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Peg Woffington, Actress, 1745

Peg Woffington 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.

Actress in Breeches Part

Theatre 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!

Theatre scene
Theatre scene

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
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
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 the stories.

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
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 me.

Old Theatre, Drury Lane
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
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
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 so.

Garrick’s Town House
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 to me.

Eighteenth Century Actors
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…

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