Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Woffington, Margaret

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WOFFINGTON, MARGARET (1714?–1760), actress, the daughter of John Woffington, a journeyman bricklayer, was born, it is commonly said, on 18 Oct. 1718 in Dublin, but probably four or five years earlier. Her father, dying in 1720, received a pauper's funeral, and left his wife, with two children, in debt. An effort on the part of the widow to keep a huckster's shop on Ormonde Quay failed, and Mrs. Woffington earned a small and precarious livelihood by hawking fruit or watercress in the street. At this time Madame Violante, a Frenchwoman, had opened, with a miscellaneous entertainment consisting largely of rope-dancing, an edifice, partly theatre partly booth, constructed in a house formerly occupied by Lord-chief-justice Whitehead, fronting on Fawnes' Court, near College Green. One of her feats was to cross the stage on a tight-rope with a basket containing an infant suspended to each foot. Among the children so carried was ‘Peg’ Woffington. When, after a season, the experiment failed, Peg took to her mother's occupation of selling fruit or vegetables in the street. When ten years of age she was engaged afresh by Madame Violante for a lilliputian company, and played Polly in the ‘Beggar's Opera.’ Subsequently she played Nell in the ‘Devil to Pay,’ and other parts. Her performance attracted the attention of Thomas Elrington (1688–1732) [q. v.], who engaged her at Aungier Street Theatre, where, besides dancing between the acts, she played elderly parts, such as Mrs. Peachum and Mother Midnight in Farquhar's ‘Twin Rivals.’ For a time she acted with Sparks, Barrington, and others at the Rainsford Street theatre, a house on the outskirts of Dublin. Her first serious attempt was as Ophelia, which she played successfully on 12 April 1737 at Smock Alley Theatre. She repeated her performance of Polly Peachum, and played Mrs. Clive's part of Miss Lucy in Fielding's ‘Old Man taught Wisdom, or the Virgin Unmasked.’ Her name also stands to Female Officer and to Phillis in the ‘Conscious Lovers.’ In April 1740 she gave what to the end was considered her most bewitching impersonation, that of Sir Harry Wildair in the ‘Constant Couple.’

The fame of this secured her an engagement from Rich for Covent Garden, at which house she appeared on 6 Nov. 1740 as Silvia in the ‘Recruiting Officer.’ She was then announced as ‘Miss Woffington.’ When on the 8th she repeated the part, it was as Mrs. Woffington, which name she subsequently bore. In this character she had to masquerade as a boy, and immediately took the town by storm. On 13 Nov. she was Lady Sadlife in the ‘Double Gallant,’ and on the 15th Aura in Charles Johnson's ‘Country Lasses.’ On the 21st she appeared, by particular desire, as Sir Harry Wildair. She acted the character twenty nights during the season, ten of them being consecutive, and was so successful in the part that no male actor was thenceforth acceptable in it. On 5 Dec. she was Elvira in the ‘Spanish Friar,’ and was seen during the season as Violante in the ‘Double Falsehood,’ Lætitia in the ‘Old Bachelor,’ Victoria in the ‘Fatal Marriage,’ some part (presumably Florella) in ‘Greenwich Park,’ Angelica in the ‘Gamester,’ Phillis, and Cherry in the ‘Beaux' Stratagem.’ Next year she was engaged at Drury Lane, where she made, it is believed, her first appearance on 8 Sept. 1741 as Silvia, playing Sir Harry Wildair on 4 Jan. 1742. Ruth in the ‘Committee,’ Lady Brute in the ‘Provoked Wife,’ Nerissa in the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ Rosalind in ‘As you like it,’ Helena in ‘All's well that ends well’ (in which, through illness, she broke down), Mrs. Sullen in the ‘Beaux' Stratagem,’ Clarinda in the ‘Double Gallant,’ Berinthia in the ‘Relapse,’ Belinda in ‘Man of the Mode,’ Lady Betty Modish in the ‘Careless Husband,’ Clarissa in the ‘Confederacy,’ and Cordelia to the Lear of Garrick followed. In the summer she returned to Dublin, when she sprang to the height of popularity.

She reappeared at Drury Lane on 15 June 1742 as Sir Harry Wildair, and on the arrival of Garrick two days later she played Lady Anne to his Richard III. She also supported him as Angelina in ‘Love makes a Man, or the Fop's Fortune,’ and other parts. She had her share in bringing about what was called the ‘Garrick fever’ [see Garrick, David], and when Garrick returned to London, she accompanied him, or followed immediately after him. They were known lovers, Garrick's affection for her dating, it is thought, from a period before he went on the stage, and they began on their arrival a tripartite domestic arrangement at 6 Bow Street, in which Charles Macklin [q. v.] was the third. This unpromising experiment speedily broke down, and Mrs. Woffington and Garrick retired to Southampton Street, Strand [for the particulars of this experiment, and for the lines in which Garrick or Hanbury-Williams berhymed ‘lovely Peggy,’ see Garrick, David]. Mrs. Woffington was less seen at Drury Lane than might have been expected from her Dublin triumphs. She had to face, however, the formidable rivalry of Mrs. Clive and Mrs. Pritchard. She appeared as Queen Anne for the first time in England; spoke an epilogue to the ‘Merchant of Venice’ on Shakespeare's women characters; played Lady Lurewell in the ‘Constant Couple’ to the Sir Harry Wildair of Garrick, which, after her own, was a failure; and was, 17 Feb. 1743, the first Charlotte in Fielding's ‘Wedding Day.’ In the following season she was seen for the first time in London as Ophelia, Mrs. Ford, Lady Townley, Portia in ‘Merchant of Venice,’ and Millamant in the ‘Way of the World;’ and was, 3 April 1744, the first Lætitia in Ralph's ‘Astrologer,’ an alteration of ‘Albumazar.’ The season 1744–5 saw her as Mrs. Frail in ‘Love for Love,’ Oriana in ‘The Inconstant,’ Narcissa in ‘Love's last Shift,’ and Belinda in the ‘Provoked Husband;’ and the following season as Maria in the ‘Nonjurors,’ Florimel in ‘Comical Lovers,’ Constantia in the ‘She Gallants,’ the scornful Lady, Penelope in the ‘Lying Lover,’ Mrs. Conquest in the ‘Lady's last Stake,’ Isabella in ‘Measure for Measure,’ Viola in ‘Twelfth Night,’ Aminta in the ‘Sea Voyage,’ Female Officer in ‘Humours of the Army,’ and Mariana in the ‘Miser.’ On 18 Jan. 1746 she was the original Lady Katherine Gordon in Macklin's ‘Henry VII, or the Popish Impostor.’

On 30 April of the previous year, for Mrs. Woffington's benefit, the part of Cherry in the ‘Beaux' Stratagem’ had been played by Miss M. Woffington, being her first appearance on any stage. This was her sister Mary, who subsequently married Captain (afterwards the Hon. and Rev.) George Cholmondeley, second son of the Earl Cholmondeley, and a nephew of Horace Walpole, and survived Margaret over half a century.

In the following season, 1746–7, when Garrick had become associated with Lacy in the management of Drury Lane, Mrs. Woffington ‘created’ no new part, but was seen for the first time as Charlotte in the ‘Refusal,’ Lady Percy, Cleopatra in ‘All for Love,’ Belinda in ‘Artful Husband,’ Mrs. Loveit in ‘Man of the Mode,’ Silvia in ‘Marry or do Worse,’ and Lady Rodomont in ‘Fine Lady's Airs.’ On 13 Feb. 1748 she was the first Rosetta in Moore's ‘Foundling,’ and was seen during the season as Sulpitia in ‘Albumazar,’ Jacintha in ‘Suspicious Husband,’ Hippolito in Dryden's alteration of the ‘Tempest,’ Flora in ‘She would and she would not,’ and Jane Shore. In the next season, the busiest of her later career, she reappeared at Covent Garden, where she was, 13 Jan. 1749, the original Veturia in Thomson's ‘Coriolanus.’ Mrs. Woffington, according to the epilogue, painted with wrinkles her beautiful face in order to play the character. She was also Arabella, otherwise My Lady No, in ‘London Cuckolds,’ Helena in the ‘Rover,’ Portia in ‘Julius Cæsar,’ Lady in ‘Comus,’ Elvira in ‘Love makes a Man,’ Bellemante in ‘Emperor of the Moon,’ Andromache in ‘Distressed Mother,’ Calista in ‘Fair Penitent,’ Lady Touchwood in ‘Double Dealer,’ Leonora in ‘Sir Courtly Nice,’ and Queen Katharine in ‘Henry VIII.’ In 1749–50 she was Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Clarinda in ‘Suspicious Husband,’ Aspasia in ‘Tamerlane,’ Estifania in ‘Rule a Wife and have a Wife,’ Lady Jane Grey in piece so named (a performance that added greatly to her reputation, high as this was), Anne Bullen in ‘Virtue Betrayed,’ and Queen Mary in ‘Albion Queens.’ The years 1750 and 1751 added to the list Queen in ‘Hamlet,’ Hippolita in ‘She would and she would not,’ Lady Fanciful in ‘Provoked Wife,’ Hermione in ‘Distressed Mother,’ and Constance in ‘King John.’

During the three following seasons she was in Dublin. Her success was even greater than before. Writing to the Countess of Orrery on 21 Oct. 1751, Victor, the historian of the stage, says: ‘Mrs. Woffington is the only theme either in or out of the theatre—her performances are in general admirable.’ He compares her with Mrs. Oldfield and Mrs. Porter. Some tolerable verses signed by her name, asking for an annual repetition of a kiss given her in 1746 by the Duke of Dorset, are in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for December 1751. During her stay she added to her repertory Zara in the ‘Mourning Bride,’ Lothario, Widow Lackit in ‘Oroonoko,’ and Palmira in ‘Mahomet.’ By her performances in four stock plays she brought her management 4,000l., a record quite unprecedented. Taking what proved to be a final farewell of Ireland, she returned with Sheridan, her manager, to England, and reappeared at Covent Garden, 22 Oct. 1754, as Maria in the ‘Nonjuror,’ adding during the season to her repertory Phædra in ‘Phædra and Hippolitus,’ Lady Plyant in ‘Double Dealer,’ Aurelia in ‘Twin Rivals,’ Jocasta in ‘Œdipus,’ and Isabella in ‘Fatal Marriage.’ Next season saw her as Angelica in ‘Love for Love,’ Lady Dainty in ‘Double Gallant,’ Roxana in ‘Rival Queens,’ Penelope in ‘Ulysses,’ and Violante in the ‘Wonder.’ She was also, 23 March 1756, the first Melantha in ‘Frenchified Lady.’ It was in this season that Mrs. Woffington, who was on bad terms with Mrs. Bellamy, while performing Roxana to her rival's Statira, drove her off the stage and stabbed her almost in sight of the audience. In consequence of the quarrel Foote wrote his ‘Green-room Squabble, or a Battle-Royal between the Queen of Babylon and the Daughter of Darius.’ Even more bitter than this feud was that between Woffington and Mrs. Clive—‘no two women ever hated each other more’ (Davies). In her last season on the stage Mrs. Woffington played Celia in the ‘Humourous Lieutenant,’ Almeria in ‘Mourning Bride,’ Queen in ‘Richard III,’ and Lothario, and was on 14 March 1757 the first Lady Randolph in Home's ‘Douglas.’

On 3 May she played Rosalind in ‘As you like it.’ This was her last performance. She had been declining in health all the season. Tate Wilkinson, to whom she had shown herself tyrannical and venomous, was standing by her when in the fifth act she complained of indisposition. He gave her his arm and took her away. She changed her dress and returned on the stage, saying she was ill. She got half through the epilogue when her voice broke. She strove vainly to recall her words, screamed with terror, and tottered to the door, where she was caught. ‘The audience, of course, applauded till she was out of sight, and then sunk into awful looks of astonishment at seeing a favourite actress struck so suddenly by the hand of death (for so it seemed) in such a situation of time and place, and in her prime of life. … She was that night given over, and for several days, but she afterwards so far recovered as to linger till 1760, but existed as a mere skeleton’ (Tate Wilkinson, Memoirs, i. 118–19). She died on 28 March 1760 in Queen Square, Westminster, whither she had been removed from Teddington. In Teddington she was buried, and a tablet to her memory was placed on the east wall of the northern aisle of the church; she is in the inscription called ‘spinster.’ In the register she is described as ‘of London.’

Mrs. Woffington is said to have been the handsomest woman that ever appeared on the stage, though Wilkinson, whom her sarcasms and persecution stung, awards a slight preference to Miss Farren, subsequently Countess of Derby. ‘A bold Irish-faced girl’ was the description of her by Conway, the correspondent of Horace Walpole. She had vivacity (as Walpole himself admitted, though he disliked her acting) and wit, and a rarer gift—conscientiousness towards the public, scarcely ever disappointing an audience even when really too ill to act. She was content also, while the entire range of characters in tragedy and comedy was assigned to her, to take secondary parts. Her society was sought by all ranks, and she was one of the most courted and caressed of women. Her amours were numerous. She frankly avowed that she preferred the society of men to that of women, and told concerning herself the story that, after acting Sir Harry Wildair amid thunders of applause, she said to James Quin [q. v.] in the green-room, ‘I have played the part so often that half the town believes me to be a real man,’ receiving from Quin the rough retort, ‘Madam, the other half knows you to be a woman.’ She was, when she died, under the protection of Colonel Cæsar, and was held by some to be secretly married to him. Brought up as a Roman catholic, she changed her religion late in life, the reason, it is said, being the promise, subsequently fulfilled, of a legacy of 200l. a year from Owen MacSwinny [q. v.]

Mrs. Woffington was seen to highest advantage in ladies of rank and elegance—Millamant, Lady Townley, Lady Betty Modish, Lady Plyant, Maria in the ‘Non-juror,’ Angelica, and the like. She won also in tragedy high recognition, including that of so competent and prejudiced an observer as Wilkinson. Andromache and Calista were her most popular tragic parts. In breeches parts, and notably in Sir Henry Wildair, she carried the town captive. Neither Garrick nor Woodward was equally welcome in this character. Her voice was bad, and she was charged in tragedy with imitating the rather artificial method of Marie-Françoise Dumesnil, the famous actress of the Comédie-Française. Campbell, who could not have seen her, says ‘she used to bark out the “Fair Penitent” with the most dissonant notes.’ Both Cibber and Quick thought highly of her acting. The singular honour was accorded her in Dublin, during her last visit in 1753, of being elected president of the Beefsteak Club in that city. She assisted regularly at its meetings, being the only woman admitted. The privilege aroused some popular prejudice against her and her manager, Sheridan, and was partly the cause of her quitting Ireland. Innumerable stories, many of them apocryphal but some doubtless true, are told about her, showing her generally as a vivacious, good-hearted woman with unequalled power of fascination, but subject to ‘tantrums.’ Garrick bought the wedding-ring for the purpose of marrying her, but hung back, and at last quarrelled with her. Making allowance for one essentially feminine error, Murphy credited her with the possession of every virtue, ‘honour, truth, benevolence, and charity,’ and with abundance of wit. She took great care of her sister's education, allowed her mother through life, and settled on her, a pension, and built and endowed almshouses at Teddington. She lent her dresses to the beautiful Misses Gunning, facilitating thus their conquests.

‘A Monody on the Death of Mrs. Woffington’ by John Hoole [q. v.] appeared in 1760, and she has been commemorated in our own day in the successful drama ‘Masks and Faces’ (1852) by Tom Taylor and Charles Reade. In December 1852 Charles Reade inscribed ‘to the memory of Margaret Woffington’ the ‘dramatic story’ of which she is the heroine.

Many fine portraits of Margaret Woffington are in existence. These show her generally in her own hair, with a long and rather pensive face. Her portrait as Penelope, by Reynolds, was lent by Lord Sackville to the Guelph Exhibition. Portraits of her by Hogarth, Mercier, and Wilson are in the Mathews collection in the Garrick Club. She was also painted by Vanloo and by Zoffany (Cat. Second Loan Exhib. No. 378, Third Loan, No. 745). Smith's ‘Catalogue’ mentions ten, and reproduces one by Pond (now in the National Portrait Gallery, London), engraved by Ardell. Augustin Daly printed in sumptuous form, and in a limited edition, a life of Woffington, in which he reproduced many portraits, including one by Hogarth as Sir Harry Wildair, one from the Kensington Gallery, and others as Phebe (by Van Bleeck, 1747), and as Mrs. Ford (by Edward Haytley [q. v.], 1751, engraved by J. Faber). A portrait by Hogarth is at Bowood. In Daly's book numerous references to her in prose and verse are collected, and the whole, in spite of some errors in printing, is a fine and unfortunately, as regards the general public, almost inaccessible tribute (cf. Saturday Review, 2 June 1888). Mr. Austin Dobson contributed to the ‘Magazine of Art’ (viii. 256) a paper on portraits of ‘Peg’ Woffington.

[The chief separate biography is Augustin Daly's Life of Peg Woffington, Philadelphia, 1888, privately printed. Another modern compilation is the Life and Adventures of Peg Woffington, by J. Fitzgerald Molloy, 1884, 2 vols. 8vo. Genest's Account of the English Stage and Hitchcock's History of the Irish Stage are responsible for most of the facts preserved concerning Mrs. Woffington. Biographies are in the Georgian Era, Galt's Lives of the Players, and the Managers' Note-book. Tate Wilkinson in his Memoirs supplies many important particulars, as do the Lives of Garrick by Davies and Murphy. Among other works which have been consulted are Walpole's Letters, ed. Cunningham; Hanbury-Williams's Works, 1822, vol. ii. passim; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill; Doran's Stage Annals, ed. Lowe; Chetwood's History of the Stage; Memoirs of Lee Lewis; Wheatley and Cunningham's London; Thorne's Environs of London; Smith's Catalogue of Mezzotinto Portraits; Marshall's Cat. of National Portraits; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Davies's Dramatic Miscellanies; Dibdin's English Stage; Campbell's Life of Siddons; Boaden's Life of Jordan; O'Keeffe's Recollections; Victor's History of the Stage and Letters; Fitzgerald's History of the Stage; Bellamy's Apology; Lowe's Bibliography of the Stage; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. vols. vi. vii.]

J. K.