A Compendium of Irish Biography/Woffington, Margaret

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Woffington, Margaret, ("Peg Woffington,") a distinguished actress, was born in Dublin, 18th October 1720. Her father is said to have been a bricklayer, and her mother a laundress. Madame Volante, giving theatrical performances in Dublin was attracted the great beauty and and grace of the child, and brought her out in a company of juvenile actors. When between seventeen and twenty years of age, she took Dublin by storm in the "Beggars' Opera," and charmed "all eyes and hearts with her beauty, grace, and ability in a range of characters from 'Ophelia' to 'Sir Harry Wildair.'" In 1740 she went to London with a lover, who abandoned her, and after some difficulty she procured an engagement from Rich, the theatrical manager. Mr. Doran says: "She played night after night at Covent Garden, and London was enraptured with her. Her 'Lothario' was not so successful as her 'Sir Harry'; but her high-born ladies, her women of dash, spirit, and elegance—her homely, humorous females—in all these she triumphed, and triumphed in spite of a voice that was almost unmanageable for its harshness." She is described in her prime as having dark eyes of the greatest brilliancy and lustre; her eyebrows were arched, and endowed with a flexibility which greatly increased the expression of her features: her nose was gently aquiline; and her dark tresses, free from powder, played in luxuriant gracefulness on her neck and shoulders. Her profession was with her a passion. She never sought to set off her great beauty at the expense of her part. She and Garrick were on the most intimate terms. In the summer of 1742 they visited Dublin, and on their return lived openly together. Johnson is said to have occasionally taken tea with them, and even to have cherished for her a Platonic affection. After a career of undiminished popularity in London, she acted from 1751 to 1754 in Dublin, where she became a popular idol, wrote verses to the Lord-Lieutenant, presided at the meetings of the Beefsteak Club, and is said to have ruled "the court, the camp, and the grove." With Sheridan she made an excursion to Quilca, in Cavan, where she formally abjured Catholicism, to preserve an estate of £200 a year, left her by one of her admirers. She returned to Covent Garden in the season of 1754-'5, and thenceforward she resided principally in London. On 3rd May 1757, while acting "Rosalind" in "As You Like It," she was seized with sudden spasms, and staggered off the stage, never to appear on it again. She died at Teddington, near London (where she had resided two years), 28th March 1760, aged 39, and was buried in the parish church there. This beautiful, gifted, yet unhappy woman exercised a remarkable fascination over all with whom she was brought in contact. She was unselfish and kind-hearted; she supported her mother, and educated her sister Mary, who married the second son of the Earl of Cholmondeley, and survived until about the year 1811. She devoted herself to the poor, and regularly visited and knitted stockings for a number of old retainers. She is said to have been much impressed by the preaching of Wesley. Percy FitzGerald says in his Life of Garrick: "From her portraits we can see that this notorious lady was not a bold, rosy-cheeked hoyden, as we might expect, but had an almost demure, placid, and pensive cast of face. She wore her hair without powder, and turned back behind her ears, nearly always with a cap carelessly thrown back, or a little flat garden hat, set negligently on. … Certainly, a deeply interesting face, but with a little hint of foolishness and air of lightness in all its calm, pale placidity. [1] [2](64) [3] [4]

Authorities
  1. Actors, Representative: W. Clark Russell. London, 1875.
  2. Dublin University Magazine. Dublin, 1833-'77.
  3. English Stage, Annals of the: Dr. Doran, F.S.A. 2 vols. London, 1864.
  4. Players, Lives of the: John Gait. 2 vols. London, 1831.