Conway, William Augustus (DNB00)

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CONWAY, WILLIAM AUGUSTUS (1789–1828), actor, was born in 1789 in Henrietta Street, Cavendish Square, London, and was educated under a clergyman named Payne in Barbados, whither he had been sent to live with friends of his mother. He returned to England in weak health at the age of eighteen. Upon viewing for the first time in Bath a theatrical representation, he contracted a longing for the stage strong enough to triumph over domestic objections. He appeared accordingly at Chester as Zanga in Young's tragedy ‘The Revenge,’ with so much success as to induce the manager, Macready, to offer him an engagement. After playing in many northern and midland towns as Macbeth, Glen Alvon in ‘Douglas,’ &c., he accepted in 1812 an engagement to appear at the Crow Street Theatre, Dublin, in the characters vacated by Holman, who had gone to America. He there formed, it is said, a violent but unavailing passion for Miss O'Neill, with whom he acted, and met Charles Mathews, who recommended him to Covent Garden, where he came out on 4 Oct. 1813 as Alexander the Great in a piece of that name altered from Lee's ‘Rival Queens.’ On the 7th he played Othello, on the 21st Jaffier in ‘Venice Preserved,’ and on the 25th Romeo. Henry V, Coriolanus, Norval in ‘Douglas,’ Juba in ‘Cato,’ Antony in ‘Julius Cæsar,’ Petruchio, Orlando, Richmond in ‘Richard III,’ Alonzo in the ‘Revenge,’ and the Prince of Wales in ‘Henry IV, Part I.’ &c., with one or two other characters, were played in the course of the dramatic season which terminated on 15 June 1814. Rolla in ‘Pizarro,’ Wellborn in ‘A New Way to pay Old Debts,’ Faulconbridge, Macduff, Comus, and other parts of importance were assigned him, though, as the company at Covent Garden included Young and Kemble, he had occasionally to take secondary rôles. He was the original Prince Zerbino (7 April 1815) in the ‘Noble Outlaw,’ an operatic adaptation of Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Pilgrim.’ The season of 1815–16 added to his list of characters Macbeth, Theseus in ‘Midsummer Night's Dream,’ Beverley in the ‘Gamester,’ Posthumus, Henry V in Garrick's ‘Jubilee,’ acted 23 April 1816 for the Shakespeare bicentenary, and other parts. He then disappears from Covent Garden, and is next heard of in Bath, where he enacted on 6 March 1817 King Charles II in the ‘Royal Oak,’ and 29 March Joseph in the ‘School for Scandal.’ He remained in Bath until 1820, playing a round of characters in tragedy and comedy, and on 5 July 1821 appeared at the Haymarket as Lord Townley in the ‘Provoked Husband.’ Here he remained during the season, at the end of which he withdrew from the English stage. A malignant attack upon him, said to be by Theodore Hook, was the cause of his retirement. In December 1822 the manager of the Bath theatre, going to Clifton to engage Conway, obtained the answer that he would prefer breaking stones on the road to returning to the most brilliant engagement. At the close of 1823 he started for America, and appeared on 12 Jan. 1824 in New York, where he played Coriolanus, Lord Townley, Beverley, Petruchio, &c., with complete success. Subsequently he delivered in New York some religious discourses. Early in 1828 he took a passage to Charleston. When the vessel arrived off Charleston bar, Conway threw himself overboard, and was drowned. A curious circumstance in his life is the infatuation for him shown on his appearance in London by Mrs. Piozzi, then almost eighty years of age. It is stated in the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ for April 1861, on the authority of ‘a distinguished man of letters,’ that Conway showed the late Charles Mathews a letter from her offering him marriage. More sensible conduct is, however, generally assigned her, and the authenticity of ‘The Love Letters of Mrs. Piozzi, written when she was eighty, to Aug. W. Conway,’ London, 1843, 8vo, is disputed. Conway's conduct, at least, appears to have been manly and honourable. Macready (Reminiscences, i. 111) says that ‘a few days before her death she (Mrs. Piozzi) sent him a cheque on her bankers for 500l., which on her decease he enclosed to her heir and administrator,’ and adds that at the time Conway was in pecuniary straits. In the sale of his effects in New York after his death figured a copy of Young's ‘Night Thoughts,’ on which was written ‘Presented to me by my dearly attached friend, the celebrated Mrs. Piozzi.’ Conway was a good actor. Genest, a severe judge, speaks well of him, and a writer in the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ for August 1821, probably Talfourd, says: ‘Conway has a noble person, a strain of brilliant declamation, and no small power of depicting agony and sorrow.’ He was, however, self-conscious, ill at ease, and fantastic in movement. Macready, after stating that he was deservedly a favourite, says: ‘But unfortunately the tendency of his study was by isolated and startling effects to surprise an audience into applause’ (Reminiscences, i. 41). The knowledge of his height (six feet) preyed upon him. Hazlitt, in his ‘View of the English Stage,’ 1818, dealing with Miss O'Neill's Juliet, has a passage, omitted from the following editions, on Conway's Romeo. ‘He bestrides the stage like a Colossus, throws his arms like the sails of a windmill, and his motion is as unwieldy as that of a young elephant; his voice breaks as thunder on the ear like Gargantua's, but when he pleases to be soft, he is “the very beadle to an amorous sigh.”’ This criticism he ends with the significant addition, ‘Query, why does he not marry?’ For this and other attacks upon Conway Hazlitt made a public apology. An account of Conway's fate, showing that he was mad, and a touching letter to his mother indicating his intention, if possible, to take holy orders, appear in the ‘Dramatic Magazine’ for December 1830. A portrait of Conway by Dewilde is in the Mathews collection in the Garrick Club.

[Authorities cited; also Genest's Account of the Stage; Ireland's Records of the New York Stage from 1752 to 1860, New York, 1866; Hayward's Autobiography of Mrs. Piozzi, 2nd ed. 2 vols. 1861; Theatrical Inquisitor, vols. ii. iii. iv.]

J. K.