Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: MACREADY. LONDON, MARCH 1, 1851.

[On the evening of the above day the friends and admirers of Mr. Macready entertained him at a public dinner. Upwards of six hundred gentlemen assembled to do honour to the great actor on his retirement from the stage. Sir E. B. Lytton took the chair. Among the other speakers were Baron Bunsen, Sir Charles Eastlake, Mr. Thackeray, Mr. John Forster, Mr. W. J. Fox, and Mr. Charles Dickens, who proposed “The Health of the Chairman” in the following words:-]

Gentlemen — After all you have already heard, and so rapturously received, I assure you that not even the warmth of your kind welcome would embolden me to hope to interest you if I had not full confidence in the subject I have to offer to your notice. But my reliance on the strength of this appeal to you is so strong that I am rather encouraged than daunted by the brightness of the track on which I have to throw my little shadow.

Gentlemen, as it seems to me, there are three great requisites essential to the perfect realisation of a scene so unusual and so splendid as that in which we are now assembled. The first, and I must say very difficult requisite, is a man possessing the stronghold in the general remembrance, the indisputable claim on the general regard and esteem, which is possessed by my dear and much valued friend our guest. The second requisite is the presence of a body of entertainers — a great multitude of hosts so cheerful and good-humoured (under, I am sorry to say, some personal inconvenience) — so warm-hearted and so nobly in earnest, as those whom I have the privilege of addressing. The third, and certainly not the least of these requisites, is a president who, less by his social position, which he may claim by inheritance, or by fortune, which may have been adventitiously won, and may be again accidentally lost, than by his comprehensive genius, shall fitly represent the best part of him to whom honour is done, and the best part of those who unite in the doing of it. Such a president I think we have found in our chairman of to-night, and I need scarcely add that our chairman’s health is the toast I have to propose to you.

Many of those who now hear me were present, I daresay, at that memorable scene on Wednesday night last, 25 when the great vision which had been a delight and a lesson — very often, I daresay, a support and a comfort to you, which had for many years improved and charmed us, and to which we had looked for an elevated relief from the labours of our lives, faded from our sight for ever. I will not stop to inquire whether our guest may or may not have looked backward, through rather too long a period for us, to some remote and distant time when he might possibly bear some far-off likeness to a certain Spanish archbishop whom Gil Blas once served. Nor will I stop to inquire whether it was a reasonable disposition in the audience of Wednesday to seize upon the words —

25 February 26th, 1851. Mr. Macready’s Farewell Benefit at Drury Lane Theatre, on which occasion he played the part of Macbeth. — ED.

“And I have brought,

Golden opinions from all sorts of people,

Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,

Not cast aside so soon —” 26

26 MACBETH, Act I., sc. 7.

but I will venture to intimate to those whom I am addressing how in my mind I mainly connect that occasion with the present. When I looked round on the vast assemblage, and observed the huge pit hushed into stillness on the rising of the curtain, and that mighty surging gallery, where men in their shirt-sleeves had been striking out their arms like strong swimmers — when I saw that. boisterous human flood become still water in a moment, and remain so from the opening to the end of the play, it suggested to me something besides the trustworthiness of an English crowd, and the delusion under which those labour who are apt to disparage and malign it: it suggested to me that in meeting here to-night we undertook to represent something of the all-pervading feeling of that crowd, through all its intermediate degrees, from the full-dressed lady, with her diamonds sparkling upon her breast in the proscenium-box, to the half-undressed gentleman; who bides his time to take some refreshment in the back row of the gallery. And I consider, gentlemen, that no one who could possibly be placed in this chair could so well head that comprehensive representation, and could so well give the crowning grace to our festivities, as one whose comprehensive genius has in his various works embraced them all, and who has, in his dramatic genius, enchanted and enthralled them all at once.

Gentlemen, it is not for me here to recall, after what you have heard this night, what I have seen and known in the bygone times of Mr. Macready’s management, of the strong friendship of Sir Bulwer Lytton for him, of the association of his pen with his earliest successes, or of Mr. Macready’s zealous and untiring services; but it may be permitted me to say what, in any public mention of him I can never repress, that in the path we both tread I have uniformly found him from the first the most generous of men; quick to encourage, slow to disparage, ever anxious to assert the order of which he is so great an ornament; never condescending to shuffle it off, and leave it outside state rooms, as a Mussulman might leave his slippers outside a mosque.

There is a popular prejudice, a kind of superstition to the effect that authors are not a particularly united body, that they are not invariably and inseparably attached to each other. I am afraid I must concede half-a-grain or so of truth I to that superstition; but this I know, that there can hardly be — that there hardly can have been — among the followers of literature, a man of more high standing farther above these little grudging jealousies, which do sometimes disparage its brightness, than Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton.

And I have the strongest reason just at present to bear my testimony to his great consideration for those evils which are sometimes unfortunately attendant upon it, though not on him. For, in conjunction with some other gentlemen now present, I have just embarked in a design with Sir Bulwer Lytton, to smoothe the rugged way of young labourers, both in literature and the fine arts, and to soften, but by no eleemosynary means, the declining years of meritorious age. And if that project prosper as I hope it will, and as I know it ought, it will one day be an honour to England where there is now a reproach; originating in his sympathies, being brought into operation by his activity, and endowed from its very cradle by his generosity. There are many among you who will have each his own favourite reason for drinking our chairman’s health, resting his claim probably upon some of his diversified successes. According to the nature of your reading, some of you will connect him with prose, others will connect him with poetry. One will connect him with comedy, and another with the romantic passions of the stage, and his assertion of worthy ambition and earnest struggle against those

“twin gaolers of the human heart, Low birth and iron fortune.”

Again, another’s taste will lead him to the contemplation of Rienzi and the streets of Rome; another’s to the rebuilt and repeopled streets of Pompeii; another’s to the touching history of the fireside where the Caxton family learned how to discipline their natures and tame their wild hopes down. But, however various their feelings and reasons may be, I am sure that with one accord each will help the other, and all will swell the greeting, with which I shall now propose to you “The Health of our Chairman, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton.”

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