With reference to the English actor William Charles Macready (1793-1873), Macready pause is primarily a theatrical phrase denoting a long pause during the delivery of a speech.
The following definition and explanations are from A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, American and British, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day (Lanham, Maryland: Scarborough House, 1992), by the New-Zealand born lexicographer Eric Partridge (1894-1979) and by Paul Beale:
Macready pauses is, in theatrical circles, applied to an actor who, either on this one occasion or habitually, pauses too long after a telling speech or line or witticism: since c. 1855. William Macready (1793–1873), the great mid C19 actor, had a bad habit of pausing inordinately long in any dramatic or emphatic or unusually eloquent speech.
Contemporaries of William Macready, especially theatrical critics, evoked his habit of pausing. The following for example is from the Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, and Cambridge and Hertford Independent Press (Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England) of Saturday 27th September 1828:
The Theatre.—On Saturday, Mr. Macready closed his engagement by the representation of William Tell […]. Mr. Macready played with his accustomed excellence, and did not infuse so many of those long pauses, that ever cast a sameness, and sometimes a tediousness, over all his characters.
On Friday 13th March 1829, The Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, County Antrim, Ireland) also evoked William Macready’s pauses:
Virginius.—This best of modern tragedies was represented on Monday and last night, when the arduous part of the noble centurion was sustained by the celebrated Mr. Macready. […]
Virginius’s appeal to the people in his daughter’s behalf was, in the hands of Macready, a fine burst of affecting eloquence. We did not, however, admire the familiar tone which his voice assumed when entreating his countrymen to “look upon her;” neither can we bestow our approbation on those long pauses which Mr. M. has recourse to, particularly in this scene.
Interesting considerations on William Macready’s pauses as an integral part of his acting art occur in the review of a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, published in The Bristol Mercury (Bristol, England) of Saturday 12th January 1850—William Macready was interpreting the title role:
The great merit of Mr. Macready’s personation is that, by a succession of well-considered bye-plays, he fills up the gaps which the dialogue fails immediately to supply, and presents in a tangible form the horrid suggestions, doubts, perplexities, misgivings, and irresolution, which wrack the brain of the unhappy king until, in the delirium of his anguish, he is forced to exclaim,
O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife.
Objections have been taken to Mr. Macready’s pauses, and particularly to those which precede the well-known dagger soliloquy in the second act, which have been designated “artificial” and “absurd.” We admit that that which intervenes between the sentences, “she strike upon the bell” and “get thee to bed”—if we mistake not a recently adopted reading—is open to remark, it being improbable, looking to the imperious character of the thane, that any command of his would fail of enforcing instant compliance; but the pause which immediately precedes the soliloquy, and to which the main exceptions have been taken, strikes us as being among the distinguishing beauties of Mr. Macready’s conception. The air-drawn dagger is an image conjured up by a train of intense thought operating on an excited and “heat-oppressed brain;” and to jump at once from a simple domestic direction to an attendant to the invocation of the spectral weapon would be a violation of propriety and good sense which could not be justified.
The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is, as the Macready pause and break, from a theatrical review published in The Cambridge Independent Press, and Huntingdon, Bedford, and Peterborough Gazette (Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England) of Saturday 8th October 1842—Charles John Kean (1811-1868) was a British actor:
On Wednesday, Miss Vining made a great impression, in the later scenes of a plagiarism, from the Bride of Lammermor, called the “Field of the Forty Footsteps.” […] She was most efficiently supported by Mr. Crisp, in Arthur Matchlove, and the last scene between them, particularly, drew long and loud applause. In serious declamation this gentleman has some of Charles Kean’s tricks, of slurring several words, to rest on a particular one, often chosen arbitrarily, and not emphatic. This is a bad fault, to which we prefer even the Macready pause and break.
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase Macready pause that I have found is from the review of a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, published in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (London, England) of Saturday 24th June 1882—the Italian actor Ernesto Rossi (1827-1896) was interpreting the title role:
Mr. Edmund Lyons might have made a better fool if he had not had to wait upon the “pauses” of the King. We are in the habit of hearing of “Macready pauses” upon the stage. If Macready made any such pauses as Signor Rossi his long and valuable career upon the stage might still be running its slow and steady course.
On Monday 16th January 1888 was produced at the Theatre Royal, Wolverhampton, a drama entitled Church and Stage, by Walter Reynolds. The Stage (London, England) of Friday 20th January 1888 described one of its characters, named Macready Pause, as “an actor of the “old school””.
The phrase also occurs in the review of A Wife’s Revenge, a drama interpreted by Mr. Edgar Austin’s Co., published in The Stage (London, England) of Friday 20th April 1888:
In lieu of incident, we have talk, and this spun out by “Macready pauses” and undue deliberation by one or two prominent members of the Co. renders what should be a good play somewhat tedious.
A humorous derived acceptation of Macready pause was mentioned in the review—published in The Era (London, England) of Saturday 21st June 1890—of William Charles Macready (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., Ltd., 1890), a biography of the English actor by the Scottish author and theatrical critic William Archer (1856-1924):
Mr Archer writes pleasantly respecting Macready’s delivery. We wonder if he has seen the allusion to the “Macready pause” in J. Wallack’s recently-published Reminiscences [cf. note], and is aware that even now the phrase is jocularly applied by actors to a companion’s temporary lapse of memory upon the stage.
[Note: “J. Wallack’s recently-published Reminiscences” seems to refer to Memories of Fifty Years (New York: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1889), by the U.S. actor and theatrical manager Lester Wallack (John Johnstone Wallack – 1820-1888), son of the English actor and theatrical manager James William Wallack (circa 1794-1864). In this book, Lester Wallack only evokes the primary sense of the phrase Macready pause.]
From the last decade of the 19th century onwards, the phrase Macready pause has also occurred in the extended sense of any prolonged moment of silence. However, in the following from Festina Lente, an epistolary short story published in the Woolwich Gazette and Kentish Advertiser (London, England) of Friday 3rd March 1893, it is an actress, Viva Vandeleur, who, in a letter to her father, the actor Horatio Vandeleur, uses the phrase in this transferred sense:
From Miss Viva Vandeleur, Brighton, to Horatio Vandeleur, Esq., Theatre Royal, Oldham.
September 18th, 1892.
My respected “Gov.,”—The die is cast, and sound a chord in the orchestra! Harold proposed this afternoon. He had suggested the Chain Pier, and I felt it coming! Nobody was there—we had it to ourselves. I looked very nice; the wind wasn’t too emphatic, but stirred me (you know the kind of thing) very becomingly. We said something about the sea—not that it interested either of us, and I forget what—but there it was not to be overlooked, and we made a remark about it. After that he touched my hand—l can’t say “took” it—he fluttered about it, and then he gasped, “Viva, oh, Viva. I love you!”
There was a pause—a real Macready pause. I murmured confusion: “Mr. Passinger, how am I to take this?”
“Take it? Can you take it in any way but one?”
“I am an artist, and you—your father will never consent!”
“The Governor would give me the moon if he had it!”
This time without any connection with the theatrical world, the phrase Macready pause denotes a prolonged moment of silence in A Good Riddance. The Story of an Artful Lady, a short story published in The St James’s Gazette (London, England) of Saturday 1st September 1894. On the train from Folkestone to London, a young married woman, Mrs. Harwood, designs a stratagem to get rid of Mr. Duncombe, “a foolish young man, with a penchant for the society of married women”, who has concentrated his attentions on her. She tells Mr. Duncombe that she has fallen in love with him and that she is about to leave her husband in order to marry him:
“Look here,” said Duncombe, smoothing his hair in a worried distracted way, “I tell you what I’ll do. There’s a smoking compartment at the end of the car; I’ll and have a cigarette and think over. See?”
“And you won’t be long away, Ernie dear,” said Mrs. Harwood in an ultra-affectionate manner. “I can’t bear to lose sight of you.”
For answer the perspiring Mr. Duncombe sighed and rose. He walked as steadily as the oscillation of the saloon would permit to the smoking-room. Mrs. Harwood’s eyes followed him all the way, and he, making a Macready pause at the doorway, gasped as he observed her anxious and admiring look.
William Charles Macready—illustration from Memories of Fifty Years (New York: Charles Scribner’s sons, 1889), by Lester Wallack: