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


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Birth of Shakespearean Actress Harriet Smithson

Harriet Constance Smithson, Anglo-Irish Shakespearean actress of the 19th century and best known as the first wife and muse of Hector Berlioz, is born at Ennis, County Clare on March 18, 1800.

Her father, William Joseph Smithson, is an actor and theatrical manager from Gloucestershire, England, and her mother is an actress whose full name is unknown. She also has a brother, Joseph Smithson, and a sister, name also unknown. In October 1801, she is left in the care of Reverend James Barrett, a priest of the Church of Ireland, parish of Drumcliffe. Barrett becomes her guardian and raises her as though she were his own daughter. He instructs her “in the precepts of religion,” and keeps everything connected with the stage from her view. After his death on February 16, 1808, the Smithsons send Harriet to a boarding school in Waterford.

On May 27, 1814, Smithson makes her first stage appearance at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, as Albina Mandevill in Frederick Reynolds‘s The Will. Her performance is well received. In 1815, she takes her parents’ place in Montague Talbot’s company in Belfast after they return to Dublin. The season opens on January 1, 1816, where she extends her range in roles, performing in multiple comedies. She then travels to Newry, Limerick, Dublin, and Birmingham, where she joins Robert Elliston‘s company. She spends the next two months playing over forty roles in various genres.

Four years later, January 20, 1818, Smithson makes her first London appearance at Drury Lane as Letitia Hardy in The Belle’s Stratagem. Her first performance receives mixed reviews from critics, but she quickly gains some favour of critics and performers as she obtains more experience. She joins the permanent company at the Royal Coburg Theatre later that year. However, she rejoins Drury Lane Company in the autumn of 1820. On February 20, 1821, she takes the lead female role in Thérèse by John Howard Payne, when the cast actress falls ill. Overall, the London public remembers her as The Times put it, “a face and features well adapted to her profession; but [an actress] not likely to make a great impression on a London audience, or to figure among stars of the first magnitude.”

In 1827, Smithson makes her Paris début as Lydia Languish in The Rivals at the Théâtre de l’Impératrice. Though she receives negative reviews for this role, she is highly praised for her beauty and ability in the subsequent performance of She Stoops to Conquer. On September 11, 1827, she is given the small part of Ophelia next to Charles Kemble in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. She leaves a long lasting impression on the French through her interpretation of Ophelia’s madness, utilizing pantomime and natural presentation.

The tremendous success of Hamlet leads to the announcement of Romeo and Juliet, for September 15. Smithson is cast as Juliet, where she revolutionizes the women’s role in theatre by becoming as important as her male counterpart. Until this point, women’s lines in theatre are heavily cut and censored to reduce the role for the company’s “restricted talent.” Again, the production is widely well received. On September 18, Shakespeare’s Othello becomes the third Shakespeare tragedy to be performed by The English theatre. Her performance as Desdemona is less effective, but the production is popular enough to be repeated the following week. She is cast as Jane Shore in the renowned tragedy The Tragedy of Jane Shore, a role in which she moves her audience to tears. The production soon becomes the most performed play in the English season. At the end of her time in France, she had acted in several productions with famous actors such as William Charles Macready, Edmund Kean, and Charles Kemble.

As opportunities to continue her work in Paris dwindle, Smithson returns to London to perform Jane Shore again. The production opens at Covent Garden on May 11, 1829 under unfavorable circumstances. Some audience members, who had read her reviews before she went to Paris, feel reluctant to attend the show. However, just seven days after her next performance as Juliet, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the press gives her glowing reviews.

After Covent Garden closes for the summer in 1832, Smithson tours England to minor theatres performing almost exclusively in tragedies. In June 1832, she joins the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where she has limited success and receives criticism about her weight.

In 1830, Smithson goes back to Paris to set up an English theatre under her own management. She obtains permission to perform at the Theatre-Italien where she performs several unsuccessful plays. A year later, she breaks her leg and is forced to put her career on hold until her leg heals, leaving her in great debt. She gives her last performance, as Ophelia, on December 15, 1836, before her health deteriorates.

Toward the end of her life, Smithson suffers from paralysis, which leaves her barely able to move or speak. She dies on March 3, 1854, at her home on the rue Saint-Vincent, and is buried at the Cimetière Saint-Vincent. Berlioz has her body is later reinterred at the Montmartre Cemetery when Cimetière Saint-Vincent undergoes redevelopment.

(Pictured: Oil on canvas portrait of Harriet Smithson by Claude-Marie-Paul Dubufe, located at the Musee Magnin, Dijon, France)


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Birth of Martin Archer Shee, Portrait Painter

martin-archer-sheeSir Martin Archer Shee, portrait painter and president of the Royal Academy of Arts, is born in Dublin on December 23, 1769.

Shee is born into an old Irish Catholic family, the son of Martin Shee, a merchant, who regards the profession of a painter as an unsuitable occupation for a descendant of the Shees. He nevertheless studies art in the Royal Dublin Society and comes to London. There, in 1788, he is introduced by Edmund Burke to Joshua Reynolds, on whose advice he studies in the schools of the Royal Academy of Arts.

In 1789 Shee exhibits his first two pictures, the “Head of an Old Man” and “Portrait of a Gentleman.” Over the next ten years he steadily increases in practice. In 1798 he is chosen an associate of the Royal Academy and in 1800 he is elected a Royal Academician. He moves to George Romney‘s former house at 32 Cavendish Square and sets up as his successor.

Shee continues to paint with great readiness of hand and fertility of invention, although his portraits are eclipsed by more than one of his contemporaries, and especially by Thomas Lawrence. His earlier portraits are carefully finished, easy in action, with good drawing and excellent discrimination of character. They show an undue tendency to redness in the flesh painting, a defect which is still more apparent in his later works, in which the handling is less square, crisp and forcible. In addition to his portraits, he executes various subjects and historical works, such as Lavinia, Belisarius, his diploma picture “Prospero and Miranda,” and the “Daughter of Jephthah.”

In 1805 Shee publishes a poem consisting of Rhymes on Art, and a second part follows in 1809. Lord Byron speaks well of it in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. He publishes another small volume of verse in 1814, entitled The Commemoration of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and other Poems, but this is less successful. He also produces a tragedy, Alasco, set in Poland. The play is accepted at Covent Garden, but is refused a licence, on the grounds that it contains treasonable allusions, and Shee angrily resolves to make his appeal to the public. He carries out his threat in 1824, but Alasco is still on the list of unacted dramas in 1911. He also publishes two novels – Oldcourt (1829, in three volumes) and Cecil Hyde (1834).

On the death of Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1830, Shee is chosen president of the Royal Academy in his stead and shortly afterwards receives a knighthood. In 1831 he is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In an examination before the parliamentary committee of 1836 concerning the functions of the Royal Academy, he ably defends its rights. He continues to paint until 1845, when illness makes him retire to Brighton. He is deputised for at the Academy by J. M. W. Turner, who had appointed him a trustee of the projected Turner almshouse.

From 1842–1849, Shee is the first president of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.

Martin Archer Shee dies in Brighton, Sussex, England on August 13, 1850 and is buried in the western extension to St. Nicholas’ Churchyard in Brighton. His headstone remains but has been laid flat and moved to the perimeter of the site.


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First Performance of Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan”

lady-windermeres-fanOscar Wilde‘s four-act comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Play About a Good Woman is first produced on February 22, 1892 at the St. James’s Theatre in London. The play is first published in 1893. Like many of Wilde’s comedies, it bitingly satirizes the morals of society.

The story concerns Lady Windermere, who suspects that her husband is having an affair with another woman. She confronts him with it but although he denies it, he invites the other woman, Mrs. Erlynne, to his wife’s birthday ball. Angered by her husband’s supposed unfaithfulness, Lady Windermere decides to leave her husband for another lover. After discovering what has transpired, Mrs. Erlynne follows Lady Windermere and attempts to persuade her to return to her husband and in the course of this, Mrs. Erlynne is discovered in a compromising position. It is then revealed Mrs. Erlynne is Lady Windermere’s mother, who abandoned her family twenty years before the time the play is set. Mrs. Erlynne sacrifices herself and her reputation to save her daughter’s marriage.

By the summer of 1891 Wilde has already written three plays, Vera; or, The Nihilists and The Duchess of Padua find little success, and Salome is censored. Unperturbed, he decides to write another play but turns from tragedy to comedy. He goes to the Lake District in the north of England, where he stays with a friend and later meets Robert Ross. Numerous characters in the play appear to draw their names from the north of England: Lady Windermere from the lake and nearby town Windermere (though Wilde had used “Windermere” earlier in Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime), the Duchess of Berwick from Berwick-upon-Tweed, Lord Darlington from Darlington. Wilde begins writing the play at the prodding of Sir George Alexander, the actor manager of St. James’s Theatre. The play is finished by October 1891. Alexander likes the play, and offers him an advance of £1,000 for it. Wilde, impressed by his confidence, opts to take a percentage instead, from which he earns £7,000 in the first year alone.

Alexander is a meticulous manager and he and Wilde begin exhaustive revisions and rehearsals of the play. Both are talented artists with strong ideas about their art. Wilde, for instance, emphasises attention to aesthetic minutiae rather than realism. He resists Alexander’s suggested broad stage movements, quipping that “Details are of no importance in life, but in art details are vital.” These continue after the opening night, when at the suggestion of both friends and Alexander, Wilde makes changes to reveal Mrs. Erylnne’s relationship with Lady Windermere gradually throughout the play, rather than reserving the secret for the final act. Despite these artistic differences, both are professional and their collaboration is a fruitful one.

There exists an extant manuscript of the play and it is held in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California in Los Angeles.