

(Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.