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  • The “Famous Mrs. Barry”: Elizabeth Barry and Restoration Celebrity
  • Kate C. Hamilton (bio)

In September 1675, the seventeen-year-old actress Elizabeth Barry performed as the maid Draxilla in Thomas Otway’s Alcibiades. Despite her minor role in the production, the young ingénue managed to attract attention—of exactly the wrong sort. As Thomas Davies explains in Dramatic Miscellanies (1784), “Mrs. Barry had an excellent understanding, but not a musical ear; so that she could not catch the sounds or emphases taught her; but fell into a disagreeable tone, the fault of most young stage-adventurers.”1 According to the famous actor Colley Cibber, the career of the late-seventeenth-century’s most famous tragedienne nearly ended before it began. He wrote in his 1740 memoir, “There was, it seems, so little Hope of Mrs. Barry, at her first setting out, that she was, at the end of the first Year, discharg’d the Company, among others, that were thought to be a useless Expence to it.”2

Despite this initial failure, Barry returned to the Duke’s Company within the production year, giving a successful performance as Queen Isabella in the Earl of Orrery’s Mustapha (1676). As the eighteenth-century theater historian and Barry biographer, Edmund Curll, explains:

The first Night she played the Hungarian Queen … The very Air she appeared with, in that distressed Character, moved them [End Page 291] with Pity, preparing the Mind to greater Expectations, but when she spoke these Words to the insulting Cardinal,

My Lord, my Sorrow seeks not your Relief; You are not fit to judge a Mother’s Grief: You have no Child for an untimely Grave, Nor can you lose what I desire to save.

… these Passions were so finely expressed by her, that the whole Theatre resounded with Applauses …3

Barry’s emotional range—and especially her use of pathos—particularly inspired her late-seventeenth-century public acclaim. According to the prompter for the Duke’s Company, John Downes, Barry’s tragic roles in The Orphan (1680), Venice Preserv’d (1682), and The Fatal Marriage (1694) “gain’d her the Name of Famous Mrs. Barry, both at Court and City.”4 In these pathetic and “she-tragedies” of the 1680s and 1690s, she played fallen aristocrats, rape victims, and other striking embodiments of gender, class, and sexuality that became central to her stage persona. At the same time, her cultural visibility was doubly enhanced through her personal relationship with John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, a court libertine whose own notorious “performances” gained him another sort of public notice. How might have Barry’s relationship with Rochester impacted her performance and reception in tragic roles? In other words, how did Barry’s ties to Rochester impact her celebrity persona in the late-seventeenth century?

We can understand Barry’s celebrity according to what Chris Rojek calls “cultural impact,” or “being talked about” in overlapping networks of theatergoers, playwrights, court figures, and players.5 This expansive definition of celebrity allows us to contextualize the phenomenon within the pre-1700 emergent print culture and to treat Barry as more than an object of interest, but also as a partial agent, in the construction of her public image. Though numerous scholars have recognized Barry’s impact upon the London stage by linking her with larger cultural and historical narratives on performance and gender, few have considered her celebrity strategy within a Restoration context. This is largely because our modern definition of celebrity is at least implicitly dependent upon a mass consumer and mass print culture to disseminate images of and interest in a famous figure. It is true that there were vastly more print sources in circulation after 1700, and contemporary scholars have successfully explored celebrity in relation to later actresses like Colley Cibber, Sarah Siddons, and Fanny Kemble.6 But assuming that celebrity depends on some tipping point in the [End Page 292] number of print media in a culture may overplay the material, quantifiable features of fame and “being talked about.” As Joseph R. Roach has argued, the concept of celebrity forms a “strand, thin but bright, [which] connects the Stuart Restoration and the theater it launched...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 291-320
Launched on MUSE
2013-02-28
Open Access
No
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