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ANNE BRACEGIRDLE (1671-1748)

MRS. BRACEGIRDLE may be said to have been reared in the theater, for she made her first appearance, as a page, at six years old. She was a protégée and pupil of the Bettertons. From 1680 to 1707, "never," says Cibber, "was any woman in such general favour of the spectators." Her private character was unimpeachable, for the hints of such a dissolute fellow as Tom Brown are no proofs against the universal testimonies in her favor. When one of her would-be lovers, the Earl of Burlington, sent her by a footman a present of china and a letter, she kept the letter but made the servant take back the china, saying he had made a mistake, as that was for his lady. And his lady got it, much doubtless to her surprise and gratification, and to his lord's chagrin. "She was the darling of the theater," to again quote Cibber, "for it will be no extravagant thing to say, scarce an audience saw her that were less than half of them lovers, without a suspected favourite among them; and though she may be said to have been the universal passion, and under the highest temptation, her constancy in resisting them served but to increase her admirers. It was even a fashion among the gay and young to have a taste or tendre for Mrs. Bracegirdle." In Dryden's epilogue to "King Arthur," written for her, allusion is made to these unceasing importunities, and it commences with--

"I have had to-day a dozen billets-doux
From fops, and wits, and cits, and Bow Street beaux:
Some from Whitehall, but from the Temple more:
A Covent Garden porter brought me four."

She then proceeds to read one or two of these effusions, probably rhymed from originals actually received.

Of her personal appearance it was said: "She had no greater claim to beauty than the most desirable brunette might pretend to. But her youth and lively aspect threw out such a glow of health and cheerfulness, that on the stage few spectators could behold her without desire." Cibber is scarcely just to her attractions, for in the portrait I have seen the features are most charming. To coldly criticize such a siren would have been impossible, and the old actor adds: "In all the chief parts she performed, the desirable was so predominant that no judge could be cold enough to consider from what other particular excellence she became delightful. If anything could excuse that desperate extravagance of love, that almost frantic passion of Lee's Alexander the Great, it must have been when Mrs. Bracegirdle was his Statira: as when she acted Millamant, all the faults, follies, and affectations of that agreeable tyrant were venially melted down into so many charms, and attractions of a conscious beauty." Congreve was her devoted admirer: she was the original representative of all his heroines, and there was a warm friendship between the two of them unto the end of his life; but there is no shadow of evidence that it exceeded the Platonic boundary. Hear how he wrote of her:

"Pieous Belinda goes to prayers
Whene'er I ask the favour:
Yet the tender fool's in tears
When she believes I'll leave her.
Would I were free from this restraint,
Or else had power to win her,
Would she could make of me a saint,
Or I of her a sinner."

The Lords Dorset, Devonshire, and Halifax presented her with the sum of eight-hundred pounds, simply as a mark of their esteem for her private character. She was a good, charitable creature too, and used to go into Clare Market to give money to the poor unemployed basket-women, and she could not pass through that neighborhood without being greeted with the grateful salutations of people of all degrees. She retired from the stage in 1707, in the very height of her fame; but beautiful Anne Oldfield had succeeded to some of her parts, and her youth and brilliant talents were casting the older actress into the shade. She lived many years afterwards, and died in 1748 at over fourscore. Once she returned to the stage for a single night; it was to play Angelica in "Love for Love," for her old friend Betterton's benefit.

This article is reprinted from English Actors: From Shakespeare to Macready. Henry Barton Baker. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1879. pp. 68-71.

RELATED WEBSITES

  • Anne Bracegirdle - A biography of the English actress rumored to have been the mistress of William Congreve.
  • Restoration Drama - An overview of Restoration theatre; includes information on the appearance of women on the English stage, the persistance of Elizabethan plays, parody of heroic drama, the nature of Restoration comedy, women playwrights, and Collier's attack on the stage.
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