Vanbrugh, Irene (1872–1949)

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Vanbrugh, Irene (1872–1949)

English actress. Name variations: Irene Boucicault; Dame Irene Vanbrugh. Born Irene Barnes on December 2, 1872, in Exeter, England; died on November 30, 1949; daughter of Reginald H. Barnes (the vicar of Heavitree and prebendary of Exeter Cathedral) and Frances M.E. (Nation) Barnes; sister of Violet Vanbrugh (1867–1942); educated at Exeter High School and in London; studied acting with Sarah Thorne and John Toole; married Dion Boucicault the Younger (1859–1929, an actor), in 1901.

Dame Irene Vanbrugh was born Irene Barnes in 1872 in Exeter, England, one of six children. Her father Reginald H. Barnes was the vicar of Heavitree and prebendary (honorary canon) of Exeter Cathedral, and her mother Frances M.E. Barnes was the daughter of a barrister. Vanbrugh later said that her mother was a natural actress, although she never appeared on stage herself. She ensured that her children received a musical education at home and all of them became accomplished dancers. Each summer, they visited the theater in London, and in 1884 Vanbrugh's older sister Violet decided to go on the stage, choosing the stage name Vanbrugh. Irene joined her sister in looking for work in the London theater, and they spent much of their time at the Lyceum watching other actors and visiting agents. When Violet Vanbrugh was hired for a stock season at the Theatre Royal, Irene went with her and watched the rehearsals. After this she went to Paris, where another sister, Angela Barnes , was studying the violin. While there, Irene studied elocution at the Conservatoire.

She made her stage debut in a school production of Beauty and the Beast, drawing the attention of actress Ellen Terry . Irene also took the name Vanbrugh and, on August 20, 1888, made her professional debut as Phoebe in As You Like It at Sarah Thorne 's Theatre Royal in Margate, where Violet was then a star performer. According to Eric Johns, "Any actress considered herself very lucky to be accepted by Miss Thorne. Even though it was a provincial playhouse one stood a chance of being seen there." And the Vanbrugh sisters showed sufficient promise to be admitted without paying the customary fees. That same season, Irene played Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Arrah Meelish in Arrah-na-Pogue, and Rose in Leah. According to Johns, Thorne made Vanbrugh realize that she wanted to act more than anything else in the world.

Vanbrugh's first London appearance was in December 1888 at the Olympic Theatre, playing the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland. In 1889, she appeared at the Strand, the Theatre Royal, and in numerous plays in London. In March 1890, she traveled to Australasia with John Toole's company, and returned to Toole's Theatre in London, where she played small parts for the next two years. In 1893, she decided it was time to try larger parts and opened at the Haymarket in September 1893 as the serving maid, Lettice, in Henry Arthur Jones' The Tempter. She also appeared in Captain Swift, Six Persons, and The Charlatan. In April 1894, Vanbrugh joined George Alexander's company at the St. James's Theatre, and appeared with the company for the next year. During this time she created the role of Gwendolyn Fairfax in Oscar Wilde's classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest.

Vanbrugh's sister Violet had earlier married the actor-manager Arthur Bourchier, and in 1895 the couple assumed the management of the Royalty Theatre. Irene joined their company, and for the first time, the sisters appeared together. In 1896, the company traveled to America, where Irene made her New York debut as Dulcie in The Chili Widow. She returned to London in 1897, and for the next several years moved from company to company. Her roles during this time included the creation of Sophie Fullgarney in Pinero's The Gay Lord Quex. In 1901, she married another actor, Dion "Dot" Boucicault (the Younger), against her mother's wishes, and both became associated with Charles Frohman at the Duke of York's Theatre; this professional relationship lasted for the next 13 years. Vanbrugh appeared in numerous productions during this time, earning critical acclaim and leading roles, including the creation of Lady Mary Lasenby in J.M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton.

In 1916, her husband became manager of the New Theatre, and Vanbrugh played major roles in several productions and spent some time working on an all-star film of Masks and Faces, which was being made by her brother Kenneth Barnes to benefit the Academy of Dramatic Art. Irene continued to appear in many plays in various theaters and on tours. Her husband became ill in 1921 and was confined to his bed for the next two years; following his recovery in 1923, the two traveled to Africa and Australasia for a repertory tour. In 1926, they returned to London, and Vanbrugh kept up her heavy performance schedule. In 1927, Dion became ill again; he eventually died in 1929. Several months later, Vanbrugh returned to the stage, touring and appearing at several theaters for many years.

Irene Vanbrugh was always careful in the roles she accepted and "prided herself on never having appeared in a cheap play," writes Johns. "She had lots of offers, even in old age, to appear in paltry thrillers and comedies by authors who hoped her name would lend distinction to their work and make it a box-office success. She always refused." On June 20, 1938, her golden jubilee on stage was celebrated with a charity matinee, attended by Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at His Majesty's Theatre. Noel Coward gave the prologue, and Irene also performed. Created a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1941, Vanbrugh continued to act and tour. She had appeared in movies since 1933, and her film credits include Escape Me Never, Knight Without Armour, Wings of the Morning, and I Lived in Grosvenor Square. She died in 1949 at the age of 76.


The Concise Dictionary of National Biography: From Earliest Times to 1985. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Johns, Eric. Dames of the Theatre. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974, pp. 57–65.

Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars. Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1986, pp. 395–398.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer