Horniman, Annie (1860–1937)

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Horniman, Annie (1860–1937)

English theater patron and manager who pioneered the modern repertory movement. Name variations: Miss Horniman; Miss A.E.F. Horniman. Born Annie Elizabeth Fredericka Horniman in Manchester, England, in 1860; died in 1937; daughter of F.J. Horniman (a tea merchant); attended Slade School; never married; no children.

A major influence in early 20th-century theater in England and Ireland, Annie Horniman was born in 1860, the daughter of a wealthy Manchester tea merchant who had few cultural interests and would not let her attend the theater. Horniman's fascination with drama was sparked by her introduction to poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, whom she met at a gathering of the Order of the Golden Dawn (a congregation of theosophists), in London. She subsequently served as Yeats' secretary for five years, during which time she became impassioned with his plays and determined to make them known. In 1894, she funded a repertory season at London's Avenue Theater (later the Playhouse), which included the first commercial presentation of Yeats' play The Land of Heart's Desire. Thereafter, Horniman turned her attention to the Irish National Theater (later the Irish National Dramatic Society), the pet project of Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory . In 1904, Horniman purchased two adjacent buildings in Dublin, the Mechanics Institute in Abbey Street, a theater built in 1820, and the City Morgue in Marlborough Street, both known as fire hazards. Under the direction of architect Joseph Holloway and technical advisor Willie Fay, they were transformed into the Abbey Theatre which opened on December 27, 1904. Horniman continued to provide an annual subsidy for the theater and often made up for the losses the company incurred on tour.

Annie Horniman, self-described as "a middle-aged, middle-class, suburban, dissenting spinster," was reputedly a stubborn and difficult woman. Tall, thin, and given to costuming herself in heavy robes of tapestry-like material, she was a formidable presence and often interfered in matters beyond her province. By some accounts, Horniman withdrew her subsidy of the Abbey in 1910, when Yeats refused to close the theater during the funeral of Edward VII. In reality, she had already abandoned the Abbey two years earlier for a new theater project, a turn of events that drew venom from Jack Kahane of the Obelisk Press. "I despise Miss Horniman," he wrote, "the ugly bedizened spinster in whose veins ran tea … for having begun a fine scheme, set alight a blaze of endeavor, and then wrecked it, doused it for I know not what stupid, spoiled rich woman's whim. Bad cess [luck] to her."

In 1908, Horniman purchased and refurbished the Gaiety Theater, a former music hall in her hometown of Manchester, England, and turned it into England's first repertory theater. Between 1908 and 1917, she produced more than 200 plays, most of which were directed by Lewis Casson (husband of actress Sybil Thorndike , a member of the company). Half of the productions were of new works, including St. John Ervine's Jane Clegg, Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes, Harold Brighouse's Hobson's Choice, and John Mansfield's The Tragedy of Nan. Never a financial success, the venture shut down in 1917, after which Horniman apparently found new challenges outside the theater.

Annie Horniman's contribution to the British theater was unique and far-reaching. Her support of George Bernard Shaw was in itself of major significance to the modern stage, and her pioneering work at the Gaiety gave rise to repertory theaters in London and other British cities. (Theater manager Lilian Baylis is said to have modeled the Old Vic after Horniman's Gaiety.) Annie Horniman was awarded the rank of Companion of Honour before her death in 1937.


Hartnoll, Phyllis and Peter Found, eds. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theater. Oxford and NY: The Oxford University Press, 1993.

Macgowan, Kenneth and William Melnitz. The Living Stage: A History of the World Theater. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1955.

Rogers, W.G. Ladies Bountiful. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts