On December 10th 1753, an actor named Charles Macklin stood in front of a judge, responsible for defending himself in court from a most remarkable charge, a charge so eccentric that it fits more comfortably in the dramatic pieces Macklin performed than in real life. At first glance, the circumstances surrounding Macklin’s alleged crime seem completely and utterly ridiculous. There is, however, more to this case than meets the eye: upon further examination, Macklin’s actions can actually be seen as completely plausible. I plan to argue that Charles Macklin’s actions show a man who was a product of his time: indeed, he was merely a member of his society – obsessed with appearances (both from dress as well as reputation) above all else.
Macklin, an actor employed at the Drury Lane Playhouse, was accused of murdering his co-star, a man by the name of Thomas Hallam. Both Macklin and Hallam were acting in a play called The Fop’s Fortune, with Macklin playing the part of Sancho the Spanish Servant in previous night’s performance. Multiple eyewitnesses noted that at some point during the play, Macklin and Hallam became involved in an extremely heated argument, the subject of which is integral to the case: an otherwise completely unremarkable wig. The witnesses told the court that Macklin had worn the wig during the previous night’s performance, but had discovered that Hallam was now in possession of it (it is important to note here that the wig in question was described as a “Stock Wig,” meaning essentially that it came out of a communal trunk, and therefore did not truly belong to anyone other than the Playhouse’s costume dresser herself).
Convinced that Hallam had snuck into his dressing room and taken it, Macklin accused him of being a “rogue” and a “black guard scrub rascal” and demanded the swift return of the costume piece. Hallam gave it back at once, claiming he had found a better one, and for a time, things seemed to have settled down. However it seems as though Macklin was not content with leaving things as they were, so he jumped up and lunged at Hallam and plunged a stick –which Macklin notes was another prop for his character – through Hallam’s left eye. Immediately after committing the heinous deed, Macklin was seen to throw the stick into the fire in shock and sit down. In his defense, Macklin maintained that he was concerned for the victim: a witness for the defense remembers that Macklin showed “the utmost Surprize, by his turning about, and throwing the Stick in the Fire, and he shew’d a further Concern, when he felt of the Eye-Ball.” If this witness is to be believed, Macklin thought it would be comforting to Hallam (who was convinced his eyeball had fallen out) to assure him that it was still in his skull by sticking a finger in his eye socket and feeling around. That Macklin received the conviction of manslaughter rather than murder is just as odd as his case, for his defense seems to have consisted of two points: he showed concern for the victim (by, for all intents and purposes, injuring him further) and that both the wig and the stick were parts of the costume for his character. In fact, as I argue later on, manslaughter is not necessarily the more lenient of the penalties, especially for a man in Macklin’s profession.
If the invasion of his dressing room was the issue in question, it might be easier to understand Macklin’s motives . Instead, the trial documents clearly tell a different story: Macklin seemed to be concerned with nothing besides the fact that his preferred wig had been taken to be used by another actor. The question remains: why did he find this to be such an offense?
18th Century society is well-known for its interest in the way people presented themselves, just as actors typically are. With these two separate needs to “look the part” combining, it is not difficult to imagine that such a crime could be committed in the name of keeping up appearances. During the trial, Macklin outlines the importance of appearance to not only his job, but to him personally:
“I plaid Sancho the Night before, and the Wig I then used was proper for the New Play, and absolutely necessary for my Character; the whole force of the Poet’s Wit depending on the lean meagre Looks of one that wanted Food. This Wig therefore being so fit for my purpose, and hearing that the Deceased had got it, I said to him, You have got the Wig I plaid in last Night, and it fits my Part this Night.”
From the above testimony, it becomes incredibly clear that Macklin’s entire view on acting centres around the notion that the costume makes the character, in the same way that the clothes made the man in the 18th Century. If a man places so much importance on his appearance when he is pretending to be someone else, it makes sense to infer that he places just as much importance on his appearance in his own personal life, as well. With so much pressure both from within himself as well as from society to look appropriate, it is quite plausible that Macklin would have felt extreme measures were necessary in order to protect the way he looked onstage.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the entire case is that the conflict between Macklin and Hallam was actually resolved by the other members of the company before Macklin attacked Hallam and fatally wounded him. Once again, Macklin’s reasoning becomes murky: if he got what he wanted from Hallam and the rest of the company, why did he feel the need to take revenge? The answer to this question may shed more light on 18th Century society as well. Hallam is said to have returned the wig to Macklin, but only after Mrs. Greenwood, the costumer dresser, gave him a new one. When he received the new wig, Hallam showed off his new wig directly in front of Macklin and was heard to remark “he lik’d it better than the other”. Given Macklin’s established penchant for appearances, it is quite plausible that not only was having a nice appearance important to Macklin, but what was more important was having the nicest appearance. Because the nature of fashion in the 18th Century was a constant game of one-upmanship through an escalating scale of wig and dress size, it makes sense that Macklin would have been grievously offended by the implication that Hallam had a fashionable leg up on him.
While physical dress is undoubtedly the main element of one’s appearance, the reputation of a person can be equally as integral in the upkeep of a good appearance. When Macklin’s physical appearance was compromised by Hallam taking the wig, all he had left was his reputation. The final nail in Hallam’s proverbial (and literal) coffin came when he debased Macklin’s reputation as an upstanding citizen.When asked why he wouldn’t give Macklin back his wig when the argument began, Hallam was heard to have said “he might have asked me for it in a civil Manner, and not have attack’d me like a Pick pocket.” Hallam also called Macklin a liar on many different occasions throughout the argument.With a man as concerned with how he appears to others as Macklin was, the last thing Hallam should have done was call him a liar and a Pick pocket. Macklin obviously considered himself a productive, well-kept member of 18th Century society, so to compare him to what amounted to scum in the 1700s would have been a truly offensive tactic.
To the uninformed reader, the tale of an actor killing his co-star over who got to wear a specific wig by stabbing him through the eye with a stick seems rather ridiculous and outlandish. However, when the appearance-obsessed society of the time is considered, Macklin – a man robbed of his well-kept appearance, both through dress and reputation – might have been seen as completely justified (though not innocent) in his attack. In this case, the perpetrator was merely a man succumbing to the pressures of his society to “keep up appearances.” Under as much pressure as he was, it is quite unsurprising that Macklin lashed out, it was just an unhappy accident that his lashing out was fatal. While Macklin clearly showed concern for his victim and the attack itself was clearly an accident brought on by a sudden rage (not to mention the various character witnesses he was able to procure who assured the court of his kind nature), manslaughter seems a more appropriate conviction than murder. Interestingly, the punishment for manslaughter in this case was branding. Macklin was branded as a criminal for his actions, and in a profession that reflects the 18th Century importance of appearances, having a permanent burn mark on one’s skin is certainly a heinous punishment fit for a heinous crime.
All quotations from the Trial Transcript are taken from the Old Bailey Sessions Papers: Charles Mechlin