was born some time between 1714 and 1718. Her
mother was widowed when Peg was young and she
grew up in Dublin in great poverty.
Her first appearance on stage was in Dublin
with a children’s troupe called the Lilliputians,
managed by a Frenchwoman named Madame Violante.
She made a successful career on the Dublin
stage. However, in 1740, she went to London
and soon became one of the most famous actresses
of her day.
It was here she met the famous actor David Garrick.
For many years Peg Woffington had a very successful
career. Her last performance was as Rosalind
in As You Like It at Covent Garden on Tuesday
May 3rd, 1757. She fell ill during the performance
and never recovered. She died on 26 March 1760
at her home in Teddington.
Royal, Drury Lane
Just listen to them cry for more.
How it excites me. There is nothing in the world makes
my heart beat faster than the noise of an adoring
crowd. Hear how they howl!
What a glorious few years this
has been for me. Back in 1740 my good friend Charles
Coffey brought me to London, fresh from the Dublin
stage. There I had played a rather foppish fellow
called Sir Harry Wildair. How the audiences loved
the play and how I love playing the breeches parts
- being a 'gentleman' and showing off my fine legs
in elegant men's breeches. It is quite the fashion.
Actress in Breeches Part
But you'll want to know how I
came to be an actress at all. As a child I sold watercress
in the streets of Dublin to help my mother, for my
father was dead and we had to earn money to live.
One day I was fetching water from the River Liffey
when a lady approached me. She seemed very finely
dressed to one such as myself.
She turned out to be Madame Violante.
Can you believe that name? Madame Violante had been
an acrobat of sorts in her youth, performing as a
rope dancer. She had got too old for all that stuff
and had turned her hand to organising shows instead.
She ran a troupe of child actors called The Lilliputians,
after the little people in Gulliver's Travels. She
took a shine to me and thought I would do.
Rope Dancer at Fair
I would be about twelve years
old at the time. I loved the acting straight away.
There was no turning me from my course I can tell
you; to be admired, but more, to hear the beautiful
words and make the scenes upon the stage. How I loved
In 1732 I came to London for the
very first time. Madame Violante had organised a tour
for our children's company. We performed The Beggar's
Opera at the Haymarket Theatre. This was the most
popular play at the time.
I was given the very great honour
of playing the bandit Macheath, the first time I took
on the role of a man. What a rogue he was and how
I delighted in playing the naughty fellow…
Put the wine on the table Mary.
Back home Mr Coffey helped me
find stage work and introduced me to Thomas Elrington
the actor-manager of the Theatre Royal, Dublin, who
gave me lessons.
In 1740, when I had had much practice
I came to London to make my name. It was not enough
for me to strut away my life on the familiar stages
of Dublin. I must always have more you see. I need
to stretch and try my skill.
Well, John Rich was the man to
see in London. He was the manager of Covent Garden.
But he would not see me would you believe. He was
such a wealthy and successful man that he refused
to see any visitors below the rank of baronet.
Covent Garden Scene
But he had not got the measure
of Peg Woffington I can tell you and in the end I
forced my way into his private house and would not
leave until he had heard what I had to say.
He was persuaded, whether by my
charm or my wit or my downright cheek, I care not.
What mattered was that I got the
role of Sylvia in The Recruiting Officer and brought
the house down. All those years of hard work had come
to this. London was mine!
Ha! But Rich was always a difficult
fellow and I soon lost my temper with him. He would
not give me a pay rise despite the audiences flocking
to see me and lining his pocket. I did not see why
he should live well on the profit I made. So, I moved
to Drury Lane Theatre and played comedy, Shakespeare
and the latest plays...and the audiences followed
Old Theatre, Drury Lane
It was here I met David Garrick.
David Garrick is the finest and
most admired actor and he is my love. I have many
admirers but it is Mr Garrick who has stolen my heart.
Last year he and I went back to
Dublin. I played Lady Anne to Mr Garrick's Richard
III, Ophelia to his Hamlet as well as lots of comedy.
You might think that theatres
are places where people come to listen to the beautiful
words and watch the actors weave dreams. Well, I can
tell you you have to be a strong and powerful actor
to tame any audience and get them to listen. They
will talk back at you, sing when you're not expecting
it…people move about and fruit sellers mix with
the crowd. It can be a rowdy place.
Programme and Fruit Seller
And more than that! There have
been riots in the theatres. On occasion audiences
can be wild and if they feel cheated they will throw
things, wreck the seats and even set fire to the place.
Mostly it is high spirited, hot
headed young men who take a fancy to come onto the
stage. They like the actresses you know.
Once I was on stage with Garrick
in a scene from King Lear. Garrick was playing the
sad old king and I his daughter Cordelia. At a time
the audience should have been crying, a drunken gentleman
came upon the stage and spoke to me - and more. Mr
Garrick glared at him and the man was taken off, but
made such a noise about being insulted…it quite
broke the tragic mood.
David Garrick, 1741
Well, it was all a great success.
Mr Garrick went back to London and I was able to stay
a while longer with my mother. How proud she was.
I was glad to be able to give her money.
When I got back to London Garrick
and I moved in to 6 Bow Street with fellow actor Charles
Macklin and his wife. How I love to entertain and
have dinner parties. I know I have spent a lot, but
life is for living I say. Certainly when I was in
charge of the household budget we had a merry time…
If Mr Garrick has a fault it is
that he is mean. He even accused me of making the
tea too strong - in front of his old teacher, Samuel
Johnson of all people, who had happened round for
a chat. I thought that was uncalled for and told him
Garrick’s Town House
Still. I suppose my house keeping
was none too careful. Charles Macklin has a hotter
temper even than I - he once killed a man in a fight
- not on purpose mind. In the end it seemed best to
make my own arrangements. I have moved out to Teddington,
to a house called Teddington Place.
Tonight I have walked the stage
with Mr Garrick. We have been playing Lord and Lady
Townly in The Provok'd Husband. I play an elegant
woman of fashion. Oh the gentlemen and ladies in the
audience love to look upon my clothes and shout out
Eighteenth Century Actors
Garrick hates it when I look out
into the audience to seek the faces of friends. All
of us do it when we are not speaking our lines - but
Garrick likes to perform the part 'naturally', pretending
the audience is not there. How he can do that with
all the things going on I don't know.
You see, it is all a dream. The
flickering glow of the candle light casts such a warm
colour upon the stage and the audience, we look like
we are dancing in a golden cloud together. The painted
sets and beautiful clothes shimmer in the light. The
whole thing is unreal. But it is also better than
real life. I feel moved and carried away by the fun
and the tragedy …
…and it is so wonderful
to me, how I have come from being a child selling
watercress in the Dublin streets and fetching water,
to be the darling of Dublin and London. I have the
love of the people and the love of Mr Garrick, my
own house and many God given talents. How marvellous
the future looks. I do not believe a single thing
could stop Peg Woffington now…