Actresses of the Restoration Period: Mrs Elizabeth Barry and Mrs Anne Bracegirdle. By Susan Margaret Cooper. Yorkshire: Pen & Sword History. 2023. Pp 224. £22.00 (hardback), ISBN 9781399064804.
Susan Margaret Cooper is in the somewhat rare position amongst theatre historians. She is herself descended from a stalwart of the 18th-century stage, Roger Bridgwater, who trod the boards in London for 31 years, and whose biography she published in 2020. This new work is a double biography of two actresses, who, although forgotten today, were hugely influential figures of the Restoration stage. Aside from various biographical dictionary appearances, Cooper’s book is the first mainstream publication to tackle the lives of Elizabeth Barry and Anne Bracegirdle, and to put them into context.
Actresses of the Restoration Period opens with an overview of Restoration London’s cultural scene, before turning to Mrs Barry (‘Mrs’ was the proper form of address for professional actresses, being an abbreviation of ‘mistress’, i.e., one who is skilled at something). Despite the indignity of being considered plain and ‘indifferent plump’, Barry nonetheless made a vital contribution to the British stage, especially in the tragic repertoire. According to Cooper, she inspired passion in the playwright Thomas Otway, and was the lover of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with whom she had a daughter (Elizabeth or ‘Little Barry’).
Cooper has sifted the sources, giving us excerpts of scandalous poetry and material spoken by Barry in the form of prologues and epilogues. One difficulty, given the lack of primary source material, is capturing Barry’s personality, but Cooper draws on some rare sources including a transcription of a letter by the actress, held at the Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library at the University of Pennsylvania.
She also provides interesting reflections on Barry’s sudden illness at Drury Lane in 1688 while acting in John Crowne’s Darius, King of Persia. George Granville wrote that Barry ‘was forced to be carried off, and instead of dying in jest was in danger of doing it in earnest’ (p. 52). Cooper notes that the actress did not return to the stage for 18 months. Putting the incident in the context of her daughter’s illness (who died the following year), she speculates that Barry may have been suffering from a nervous breakdown.
In the case of Mrs Bracegirdle (or ‘Bracey’ as she was affectionately known) Cooper presents some excellent research on the actress’s Northampton relatives and childhood. She also covers her friendship with the playwright William Congreve: ‘It was rumoured by contemporaries that her friendship with Congreve might have been more than just platonic, he regularly visited her until his death in 1729’ (p. 113). In fact, Congreve lodged with Bracey’s sister (Mrs Frances Porter), and his involvement with the Kit-Cat Club helped to establish Thomas Betterton’s new theatre company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where both Barry and Bracegirdle performed.
Bracey (who was famed for her chastity) remained unmarried, although the poet, playwright and Shakespearean scholar, Nicholas Rowe, also fell heavily for her charms. As Cooper shows, his attentions were unrequited, resulting in the publication of some disparaging verses:
Of proffers large her choice had she,
Of jewels, plate, and land in fee,
Which she with scorn rejected:
And can a nymph so virtuous be
Of base-born blood suspected?
Whether or not this rather simplistic poetry came from Rowe (who was made Poet Laureate in 1715) or a satirical imitator, it’s not clear, and herein lies the problem. The reader of Actresses of the Restoration Period would have benefitted from a closer interrogation of the sources than Cooper provides. Elsewhere she quotes an anecdote about Nathanial Lee’s The Rival Queens, where Barry (playing Roxana) lets jealousy of her co-star, Elizabeth Boutell (Statira), get the better of her during the murder scene at the close of the play: ‘Roxana hastening the designed Blow, struck with such Force, that tho’ the Point of the Dagger was blunted, it made way through Mrs. Boutel’s [sic] Stayes, and entered about a Quarter of an Inch in the Flesh’ (p. 67).
What Cooper doesn’t mention is that the anecdote came from The History of the English Stage (1741) and was therefore probably the work of the scurrilous and unreliable publisher Edmund Curll. Not only did the story appear more than 60 years after the supposed incident, but the tale of one actress almost stabbing the other during The Rival Queens quickly became part of the play’s mythology (it re-emerged in 1756 in the context of Peg Woffington and George Anne Bellamy’s performances as Roxana and Statira, for example). Was it a real incident or simply a fable that grew into a marketing strategy? The proliferation of anecdotes is one of the central challenges of writing theatrical history, especially in the Restoration period, when eye-witness accounts were rare.
However, Cooper is a genial guide, and her work is to be applauded, given her necessary reliance on poetry and other secondary sources. The book offers an engaging series of plates, including the interiors and exteriors of playhouses, maps and manuscripts. Cooper also provides a useful list of the actresses’ theatrical repertoire, along with comprehensive extracts from a huge range of 17th-century material. Barry and Bracegirdle were just as recognisable to Restoration theatregoers as Nell Gwyn, but they have not persisted in the public imagination nearly as well. Actresses of the Restoration Period not only brings these fascinating women back into view, it tackles a complex period that’s ripe for further research.
Annette Rubery is an independent scholar and an Associate Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. She was awarded a PhD in English and Comparative Literary Studies by the University of Warwick in 1999. She has since published a book of local history, Lichfield Then & Now (The History Press, 2012) and is currently writing a full-length biography of the 18th-century actress, Peg Woffington. Annette’s personal website is http://www.annetterubery.co.uk/.