Joseph Fitzgerald Molloy.

The life and adventures of Peg Woffington, with pictures of the period in which she lived online

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head of the family was one o' the rale kings of Ireland
himself. But sure, that was in the good owld times, and
there's no use in talking o' them ; and here am I, only
a poor widee-woman, God help me, with two children
to support, an' the times mighty hard, an' me good man
took from me with little or no warning, God help us.
An' it's a miserable world we live in."

" It was sad," the sympathetic Frenchwoman said,
taking advantage of a slight pause in the widow's
autobiographical sketch.

" An' sure, every one knows, ma'am," she continued,
" that you bear the character of an honest woman, an'
not like most o' them wenches belonging to the play-
house. An' sure, as you say Peggy might earn a dacent
livin' in a little while, an' that you will support and clothe
the child, sure you may take her, an' I'll pray God to
protect her," said the washerwoman.

So it was settled that Peg was to become one of
Madame's pupils ; and in a little while, attired in long
drawers, short jacket, and flat pumps, she learned to
dance and skip about the stage, and presently to sing
songs ; for all of which she was duly admired by the
frequenters of the booth, who flung her showers of pence,
which she quickly picked up and duly gave to her
mother. But public taste is proverbially flckle.
Although such surprising performances on the tight-rope
as Madame Violante's had never been seen in Dublin
before, yet there was a monotony about them which
palled after a while, and by degrees the pleasant booth



8 PEG WOFFIXGTON

in Fownes Court, with its sconces of tallow lights, its
fiddles, its drums, its merry dances, and its aerial
performances, became deserted. Now Madame Violante
was a woman of enterprise and energy, and no sooner
did one attraction fail to fill her coffers than she quickly
looked about her for another ; and like those who seek
in earnest, she found it in good time.

But a little before all theatrical London had been in a
state of intense excitement concerning a performance
called " The Beggars' Opera," by the poet Gay. It had
been produced by Rich, then manager of Lincoln's Inn
Fields Theatre, and had been played for sixty-two
consecutive nights, " making Rich gay, and Gay rich."
The opera was furthermore notable as being the occasion
of a drawn battle between George II. and her Grace the
Duchess of Queensbury ; which of course added to its
notoriety considerably. Now this comic opera had
never been heard or witnessed in Dublin, though the
report of its sparkling dialogue, its genuine wit and
satirical ditties, had of course crossed the channel. It
therefore struck Madame Violante to form a company
of children, instruct them in the parts of this opera, and
have it performed in her booth. The idea was no sooner
conceived than acted upon, and in a little while the
Dublin public was invited to witness the results of her
training.

The principal character, Polly, was given to Peg
Woffington ; and strange to say, not only she, but
almost all the children who played in this opera, after-
wards became celebrated actors and actresses. Madame
Violante, meanwhile, moved to a more commodious
booth in George's Court, which on the night of the first
performance of " The Beggars' Opera " was prodigiously
crowded. Amongst the audience sat a goodly number
of Peg's old friends and admirers from Trinity College,



HER FIRST SUCCESS g

who when this lovely girl with the blue -black hair and
liquid eyes came forward looking pale from fright,
received her with an ovation that set her nervousness
to flight and gave her hope of much forbearance. The
charm of her face, the beauty of her limbs, the natural
grace of her movements, compensated for much that
was crude to a people ever keenly sensitive to the effects
of physical gifts. When the curtain fell that night, the
young actress had the satisfaction of knowing that her
first appearance in what may be called an important part
gave promise of future success. In those old days and
good there existed a common feeling of friendship
between performers and their audiences, which was
productive of many advantages to both ; and in accord-
ance with the custom of the times, at the conclusion of
the opera Madame Violante stepped forward from the
world behind the scenes to receive the congratulations of
her patrons on her financial success, as well as on the
result of the training of her troupe.

Little Peg Woffington also descended into the
commonplace world, by means of a half-dozen creaking
steps, to receive her meed of praise before joining her
mother, who hoarse from crying oranges at the door of
the booth, was now awaiting her daughter, with her
empty basket on her arm, a comfortable sense of pro-
prietorship in her manner, and a glow of pride in her
honest face round, rubicund, and set in a framework
of blowsy borders. Now, amongst those who most
warmly congratulated Peg and her patroness was Mr.
Charles Coffey a little, wiry, dark-complexioned man,
who looked as if he were being half-strangled by his high
collar and many-folded cravat. His meagre frame was
clad in a black body-coat ; his lower limbs in velvet
breeches fastened at the knee by rows of brass buttons
and bows of black ribbon, and in worsted stockings that



io PEG WOFFINGTON

betrayed a lamentable lack of calf. For all that, it was
easily seen that Mr. Charles Coffey was a man of parts,
and likewise of vast importance ; for he was the composer
of ll The Beggars Wedding," a ballad opera of great
humour, which had met with prodigious success, if not
in Dublin, at least in London, where it had been per-
formed for thirty consecutive nights at the Haymarket,
and had likewise held the boards of Covent Garden and
the great Drury Lane playhouse itself. Moreover, he
had likewise written, or rather plagiarized, a ballad farce
rejoicing in the comprehensive title of " The Devil to
Pay," which had also met with great applause at Drury
Lane, and to which Miss Raftor (known afterwards as
Kitty Clive) owed vast obligations, as it afforded her
scope for display of the comic talents which the world
was not aware she possessed till then.

Now it pleased Mr. Charles Coffey to graciously offer
to instruct Peg WofHngton in the part of Nell in his new
ballad farce the character in which Kitty Raftor had
won her laurels. He had closely studied the Drury
Lane actress, until her every whimsical movement
and humorous expression were stamped on his mind ;
and these he was ready to teach Peggy, in order that
his farce might meet success in his native town, in which
he was no prophet, such as it had already received in
the greater capital.

At this proposal both Peg and her mistress were
delighted ; she was apt, studied hard, and made a sensa-
tion in the part when the ballad farce was duly produced
in Madame Violante's canvas-covered booth. From this
hour she was looked on as a prodigy, destined for renown
some day, and was sought after by the polite circles of
the town. From association with such society, being
imitative and impressionable, she quickly learned to act
in accordance with its genteel manners, just as she had



PLAYING OPHELIA n

rapidly learned singing from Charles Coffey and French
from Madame Violante.

For a considerable time the charming Peggy acted
small parts, sang ballads, and danced jigs under Madame
Violante's management ; but fate proving unkind to this
lady, her business declined, and she was obliged to let
her booth. But Peg's reputation as a clever and accom-
plished young actress had meanwhile risen, and her
services were sought for by Elrington, then manager of
the Theatre Royal, as the Aungier Street playhouse was
called, where she sang in operas and farces, and danced
with grace between the acts, in company with Monsieur
Moreau and Mr. William Delemain. It was not, how-
ever, until February, 1737, that she was permitted to
make her appearance in what is known as " a speaking
character." The accident that gave her this chance was
the same which has afforded similar opportunities to
many actresses afterwards known to fame. The play of
" Hamlet," " written by the famous Shakespeare," was
announced for performance at the Theatre Royal. Two
days before that on which the tragedy was to be pro-
duced, the lady selected to play the part of Ophelia fell
ill ; when Peg came forward and offered to undertake
the character. Elrington in return laughed at her
proposal ; but nothing daunted, she offered to repeat
some of Ophelia's lines for his benefit, the result being
that Miss Woffington was announced in the bills to play
the part of this woe-stricken heroine.

She had long ago become a favourite with the public,
and the event of her making her appearance in this
important character caused vast excitement to her
patrons in particular, and the town in general. The
good citizens of Dublin were excessively fond of play-
houses. On friendly personal terms with most of the
actors and actresses, they were familiar with every event



12 PEG WOFFINGTON

of their lives, and dealt out to them from pit and gallery
their favour or displeasure, if with occasional indiscre-
tion, at least with an openness that left no doubt of
their prejudices. Peg Woffington had been known to
them from the days when she had sold salad and water-
cresses in the streets, and the town regarded her with
especial favour ; her appearance in so prominent a part
as that of Ophelia was therefore looked forward to with
unusual interest, and on the evening of the I2th of
February the Aungier Street playhouse was crowded
from pit to gallery to witness her performance. Seldom
had there been seen so brilliant a house, or one more
keenly, nay, anxiously, attentive ; and when at length
Ophelia came forward, her dark eyes luminous with
excitement, her beautiful face pale from fear, she held
her audience as by a spell, which the justness of her
expression and grace of her manner heightened as the
play proceeded. When the curtain descended on the
mad-scene, it was felt that she had secured a triumph
which was not only complete in itself, but gave promise
of great achievements in the future.

From this date she no longer danced between the acts
or sang ballads in small parts. It was her ambition to
climb the ladder of theatrical fame ; and once having
gained a step, she was not the woman to descend to her
former level. Her next important part was that of
Phillis in Sir Richard Steele's " Conscious Lovers," and
was almost as great a success as her representation of
Ophelia. For two seasons she played leading parts,
bringing large audiences and full coffers to the Aungier
Street playhouse gaining especial renown in the
character of Sir Harry Wildair, an elegant young man
of fashion. This she had attempted at the desire of
several persons of consequence ; and so piquant and
full of witchery was her personation of the fashionable



SHE FELL IN LOVE 13

rake, that she charmed the town to an uncommon
degree.

About this time an event happened which may be
considered the turning-point in her career : she fell in
love. t The object of her affection was a young gentleman
of position but of small fortune, named TaafTe the
third son of a needy Irish peer. He was not only
delighted with her talents as an actress, but fascinated
by her beauty as a woman. He was a man well to look
upon tall and of goodly shape, with sea-blue eyes, light
brown hair, and a smile as bright, if alas as deceptive, as
April sunshine. Night after night he sat in the boxes
of the theatre, watching the play of her face that was
more beautiful than health, the glamour of her lustrous
eyes, the smiles that played round a mouth like unto a
cleft pomegranate, the turn of her head, the movement
of her graceful limbs. When she left the stage, he felt
as if sudden darkness had descended on him. She was
to him what sunlight is to the world. By day he wooed
her with soft words and gentle looks and many endear-
ments, with all the passion, the longing, and the pain of
his youth ; for he thought to himself no woman ever
was born so beautiful as she. And as a woman she
loved him, not wisely but too well trusting him with
the precious treasure of her honour, resting confident
that because of her vast affection for him he would in
return make her his lawful wife. At his request, she
quitted the stage at a time when the promise of a great
career shone before her ; at his desire she left her native
city to accompany him to London. For she loved him
all in all.



CHAPTER II.

In Merry London Town The King's Court and the Princ-'s Vie'.vs
of the Streets The Coffee-houses and their Frequenters Round
Covent Garden The Players' Quarters and Clare Market Laws
concerning the Playhouses and their Audiences Dress of the
Period Johnson, Garrick, and Savage At the Fountain Tavern
Visiting on " Cl an Shirt Day " Reynolds, Pope, and Smollett
Quin at Drury Lane, Gibber at Covent Garden Vauxhall, its
Ways and its Visitors With Lady Caroline Petersham A
Strange Advertisement.

WHEN Peg Woffington arrived in town, London was
then, as it had been for the last quarter of a century, the
very centre of gaiety and dissipation. The nobility were
divided in their allegiance between the Court of St.
James where George II., assisted by his German
mistress Madame Walmoden, created Countess of
Yarmouth, held drawing-rooms twice a week and
Norfolk House, where Frederick, Prince of Wales, an
outcast from the royal palace, had set up a court of his
own, where he and his brilliant followers gambled and
fiddled and danced and acted almost every night
throughout the year. The middle and lower classes
made merry over rumours that reached them of the
royal wrangles, but little heeding them, enjoyed them-
selves after their own fashion. The streets, with their
steep-roofed, strangely carved, curiously gabled houses,
crushing up against or overlapping each other in
front, or lying snugly against deep-windowed, square-
towered churches, were bright and busy all day long
filled by a goodly crowd of courtiers and citizens, clad
in many-coloured suits, all of whom were more or less



OLD LONDON TOWN 15

known to each other, and exchanged salutations or
civilities with a grace of movement and courtesy of
speech lost to us in this latter day.

In the centre of the thoroughfares heavily built
coaches, showily painted, emblazoned with coats-of-arms
or coronets, lumbered along their slow way beset by
carts or by hired chairs swinging between abusive-
tongued chairmen, or by the chairs of persons
of quality carried by livery-clad servants. To add,
moreover, to the general obstruction of the narrow
streets, barrows of fruits, vegetables, and edibles lined
either side, as if to mark where the pavements should
have been. Over the pedestrian's head, from above the
doorway of almost every shop, hung strangely painted
sign-boards, adorned with heraldic bearings, paintings
of grotesque and fabulous animals, boars of many colours
or cocks in legion, all of which swung and creaked
threateningly with every wind that swept from the four
corners of the^ globe.

All day long and far into the night the coffee-houses,
which were to be found in all quarters of the town, were
crowded by men of every degree. Those whose tastes
or vocations took them to St. James's or St. Paul's,
alike used them as places for the interchange of polite
conversation or the transaction of business. In these
houses the forerunners of clubs the frequenters paid
a penny or twopence, according to the situation and
circumstance of the house, for a cup of good coffee ;
which sum likewise entitled the customer to read the
broadsheets of the day, to linger for an hour or so and
hear the latest news from the court or the city, the
newest gossip from abroad, or from the green-room of
the Drury Lane playhouse, or to enter into a discussion
on the political questions of the hour, the knavery of
ministers and the sycophancy of their followers.



16 PEG WOFFIXGTOX

There was Squire's Coffee House, a deep-coloured red
brick picturesque building, adjoining Gray's Inn Gate,
which Sir Roger de Coverley himself used to frequent
in the first decade of the century, when seated at the
upper end of the room, at a high table, he would call
for a clean pipe, a paper of tobacco, a dish of coffee,
a wax candle, and a newspaper, with such an air of
good-humour that everybody delighted in serving him.
There was Button's famous coffee-house in Russell
Street, Covent Garden, which Addison and his friends
had frequented, where Sir Richard Steele told his wittiest
story, where Dr. Garth uttered his best pun, the same
that had been made the receiving-house for contributions
to the Guardian, for which purpose the lion's head, de-
signed by Hogarth, had been put up as a letter-box. At
the St. James's Coffee House, in St. James's Street, the
Whigs talked politics, and arranged the affairs of Europe
with a satisfaction heightened by sundry pinches of
Brazil snuff. It was at this house Dean Swift now
dying in Ireland " like a rat in a hole," as he expressed
it had received his letters from poor broken-hearted
Stella, under cover to Joseph Addison, Esquire. At the
Grecian Coffee House handsome Jemmy Maclaine, the
celebrated highwayman, the son of an Irish Dean, the
brother of a Calvinist minister, might be seen any day,
sipping his coffee, making love to his landlord's daughter,
keeping an eye to his neighbour's property, and joining
in the conversation with vast politeness, until one
morning in May, 1750, when he was hung on the
charge of stealing a laced waistcoat. In the open
balcony at Toms a great crowd of noblemen adorned
with their stars and garters, and men of quality, might
be seen nightly, drinking their tea and coffee, exposed
to the crowd. But the Bedford Coffee House, in Covent
Garden, was more than all others at this period signalized



HE HAD KILLED His MAN 49

Ryan, the son of an Irish tailor, had, when he and the
century were in their teens, played in ." Macbeth " with
the famous Betterton, on which most memorable occasion
he had worn a tremendous full-bottomed wig, which
almost smothered him. From that day he laboured with
such effect in his profession, that Addison had selected
him to play Marcus, in his long-winded tragedy of
" Cato " ; and Garrick, in after years, confessed that this
actor's u Richard III. " was a performance after which he
had shaped his own. His fame as a tragedian was not
indeed confined to the stage, for he had killed his man
in real life, surrounded by such commonplace effects as a
tavern furnished.

It happened one summer evening, as early as the year
1718, that after his performance in the Lincoln's Inn
Fields playhouse he had gone to sup quietly at the Sun
tavern in Long Acre ; and for the purpose of being more
at his ease, had taken off his sword, and placed it in the
window. But as fate would have it, scarce had he laid
by his weapon, when, with the most rakish air imaginable,
in struts a famous bravado named Kelly, whose chief
diversion it was to pick quarrels with strangers, in
taverns and coffee-houses, and then fall upon them with
preconceived malice and wound them bodily, he being
an excellent swordsman. On the present occasion, being
flushed with wine and full of bravery, he approached
Ryan, who was quietly sitting at a far table, and first
daring him to fight him, he subsequently made passes at
him which meant deadly harm ; the actor, therefore,
rushed for his sword. At this Kelly seemed mightily
diverted, and made thrusts at him afresh ; whereon Ryan
in self-protection, skilfully ran a sword through the body
of his assailant, who in another second lay stark upon the
tavern floor, his sword grasped tight in his stiff right
hand, his life's blood oozing on the sand. The town was

E



So PEG WOFFINGTON

delighted beyond expression to get rid of this troublesome
fellow, and Ryan in consequence rose in popular favour.
Indeed, such a hold did he take on the public, that when
subsequently he was set on in mistake whilst returning
home late at night, and received a wound in the cheek
that made his voice sound sharp and shrill, his audiences
completely overlooked this defect, and never moved him
from the warmth of their favour.

Theophilus Gibber, son of old Colley, who was to act
the part of Plume in u The Recruiting Officer " on Peg
Woffington's first appearance, had made that character
a special study, and had been instructed in it by his
father. Theo Gibber, as he was familiarly called, had
" a person far from pleasing, and the features of his face
were rather disgusting," as David Erskine Baker, Esquire,
quaintly informs us. Theophilus Gibber had from early
in his career developed what was known as " a fondness
for indulgences ; " in other words, he was a scapegrace of
the first water, as will presently be seen. But he had a
good understanding, a quickness of parts, a perfect
knowledge of the characters he represented, and a certain
amount of vivacity occasionally amounting to effronterie,
which combined to make him an actor agreeable to the
town. He had been, it may be noted, the original George
Barn well in the tragedy of that title.

Now this play preached a moral, which though a rare
thing enough in those days, was by no means acceptable
to the public ; in consequence of which it was usual to
introduce an epilogue at the end, which ridiculed all the
virtuous and beautiful sentiments gone before. To
heighten the fun and give it sharper relish, this was
spoken by Mrs. Gibber, who smartly and with little
disguise, satirized her husband's vices (for he had many,
'twas said) and excused her own, which were indeed the
common property of the town. To render the occasion



THE RECRUITING OFFICER 51

of Peg Woffington's first appearance the more important,
Rich bespoke the favour of the presence of Frederick,
Prince of Wales and his Princess ; and as His Royal
Highness was always anxious to be diverted, he graciously
promised to be present.

The play-bill announcing the performance ran as
follows :

COVENT GARDEN.

By command of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.



By the Company of Comedians.

AT THE THEATRE ROYAL IN COVENT GARDEN,

This day will be presented a Comedy, call'd

THE RECRUITING OFFICER,

WRITTEN BY THE LATK MR. FARQUHAR.

The part of SYLVIA by Miss WOFFINGTON

(Being the first time of her performing on that Stage).

WITH DANCING

By MON. DESNOYER and SIGNORA. BARBERINI,

ALSO

By MON. and MADEMOISELLE MECHEL
(The French Boy and Girl).

To which by command will be added a Tragi-Comi- Pastoral Farce
of Two Acts, call'd

THE WHAT D'YE CALL IT.

Box, 5.?. ; Pit, 3*. ; First Gallery, 2s. Upper Gallery, is.
To begin exactly at Six o'clock.

On the evening of the 6th of November, 1 740, at the
hour of six o'clock, a brilliant and crowded audience had
assembled in Covent Garden Theatre. In the royal box,
" under a canopy of scarlet silk, most richly adorned with
gold tissue and tassels of the same," sat the Prince and
Princess of Wales ; and in the boxes around them the
gay and witty courtiers who had turned their backs on
St. James's, to frisk, natter, sparkle, and enjoy themselves

E 2



52 PEG WOFFIXGTOX

in the light of the rising sun, who never alas for him
and them reached the meridian of his power. In the
pit, as usual, sat the students of the Inns of Court, the
men about town, the young fellows from the Universities,
with their periwigs, swords, ruffles, and snuff-boxes ;
glib compliments on their lips, merry twinkles in their
eyes, and much knowledge of stage affairs in their heads,
by which they would presently, over a glass of wine, try
this Irish actress, and pronounce judgment upon her.
Presently, when the fiddles had played their last long-
drawn notes, and the candles forming the footlights had
been judiciously snuffed, up went the heavy green curtain ;
then silence fell upon the house, broken only by the
fluttering of fans and the snapping of snuff-box lids.

The " Recruiting Officer," a comedy in which Peg
Woffington's name is closely connected, and in which she
continued to divert the town for years, had from its
lively action, spirited dialogue, and rather broad fun,
long been a standing favourite with playgoers.

Moreover, it was declared to be true to life, and indeed
gives an excellent picture of the manners and ways of
the times. George Farquhar had been himself a
recruiting officer at Shrewsbury, where the scene is laid,
and where the play was written ; and it was said he had
drawn his own character in that of Captain Plume, u a



Online LibraryJoseph Fitzgerald MolloyThe life and adventures of Peg Woffington, with pictures of the period in which she lived → online text (page 4 of 26)