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Before Ibsen: The Early Stage Career of Janet Achurch, 1883–89
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An actress of Janet Achurch’s status warrants little introduction. Her innovative interpretation as Nora Helmer in the first unexpurgated British production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at the Novelty Theatre on 7 June 1889 brought her instant fame.2 Indeed, such was the impact of A Doll’s House on the course of British theatrical history that it is easy to forget that Achurch had a theatrical past before she became famous as Nora. This metaphorical severance from her formative years has been so overwhelming that her pre-Ibsen period has almost escaped attention. The paucity of information is evident in a plethora of readily available biographical summaries on Achurch that offer little of this early period.3 The recovery of this undocumented past has entailed a study of Achurch’s six-year apprenticeship from 1883, when she first came to the stage, up to the early notices for A Doll’s House in 1889. During this period, Achurch acted under well-known managements, notably those of Genevieve Ward, Sarah Thorne, F. R. Benson, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. On this journey of recuperation are revealed not only the predictable peaks and troughs in fortune but also the relative strengths and weaknesses of Achurch’s developing talent, and the emergence of performance traits and artistic style that prefigured the performer she became. In a wider context, and in recognition of the changing status of actresses in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the impact of familial and gender issues on her career path demands consideration also. Attention is therefore drawn to Achurch’s theatrical heritage and family connections [Figure 1], and to key personal relationships in her early acting years. These forces were outside the theatrical events that defined her career but they significantly influenced the direction she chose. Her first husband was the actor-dramatist St Aubyn Miller (1865–1929) whose mainstream artistic ambitions were incompatible with her own (Ince, “After Janet”).4 Her second husband, the actor-manager Charles Charrington (1854–1926), proved the exact opposite. Charrington was a risk-taking pioneer and Fabian socialist but hopeless in the management of financial matters (Ince, “An Early Pioneer”). Artistically and intellectually however Charrington and Achurch were the perfect match, yet the great things promised by this extraordinary partnership (even with the later sponsorship of George Bernard Shaw) failed to materialise for reasons that have been well documented. At the end of this essay is a chronological list of Achurch’s roles for the period under study, the most comprehensive survey of her early career undertaken to date.

Achurch was the youngest of a family of six children whose mother died on 21 January 1863 aged 38, five days after the birth of her daughter. In 1881, Achurch, then aged 18, was the only child living with her widowed father William Prior Sharp, and had been for six years. Within two years of Achurch’s enumeration on the 1881 census (of England and Wales), she had entered the theatrical profession. The (unrelated) American-born actress and former opera singer Genevieve Ward gave Achurch her first stage opportunity. An interview given by Achurch to the Pall Mall Gazette (5 Jul. 1889: 1) on the day she and Charrington left for their Antipodes tour after A Doll’s House, reveals how this came about. In this article entitled “Norah Helmer Off for the Antipodes”, Achurch admitted to having drawn early inspiration from the acting of Sarah Bernhardt, and reflected on her six years on the stage and the 200 roles played before Nora.6 Describing herself as one of a “motley crew” at the School of Dramatic Art (by then defunct), Achurch was spotted by dramatist Hamilton Aidé who recommended her to Genevieve Ward.7 Prior to this however she had acted in a charity event in place of Mrs Beerbohm Tree in the role of Lady Camilla in Watts Phillips’ three-act drama Camilla’s Husband, but how this transpired was unexplained. It can only be surmised the extent to which Ward influenced Achurch’s early development, and yet the impact must have been significant given that Ward’s ethos for the aspiring actor was “There...

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