Charles Mathews (June 28, 1776, London - June 28, 1835, Devonport) was an English theatre manager and comic actor, well-known during his time for his gift for impersonation. His play, At Home, in which he played every character, was the first monopolylogue and the defining work in the genre.
He was born to James Mathews (died 1804), a Wesleyan Methodist printer, bookseller and pharmacist on the Strand
who also served as minister in one of the Countess of Huntingdon
's chapels and to whom he was apprenticed after an education at Merchant Taylors' School
. His father forbade his children from visiting theatres for religious reasons but during this time Charles met Robert William Elliston
and managed to leave the shop one night to attend the two shilling gallery of old Drury
. Falling in love with the theatre, he left his father for good in September 1793 to make his first public stage appearance at Richmond. The following year his father unwillingly allowed him to take up acting in Dublin
, writing to him "Charles, there are your indentures, and there arc twenty guineas ; I do not approve of the stage, but I will not oppose your wishes. At any time hereafter, should you feel inclined to turn to an honest calling, there are twenty guineas more, if you send for them, and your father's house is open to you."
For several years Mathews had to be content with bit parts, but on May 15 1803 he made his first London appearance at the Haymarket, as Jabel in Cumberland's The Jew and as Lingo in The Agreeable Surprise, becoming such a continued public success he was taken on at Drury-lane. His gift for mimicry enabled him to disguise his personality without a change of costume. His versatility and originality were displayed in his one man show or "monodramatic entertainment" entitled At Home or Matthews at Home, begun in the Lyceum theatre in 1808, which, according to Leigh Hunt, "for the richness and variety of his humour, were as good as half a dozen plays distilled." The show combined mimicry, storytelling, recitations, improvisation, quick-change artistry, and comic song.
In 1822 Mathews toured the United States, to great success. During his stay, he developed a number of impressions of American types. One of these was the African American, and Mathews performed a version of "Possum Up a Gum Tree" in dialect and possibly in blackface. One author called him "the paterfamilias of the Yankee theatre and the progenitor of all native American dialect comedy". He managed to win 3,000 crowns' damages after bringing an action for libel against the Philadelphia Gazette.
Returning to England in autumn 1823, he joined Frederick Henry Yates, manager of the Adelphi Theatre. Over the rest of his successful career, he, John Kemble and John Braham were received as guests by George IV. A few years after his return, he bought a half-share in the Adelphi Theatre. Adelphi was a critical and popular success, but for Mathews not a financial success, so in 1834, he went on a second tour of America. He cut his trip short and returned ill from the tour after putting in his last appearance in New York City on February 11, 1835. He failed to recuperate, and died poor in Plymouth, without ever appearing again on a British stage.
Marriage and issue
In 1797 Charles married Eliza Kirkham Strong (1772-1802) of Exeter, the authoress of a volume of poems and some novels, who retired from the stage in 1801 and died in 1802. In 1803 he married Anne Jackson (died 1869) - an actress and half sister to the actress Frances Maria Kelly, she later wrote Charles' biography. His only child by his second wife was Charles James Mathews
, also a successful actor.
- The character of Alfred Jingle in The Pickwick Papers is said to have been inspired by Mathews.
External links and references
- Portraits of Mathews, from the National Portrait Gallery
- The 1828-29 and 1834-35 Seasons at Adelphi Theatre, two of several articles from an E. Michigan University website
- Special Collections, Princeton University Library, home of some of the papers of Mathews and his actor son
- Watkins, Mel (1994). ''On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying—The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor that Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- The Works of Art Collection from the Garrick Club, a collection started with works collected by Mathews
- A Dictionary of Printers and Printing, 1842