Hidden historical heroines (#04: Peg Woffington)

 

Margaret “Peg” Woffington (18 October 1720 – 28 March 1760) was a celebrated Irish-born actress during Georgian times.

 

Peg was born in Dublin in 1720. Her father – a bricklayer – died when she was young, leaving her family penniless and destitute . Her mother took in laundry, while little Peg sold watercress on the streets of Dublin and door to door.

 

By all accounts she was a beautiful and precocious child. At the age of ten she became apprenticed to an Italian rope dancer. Unfortunately there is no record – anecdotal or otherwise – as to how this rather remarkable turn of events happened! She was immediately put to work on the stage – Dublin at this time was a big theatrical hub – and her first role was Polly Peachum in a production of The Beggar’s Opera.

 

She danced and acted her way around the Dublin theatre scene until the age of twenty, when her success in a ‘breeches role’ as Sir Harry Wildair in The Constant Couple led to her being given her London debut at Covent Garden, Drury Lane. She became a sensation.

 

Peg was most acclaimed for her comedic or breeches roles (what they sound like – when she would play a male character). She was somewhat impeded in her performance of tragic roles due to harshness in her tone of voice, and the lingering Irish accent, which she strove to eliminate all of her life. This same voice tone was probably why she so excelled in breeches roles.

 

She was celebrated as a great beauty and various artists of the day painted her; a few of her portraits are shown within this post. She was such an eminent portrait sitter that many pictures of attractive young women of that period were for some time wrongly thought to be of her.

 

She was the only female member – and then made president! – of the Beefsteak Club in Dublin, founded by the famous actor/writer Thomas Sheridan, a society of respected actors. She became completely financially independent, pensioning her mother and supporting her younger sister, providing the best education that money could buy.

 

She lived openly for many years with the famous actor David Garrick, and starred opposite him in many roles. Garrick was an actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer who influenced nearly all aspects of theatrical practice throughout the 18th century. They never married and were quite the society scandal. Peg also managed to fit in liaisons with other illustrious Londoners like the Earl of Darnley and the MP Charles Williams. She was also famous for her rivalry with Kitty Clive, a contemporaneous actress and one of the founding members of Garrick’s acting company.

 

Peg was especially well known for her Shakespearean canon (often starring alongside Garrick) and performed as Ophelia, Cordelia, Rosalind, Viola, Desdemona and Lady Macbeth, just to name some of the more famous Shakespearean heroines. One of these would be her last role. On 3 May 1757, she was playing the part of Rosalind in As You Like It when she collapsed on stage midway through her line: “If I were a woman, I would kiss as many —“

 

She lingered with a wasting disease and partial paralysis for the next three years.  During this time she built and endowed by will some alms-houses at Teddington, where she was living when she died and where she is buried.

 

One of our first modern actresses – and certainly one of Ireland’s most famous ladies – I studied Peg at university (Shakespeare: Stage and Screen – A History!) but cannot find a single fiction book starring – or even featuring – her. No academic or non-fiction work has been released for decades.  This is one historical heroine who is well hidden.

 

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