200 years ago today Charles Mackay made history acting Meg Dodds as a woman

200 years ago today Charles Mackay made history acting Meg Dodds as a woman

7 days ago

When Walter Scott's latest Waverley novel, St Ronan's Well, was developed for the stage and Edinburgh's Theatre Royal manager, William Murray, wanted it performed for his benefit night on June 5th 1824 he had a problem.

The lead comedy role was that of Meg Dodds, the landlady. A woman had played the role in London when the play was premiered, but in Edinburgh he knew everyone wanted The Real Mackay to make them laugh. Murray dreamed up an audacious solution and told Walter Scott, who loved the idea. Charles would play Meg Dodds as if he were actually a woman! This had never been done before, but if anyone could do it, Mackay could. Of course, Charles agreed to the challenge at once and set about organising his costume, practising his accent and mannersims, learning his lines. 

Meanwhile Sir Walter went a step further and composed a twelve verse address for Charles to give at the end of the performance on behalf theatre manager, Murray, who's benefit night it was, and on June 5th 1824 history was made. The Edinburgh Dramatic review said 'the cool and composed irony of Mackay's Meg Dodds was delightful; and he dressed and looked the part to admiration.' Sir Walter himself said he thought Charles had kept his gestures far more within the verge of female decorum than he had expected. 

But the best review was in the Edinburgh Weekly Journal: ' . . . we hardly thought it possible that any performer of the masculine gender could have got through it without extravagence and burlesque.But Mr Mackay's steady good sense kept himsafe. He dressed the character with the most careful propriety and acted it without conveying any impression of a udicrous sort beyond that which was properly attached to the part.'

Here's an extract from my book describing Charles giving the address:

'There was a full house for Murray’s benefit on June the 5th, 1824, and the play was extremely well received. Charles kept his voice believable rather than adopting the easy comedy of falsetto. He kept his mannerisms understated, too, choosing not to exaggerate them for laughs. He soon had the audience in his apron pocket, as though they were customers in his tavern.                                                                                                              

'The story ended sadly, and the ovation was heartfelt rather than raucous. Sir Walter’s poetic address had to be given straight afterwards, which meant Charles had to lead the audience through a complete change of mood without causing offence.

'When the applause faded Charles left a respectful pause, then ran onto the stage with several boys chasing and tormenting him, including Murray, dressed as a boy and acting the part with gusto. The audience began to titter again. A town officer came to chase the boys away and Charles turned to face the crowds, smoothing his apron and adjusting his frilly mutch, bringing his breathing back under control, looking for their sympathy.

'Gesturing towards Murray he suggested the officer should "Lend yon muckle ane a whack", which brought gales of laughter at once. Then, hands on hips and lips pursed, he ranted on in rhyme about the Embrugh bairns and bemoaned the recent changes that had come to Edinburgh. Sir Walter had inserted a dig at himself and his cronies about the controversial demolition of the old Butter Tron, which had been pulled down to tidy up the High Street for the king’s visit.

'Charles had assumed the identity of Meg so completely by this time he felt as though he was just having a grand old gossip and moan with his customers. He delivered the rest of the address to shouts of agreement. The compliments for William Murray and his sister at the end of the piece brought the audience to their feet and the applause was deafening. When Charles left the stage Charlotte was there in the wings. She caught him in her arms and kissed him all over his face until he had to beg for mercy. They stumbled back into the green room together, laughing and breathless, to be greeted by the rest of the company with great enthusiasm and hearty slaps on the back.

"Another triumph, Mackay! Bravo!"

"What a marvellous woman you make, old man, I would never have guessed!"

"That tops it all, I think, Charles – well done indeed sir!"

"Thank you, Mackay, you did a magnificent job – as I knew you would. I have a feeling the coffers will be full tonight!" Murray put a proprietorial arm around Charles’s shoulders and steered him out of earshot of the others.

"Sir Walter was here tonight, of course. He sent me a message saying how well he thought the play had gone. He said he thought you had kept your gestures far more within the verge of female decorum than he had expected, too. Quite a compliment, coming from the Wizard of the North himself, eh, Charles?"

Charles smiled and nodded. He could think of nothing to say. He was utterly drained, completely thrilled, exhausted, exhilarated, inspired and overwhelmed. It would be a long time before he could join Charlotte at home, there was still the second half of the programme to endure, then he would be expected to join Murray and the others for a wee toddie at the Shakespeare, no doubt. He hoped she would still be awake when he finally collapsed into bed. If not, he might just have to wake her.