Welsh Actor who was “Comic World in One”
By D.R. Davies 22.09.1936
A hundred years ago there died a Welsh actor who added an important chapter to the history of comic acting in England. One critic, referring to the Welshman Orlando Parry’s work, said he had given the best single-handed performance since that of Charles Mathews.
Known as Charles the Elder – to distinguish him from has actor son of the same name – Charles Mathews was born in England in 1776, and was the son of a Wesleyan bookseller. Educated at the Merchant Taylor’s School, though intended for his father’s book business he took to the stage in 1798, and four years later appeared before a London audience at the Haymarket Theatre.
He was apparently a wonderful mimic, and his own programmes, called “At Homes,” which began at the old Lyceum Theatre in 1818, were very popular. Eulogistic references to them are to be found in the works and letters of many English literary light of the time.
An idea of his versatility in these appearance may be gained from a contemporary critique, which stated:
“In these particular performances he appears as a succession of contrasted characters – as a strolling actor, as a country manager who has refused to engage him ‘because he lacks, versatility,’ as an applicant for the post of prompter, as a French tragedian, as a Scottish pawnbroker, as the pawnbroker’s wife, as a fat coachman, and then, finally, as the country manager and strolling player again.”
Mathew’s skill in carrying on a conversation between three persons was uncanny, if we are to rely on the opinions of some important men of letters of his period.
Lord Byron spoke of him, “He seems to have continuous chords in his mind that vibrate to those in the minds of others, as he gives not only the looks, tones, and manners of the persons he personifies but their very train of thinking and the expressions they indulge in.”
He was often described as “a comic world in one.” All the dramatic critics of the day paid tribute to the power of mimicry that he seemed to possess to an unusual degree.
Audience “Taken In”
The infinite variety of his transformations was seen in the characters he portrayed. In one performance of “Catch Him Who Can,” at the Haymarket Theatre, so rapidly did he assume six or seven different disguises and so complete were his presentations that the first night audience, partly take in, failed to recognise him and received him with a cold silence.
“The applause,” adds one observer, “was of course rapturous on the discovery of the deception.”
Nature must have endowed Mathews with physique and features that helped rather than hindered him in his work.
Speaking of himself he once said, “My nurse assured me that I was a long, thin skewer of a child.”
“People used to say, ‘Bless the little dear, it’s not a beauty to be sure, but what a funny face it has!’”
“The offside of my countenance, as a coachman would say, took such and affection for my ear that seemed to make a perpetual struggle to form a closer communication with it, and one eyebrow became fixed as a rusty weather-cock, while the other propped up an inch apparently beyond the proper position. The effects remain to this day, though moderated.”
His Picture Gallery
In the well-informed and sometimes amusing stage history “Records of a Veteran” we find his testimony to Mathews as a comedian.
“I once actually heard him sing 14 comic songs (those strange mixture of melody and mimicry which were created by, lived, and died with him) in one evening. His industry in his art and in all that in any way, however remotely, appertained to it, had no parallel; he was studying fresh characters to the day of his death.”
Following that tribute, the “Records” refer to another characteristic of his private life. It is stated that “he had no eye for painting; the most miserable daubs were foisted on him, and as he affected a taste he was continually the victim of print and picture dealers.”
Mathews had his own picture gallery. Charles Lamb after visiting it on one occasion said he had been indulged with a sight of the Player Picture Gallery at Mr. Mathews in Highgate.
“The kind owner,” adds Lamb, “to remunerate me for my love of the old actors “whom he loves so much) went over it with me, supplying this capital collection with something the artist could not give then – voice and their living emotions.”
Mathews had his eccentricities. He believed, for instance, that no man ever caught a fish by rod and line.
A certain Julian Young gives an unusual account of him.
“I never knew any man,” he says, “so alive to the eccentricities of others who was so dead to his own. I never knew a man who made the world laugh so much, who laughed so seldom himself. I never knew a man who when in Society could make the dullest merry, yet who was so melancholy out of it. I have known him refuse permission to a Royal Duke to see over his picture gallery on Highgate Hill because the day of his call was ‘cloudy.’”
He had another side to his nature – one that was the admiration of his fellow-actors. One of them has said that the public was aware only of his genius.
“I and his intimate friends,” said George Coleman, “knew also his private worth; and if I may mix up one of his private good qualities with his public talents I can assert that I never knew a man more scrupulously but unaffectedly honourable and honest in all his theatrical dealings with me – and his engagements with me were merely verbal.”
It was that Colman who said of Mathews that his eye begot occasion for his wit.
Scott His Friend
Sir Walter Scott, another of the comedian’s illustrious friends, recalled several meetings with him. Referring to one of them he said, “Dined with James Ballantyne and my old friend, Mr. Mathews, the comedian.”
Recalling another previous meeting, Scott noted, “I dined with him also in 1815. Poor Byron lunched with us at Long’s. I never say Byron so full of fun. – Well I never saw Byron again.”
Even though the “Quarterly Review” state that Mathews was not quite in the foremost line of comedy, several people had different views.
Leigh Hunt, writing after Mathew’s death in 1835 gave this summary of his work as an actor:
The late Mr. Mathews, a man of genius in his way, an imitator of mind as well as manner, and a worthy contributor to the wit which he collected from his friends and kindred, was a disburser of much “acute nonsense,” which it is a pity not to preserve.
The most unequivocal tribute to the Welshman’s position on the stage of his day was given by Horace Smith, who said, “There was but one Charles Mathews in the world – there never can be another! Mimics, buffoons, jesters, wags, and even admirable comedians we shall never want, but what are the best of them compared with him”?
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