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Thursday, 16 June 2011

“Looking at Her You Seemed to Snatch the Fearful Joy of Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano” Or: The Career of Ada Rehan:

My Advert For Daly's Theatre 
Since I wrote about the Victorian actresses Ellen Terry and Marie Lloyd I haven’t really looked any further into the subject of nineteenth century actresses, one that I have, though, is little-known Ada Rehan.

I decided to peek into her life when I discovered, among my little collection of Victorian things, this advertisement for Daly's Theatre in London on the right.

Ada was American, but born in Ireland on 22nd April 1859. She moved to Brooklyn when she was five years old, and it was here that her two sisters became actors and had careers on the stage. Ada had a few minor childhood acting roles of her own, and in 1873 she secured a role in her brother-in-law’s play, ‘Across the Continent’.

From this, she joined Mrs. Drew’s company at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, where she found her stage name thus: Ada’s actual surname was Crehan, but a typing error on a programme during her early days with Mrs. Drew advertised her as ‘Ada Rehan’, and she kept the name.

She remained in Philadelphia until 1875, when she left to join John W. Albough’s company, performing on stage throughout Canada until 1879, when she joined Augustin Daly in New York where he had just opened his theatre. Daly took his entire company on tour, visiting England, Germany and France, and some of the best actors on the American stage have owed their training and first successes to him. Among these were Clara Morris, Sarah Orne Jewett, Maurice Barrymore, Fanny Davenport, Agnes Ethel, Maude Adams, Mrs. Gilbert, Tyrone Power, Sr., Ada Dyas, Isadora Duncan and, of course, Ada Rehan.

Ada Rehan
Ada played Mary Standish in Daly’s play ‘Pique’ (Much of which was based on Florence Lean's novel, ‘Her Lord and Master’) and then featured in his production of ‘L’Assommoir’ Her performances won her some critical acclaim, especially from Daly himself, who then gave her a role in ‘Love’s Young Dream’ as Nelly Beers. Ada’s skill was in comedy acting, and under the stewardship of Daly she became the finest and most popular of all the young comedy actresses of the time. Not only did she shine in classic comedies such as Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, in which she played Mrs. Ford, but also in newer productions such as ‘The Magistrate’ (premiered in 1885) and ‘Dandy Dick’ (1887)

The critics in London were kind to Ada when, in May 1888, she performed at Daly’s Leicester Square Theatre, a venue she would perform in as part of Daly’s company many times. Her first appearance in London was at Toole's Theatre in 1884 in Daly’s ‘Casting the Boomerang’. She also acted at the Strand Theatre in 1886, at the Gaiety in 1888, at the Lyceum in 1890, and at Daly's in 1893 and 1895. The London critics were impressed with Ada’s acting skills, but the most resounding praise for her was served up by American author and drama critic William Winter, who gave a wonderful description of Ada in his 1898 biography of her, ‘Ada Rehan: a Study’ in which he wrote of her; 

“Her physical beauty was of the kind that appears in portraits of women by Romney and Gainsborough – ample, opulent, and bewitching – and it was enriched by the enchantment of superb animal spirits. She had gray-blue eyes and brown hair.”

He went on:

“Her acting, if closely scrutinized, was seen to have been studied; yet it always seemed spontaneous; her handsome, ingenuous, winning countenance informed it with sympathy, while her voice – copious, tender, and wonderfully musical – filled it with emotion, speaking always from the heart.”

My favourite paragraph though:

“Alongside of most players of this period Ada Rehan is a prodigy of original force. Her influence, accordingly, has been felt more than it has been understood, and being elusive and strange, has prompted wide differences of opinion.
The sense that she diffuses of a simple, unselfish, patient nature and of impulsive tenderness of heart, however,cannot have been missed by anybody with eyes to see. And she crowns all by speaking the English language with a beauty that has seldom been equalled.”

Glowing praise and wonderful words indeed.

In 1899, Ada’s mentor, Augustin Daly died at the age of 61, but she continued to appear on stage, mostly in the same roles in which he had cast her. She carried on acting for a short while but despite her popularity with audiences and the acting skill and beauty that William Winter describes, she never achieved any success in her career, and six years later, in 1905 she retired from acting and settled in New York, where, in 1916 she died.

The Times gave a lovely obituary the day after she died:

"A New York telegram announces the death of Miss Ada Rehan, the actress.

Ada Rehan by John Singer Sargent: 1895
In the closing years of the last century, when Ada Rehan was in her prime, she was without a rival in her own province on the comic stage. Whatever scene she entered she dominated…She was a force that swept everything before it. "Here she comes, full sail," you said of her…Her eyes, sparkling with mischief, seemed looking for fun in every corner and sure to have it out; humour, and irony, played round the mobile lips: the deep, rich, liquid tones of her voice thrilled you like the notes of a Stradivarius. There was a sense of fullness and mellowness in her nature, a genial warmth. She overflowed with animal spirits. Her style was large and liberal. Her mirth had "body " like a generous wine. In modern plays her line was to be a perpetual combatant – and certain conqueror – in the "duel of sex." She was always to be seen matching wits with a man (the man was generally Mr. Join Drew), and. leaving him hopelessly outclassed…

In Shakespearian comedy – the full-blooded, not the dreamy, fantastic region of it – she was a marvel. The bubbling, effervescing fun of her Rosalind! There have been more tender Rosalinds, and more refined – Ada Rehan's Rosalind was, in truth, a little "bouncing" – but probably none so humorous and none so full of essential womanhood… But her Rosalind was surpassed by her Katherine in “The Taming of the Shrew”. You thought Shakespeare foresaw her when he wrote that part. She made Katherine a magnificent animal. Her rage was devastating, like some great convulsion of nature. The Shakespearian vocabulary did not suffice her; she found a whole gamut of inarticulate cries, shrieks, and grunts, and growls. Looking at her you seemed to snatch the fearful joy of dancing on the edge of a volcano. Yet the whole thing was harmonious, superbly beautiful, Shakespearian through and through, 'absolutely "right."

For once a dramatic character had met with the very person born to interpret and to illuminate it. Such a piece of good fortune is not likely to happen again. You feel that something of Shakespeare's secret died with Ada Rehan.”

1 comment:

  1. but probably none so humorous and none so full of essential womanhood…