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The Hunchback   By: (1784-1862)

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James Sheridan Knowles was born at Cork in 1784, and died at Torquay in December, 1862, at the age of 78. His father was a teacher of elocution, who compiled a dictionary, and who was related to the Sheridans. He moved to London when his son was eight years old, and there became acquainted with William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb. The son, after his school education, obtained a commission in the army, but gave up everything for the stage, and made his first appearance at the Crow Street Theatre, in Dublin. He did not become a great actor, and when he took to writing plays he did not prove himself a great poet, but his skill in contriving situations through which a good actor can make his powers tell upon the public, won the heart of the great actor of his day, and as Macready's own poet he rose to fame.

Before Macready had discovered him, Sheridan Knowles lived partly by teaching elocution at Belfast and Glasgow, partly by practice of elocution as an actor. In 1815 he produced at the Belfast Theatre his first play, Caius Gracchus . His next play, Virginius was produced at Glasgow with great success. Macready, who had, at the age of seventeen, begun his career as an actor at his father's theatre in Birmingham, had, on Monday, October 5th, 1819, at the age of twenty six, taken the Londoners by storm in the character of Richard III Covent Garden reopened its closed treasury. It was promptly followed by a success in Coriolanus , and Macready's place was made. He was at once offered fifty pounds a night for appearing on one evening a week at Brighton. It was just after that turn in Macready's fortunes that a friend at Glasgow recommended to him the part of Virginius in Sheridan Knowles's play lately produced there. He agreed unwillingly to look at it, and says that in April, 1820, the parcel containing the MS. came as he was going out. He hesitated, then sat down to read it that he might get a wearisome job over. As he read, he says, "The freshness and simplicity of the dialogue fixed my attention; I read on and on, and was soon absorbed in the interest of the story and the passion of its scenes, till at its close I found myself in such a state of excitement that for a time I was undecided what step to take. Impulse was in the ascendant, and snatching up my pen I hurriedly wrote, as my agitated feelings prompted, a letter to the author, to me then a perfect stranger." Bryan Procter (Barry Cornwall) read the play next day with Macready, and confirmed him in his admiration of it.

Macready at once got it accepted at the theatre, where nothing was spent on scenery, but there was a good cast, and the enthusiasm of Macready as stage manager for the occasion half affronted some of his seniors. On the 17th of May, 1820, about a month after it came into Macready's hands, Virginius was produced at Covent Garden, where, says the actor in his "Reminiscences," "the curtain fell amidst the most deafening applause of a highly excited auditory." Sheridan Knowles's fame, therefore, was made, like that of his friend Macready, and the friendship between author and actor continued. Sheridan Knowles had a kindly simplicity of character, and the two qualities for which an actor most prizes a dramatist, skill in providing opportunities for acting that will tell, and readiness to make any changes that the actor asks for. The postscript to his first letter to Macready was, "Make any alterations you like in any part of the play, and I shall be obliged to you." When he brought to the great actor his play of William Tell Caius Gracchus had been produced in November, 1823 there were passages of writing in it that stopped the course of action, and, says Macready, "Knowles had less of the tenacity of authorship than most writers," so that there was no difficulty about alterations, Macready having in a very high degree the tenacity of actorship... Continue reading book >>

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