Tuesday, 17 September 2019
Such a Capital Actor
In 1827 there was a new and controversial prime minister, George Canning. More than half a century earlier his mother, Mary Ann, had appeared at Drury Lane Theatre. A month after Canning took office, and two months after Mary Ann's death, a London newspaper, The Age, published a copy of a play-bill from her 1774 benefit night, along with the following explanation: "Many of our readers are not probably aware that the Prime Minister of ENGLAND is the son of an actress -- but such is the fact. From Mrs CANNING (in which capacity she played at Drury-lane Theatre) his mother became, in one way or other, Mrs REDDISH, and subsequently married a Mr HUNN, linen-draper at Plymouth. .... It ceases, therefore, to be a matter of surprise, that her son should have turned out SUCH A CAPITAL ACTOR."
The comment plays cleverly on prejudice against the theatre, prurient interest in Mary Ann's irregular union with Samuel Reddish, and snobbish metropolitan disdain for a Plymouth linen-draper. And yet, although the spitefulness may have been personally hurtful to Canning, coming so soon after his mother's death, the revelation of Mary Ann's former profession is unlikely to have done him much political harm.
An earlier attempt to exploit Mary Ann's story was disowned by many of Canning's political opponents. One said: "I am no defender of the life and character of Canning, but I should scorn to depreciate him or any other man by vilifying his parentage." Another of Canning's enemies commented: "To those who, like me, think there is a good deal in blood, it may appear that Mr Canning’s want of principle or high & honorable feeling may be derived from the stock he sprung from, while all must admire the institutions of a country where talent & genius can force their possessor into power & opulence in spite of the most adverse circumstances."
It was old news, and the point was not to remind readers that Canning's mother was an actress, but that Canning himself was adept at playing a part. Not a man to be trusted.