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Peg Woffington was Garrick’s Cordelia and England’s greatest actress

Posted in Actors, Historical articles, History, Theatre on Monday, 30 July 2012

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This edited article about Margaret Woffington originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 756 published on 10th July 1976.

Peg Woffington, picture, image, illustration

Peg Woffington by William Hogarth

All day long the little girl had trudged the streets of Dublin, cold and weary with fatigue. No-one, it seemed, wanted to buy her wares that day, and home she went yet again without a penny in her pocket to show for the long, hard day’s work behind her.

With aching feet, she left the house for the second time that day, and walked down to the River Liffey, a pitcher on her head, to fetch some water.

As she made her way back, she heard footsteps following and quickened her pace. Back inside the house, the child heard a knock at the door and when her mother had opened it, she could hear a strange voice. It was a foreign lady asking if she might be allowed to come in and have a talk.

So began the career of one of the world’s finest and most beautiful actresses. The story of Margaret Woffington, the little girl from the slums of Dublin who grew up to become queen of the English stage, astonished and delighted even the tempestuous world of the 18th century theatre.

Peg, as she always called herself, would become a legend in her own lifetime. She has remained one ever since.

The strange foreign lady who had watched the pretty dark-haired girl walk through the city with such elegance and natural grace, selling her bunches of watercress and lettuce, was the famous Madame Violante, renowned for her troupe of Lilliputians – child actors who played all the roles in famous plays and operas.

What she offered Peg’s poor, widowed mother that evening seemed like riches beyond compare. For 50p a week Peg became a Lilliputian, excelling in the parts of old women and in delighting audiences with her charming little dances between acts.

She was an ideal apprentice, and it was not long before she had learned stage presence and mastered every act and trick of her profession.

Nothing thrilled her more than standing on a stage lit by hundreds of candles inside a tiny playhouse packed with the gentry and street sweepers alike. In role after role, she would captivate that audience with her genius for comedy, her beauty, and her unfailing Irish wit.

Once she had established herself in Dublin, a city renowned for breeding great dramatic talent such as hers, Peg decided to try her luck in London, the theatre capital of the world.

But luck, it seemed, was not on her side at first. With a little money in her purse and the clothes on her back the only ones she possessed, she trudged the streets of a city once again. She approached nineteen theatre managers, and nineteen times she was refused work.

At last, on the point of starvation, she persuaded the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre to give her the chance she desperately sought – the chance to appear on a London stage.

On November 6th, 1740, she made her Covent Garden debut in The Recruiting Officer, playing the part of a girl who disguises herself as a man. At once she became the sensation of London. Later, when she played Sir Harry Wildair in the comedy, The Constant Couple, the town went wild about her. A famous actor of the day had made his name in that role, but after Peg’s triumph it was declared that no man would ever dare to play the part again.

As soon as the actress had begun to become a success, she rescued her mother from her Dublin slum and set her up in comfort with a home and a private income of her own. Determined to allow her younger sister, Polly, to have the education she never had, Peg insisted on sending her off to one of the best schools in France and was pleased to see her married to an officer, Captain Cholmondeley, the second son of an earl.

Peg was remarkable as an actress not only for her tremendous talent and beauty but for her lack of conceit, her generosity, and her absolute lack of vanity. She never minded playing a minor part when necessary – even at the height of her fame. She never gave less than her best at any performance because she was an actress of the highest professionalism.

Throughout her life she was surrounded by admirers. Famous men flocked to her house. She loved the company of people of wit, dramatists, poets, writers, statesmen and men of letters. Men like Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding praised her, along with countless other writers, and men of wealth, rank and fame pursued her everywhere. But she never married.

It was when she changed theatres and went over to Drury Lane that she met for the first time the greatest English actor of the eighteenth century, the man who was to be the great love of her life.

His name was David Garrick. Peg played Cordelia to his first performance as King Lear in Shakespeare’s great tragedy of that name. Together, they went to Dublin to act in plays and became an enormous success.

The years 1754 to 1755 saw her at the height of her fame. “When I can no longer bound on the stage with an elastic step and when the enthusiasm of the public begins to show symptoms of change,” she declared, “that will be the last performance of Margaret.”

Unhappily, things did not quite turn out like that. The end of her career on the stage was to be a tragic one.

The season of 1757 was a particularly brilliant one for Peg. She was playing Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. On the Monday evening of May 17th, she had felt unwell all through the performance, but she was determined to carry on. Then, when she had gone back on to the stage in the last act, and was delivering the lines: “If I were among you, I would kiss as many . . .” the actress suddenly stopped speaking. She swayed and faltered and then, screaming, stumbled into the wings.

Paralysis had struck her down. Peg Woffington never acted again. The woman who had spent her life upon a stage performing for delighted audiences, was doomed to linger helplessly and in pain. She died on March 26th, 1760, a rich and well-loved woman.

To her sister Polly she left most of her fortune, but the rest went to charity to found a row of almshouses for the poor.

To the very last, Margaret Woffington never forgot those long weary days of her childhood as a salad seller in the sordid slums of Dublin.

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