The Irish connection on the Georgian London stage

Many leading actors on the London stage were born in Ireland or of Irish ancestry

Peg Woffington: achieved her greatest popularity in a male role: the elegant, womanising Sir Harry Wildair in George Farquhar’s The Constant Couple

Peg Woffington: achieved her greatest popularity in a male role: the elegant, womanising Sir Harry Wildair in George Farquhar’s The Constant Couple

 

In doing research on the 18th-century London stage for my book on the birth of modern theatre, I was struck by the size and importance of the contributions made by Irish actors and actresses. In fact, all through the 18th century, actors, theatre managers and playwrights were travelling back and forth across the stormy Irish Sea, undeterred by the hardship and risking life and property by crossing on wooden sailing ships without the aid of modern navigational equipment. This came at a real cost, as several actors drowned and precious manuscripts were lost in shipwrecks.

Dublin at mid-century, with a population of about 125,000, was the sixth largest city in Europe and the second largest in Britain and Ireland, with a well-established theatre and a sophisticated body of playgoers. Thomas Sheridan, the actor-manager of Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre, so raised the quality of taste and level of acting that it became a respected counterpart of London’s Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres. Like his rival and friend, the Drury Lane actor-manager David Garrick, Sheridan was a charismatic character who, some said, exuded a self-confidence that bordered on vanity. They both revered Shakespeare; they directed and acted the leading roles in many of the Bard’s plays and brought some of his less well-known works to the attention of receptive audiences.

Many of the leading actors on the London stage were either born in Ireland or of Irish ancestry. These included Spranger Barry, a great lover on the stage, with blue eyes, golden hair, and a natural bearing of grace and dignity. A fashionable lady who saw both Garrick and Barry play Romeo said: “When I saw Garrick, if I had been his Juliet, I should have wished him to leap up into the balcony to me; but when I saw Barry, I should have been inclined to jump down to him.”

Another Hibernian was Peg Woffington, who achieved her greatest popularity in a male role: the elegant, womanising Sir Harry Wildair in George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy, The Constant Couple, where she played a well-bred rake, tripping lightly across the stage, humming a tune, followed by two obsequious footmen. Off the stage, she had a well-earned reputation for sexual promiscuity. One evening when she played Sir Harry, she ran off the stage crying,” I believe half the audience believes me to be a man,” upon which one of her fellow actresses replied archly, “but the other half know you to be a woman.”

Charles Macklin, one of the greatest actors and acting teachers of the age, was an Irishman who made London his home. His most popular role throughout his long stage career (he lived to be almost 100) was Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Of all the Irish actors of the day, Macklin made perhaps the greatest contribution by introducing a more natural, psychologically-based style of acting to replace the stiff artificial style that was prevalent at mid-century. Rough and blunt in his speech and manner, Macklin had a hot temper that sometimes led him to violence; on one occasion he killed another actor in a backstage brawl and was lucky to escape a conviction for murder.

George Anne Bellamy (a woman notwithstanding her first name) was born in Fingal and began her career at the age of 14 at London’s Covent Garden Theatre. She played tragic Shakespearean roles opposite David Garrick: Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth, and Juliet to his Romeo. Yet another was Catherine Clive, who though not of Irish birth was of Irish ancestry. Regarded as the uncontested queen of comedy, Clive could play equally convincingly a giggling chambermaid or a snooty duchess.

It is not clear why Ireland produced so many actors of quality. Perhaps the Irish were of a more naturally outgoing, and more theatrical, disposition than the English. The Scotsman James Boswell once observed that English taciturnity and reserve “makes us appear awkward and embarrassed in feigned characters”, shortcomings from which the Irish were relatively free.

There was intense cross-fertilisation between the two capitals. Nearly half of the new plays performed in London quickly found their way to Dublin, a good many of them opening in the same season as their London premiere. Many of the most popular new plays and revivals performed in London as well as in Dublin during this period were written by Irishmen, including the Restoration playwrights George Farquhar and William Congreve, and the 18th-century dramatists Richard Brinsley Sheridan (who happened to be Thomas Sheridan’s son) and Oliver Goldsmith.

Most Irish actors performed in London at some time in their careers. They brought their talents to the larger and richer London stage because it was there that fortunes and reputations were made. The theatre historian John Greene notes that several of the stars, including Sheridan and Barry, “began their acting careers in Dublin, moved to London to establish their reputations, then returned to Dublin, sometimes to become owners and actor-managers of Dublin companies.”

Leading London actors, whether English or Irish, would travel to Dublin to perform at Smock Alley during the summer season, when the London theatres were closed. And Irish theatre managers would voyage in the opposite direction, for the purpose of recruiting actors for the Dublin stage: those whose success in popular London plays had made them drawing cards, as well as those who for one reason or another were disgruntled or disappointed enough with their situation in London to try their luck on the other side of the Irish Sea.

In the 18th century, the stages of London and Dublin were bound together in a mutual embrace that benefited all concerned. Irish actors found a profitable outlet for their talents in London, while English actors found work for the summer season or sometimes longer-term employment on the Dublin stage. Theatre managers were able to recruit promising as well as already popular actors from both sides of the Irish Sea. Playwrights found an additional market for their works. And, not least, audiences enjoyed a richer theatrical experience than they would otherwise have had, as a result of the linkage between the two stages.
Norman S Poser is the author of The Birth of Modern Theatre: Rivalry, Riots and Romance in the Age of Garrick (published by Routledge). His previous book exploring the Georgian era was Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason.

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