If you were born on this day June 28th you are in good company. Henry VIII of England, 1491; Sir Peter Paul Rubens, in 1577; Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1712. One less famous who should be celebrated along with the others was also born this day. But this man had a trick up his sleeve.
For on this same day comedian Charles Mathews hung on for half an hour into the 59th anniversary of the day of his birth back in 1776 then shuffled from this world’s stage for the last time in 1835 from chronic heart disease.
Mathews was unfairly said to be the prototype for The Pickwick Paper’s scurrilous Mr Jingle. But in reality was an intelligent, benevolent latterly irascible man who was hugely respected for his talent and numbered Sir Walter Scott and Byron among his friends.
In his 40 years on the stage he played hundreds of parts in comedy plays and in Shakespearean roles too. Aside from scripted parts, he was the first to devise At Homes, the equivalent of “An Evening with…” during which he held an audience for a three hours in a one man show that involved anecdotes, songs, impersonation, ventriloquism and some ‘greatest hits’ excerpts from his many successes in London stage comedies of the late Georgian and Regency period.
No-one who saw his show had anything but praise. His meticulous observation of character types was oh so recognised by his contemporaries. He impersonated the famous who would be known to the knowledgeable London theatre crowd but he’d also satirise plain folk. He did them all – it was said he had three different Yorkshire accents. He could conjure up a Frenchman from Paris, or the South or from Flanders. Add to that his ‘Mr Moritz the jilted German’, or ‘Humanity Stubbs who was always saying one thing and never meaning another’ and you get a flavour of the man’s versatility.
Above all he mined down into the souls of his subjects. Said one friend after his death: “Our brother Jonathan [slang for a rube American], in his pure and transatlantic garb first became known to us through his personation. In his Scotch characters he present every shade of humour from the flinty hearted iron fisted son of mammon Mr MacSillergrip to the talkative polite and benevolent widow of the domine whose likeness was recognised by every inhabitant of Edinburgh.”
Another recalled: ‘His great forte, to my thinking, was his representation of elderly gentlemen, but whatever he played he played like an artist’
His spontaneous offstage wit and humour was often said to be even funnier than his onstage act. But of course the question is was he any good, or more precisely would our sophisticated 21st century take on what is funny, want to write off Mr Mathews as of his time.
I don’t think so. Judging from the freshness of his prose that can be found in a four volume biography published after his death by his equally accomplished second wife and widow Mrs Ann Mathews, formally the actress Ann Jackson. Part is in fact autobiography and here is a flavour of the man speaking of his childhood:
‘I have referred to my nurse, who was alive to tell the tale within ten years of the date hereof. She assured me that I was a long, thin, skewer of a child; of a restless, fidgety temperament, and by no means regular features — quite the contrary; and, as if Nature herself suspected she had not formed me in one of her happiest moments, the Fates combined with her to render me more remarkable, and, finding there was not the least chance of my being a beauty, conspired to make me comical.’
Happy Birthday Charles Mathews.