Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Porter, Mary

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PORTER, MARY (d. 1765), actress, is said to have been the child of a private marriage between Samuel Porter and a daughter of Nicholas Kaufmann Mercator. After the early death of her father she was brought up by her uncle, David Mercator, a clerk in the office of ordnance in the Tower. Sent by her mother to act at Bartholomew Fair, where she played the Fairy Queen, she was seen by Mrs. Barry and Mrs. Bracegirdle, and recommended by them to Betterton, who engaged her and lodged her with Mrs. Smith, sister to the treasurer of the theatre. Upon Mrs. Barry, whose successor she was afterwards to become, she was for a time an attendant. She made her first recorded appearance at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1699 as Orythia in Hopkins's tragedy of ‘Friendship Improved, or the Female Warrior.’ In 1701 she was the original Jessica in the ‘Jew of Venice,’ altered by George Granville (Lord Lansdowne) from Shakespeare; Tyrelius, a boy of twelve or thirteen, in ‘Love's Victim, or the Queen of Wales,’ attributed to Gildon, and Lettice, an original part in Burnaby's ‘Ladies' Visiting Day.’ About the same time she was the original Emilia in the ‘Beau's Duel’ of Mrs. Carroll (Centlivre). She was also Philadelphia in Betterton's ‘Amorous Widow’ (4to, 1706), revived about 1702 or 1703. Lady Loveman in ‘Different Widows’ (anonymous); Amaryllis in the ‘Fickle Shepherdess,’ extracted from Randolph's ‘Amyntas,’ and played by women, ascribed to 1703; Zaida in Trapp's ‘Abra Mulé’ to January 1704; Okima in Dennis's ‘Liberty Asserted,’ to 24 Feb. The name Mrs. Potter (Porter?) also appears to Fidelia in ‘Love at First Sight.’ At the new theatre (Opera House) in the Haymarket she was on 30 Oct. 1705 the original Araminta in Vanbrugh's ‘Confederacy,’ on 27 Dec. Isabella in the ‘Mistake’ of the same dramatist, and on 21 Feb. 1706 Corisana in Granville's ‘British Enchanters.’ At the Haymarket, 1706–7, she played, besides many other parts, Lady Graveairs in the ‘Careless Husband,’ Melinda in the ‘Recruiting Officer,’ Fainlove in the ‘Tender Husband,’ Eugenia in ‘London Cuckolds,’ Cydaria in the ‘Indian Emperor,’ Porcia in the ‘Adventures of Five Hours,’ Isabella in ‘Wit without Money,’ Sophonisba in Lee's play of that name, Mrs. Welborn in ‘Bartholomew Fair,’ Bellamira in ‘Cæsar Borgia,’ and the Duchess of Malfi. Tragic parts were, it is thus seen, already assigned her.

The Haymarket being temporarily surrendered to opera, Mrs. Porter migrated to Drury Lane Theatre, where, under Rich and Brett, on 9 Feb. 1708, she made a successful appearance as the original Zaida in Goring's ‘Irene, or the Fair Greek.’ Melisinda in ‘Aureng-Zebe,’ Leonora in the ‘Mourning Bride,’ Morena in the ‘Empress of Morocco,’ the Queen in ‘Don Carlos,’ Maria in the ‘Libertine,’ Lady Tossup in D'Urfey's ‘Fine Lady's Airs,’ Silvia in the ‘Old Batchelor,’ Mrs. Frail in ‘Love for Love,’ Roxana, Morayma in ‘Don Sebastian’ are a few only of the characters, original or other, in which she was seen before reappearing at the Haymarket, to which house, with Wilks, Dogget, Cibber, and Mrs. Oldfield, she seceded, on 22 Sept. 1709, reappearing as Melinda in the ‘Recruiting Officer.’ Here she added to her repertory, among other characters, first Constantia in the ‘Chances,’ Elvira in ‘Love makes a Man,’ Isabinda in the ‘Busybody,’ Nottingham in the ‘Unhappy Favourite,’ Amanda in ‘Love's Last Shift,’ Angelica in the ‘Constant Couple,’ the Queen in ‘Hamlet,’ Dorinda in the ‘Beaux' Stratagem,’ the Queen in ‘King Richard III,’ Charlotte in the ‘Villain,’ Hillaria in the ‘Yeoman of Kent,’ and the Silent Woman in ‘Epicœne.’ After playing at the Haymarket, in the season of 1710–11, the Queen in Dryden's ‘Spanish Fryar,’ Lady Macduff, and other characters, she reappeared at Drury Lane, where she was on 5 Dec. 1710 Hortensia in ‘Æsop,’ and played Lady Charlot in Steele's ‘Funeral,’ Aspatia in the ‘Maid's Tragedy,’ and was the original Isabinda in Mrs. Centlivre's ‘Marplot,’ a continuation of the ‘Busybody,’ and on 17 March 1712 the original Hermione in the ‘Distrest Mother’ of Ambrose Philips. In Charles Shadwell's ‘Humours of the Army,’ 29 Jan. 1713, she was the original Leonora, and in Addison's ‘Cato’ on 14 April the original Marcia. Myrtilla in Gay's ‘Wife of Bath,’ on 12 May, was an original part, as was Alicia in ‘Jane Shore’ on 2 Feb. 1714. In the following season she played Monimia in the ‘Orphan,’ Desdemona, Portia in ‘Julius Cæsar,’ Lavinia in ‘Caius Marius,’ Lady Elizabeth Blunt in ‘Virtue Betrayed,’ Belinda in the ‘Man of the Mode,’ and was the original Duchess of Suffolk in Rowe's ‘Lady Jane Grey.’ Roxana, in the ‘Sultaness,’ on 25 Feb. 1717, adapted by Charles Johnson from Racine, was also an original part, as was Lady Woodvil in Cibber's ‘Nonjuror’ on 6 Dec. 1717. Other important parts in which she was seen at Drury Lane were Amanda in the ‘Relapse,’ Lady Wronglove in the ‘Lady's last Stake,’ Angelica in the ‘Rover,’ Evadne, Elizabeth in the ‘Unhappy Favourite,’ Isabella in the ‘Fatal Marriage,’ Lady Macbeth, Belvidera, Zara in the ‘Mourning Bride,’ Octavia in ‘All for Love,’ and Mrs. Marwood. When Dennis produced, 11 Nov. 1719, his ‘Invader of the Country, or the Fatal Resentment,’ a mangled version of ‘Coriolanus,’ Mrs. Porter was the Volumnia. In Southerne's ‘Spartan Dame’ she was the first Thelamia, in Hughes's ‘Siege of Damascus’ the first Eudocia, and in Young's ‘Revenge’ on 18 April 1721 the first Leonora. Queen Katharine in ‘Henry VIII,’ Desdemona, and Athanais in ‘Theodosius’ were assigned her the following season, in which, on 19 Feb. 1722, she was the original Cartismand in Ambrose Philips's ‘Briton.’ In ‘Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester,’ taken by Philips from Shakespeare, she was the Duchess of Gloucester, and in Jacob's ‘Fatal Constancy’ she was the first Hesione. In Cibber's ‘Cæsar in Egypt’ on 9 Dec. 1724 Mrs. Porter was the first Cornelia. In the following February she was the heroine of West's ‘Hecuba,’ and on 13 Dec. 1727 the original Leonora in the ‘Double Falsehood,’ assigned by Theobald to Shakespeare, but credited to himself or Shirley. In the ‘Provoked Husband,’ by Cibber and Vanbrugh, on 10 Jan. 1728, she was the original Lady Grace. In James Miller's ‘Humours of Oxford’ on 9 Jan. 1730 she was the first Lady Science; she was also the first Eunesia in the anonymous tragedy of ‘Timoleon.’

Mrs. Oldfield having now (1730) left the stage—Mrs. Bracegirdle and Mrs. Barry had retired long before—Mrs. Porter had little rivalry to fear. But her career was soon threatened by a sad accident. She played the original Medea in Johnson's ‘Medea’ on 11 Dec. 1730, and Eurydice in Mallet's play so named, on 22 Feb. 1731. At the time she occupied, says Davies's ‘Dramatic Miscellanies’ (iii. 465), a house at Heywood Hill (Highwood Hill), near Hendon, and was in the habit of going home after the performance in a one-horse chaise, carrying always with her a book and a pair of pistols. Being stopped by a robber, she presented a pistol at him, and cowed him into confessing he was not a highwayman, but a man desperate through affliction. After giving him 10l., she struck suddenly her horse, which, bolting, overthrew the chaise, and her thighbone was dislocated. This accident compelled a retirement of nearly two years, and subsequently she always supported herself on the stage with a stick. She reappeared at Drury Lane at a benefit by ‘their majesties' commands,’ playing Queen Elizabeth in the ‘Unhappy Favourite.’ On 19 Nov. 1735 she played Belvidera in ‘Venice Preserved’ at Covent Garden, and the following season reappeared at Drury Lane. On 6 April 1738 she was the first Clytemnestra in Thomson's ‘Agamemnon,’ being, Genest thinks, specially engaged for the part; she repeated, however, the characters of Hermione in the ‘Distrest Mother’ for her benefit, and Portia in ‘Julius Cæsar’ for the fund for erecting a statue to Shakespeare. From 1736 to 1741, in which last year she had a benefit at Covent Garden, playing Isabella in the ‘Fatal Marriage,’ she was not engaged. She played a few familiar parts in 1741–2. On 14 Feb. 1743, for her benefit, she was seen at Covent Garden by command of the Prince and Princess of Wales, enacting Queen Elizabeth in ‘Albion Queens,’ being ‘the last time of her appearance on the stage.’ The stage was enclosed and formed into an amphitheatre, where servants were allowed to keep places, and no person was admitted without a ticket. In this representation she struck the ground with her stick when signing the warrant for the death of Mary Stuart, and her vehemence and spirit elicited loud applause.

Mrs. Porter was eminently popular with all classes. Lord Cornbury [see Hyde, Henry, Viscount Cornbury] gave her his unacted comedy, ‘The Mistakes,’ which in 1758, or some five years after his death, she published by subscription at 5s. a copy. The Countess Cowper subscribed for eighty copies, and many fashionable folk took from twenty copies up, it is said, to a hundred, so that a large sum was realised. In the advertisement to the book she speaks of herself as ‘an old and favoured servant of the public, whose powers of contributing to its amusement are no more.’ She became great friends with Mrs. Oldfield, as she had been with Mrs. Barry and Mrs. Bracegirdle. Jesting her on her gravity, Mrs. Oldfield often called her ‘mother.’ Though far from handsome, she was tall, well formed, and of a fair complexion; her voice, tender at first and wanting in volume, acquired power by cultivation. She had exquisite judgment. Somewhat cold in comedy, in those parts of tragedy in which the passions predominate she was another person. She had ‘noble and enthusiastic ardour, great dignity, and most affecting softness and tenderness.’ She was held the legitimate successor of Mrs. Barry. In Hermione and Belvidera she was equally effective. In the latter part Booth preferred her to Mrs. Oldfield. She excelled particularly in her agony when forced from Jaffier in the second act, and in her madness. Dr. Johnson, with whose friends the Cotterels she lived for a time on terms of great intimacy, said, ‘Mrs. Porter in the vehemence of rage, and Mrs. Clive in the sprightliness of humour, I have never seen equalled;’ and Walpole declared that she surpassed Garrick in passionate tragedy. No breath of scandal is heard concerning her. She outlived an annuity on which she depended, and probably outlived her friends also; she died at an advanced age and in straitened circumstances on 24 Feb. 1765 (Gent. Mag. 1765, p. 146). No portrait of her has been traced.

[Genest's Account of the English Stage; Betterton's Hist. of the English Stage; Davies's Dramatic Miscellanies; Victor's Hist. of the Theatres; Colley Cibber's Apology, ed. Lowe; Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror; Thespian Dict.; Dibdin's Hist. of the Stage; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Birkbeck Hill; Clark Russell's Representative Actors, &c.]

J. K.