seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Birth of Actress Margaret “Peg” Woffington

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peg-woffingtonMargaret “Peg” Woffington, well-known Irish actress in Georgian London, is born of humble origins in Dublin on October 18, 1720.

Woffington’s father is believed to have been a bricklayer and, after his death, the family becomes impoverished. Her mother is obliged to take in washing while Peg sells watercress door to door. It is said that she is walking through a marketplace as a pre-teen and happens upon Madame Signora Violante, a famous tightrope walker. Violante is so immediately enthralled by Peg’s beautiful face that she accompanies her home and asks her mother permission to take her in as her apprentice.

Around 1730, Violante features Woffington as Polly Peachum in a production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. This serves as a springboard for her fame in Dublin, and she continues dancing and acting in the area playing Dorinda in an adaptation of The Tempest at the Theatre Royal, Dublin in 1735 and joining the Smock Alley Theatre to perform with well known actor David Garrick.

Woffington dances and acts at various Dublin theaters until her success as Sir Harry Wildair in The Constant Couple leads to her being given her London debut at Covent Garden. She becomes well known as an actress thereafter.

Woffington enjoys success in the role of Sylvia in The Recruiting Officer. She performs at Drury Lane for several years and later returns to Dublin, appearing in a variety of plays. Her most well-received performances are in comic roles, such as elegant women of fashion like Lady Betty Modish and Lady Townley, and breeches roles. She is impeded in the performance of tragedy by a harsh tone in her voice that she strives to eliminate.

Woffington lives openly with David Garrick, the foremost actor of the day, and her other love affairs are numerous and notorious. She becomes friend and mentor to the socialite/actress sisters, Elizabeth and Maria Gunning, and also shares the stage with the likes of Charles Macklin, Kitty Clive, and the tragedienne Susannah Maria Arne.

Though Woffington is popular with society figures, she is not always favored by her competition. She tends to create rivalries with similar-type actresses at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Her fiercest rivalry is with “equally peppery” actress Kitty Clive. According to Garrick biographer Thomas Davies, “No two women in high life ever hated each other more unreservedly than these two great dames of the stage.” When she returns to Covent Garden, rivalries with these women and with the manager, John Rich, eventually send her back to Dublin, where she is unrivaled and celebrated at the Smock Alley Theatre.

Rich decides to start a Beefsteak Club in 1749, also known as the Sublime Society of Steaks or “the Club.” Some of its members include Garrick and William Hogarth, as well as many other London celebrities. Not only is Woffington the first female member of the all male dining club, in 1750 she becomes president of the club by election. She also educates and supports her sister and cares for and pensions her mother.

For whatever reason, Woffington leaves Garrick in about 1744 and moves to Teddington, into a house called Teddington Place. In 1754 she becomes the beneficiary of the will of the Irish impresario Owen Swiny. In 1756, she performs the part of Lady Randolph in Douglas, a part which finds a later exponent in Sarah Siddons.

On May 3, 1757, Woffington is playing the part of Rosalind in As You Like It when she collapses on stage. She rallies but would never act again, lingering with a wasting illness. She dies in Queen Square, Westminster on March 28, 1760. She is buried in St. Mary’s Church, the parish church in Teddington.

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Author: Jim Doyle

As a descendant of Joshua Doyle (b. 1775, Dublin, Ireland), I have a strong interest in Irish culture and history, which will be the primary focus of this site. I am a Network Engineer at The Computer Hut, LLC, which is my salaried job. I am also Chairman of the City of Little Rock Arts+Culture Commission, Secretary of the Walnut Valley Property Owners Association board and Past-President of the Irish Cultural Society of Arkansas, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

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