Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Barry, Ann Spranger

BARRY, Mrs. ANN SPRANGER (1734–1801), actress, was born in Bath, in which city her father, whose name was Street, is said to have been an ‘eminent apothecary.’ A disappointment in love led to a visit to Yorkshire, where, rather than in Bath, long a centre of theatrical activity, she seems to have acquired a taste for the stage. Early in life Ann Street married a Mr. Dancer, an actor, who seems to have died young. The first appearance of Mrs. Dancer probably took place at Portsmouth about 1756. The following year she and her husband are said to have played in York. Her first recorded performance took place in the Crow Street Theatre, Dublin, the date being, according to Hitchcock (Historical View of the Irish Stage), 8 Nov. 1758. On this occasion she played Cordelia to the Lear of Spranger Barry [q. v.] Her next character was Monimia in ‘The Orphan.’ Her early career was very far from successful. In Dublin she remained nine years, assiduously practising her art, and obtaining slow recognition from the public. Her line was tragedy, her most important characters at this period being Millamant, Andromache, Juliet, Desdemona, Belvidera, and Jane Shore. Occasionally, however, in such rôles as Angelica in ‘Love for Love,’ or Polly Peachum in the ‘Beggars Opera,’ she ventured into comedy. Some scandal attaches to her life, but the love for Barry, with which from an early period she seems to have been smitten, kept her constant to the stage and to Dublin. Her mother left her a weekly pension to be paid her on the condition of abandoning her profession. She enjoyed this small sum during her lifetime, as the relation entitled to the reversion declined to claim the forfeit. In 1767 Barry, compelled to abandon the management of the Crow Street Theatre, returned to London. Mrs. Dancer, who in 1766 had played with him at the Haymarket Opera House one short season, this being her first appearance in London, came with him to town, and accepted an engagement from Foote to play with Barry at what was known as the little house in the Haymarket. Here, with indifferent success, she appeared as Juliet to the Romeo of Barry. In 1767–8 she accompanied Barry to Drury Lane, appearing as Cordelia. During this and subsequent seasons her reputation advanced to its highest point. In 1768 she is first heard of in the playbills as Mrs. Barry. The season of 1774 saw the Barrys at Covent Garden. On 10 Jan. 1777 Spranger Barry died, leaving her again a widow. During that and the following year she remained at Covent Garden, playing in 1778–9 as Mrs. Crawford. Her third marriage, to a man much younger than herself, whom, however, she survived, was detrimental to her career. She made occasional appearances at the Haymarket, Drury Lane, and Covent Garden, and played during the seasons of 1781–2 and 1782–3 in Dublin. She is last heard of on the stage at Covent Garden in 1797–8. Her farewell is said to have taken place in 1798 at Covent Garden, as Lady Randolph; this date is, however, doubtful. She died 29 Nov. 1801, and was buried near Barry in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.

Mrs. Barry's place in the galaxy of bright actors that distinguished the latter half of the eighteenth century cannot be contested. The equal of Mrs. Woffington and Mrs. Cibber in tragedy, she surpassed both in comedy. She is described by Francis Gentleman (Dramatic Censor) as ‘graceful, genteel, spirited, and feeling.’ Her complexion was fair, her hair auburn, her shape good, and her stature just above the middle height. She had, however, a slight defect, due apparently to shortness of vision, in her eyes. In Monimia, which was then a test character, she was said by Gentleman to be the best in his recollection. Cooke says she had, during her whole life, no competitor as Desdemona, and her Lady Randolph, her great character, was held superior to that of Mrs. Siddons. Mrs. Siddons owned her fear of Mrs. Barry, saying, in a letter to Dr. Whalley: ‘I should suppose she has a very good fortune, and I should be vastly obliged if she would go and live very comfortably upon it. … Let her retire as soon as she pleases.’ Boaden, in his life of Mrs. Siddons, speaks of the storm of passion by which Mrs. Crawford had surprised and subdued a long succession of audiences (ii. 64). In another passage in his life of Mrs. Barry's great rival, Boaden says of the utterance by Mrs. Barry of one phrase assigned to Lady Randolph: ‘It checked your breathing, perhaps pulsation; it was so bold as to be even hazardous, but too piercing not to be triumphant,’ &c. (ii. 51). Campbell, in his life of Siddons, says Bannister told him her delivery of this passage ‘made rows of spectators start from their seats.’

[Genest's Account of the English Stage; Dramatic Censor, 1770; Boaden's Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons; Thespian Dictionary; Hitchcock's Irish Stage; Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror; Dibdin's Complete History of the Stage.]

J. K.