Meet the Limerick woman Oscar Wilde called ‘that fascinating genius’

The comic actor Ada Rehan is celebrated on the latest episode of The Women’s Podcast as part of the Herstory series

Statuesque, with striking grey-blue eyes and rich brown hair, Rehan was lauded for her beauty and poise.

Statuesque, with striking grey-blue eyes and rich brown hair, Rehan was lauded for her beauty and poise.

 

Ada Rehan was once one of Ireland’s most celebrated actresses, yet she is barely remembered or spoken of today.

Born Delia Crehan in Limerick sometime around 1860, she moved to America as a child and began performing on stage when she was sixteen years old. She went on to become one of the great comediennes of her day, and was said to typify the “personality” style of acting in the nineteenth century.

An error on a theatre bill rendered her name Ada C. Rehan instead of Crehan, and the name stuck. In 1879, she joined Augustin Daly’s theatre company, and became internationally renowned for her parts in Shakespeare’s comedies and other plays.

Statuesque, with striking grey-blue eyes and rich brown hair, Rehan was lauded for her beauty and poise. According to theatre critic William Winter: “Her physical beauty was of the kind that appears in portraits of women by Romney and Gainsborough—ample, opulent, and bewitching—and it was enriched by the enchantment of superb animal spirits.”

She was more than just a pretty face though. Rehan’s acting abilities were admired by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain – while Oscar Wilde described her as “that brilliant and fascinating genius.”

Wilde’s admiration of her was so great that in 1897, while writing Lady Windermere’s Fan, he asked Daly to consider the part of Mrs. Erlynne for Rehan, but he refused. Years later after his release from prison, Wilde was in negotiations with Daly once again for another part he was writing for her. But that never came to fruition because Daly died before a deal could be struck. Rehan later took over negotiations herself, but as luck would have it, Wilde then died – at the time owing her the advance of 100 pounds that she’d paid him.

As part of Daly’s theatre company, Rehan enjoyed leading lady status for nearly 20 years until his death in 1899. She played more than 200 roles including many from works by Shakespeare and countless European comedies adapted for the American stage.

Her greatest role, which first played in New York in January 1887, was said to have been Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. She also received acclaim for a number of other Shakespearean roles including Rosalind, Beatrice, Viola, and Portia.

Rehan’s talent brought her great success during her two decades with Daly – and for a time, she was considered a worthy rival to the great French actress of the era, Sarah Bernhardt. But her career effectively came to a close when Daly died in Paris. She gave her final performance in New York in 1905 and retired from the stage.

Because she had been a very successful actress, Rehan managed to live out the remainder of her days comfortably in the US and in England.

Upon her death in 1916, obituaries were published in the New York Times and the Limerick Chronicle.

She was commemorated two decades later when a US Navy cargo ship was named the USS Ada Rehan in her honour.

Thanks to Herstorian Eleanor Fitzsimons, author of Wilde’s Women, for this week’s biography.

For more, visit Herstory.ie

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