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


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Death of English Actress Ellen Kean

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01Ellen Kean, one of the finest English actresses of her day, dies in Bayswater, City of Westminster, England on August 20, 1880. She is known as Ellen Tree until her marriage in 1842, after which she is known both privately and professionally as Mrs. Charles Kean and always appears in productions together with her husband.

Kean is born Eleanora Tree in Ireland on December 12, 1805, the third of four daughters of Cornelius Tree, an official of the East India Company in London. Her three sisters become actresses, but, unlike Ellen, retire from the stage when they marry. Her professional stage debut is in a musical version of Twelfth Night in London in 1822 as Olivia alongside her sister Maria as Viola. She gains experience touring in the provinces, and from 1826 is a regular member of the companies at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and Theatre Royal Haymarket, making a success in The Wonder and The Youthful Queen. At the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden she takes on the roles of William Shakespeare‘s Romeo to the Juliet of Fanny Kemble, Françoise de Foix in Francis I, and Lady Townley in The Provoked Husband.

In 1832, by now established as a leading actress, Tree accepts an engagement in Hamburg, Germany, where a junior member of the company is Charles Kean. He had made an undistinguished debut at Drury Lane in 1827, and he and Tree had acted together in 1828 in a play called Lovers’ Vows and later in Othello. In the German season they fall in love, but are persuaded by family and friends not to marry in haste. Tree returns to London and resumes her successful West End career, including a considerable success in Ion in another breeches role. At the end of 1836, Tree goes to the United States, where she tours in Shakespeare for more than three years, playing heroines such as Rosalind, Viola and Beatrice, among other roles. By the time of her return to England in 1839, she has made a profit of £12,000 on the tour, equivalent to at least £1 million in modern terms.

By 1841 Charles Kean has established himself as a successful actor, and he and Tree appear together in Romeo and Juliet at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. They are married the next year, and she at once switches her professional name from Ellen Tree to Mrs. Charles Kean. For the next nine years they appear together at the Haymarket, making a joint visit to the United States in 1846. In 1850, Kean takes over the management of the Princess’s Theatre in London. The Times called this “the most important period of Mrs. Kean’s career…. Hitherto she had been the Rosalind and the Viola of the stage; henceforward her name was to be associated with characters of a more matronly type” in roles including Lady Macbeth and Gertrude in Hamlet. The same writer also credits her for “the good taste and artistic completeness” of Kean’s productions. Ellen Terry, who makes her first stage appearance as the boy Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale, remembers Kean “as Hermione wearing a Greek wreath round her head and a crinoline with many layers of petticoats.”

Charles Kean dies in 1868, and his widow retires from the stage, living quietly in Bayswater, in the City of Westminster, where she dies at the age of 73 on August 20, 1880. The Times in its obituary says, “Mrs. Kean is not to be numbered with the greatest votaries of the English stage, but her acting was distinguished by considerable power, tenderness and refinement.” She is buried in a vault alongside her husband at Catherington, Hampshire.

(Pictured: “Charles Kean and Wife Ellen Tree” by Mathew Brady Studio (1844-1894), modern albumen print from wet plate collodion negative, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)


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Birth of Actress Margaret “Peg” Woffington

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.