Peg Woffington, the best Irish actress of the 18th century

Charismatic star was as well known for dating men as playing them on stage

Portrait of Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington (1720-1760), by John Lewis. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington (1720-1760), by John Lewis. Image: Wikimedia Commons

 

Margaret “Peg” Woffington, one of the premier actresses of her age, was born in Dublin sometime around 1720. The daughter of a bricklayer and what was quaintly termed a “vendor of saladry”, sources disagree on her family’s circumstances. Whatever the case, Woffington received an education that is reflected in her later writings, and the several recorded instances of her biting wit.

Discovered in Dublin by Signora Violante, an Italian acrobat and equilibrist, by the early 1730s she was performing as a member of Violante’s group of “Lilliputians” at Smock Alley, alongside her younger sister Mary.

Her personal charisma and acting ability were apparent - slender, with an expressive face and large, dark eyes, she soon toured with Signora Violante’s company to London, where she played Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.

The theatre conventions of the day often called for women to take on so-called “breeches” roles, and Woffington excelled at these, demonstrating a comic range that set her apart from other ingénues.

Her star ascended through the 1740s, when she split her time between Smock Alley in Dublin and Covent Garden in London, performing in popular plays by writers such as Richard Sheridan, Colley Cibber, Aphra Benn and George Farquhar - she was to be particularly associated with the role of Rose in The Recruiting Officer.

By 1741, she was titling herself “Mrs Woffington”, despite being unmarried. During this time, she was engaged in what was probably the most passionate relationship of her life, with the famous actor David Garrick. The relationship began after she played Cordelia to his Lear in 1742, and they toured to Dublin’s Smock Alley in 1743, where they played together in Richard III and Hamlet, both roaring successes.

Despite the couple’s undoubted onstage chemistry, Woffington chose to end the relationship. She had a number of high-profile lovers throughout her career, including Edward Bligh, the Earl of Darnley, and Sir Charles Hanbury Williams. But Woffington was never to marry, and her letters and theatre contracts show a shrewd woman, clever with money, whose aims were to support those closest to her, including her mother and younger sister Mary.

Baptized a Roman Catholic, Woffington converted to Church of Ireland in 1753, most likely in order to become eligible for the bequest in the will of her friend the theatre manager Owen Swiny, a move that made her unpopular with Dublin audiences.

She worked tirelessly, donated to the almshouses at Teddington, and kept the scandal-mongers in gossip with her decade-long rivalry with Catherine “Kitty” Clive, the more straight-laced foil to Woffington’s gregarious and liberal character. It’s recounted that Woffington sought to reconcile with Clive early in their rivalry in 1743. When Clive declined the offer of friendship, saying she was worried about losing her reputation, Woffington’s response was biting: “Madam, so should I too if I had your face”.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Woffington’s own reputation suffered after her death. Her independence of spirit, paired with the public nature of her relationships, made her the target of gossip, and after her death many of her achievements were brushed aside as authors of fictionalised accounts of her life sought to shoehorn her into the mould of actress-courtesan.

But Woffington transcended these clichés, continuing to hone her craft throughout the 1740s, and attempting to move into more tragic roles. In the late 1740s, she went to Paris, most probably to study under Marie Dumesnil.

After a period of intense overwork leading up to 1757, she suffered a seizure on stage while playing Rosalind in As You Like It. She was left paralysed, and died in 1760.

Thirty years after her death, an anonymous poem in her praise was published in The Mirror: ‘”She freely professed her abhorrence of tattle/ And handled her sex as a child does a rattle/ As a toy, nothing more, and when weary with play/ She’d laugh at their folly and throw them away.”

Although the poem speaks admiringly, the emphasis on her sex life rather than her undoubted talent speaks volumes.

At her tomb in Teddington, she is simply remembered as “spinster”.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Jessica Traynor, deputy museum director of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum (epicchq.com) in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.

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