Rehan, Ada (1857–1916)

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Rehan, Ada (1857–1916)

Irish-American actress who was famed for her work in Shakespearean comedies. Born Ada Crehan on April 22, 1857 (some sources cite 1860), in Limerick, Ireland; died of cancer on January 8, 1916, in New York City; daughter of Thomas Crehan and Harriett (Ryan) Crehan.

Ada Rehan, whose real name was Crehan, was born in Limerick, Ireland, on April 22, 1857, and, with her parents, immigrated to the United States in 1865, when she was eight. The family settled in Brooklyn, New York. Her two older sisters, Hattie and Kate (known professionally as Kate O'Neil and married to playwright Oliver Doud Byron), were drawn into the theatrical profession, and Ada shortly followed suit. At age 14, she premiered on a Newark, New Jersey, stage with a minor role in her brother-in-law's play Across the Continent. Her sister Kate later secured a place for Ada in Louisa Lane Drew 's Philadelphia theatrical company. Her debut with the company was so successful that although she had been listed as "Ada C. Rehan" because of a printing error, she was advised to keep it as her stage name. She stayed with the Drew company for two seasons before moving on to apprentice at Macaulay's Theater in Louisville and stock companies in Albany and Baltimore. In Albany, she is said to have played some 90 characters, among them Ophelia to Booth's Hamlet and Lady Anne to McCullough's Richard III. In 1875, she debuted in New York at Wood's Museum in Thoroughbred, which was produced by her sister and brother-in-law.

In 1879, the lovely young Rehan began a 20-year professional and personal association with the leading American theatrical producer, Augustin Daly. Shortly after he opened Daly's Theater in New York that year, Rehan played Fanny Adrianse in his production of Divorce, and became his leading lady. Under Daly's tutelage, Rehan's gift for delivering effervescent renditions of charming comedic characters blossomed. Daly was almost tyrannical in the management of his troupe, but the result was a skilled and synchronized team which was the recipe for his success.

In his Vagrant Memories, the veteran dramatic critic William Winter wrote:

Daly rendered many, various, and important services to the theater of his time, but his recognition and development of the genius of Ada Rehan was the most valuable of them all. In her the stage was illumined and graced by an actress who not only preserved, but bettered, the brilliant traditions of Peg Woffington and Dora Jordan . Her rich beauty, her imposing stature, her Celtic sparkle of mischievous piquancy, her deep feeling, her round, full, clear, caressing voice, her supple freedom of movement, the expressive play of her features, and the delightful vivacity of her action—who that ever appreciated could ever forget them?

The heart of the polished Daly ensemble was the acclaimed group known as the "Big Four": John Drew, Anne Gilbert , James Lewis, and Rehan. By the time Rehan drew accolades after her London debut in 1884 she was already famous. Her subsequent performances in Paris and other major European cities were just as radiant.

Rehan played more than 200 parts in 26 years, but her best work surfaced in Shakespearean comedies, 17th- and 18th-century "Old Comedies," and American adaptations of German farces. Her Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal was extremely successful, but her most legendary role was that of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, which she first played in 1887 in New York City; her characterizations of Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night were also favorites. She brought Maid Marian to life in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Foresters at a New York opening in 1892; Tennyson had awarded the play to Daly largely due to Rehan's aptitude for Shakespearean comedy. By 1894, she had partnered with Daly in his new London theater (where she had laid the cornerstone in 1891) and was starring there in a lengthy, triumphant run of Twelfth Night. In 1896, she took part in an American tour, but by that time was returning often to England.

Rehan never married, and her enthusiasm for acting died with Daly when her longtime ally passed away in Paris in 1899. Daly had skillfully crafted and managed Ada Rehan the celebrity, and he and Rehan had been extremely close. After his death, she became "indifferent" and "miserable" and retired from the stage for a year. A comeback attempt failed dreadfully, due in part to Rehan's own apathy but also because of the changes taking place in popular theater. Audiences at the beginning of the 20th century were finding outdated and dull the once-fashionable comedic style which was Rehan's specialty. In 1905, she gave a final performance in New York City at the testimonial to Helena Modjeska ; she then spent her days between New York and England until her death in 1916. Opinions on Rehan's talent sometimes varied, but her beauty, charm, humor, and vivacity were commonly appreciated. Although he regarded her acting abilities as dubious, George Bernard Shaw said he found her "irresistible." Her bust, along with Ellen Terry 's, is at the entrance to the Shakespeare Memorial Theater at Stratford-on-Avon.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Winter, William. Ada Rehan: A Study. 1898.

Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada