Woffington, Peg (c. 1714–1760)

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Woffington, Peg (c. 1714–1760)

Irish actress who played leading roles in Dublin and London, achieving great success in comedy and in "breeches" parts . Name variations: Margaret Woffington. Born Margaret Woffington, possibly on October 18, 1714 (some sources cite 1717, 1718, or 1720), in Dublin, Ireland; died at Queen Square, Westminster, on March 26, 1760; daughter of John Woffington (a bricklayer) and Hannah Woffington (some sources give Murphy as the family name, Woffington being adopted later as a stage name); received a "genteel" education until her father's death c. 1720 left the family in poverty; never married; no children.

Taken on as a child performer by Madame Violante, who ran rope-dancing and theatrical entertainments in Dublin; appeared as Polly and in other parts in The Beggar's Opera in Dublin and London; engaged (c. 1736) at Dublin's Aungier Street Theater; played Ophelia, her first major role (1737); first appeared as Sir Harry Wildair in Farquhar's The Constant Couple (1740); engaged by Rich for Covent Garden Theater, London (1740); opened (November 6, 1740) as Sylvia in The Recruiting Officer and subsequently in other parts, including that of Sir Harry Wildair; returned to Dublin and played opposite David Garrick at Smock Alley Theater (1742); played at Theater Royal, Drury Lane (1743–48); moved to Covent Garden, where she performed (1748–51); returned to Dublin (1751), receiving a record salary as a player at Smock Alley Theater; remained in Dublin until a riot closed Smock Alley (1754), when she returned to Covent Garden; collapsed on stage (1757); ill health prevented her return to the theater and she lived in retirement until her death three years later.

On May 3, 1757, one of the most celebrated actresses of the century made her final stage appearance while doing Shakespeare's As You Like It. For almost two decades, Peg Woffington had, as one contemporary critic remarked, "carried the town captive," delighting audiences in Dublin and London by the charm of her personality no less than by the magic of her performances. Now, in an exit which, though unplanned, was as dramatic as any of her roles, she took leave of her public. The young actor Tate Wilkinson, who was present, described the scene:

She went through Rosalind for four acts without my perceiving that she was in the least disordered; but in the fifth act she complained of great indisposition…. When she came off at the quick change of dress, she again complained of being ill, but got accoutred, and returned to finish the part, and pronounced the epilogue speech…. But, when arrived at, "If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards" etc., her voice broke and she faltered and endeavoured to go on, but could not proceed; then, in a voice of tremor exclaimed, "O God! O God!" and tottered to the stage-door speechless, where she was caught. The audience of course applauded till she was out of sight, and then sank into awful looks of astonishment, both young and old, before and behind the curtain, to see one of the most handsome women of the age, a favourite principal actress … struck so suddenly by the hand of Death, in such a time and place, and in the prime of life.

Woffington's collapse and her subsequent retirement brought to an abrupt end a career which had taken her from the most obscure and unpromising beginnings to the pinnacle of her profession. Little is known of her family or early childhood, and even her date of birth is uncertain. The year 1720 cited on her memorial tablet is probably incorrect, and she may have been born as early as 1714. Some accounts describe her father John Woffington as a bricklayer, and Chetwood in his 1749 General History of the Stage reported that she was "born of reputable parents who gave her a genteel education." In about 1720, however, her father died, leaving his family in poverty. Hannah Woffington , with two small children to support, set up as a hawker, and, helped by Peg, her elder daughter, earned a precarious livelihood by selling watercress and salad stuffs on the street. Lee Lewes in his Memoirs, published in 1805, claimed to have talked to Dubliners, "who assured me that they remembered to have seen the lovely Peggy, with a little dish upon her head, and without shoes to cover her delicate feet, crying through College Green, Dame Street and other parts of that end of the town, 'All this fine young salad for a ha'penny, all for a ha'penny, all for a ha'penny here!'"

In about 1727, the young Peg attracted the attention of Madame Violante , a Frenchwoman, who was currently appearing in Dublin in a rope-dancing entertainment. Madame's performance entailed walking a tightrope with a basket containing a child suspended from each foot, and, according to some accounts, Peg made her first appearance on stage in this capacity. The show lasted for only one season, but some time later she was again engaged by Violante as a member of a "lilliputian" or children's company for which she played Polly Peachum and other parts in performances of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in both Dublin and London. The young actress attracted the attention of Thomas Elrington, a noted Dublin actor manager, and was engaged by him to play at Aungier Street Theater, where she appeared in a number of minor parts as well as dancing and singing between the acts. In 1736 or 1737, she appeared in her first starring role, having reportedly persuaded the management to let her take over the part of Ophelia when the actress playing it was suddenly taken ill. She went on to take a number of other leading parts, including that of Sylvia in The Recruiting Officer, which required her to appear in disguise as a man and, in April 1740, was first cast in the role for which she was to be most highly praised and with which her name was to become synonymous, that of Sir Harry Wildair in Farquhar's The Constant Couple.

The practice of actresses playing male or "breeches" parts was already well established, having been common since the introduction of women actors onto the English and subsequently the Irish stage in 1660. Prior to this date, female roles were played by boys; Elizabethan and Jacobean plays consequently included frequent scenes in which women characters assumed male disguise. When those characters began to be played by actresses such as Nell Gwynn and Elizabeth Barry , their appearance in men's dress had an erotic effect which made such roles extremely popular and prompted playwrights to include them in their new works. Thus, of the total of 375 plays publicly staged in London between 1660 and 1700, 89 contained one or more roles for an actress in male clothes, while at least 14 more had women playing roles originally written for men. The custom continued into the next century, with the Irish actress George Anne Bellamy enjoying a success in Dublin in The Recruiting Officer. However, Peg's performance as Wildair in 1740 surpassed all others in the popular and critical acclaim which it produced. She had an immediate success in the part, repeating it regularly throughout her career and making it her own to such an extent, wrote Murphy, that "the actors, even Garrick himself, made a voluntary resignation to her. She was the only Sir Harry Wildair during the remainder of her life."

Triumphant in Dublin, Woffington now took the traditional route of successful Irish actors to London. Traveling there in May 1740, she was engaged by John Rich, manager of the Covent Garden Theater, and on November 6, 1740, made her sensational London debut in The Recruiting Officer. Her success in the character of Wildair, in which she first appeared "by particular desire" on November 21, was even greater. She went on to play the part over 20 times during that particular season, and in January 1742, having moved to the Theater Royal at Drury Lane, assayed it once again in a royal command performance before Frederick Louis and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha , the prince and princess of Wales. Not long afterwards, in May 1742, she made her first appearance with the newly arrived and already acclaimed young actor David Garrick, as Cordelia to his King Lear, and at about the same time began an affair with him which was to last for the next three years. In the following month, at the end of the London season, she and Garrick traveled to Dublin, where at the Smock Alley Theater they played opposite one another in Hamlet and in The Recruiting Officer. Woffington was, of course, already a favorite with Dublin theatergoers, but Garrick, on his first visit to Ireland, was a sensation, attracting huge and enthusiastic audiences.

Back in London, the two set up house together, for a time in company with another actor, Charles Macklin, and later as a couple, agreeing to share household expenses. However, the relationship was increasingly strained by Garrick's carefulness with money and desire for respectability and by Woffington's relations with other men and her disregard of convention. Professional matters also may have come between them: in 1743, Garrick took on the part of Wildair, but, in contrast to Peg's many successes in this role, his attempt was an embarrassing failure. By May of that year, the couple were living apart. Woffington acquired a villa outside London, at Teddington, and when Garrick and other players became embroiled in a dispute with the management of Drury Lane, she took no part in it. Unlike Garrick, she appeared in the 1743–44 season, giving her first performance as Mistress Ford in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor in November 1743. By the beginning of the following year, however, the two were once more appearing together on stage, and the affair itself was apparently continuing. There were rumors that they were to marry, and they did reportedly come close to doing so, but Garrick's earlier disquiet about the relationship resurfaced, resulting in a permanent split. Garrick was popularly regarded as having acted in an ungentlemanly manner in withdrawing his offer of marriage after such a long and public association. However, the breakdown of the relationship was probably inevitable: as Macklin, who knew both parties well, remarked, "dispositions so different as Garrick's and Woffington's, were not likely to produce a good matrimonial duet."

Woffington never married: the title "Mrs.," used in contemporary playbills and accounts, was a courtesy one, afforded to all actresses, and reports that she had secretly married her last lover, Colonel Caesar, were without foundation. The decision to remain single was, as Elizabeth Howe points out in her study of English actresses, not uncommon, and, at a time when a married woman surrendered control of her earnings to her husband, was probably motivated as much by economic as by emotional considerations. Un-like the great majority of her female colleagues, Woffington was in a position to command extremely high fees, and the estate which she would leave on her death suggests that she was an exceptionally capable manager of her own finances. In such circumstances, marriage might well be regarded as an undesirable surrender of the autonomy which she had enjoyed throughout her career. However, she paid a price for this independence in the scurrilous rumors about her private life which circulated throughout her lifetime. The general perception of actresses as promiscuous, together with Peg's openness about her affairs, fuelled such gossip and greatly exaggerated the number of her lovers.

Bellamy, George Anne (1727–1788)

Irish actress . Name variations: Mrs. Bellamy. Born George Anne Bellamy at County Fingal, Dublin, Ireland, by her own account, on St. George's Day, April 23, 1733, but more probably in 1727; died in London, England, on February 16 (some sources cite February 10), 1788; illegitimate daughter of James O'Hara, 2nd Baron Tyrawley (British ambassador) and a Miss Seal; educated at a convent in Boulogne, France; married twice, once bigamously.

George Anne Bellamy was the illegitimate daughter of James O'Hara, 2nd Baron Tyrawley. Her mother, a Quaker named Miss Seal, married a Captain Bellamy, and the child received the name George Anne, a mishearing of the name Georgiana during her christening. Lord Tyrawley acknowledged the child and had her educated in a convent in Boulogne; through him she came to know a number of notable people in London. On his appointment as ambassador to Russia, she went to live with her mother in London, made the acquaintance of Peg Woffington and David Garrick, and adopted the theatrical profession.

George Anne Bellamy was a celebrated actress, notes an 1888 theatrical reference book, "whose private history is of rather a sensational order." She first appeared at Covent Garden in Love for Love (1742) and went on to play Juliet to David Garrick's Romeo at Drury Lane at the time that Spranger Barry was giving rival performances as Romeo at Covent Garden. (Bellamy was considered the better of the Juliets.) Bellamy furnished the materials for her five-volume Apology to bookseller John Calcraft, who then asked Alexander Bicknell to whip them into shape; the memoirs containing her "amours, adventures, and vicissitudes" were published in 1785, the year of her retirement, and achieved great popularity. An early "as told to," the last volume was published with the following title page: "An apology for the life of George Anne Bellamy, late of Covent Garden Theater. Written by herself. To the fifth volume of which is annexed, her original letter to John Calcraft, Esq. advertised to be published in October 1767, but which was then violently suppressed." Her last years were unhappy, and passed in poverty and ill health.

When Garrick returned to Dublin in autumn 1745, Peg remained at Drury Lane. Her

professional relationship with Garrick was resumed when he became joint manager of the theater, where she stayed until 1748 when she moved back to Covent Garden. According to her rival, George Anne Bellamy, her departure from Drury Lane was prompted by her jealousy of other actresses: "Mrs Woffington," Bellamy reported, was "highly offended at her quondam admirer Mr Garrick, choosing rather to appear with Mrs Pritchard than with her." Peg's relations with other leading ladies were never good. Jealous of her status and professional integrity, she reacted strongly to any real or imagined slight, and her feuds with actresses such as Hannah Pritchard, Kitty Clive and the younger George Anne Bellamy were acrimonious and public. The quarrel with Bellamy culminated in an incident in 1755 when, during a performance of The Rival Queens, Woffington drove the other actress off the stage and stabbed her almost in view of the audience.

During the summer of 1748, Woffington visited Paris, where she reportedly met Voltaire and visited the playhouses frequently, regarding the French actors as superior to the English in tragedy. She had already appeared in London in her first major tragic role, though to a mixed public and critical response, as Cleopatra in Dryden's All for Love. She was never to reach the same heights in tragedy as in comedy, but in the following season at Covent Garden, while continuing to appear in the comedy parts in which she had made her reputation, she also won new praise for roles such as Portia in Julius Caesar, Andromache in The Distress'd Mother, Calista in Rowe's The Fair Penitent and the Lady in Comus. During the following two seasons at Covent Garden, Peg added more tragic parts to her repertoire. These included the Shakespearean heroines Desdemona and Lady Macbeth, as well as Arpasia in Tamerlane and Cleopatra again, this time with greater success than when she had played it previously.

In 1751, as a result of a quarrel with Rich and of dissatisfaction with the regime at Covent Garden, Peg revisited Dublin. Engaged by Thomas Sheridan at Smock Alley, she demanded, and received, the then astronomical salary of £400 for the season. The 1751–52 season was one of the most brilliant mounted by Sheridan's company, and Woffington's presence played a large part in this success. Soon after her opening as Lady Townley in The Provoked Husband, the Dublin Journal was reporting that her performances were attracting "the most crowded audiences hitherto known"; her two benefit performances were gala occasions, attended by the viceroy and the duke of Dorset, and the local critics and public were united in her praise. Her performance as Sir Harry Wildair was particularly popular and was repeated several times during the season. So successful was she, and so profitable for the company, that she was engaged for the next season at double the salary, earning in addition over £200 more from two benefits on her behalf. She remained the company's star attraction, staying on for two more seasons, one of her greatest successes being in another "breeches" part which she acted here for the first time, that of Lothario in The Fair Penitent. She was honored by the viceroy, an enthusiastic patron of the theater, and by the fashionable Beefsteak Club, founded by Sheridan, which made her its president and its only woman member. However, eyebrows were raised when at Christmas 1752 she left Dublin, accompanied by Sheridan, for an unknown destination. In fact, their journey was to the latter's native county of Cavan, where Woffington, born a Catholic, was to be received discreetly into the Church of Ireland. The conversion was a purely pragmatic one, intended to allow Peg to inherit a legacy which was conditional on her becoming a Protestant, although one contemporary journal, noting the current prohibition on Catholics bearing arms, pretended to believe that "some eminent lawyers advised her to take this step, in order to qualify herself to wear a sword in the character of Sir Harry Wildair."

She had Beauty, Shape, Wit and Vivacity, equal to any theatrical Female in any Time, and capable of Undertaking in the Province of Comedy, nay of deceiving, and Warming into Passion, any of her own Sex, if she had been unknown and introduced as a young Baronet just returned from his Travels.

—Benjamin Victor

The 1753–54 season began as well as its predecessors, but was to end in disaster. Though not a political society, the Beefsteak Club had become associated in the public mind with the viceroy and his circle. The growing unpopularity of the government as a result of the perennially vexed question of crown control over Irish finances was reflected in public animosity towards Sheridan and Woffington herself, and by January 1754 she was reportedly playing to empty houses. On March 2, a performance of Mahomet, which included lines interpreted as having a bearing on the dispute, provoked violent protests in the theater. Woffington herself was a member of the cast on this occasion, and was no stranger to disturbances in the theater: a few years earlier at Covent Garden she had faced and quelled an angry audience. On this occasion, however, her appearance failed to quiet the mob, and a full-scale riot erupted, which wrecked the theater, bringing the season to a premature end and driving her, with other members of the company, back to London.

On October 22, 1754, Peg reappeared at Covent Garden as Maria in The Nonjuror, and followed this, among other roles, with Phaedra in Phaedra and Hippolitus, Lady Pliant in The Double Dealer and Jocasta in Oedipus. Over the next three seasons, and in spite of worsening health, she successfully repeated old parts, like Wildair, Sylvia, Millamant and Lady Townley, and appeared in a number of new parts, both in comedy and tragedy. Unlike many of her colleagues, she insisted on performing whenever possible, and Hitchcock, in his Historical View of the Irish Stage, praised her professionalism. "She had," he noted, "none of those occasional illnesses which I have sometimes seen assumed by capital performers, to the great vexation and loss of the manager and disappointment of the public." On May 3, 1757, she took the stage as Rosalind. Having broken down during the play, she returned to finish it, but within a few lines of the end, collapsed and had to be carried off. It was her final performance. Believed by both audience and colleagues to be dying, she did in fact survive for a further three years, but never recovered sufficiently to return to the stage. Her final years were spent as an invalid, in the company of her last lover, Colonel Caesar. She may have visited Dublin in the winter of 1757, before returning to London, where she received visitors, took an interest in various charities and had her portrait painted, probably by Arthur Pond, while lying on her sickbed. Peg Woffington died on March 26, 1760, in Colonel Caesar's house in Queen Square, Westminster, and was buried in Teddington churchyard. A memorial tablet, erected to her in the church there, described her as "Spinster. Born Oct. 18th 1720."

Throughout her career, Peg had supported both her mother and her sister Mary Woffington , who, after an unsuccessful stage career, had married into the aristocracy. According to Macklin, Peg, some years before her death, made a verbal agreement with Colonel Caesar "that the longest liver should have all." However, "Mrs Woffington having neglected to make a clause in favour of her sister until her last illness … the sister took advantage … of the Colonel's leaving the house one evening rather early, and had the will altered to her own mind." In the event, the estate, which amounted to £8,000 and some property, was left either to Mary or at her direction, except for an annuity of £42 to their mother.

Woffington was remembered with admiration and affection by most of her colleagues and contemporaries, although her reputed promiscuity dismayed those who wished to raise the status of professional actors at a time when the theater was still condemned by some moralists as "the house of the devil." Even her friend Thomas Sheridan reportedly refused to introduce her to his wife Frances Sheridan , declaring that her "moral character was such as to exclude her from the society of her own sex." Garrick's biographer, Murphy, too, felt obliged to excuse that "one female error," apart from which, however:

It might fairly be said of her that she was adorned with every virtue; honour, truth, benevolence and charity were her distinguishing qualities. Her understanding was superior to that of the generality of her sex. Her conversation was in a style of elegance, always pleasing and often instructive. She abounded in wit…. She possessed a fine figure, great beauty, and every elegant accomplishment.

Peg's beauty, recorded in several portraits, was matched by the charm of her personality. Witty and intelligent, her conversation, it was said, "was not less sought by men of wit and genius than by men of pleasure." Essentially unchanged by success, she remained, according to Hitchcock, "the same gay, affable, obliging, good-natured Woffington to everyone around her." A consummate professional, she had a keen sense of loyalty towards her fellow players, appearing frequently in benefit performances which supplemented their earnings. During the 1751–52 Dublin season, for instance, she took part in 22 benefits out of a total of 26 held.

As an actress, Woffington was generally agreed to excel in comedy parts. Together with Macklin and Garrick, she helped to popularize a new, more naturalistic and easy style of acting, which was admirably suited to this genre. "Genteel comedy," wrote Murphy, "was her province," and Davies, in his Life of Garrick, agreed, mentioning particularly her Millamant and Lady Townley. "Her chief merit in acting, I think, consisted in the representation of females in high rank and of dignified elegance, whose grace in deportment, as well as foibles, she understood and displayed in a very lively and pleasing manner." However, she "did not confine herself to parts of superior elegance; she loved to wanton [to play loosely] with ignorance combined with absurdity, and to play with petulance and folly, with peevishness and vulgarity" in parts such as that of Lady Pliant.

Woffington was less successful in tragic roles, to which her voice was reportedly unsuited: one critic described it as "croaking," and another complained that "she barked out her sentences with dissonant notes of voice as ever offended a critical ear." Her technique was also criticized, Victor suggesting that she had adopted the French tragic style, "which appeared too affected and extravagant for an English audience." However, there were differences of opinion on this topic. Victor himself commended her Andromache as displaying "the true spirit of the noble Grecian matron," and Thomas Wilkes, in his General View of the Stage, declared that throughout her career she had "stood in a capital light, both in tragedy and comedy, with a dignity in the former and a polite deportment in the latter that we despair of ever seeing equalled."

Above all, however, Woffington was admired for her appearances in male roles, most famously Sir Harry Wildair. A biography of her fellow actor James Quin noted, "there was no woman that ever yet had appeared on the stage, who could represent with such ease and elegance the character of a man," and she herself is said to have remarked, "I have played the part so often, that half the house believes me to be a real man." Yet, as Pat Rogers points out, the charm of such a performance lay not in the accurate impersonation by a woman of a man but rather in its "imperfect masculinity," in the titillation provided by the bending of gender stereotypes and in constant reminders of the actress' essential femininity, as conveyed in this contemporary verse in praise of her Wildair.

That excellent Peg
Who showed such a leg
When lately she dressed in men's clothes—
A creature uncommon
Who's both man and woman
And chief of the belles and the beaux!

Woffington's experience, as an actress and as a woman, was equivocal. As an actress, her talent and popularity brought critical acclaim and material reward. But the 18th-century theater, like society itself, was a male-dominated environment, and the occupational opportunities which it offered to women were offset by the inferior status of even its leading female players and by the exploitation of their sexuality both on and off the stage. Not the least of Woffington's achievements was the degree to which she overcame these disadvantages, to enjoy in her career and private life an independence which was, in contemporary terms, remarkable.


Dunbar, Janet. Peg Woffington and Her World. London: Heinemann, 1968.

Gerard, Frances. Some Celebrated Irish Beauties of the Last Century. London: Ward and Downey, 1895.

Howe, Elizabeth. The First English Actresses. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Lucey, Janet Camden. Lovely Peggy: The Life and Times of Margaret Woffington. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1952.

Rogers, Pat. "The breeches part," in Sexuality in Eighteenth-century Britain. Ed. by Paul-Gabriel Bouce. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1982.

suggested reading:

Ferris, Lesley. Acting Women: Images of Women in Theater. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Reade, Charles. Peg Woffington (novel based on her life).

Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland