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Bracegirdle, Anne (1671–1748)

Bracegirdle, Anne (1671–1748)

English actress. Name variations: Mrs. Bracegirdle. Born in 1671; died in London, England, in 1748; buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey; mistress and possibly wife of William Congreve.

Though details of her life are sparse, it is supposed that, as a child, Anne Bracegirdle was placed under the care of actor-playwright Thomas Betterton and his wife, actress Mary Saunderson (d. 1712). Anne is thought to have first appeared on stage in 1680 as the page in The Orphan's initial performance at Dorset Garden. In 1688, at the Theater Royal, she played Lucia in Thomas Shadwell's Squire of Alsatia; she also played Araminta in The Old Bachelor in 1693. Bracegirdle's first appearance in a comedy was as Angelica in William Congreve's Love for Love at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1695.

She created the parts of Belinda in Sir John Vanbrugh's Provoked Wife (1697), Almeria in Congreve's Mourning Bride (1697), and Millamant in Congreve's The Way of the World (1700). Bracegirdle also played the heroines in some of Nicholas Rowe's tragedies, as well as acting in contemporary versions of Shakespeare's plays. Known for her many admirers, in 1692 she was the innocent cause of the killing of actor William Mountfort, who was stabbed to death by one of her jealous suitors. Though Rowe was also devoted to her, her name has been most closely connected with Congreve. Bracegirdle was said to have been his mistress and possibly his wife, but whatever the nature of their relationship, he was at least always her intimate friend, and he is known to have left her a legacy.

Saunderson, Mary (d. 1712)

English actress. Name variations: Mrs. Betterton, Mrs. Saunderson. Died in 1712 (some sources cite 1711); married Thomas Betterton (1635–1710, an actor), in 1662.

A member of the Lincoln's Inn company, Mary Saunderson was the first female actor for hire. Until then, all women had been played by men. Her husband Thomas Betterton, considered one of the great actors of the English stage, ran the Dorset Garden Theatre and the Haymarket Theatre, while Saunderson's Lady Macbeth was lauded by actor-dramatist Colley Cibber. After her husband's death, Saunderson was granted a pension by Queen Anne.

In 1705, she followed Thomas Betterton to the Haymarket, where she found a serious competitor in actress Anne Oldfield (1683–1730), who was then coming into public favor. A celebrated talent competition between Bracegirdle and Oldfield took place in 1707, when each played Mrs. Brittle in Betterton's Amorous Widow on successive nights. According to legend, the decision as to who was the better comedy actress was left to the audience. When the vote was given to Oldfield, Bracegirdle retired from the stage in disgust, though she played once more in 1709 at a benefit for Betterton who had lost all his money from speculating.

Anne Bracegirdle had a reputation for goodness, and Lord Halifax was at the top of a long list of contributors who gave her 800 guineas, presented as a tribute to her integrity. Her charity to the poor in Clare Market and around Drury Lane was evident, wrote Colley Cibber, "insomuch that she would not pass that neighbourhood without the thankful acclamations of people of all degrees."

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