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Barry, Elizabeth (DNB00)

BARRY, ELIZABETH (1658–1713), actress, is said to have been the daughter of Edward Barry, a barrister, who, during the civil wars, raised a regiment for Charles I, and was subsequently known as Colonel Barry. This assertion, though resting on evidence no more trustworthy than a ‘History of the Stage’ compiled for the notorious Edward Curll, has won general acceptance. After the loss of her father's fortune Elizabeth Barry, it is said, passed under the charge of Lady Davenant, rather oddly described by Davies (Dramatic Miscellanies, iii. 197) as ‘an acquaintance’ of Sir William Davenant, who through friendship gave her a good education, and introduced her into society. The mention of Davenant seems to have misled some subsequent writers on the stage. Thus Dr. Doran states that ‘Davenant took the fatherless girl into his house and trained her for the stage;’ and continues, ‘Davenant was in despair at her dulness’ (Their Majesties' Servants, i. 139). Since Davenant died in 1668, when his supposed pupil could only have been ten years old, his despair was, to say the least, premature. That Mrs. Barry owed her entrance on the stage to the patronage of the Earl of Rochester is all that can safely be assumed. Tony Aston (A Brief Supplement to Colley Cibber his Lives of the late Famous Actors and Actresses) says that when Lord Rochester took her on the stage ‘she was woman to Lady Shelton of Norfolk.’ To those familiar with the anxiety of actresses of the stamp of Mrs. Barry to furnish themselves with respectable antecedents the story of Aston will commend itself. The statements of Curll and Aston are, however, not irreconcilable. On one point all testimony is concurrent. The would-be actress showed at first little promise. Aston says: ‘For some time they could make nothing of her; she could neither sing nor dance, no, not even in a country dance.’ Colley Cibber states: ‘There was, it seems, so little hopes 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 expense to it;’ and Davies (Dramatic Miscellanies) explains that ‘she had an excellent understanding, but not a musical ear; so that she could not catch the sounds or emphases taught her, but fell into disagreeable tones.’ Davies adds that Lord Rochester ‘taught her not only the proper cadence or sounding of the voice, but to seize also the passions, and adapt her whole behaviour to the situations of the character.’ According to Curll, Rochester made a considerable wager that in the space of six months she would be one of the most approved performers of the theatre.

The first recorded appearance of Mrs. Barry took place in or about 1673 as Isabella the queen of Hungary, in ‘Mustapha,’ a tragedy by the Earl of Orrery. The scene was Dorset Garden, then occupied by what was known as the Duke's Company. Her first performance is said to have been witnessed by Charles II and the Duke and Duchess of York. The duchess, Maria Beatrice of Modena, afterwards queen, is stated to have been so pleased as to have presented her wedding suit to the actress, from whom she subsequently took lessons in the English language. In later years, when queen, she is said to have given Mrs. Barry her coronation robes in which to appear as Queen Elizabeth in Banks's tragedy of the ‘Earl of Essex.’ Such facts as are known concerning Mrs. Barry show her selfish and mercenary. On Otway, in whose pieces her highest reputation was made, and whose best characters are said to have been inspired by her, her influence was maleficent. Tom Brown speaks, in language too strong to be quoted, of her immorality and greed. Her professional career is a record of sustained effort. She was the ‘creator’ of considerably more than one hundred rôles, including most of the heroines of the tragedy of her day: Monimia in the ‘Orphan,’ Cordelia in Tate's version of ‘King Lear,’ Belvidera in ‘Venice Preserved,’ Isabella in Southeme's ‘Fatal Marriage,’ Cassandra in Dryden's ‘Cleomenes,’ and Zara in Congreve's ‘Mourning Bride.’ The part of most importance she created in comedy was perhaps Lady Brute in Vanbrugh's ‘Provoked Wife.’ Concerning her appearance opinions differ. Her portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller shows her with her hair drawn back from a face that is bright and intellectual rather than handsome, but is lighted up by eyes of singular beauty. Aston says: ‘She was not handsome, her mouth opening most on the right side, which she strove to draw t'other way, and at times composing her face as if sitting to have her picture drawn. She was middle-sized, and had darkish hair, light eyes, dark eyebrows, and was indifferent plump. She had a manner of drawing out her words, which became her.’ Hamilton, in his ‘Memoirs of Grammont,’ is supposed to refer to her when he says that the public was obliged to Rochester ‘for the prettiest, but, at the same time, the worst actress in the kingdom.’ It seems scarcely probable that Hamilton can in these strong words have indicated a woman who has come to be regarded as one of the first actresses of the time. Colley Cibber says: ‘Mrs. Barry, in characters of greatness, had a presence of elevated dignity, her mien and motion superb and gracefully majestick; her voice full, clear, and strong, so that no violence of passion could be too much for her. And when distress or tenderness possessed her she subsided into the most affecting melody and softness. In the art of exciting pity she had a power beyond all the actresses I have yet seen, or what your imagination can conceive’ (Apology, p. 133, ed. 1750). Aston, who seems inclined to disparage her, admits that ‘in tragedy she was solemn and august; in free comedy, alert, easy, and genteel, pleasant in her face and action, filling the stage with variety of gesture.’ Betterton, moreover, in the record of his conversations preserved in the so-called ‘Life’ assigned to Gildon (p. 39), calls her ‘incomparable;’ classes her as ‘the principal’ among those players who seem always to be in earnest, and adds that ‘her action is always just, and produc'd naturally by the sentiments of the part.’ Testimony such as this must outweigh all opposition, of which Mrs. Barry had to encounter a fair share, most of it, however, directed rather against her life than her acting. To the verdicts recorded need only be added the assertion of Davies that ‘Mrs. Barry was mistress of all the passions of the mind; love, joy, grief, rage, tenderness, and jealousy were all represented by her with equal skill and equal effect.’ Her delivery of special lines has been held to be singularly happy, and her acting is said by Betterton to have ‘given success to plays that would disgust the most patient reader.’ She was in the habit of weeping real tears during her performance of pathetic character, conforming thus with a well-known Horatian maxim rather than with the subsequently expressed theory of Diderot in ‘Le Paradoxe sur le Comédien.’ Cibber says that the system of benefits was first established on behalf of Mrs. Barry. These are supposed to have been reserved for authors until James II commanded a benefit in her interest, and the custom became thenceforward established. Four years before the accession of James II, however, an agreement between Betterton and Charles Davenant with Smith, Hart, and Kynaston, dated 14 Oct. 1681, speaks of young men and women playing for their own profit only. Of the many stories told concerning Mrs. Barry one alone merits mention. In consequence of a quarrel with Mrs. Boutell for the possession of a veil, Mrs. Barry, as Roxana in the ‘Rival Queens’ of Nathaniel Lee, while uttering the words, ‘Die, sorceress, die! and all my wrongs die with thee,’ used her stage dagger with such effect as slightly to wound her rival through all her panoply. The matter was hushed up, and the explanation that the assailant had been carried away by her part was accepted. The letters of Rochester to ‘Madame B.,’ first printed in Tonson's edition of his works, 1716, are supposed to have been written to Mrs. Barry. In one of these reference is made to a child he had by her, on whom he is said afterwards to have settled by will an annuity of 40l. The few mad letters of Otway, preserved in the collection of his works, are also stated to have been addressed to her. The child of Lord Rochester, and a second, the paternity of which was acknowledged by Etherege, who also is said to have made provision for his offspring, both died before their mother. In 1709–10 Mrs. Barry disappeared from the stage, having retired to Acton, then a country village, where she died.

In Acton church there is a tablet with the inscription: ‘Near this place lies the body of Elizabeth Barry, of the parish of St. Mary-le-Savoy, who departed this life 7 Nov. 1713, aged 55 years.’ Cibber says: ‘She dy'd of a fever towards the latter years of Queen Anne.’ Davies states, on the authority of an actress who, at the time of Mrs. Barry's death, was in London, that ‘her death was owing to the bite of a favourite lapdog, who, unknown to her, had been seized with madness.’

[In addition to authorities cited see Genest's Account of the English Stage; Baker, Reed, and Jones's Biographia Dramatica; and Bellchambers's notes to his edition of Cibber's Apology, 1822.]

J. K.