Notable Irishwomen/Eliza O'Neill


IX.

Eliza O'Neill

(Lady Becher)

1791-1872.


THE Irish-American actress, Miss Nance O'Neill, has attracted a good deal of attention in London, so that some notice of her famous predecessor, the great Miss O'Neill, whose dramatic power was so extraordinary that she made strong men faint, ought to be of special interest. Eliza O'Neill's phenomenal career which, on the London stage, barely lasted five years, was terminated by her marriage into a most influential and highly respected Irish family, and with her the race of real tragedy actresses was said to expire. Helen Faucit, was, however, one instance that proves the contrary, and this new Miss O'Neill may turn out a worthy successor of the name that once attracted admiring crowds, who hailed the rising star "as a younger and better Mrs. Siddons."

Eliza O'Neill was born at Drogheda in 1791. Her father was stage manager of the Drogheda Theatre, and her mother, whose maiden name was

Notable Irishwomen - Eliza O'Neill.png

Photograph by]

[T. F. Geoghegan.

ELIZA O'NEILL

(LADY BECHER).

Featherstone, was also Irish. They were wretchedly poor, and the whole family—three brothers and two sisters—were all called upon to play various parts in the plays presented. Eliza's first appearance was when she was carried on the stage in her father's arms. The company alternated between Drogheda and Dundalk. The Drogheda Theatre was a ramshackle, tumble-down building, just outside the town, and the Dundalk Theatre was in the Brewhouse. In those days, when travelling was difficult and expensive, people had to rely on provincial talent. Small towns could not have star companies from London with the latest novelty in comic operas. Theatre-goers—and what true Irish person is not a theatre-goer?—were compelled to patronise native talent, and the growth was sometimes surprisingly good. The shifts that the luckless stage manager had to make in order to cover the deficiencies of scenery and dresses were often ludicrous.

Mr. O'Neill had a brogue, to use the common expression, "so thick that you could cut it." He was fond of boasting of his illustrious descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages, Monarch of Ireland in the fourth century. When he went round the houses of the neighbouring gentry to ask for a bespeak night, he was always invited to take a seat and a glass of wine, if not "a drop of the crather," which was never declined.

At ten years of age little Eliza was acting the part of the young Duke of York to her father's hump-backed Richard. Mr. Talbot, the lessee of no less than three theatres—Belfast, Londonderry, and Newry—happened to see Eliza acting at Drogheda, and was so much impressed by her that he offered her an engagement at Belfast. She insisted that her whole family must be engaged also—"her tail," as they were called.

This was rather a large order, as besides herself there were her father, her three brothers, a sister, and a sister-in-law. They had all had some experience of stage business and she was quite certain that their services could be utilised. At length Mr. Talbot yielded. His faith in the young untried actress was fully justified and the Belfast papers showered praise on her.

After her two years engagement had concluded, she and her family started for Dublin, then a long and perilous journey from the Black North.

How she first appeared on the Dublin stage is told by Mr. Michael Kelly from information supplied by the patentee of Crow Street Theatre. He says that Miss O'Neill arrived in Dublin October, 1811.

The Theatre at Crow Street was on the point of being opened, and a leading favourite. Miss Walstein—known as the Hibernian Siddons—was to take the part of Juliet. Miss Walstein gave herself great airs, and sent a haughty message to Mr. Jones, the lessee of the theatre, that she would not appear, unless he increased her salary. This he refused to do, saying he would rather shut up the theatre, than comply with her demands. The box-keeper, McNally, then intervened, and told Mr. Jones it would be a pity to close the house, as there was a remedy, if he chose to avail himself of it.

"The girl, sir," said he, "who has been so often recommended to you as a promising actress, is now at an hotel in Dublin, with her father and brother, where they have just arrived, and are proceeding to Drogheda to act at her father's theatre there. I have heard it said by persons who have seen her, that she plays Juliet extremely well, and is very young and very pretty. I am sure she would be delighted to have the opportunity of appearing before a Dublin audience, and if you please, I will make her the proposal."

The proposal was made and accepted, and on the following Saturday, "the girl," who was Miss O'Neill, made her debut on the Dublin stage as Juliet. The audience were delighted, and Mr. Jones offered her father and brother very liberal terms, which were thankfully accepted. She took comic parts sometimes, danced very gracefully, and sang a song of Kelly's, originally given by Mrs. Jordan.

But it was her acting as Juliet, especially when in a sudden burst of despair, she exclaimed, "My Romeo is banished," that carried away the audience as if by electricity.

An eye-witness said, "she gives herself up entirely to the impression of circumstances, borne along by the tide of passion. Every nerve is strained, her frame is convulsed, her breath suspended, her forehead knit together. Fate encloses her round and seizes on his struggling victim. She seems formed for scenes of terror and agony."

The disdainful Miss Walstein was compelled to recognise that she had a formidable competitor in public favour to encounter. Soon afterwards, the two actresses had to appear together in a version of Scott's "Lady of the Lake," Miss Walstein being Blanche, and Miss O'Neill the fair Ellen. The two rivals now became known as "the Eagle and the Dove."

Of Eliza O'Neill's personal appearance it has been said "that her beauty seems to have been of the classical type, her features having a Grecian outline, her voice was deep, clear and mellow, her figure was middle-sized and she had a slight stoop in the shoulders which does not seem to have detracted from her grace and dignity." It was during some private theatricals at Kilkenny that she met her future husband, then Mr. William Wrixon Becher. He was one of the actors, and an attachment sprang up between them, but nothing definite was arranged as to marriage, for Miss O'Neill had all her family to support, and, always loyal to them, she would not desert them until thej7 were provided for.

It is generally supposed that Thackeray took Miss O'Neill as the original of Miss Fotheringay in Pendennis. It may be remembered that Pendennis in his salad days, falls in love with a beautiful Irish actress, who is acting in a provincial town. But as Thackeray was born in 1811, and Miss O'Neill retired from the stage in 1819, he could only have seen her—if he ever did see her—as a boy of eight. The probability is that he heard a good deal about her from those who had seen her. Miss Fotheringay is, however, a wretched caricature of the great actress, she is vulgar and stupid, she talks of making a poy," she has no love for her art, and can only go through a few stage tricks into which she has been carefully drilled. This is not like what those most competent to judge have handed down as their estimate of the acting of Miss O'Neill. John Kemble calls her a genius, and the effect of her performance was such that one person was made insane by seeing her act the part of Belvidere in Dublin. But Thackeray's description of Miss Fotheringay's appearance has some resemblance to Eliza O'Neill's, and is worth quoting here—

"Her forehead was vast, and her black hair waved over it in a natural ripple, and was confined in shining and voluminous braids at the back of a neck, such as you see on the shoulders of the Louvre Venus (that delight of gods and men). Her eyes when she lifted them up to gaze on you, and e'er she dropped her purple deep-fringed lids, shone with mystery and tenderness unfathomable. She never laughed (indeed her teeth were not good) but a smile of endless tenderness and sweetness played round her beautiful lips and in the dimples of her cheeks and her lovely chin. Her nose defied description in those days. Her ears were like two little pearl shells, which the earrings she wore, though the handsomest properties in the theatre, only insulted. But it was her hand and arm that this magnificent creature most excelled in.… They surrounded her. When she folded them over her bosom in resignation, when she dropped them in mute agony, or raised them in superb command, when in sportive gaiety her hands waved and fluttered before her like—what shall we say?—like the snowy doves before the chariot of Venus, it was with these hands and arms that she beckoned, repelled, entreated, embraced her adorers, no single one, for she was armed with her own virtue and her father's valour."

This last sentence is indeed true of the fair actress, no stain ever rested on her character. How different from Peg Woffington and Mrs. Jordan! She might have continued acting in Dublin, if a new turn to affairs had not been given by the arrival of John Kemble, who was engaged as a star to play at Dublin, Cork, and Limerick. This was towards the end of 1813. Miss O'Neill acted with him, and he wrote to his partner in London, his impressions of her:—

"There is a very pretty girl here with a small touch of a brogue on her tongue. She has great talent and some genius; with a little trouble we might make her an object for John Bull's admiration. They call her here the Dove, in contradistinction to her rival, Miss Walstein, whom they designate the Eagle. I recommend the Dove as more likely to please John Bull than the Irish Eagle, who is only a Siddons diluted, and would be only tolerated when Siddons is forgotten. I have sounded the fair lady on the subject of a London engagement. She proposes to append a very long family, a whole clan of O'Neills, to the engagement, to which I have given a decided negative. If she accepts the offer I will sign, seal, and ship herself and clan off from Cork Street.… She is very pretty, and so, in fact, is her brogue, which, by the bye, she only uses in conversation, and totally forgets when with Shakespeare and other illustrious companions."

The agreement was signed, for three years, at a salary of from £15 to £17 a week. Her brother Robert was to be her personal protector and to be allowed free access to the green room. The time for Eliza O'Neill's first appearance at Covent Garden was most propitious. The long and harassing Continental war was at last over, the treaty of Paris had been signed, Napoleon was considered safe at the island retreat of Elba, and an era of peace and plenty seemed to be at hand. It was on the 6th of October, 1814, at the age of twenty-two that the young Irish actress made her curtsey to a London audience as Juliet to the Romeo of Mr. Conway.

A success, wonderful, dazzling, and unexpected, followed. Macready, speaking of her début, said, "Her beauty, simplicity, and grace, are the theme of every tongue. The noble pathos of Siddons' transcendant genius no longer serves as the grand commentary and exponent of Shakespeare's text, but in the native elegance, the feminine sweetness, the unaffected earnestness and gushing passion of Miss O'Neill, the stage has received a worthy successor."

It has always been difficult to find an actress who can find a fitting representation of Juliet. Juliet must have youth, extreme youth, and along with this, she must be capable not only of girlish vivacity and joy, but of rising to heights of passion and despair. A daughter of the Sunny South, she flies from one extreme to another, and is carried away now by a whirlwind of passion, and now by a torrent of agony that is ended only by death. One who was present at Miss O'Neill's first performance in London describes how wonderfully she realised the part:—

"At first she was sportive and natural, a joyous caressing child. Then, when the first touch of love came to her, she changed, in an almost imperceptible manner. Her movements became more voluptuous, her lace seemed to alter in expression, it breathed a secret happiness. She expanded, until, like a beautiful flower, she burst into full bloom. By degrees, when sorrow added its crowning and sacred imprint to her passion, she managed to convey to the spectator the most exquisite tenderness. Her despair was heartbreaking … her scream was like an electric shock."

Only one critic, Reynolds, the dramatist, ventured a word of disparagement by saying " that her acting was of too boisterous and vehement a character," and he admits that in this opinion he was in a minority.

At the close of the first performance of "Romeo and Juliet," it was announced that the "Merry Wives of Windsor," would be acted the following night, but such a chorus of cries arose of "Juliet! Juliet!" that the former play had to be substituted. Nothing succeeds like success, and from this time Miss O'Neill became the talk of the town, and the theatre was crowded to the doors.

In Moore's Life of Byron we find it recorded that to such lengths did Byron carry his enthusiasm for Kean that "when Miss O'Neill appeared, and by her matchless representations of feminine tenderness attracted all eyes and hearts., he was not only a little jealous of her reputation as interfering with that of his favourite, but in order to guard himself from the risk of becoming a convert, refused to go and see her act. Moore endeavoured to persuade him into witnessing one, at least, of her performances, but his answer was, punning upon Shakespeare's word, "unanneal'd," "No, I am resolved to continue un-o'neiled." (A shockingly bad pun, certainly.)

Moore relates that when travelling in the coach he mentioned to a lady who sat next to him that he had heard Miss O'Neill sing one song lately. She asked, "Was it one of Moore's Irish Melodies?" "Yes." "Which of them?" "One that I believe is called 'Love's Young Dream.'" Moore adds. "I did not avow myself, though we were alone the greater part of the way."

Jane Austen records in one of her letters, "We were all to the play last night, to see Miss O'Neill in Isabella. I took two pocket handkerchiefs, but had little occasion for either. She is an elegant creature, however."

Speaking of Miss O'Neill's acting, Moore says, "I liked her in Lady Townley, but I had never seen it acted before, and I thought she looked so pretty, and so like a woman of fashion that I had much pleasure in the performance, though the critics said her gaiety was not gay enough." Strange to say, that in those very qualities which Irishwomen are supposed to possess, brightness, humour, and fun, Miss O'Neill was singularly deficient, and after several experiments, the managers decided that she should leave comedy alone, and always appear in tragic parts. She cried more naturally than any other actress, her tears seemed to be wrung from her very heart.

In "Venice Preserved," she struck out an original idea of her own. Mrs. Siddons used to stand in the middle of the stage, and say the words "Remember twelve!" in a deep tragic tone. Miss O'Neill walked with slow steps to the door, and stopped for a few minutes, then in a husky whisper, as if the words were choking her, she repeated, "Remember twelve!"—Six bursts of applause told that she had found the right reading of the part.

She acted in Richard Sheil's tragedy of "Adelaide; or, the Emigrants," with great success. Shell was one of her most devoted admirers, and he relates how, by her dictation, he wrote a refusal of an offer of marriage, made to her by the Earl of Normanby. Such a marriage as this would have placed a coronet on her brow, but she preferred to remain faithful to the lover who had wooed her, five years before, at Kilkenny. On the 13th July, 1819, she appeared as Mrs. Haller, in "The Stranger." It was announced to be her last appearance in London before Christmas.

She made a very successful tour in Ireland during the summer and autumn of that year. She received upwards of £2,000 for a limited number of appearances in Cork and Dublin, and Mr. Jones, who engaged her, cleared between £2,000 and £3,000 by this transaction. On the 7th August she appeared at Crow Street Theatre, as Mrs. Beverley in "The Gamester," to the Beverley of Charles Kemble. "Venice Preserved," she acted in on the 18th November, at Crow Street, and "The Gamester" was given in the same week by special desire of the Persian Ambassador, who attended in all the glory of his oriental splendour. Her last appearance in Dublin was on the nth December, when she played Juliet, and Maria in "The Citizen," for her own benefit. Seven days afterwards, on the 18th December, she was married to Mr. William Wrixon Becher, then M.P. for Mallow. The marriage is thus announced in the papers of the day:—

"William Wrixon Becher, Esq., a gentleman of very considerable property, to the lovely and accomplished Miss O'Neill. The ceremony was performed by the Hon. and Rev. the Dean of Ossory. Mr. Becher settles £1,000 a year on the lady, and refuses to take a shilling of her fortune, which she has settled on her family as follows:—On her father and mother £500 a year, her brother Robert £300 a year, her second brother, in the 44th Regiment, £200 a year, and the sum of £5,000 on her sister."

Altogether, in the course of five years, she had realised the sum of £30,000, and though she was called avaricious, not a penny was kept for herself. So, at the age of eight and twenty, Eliza O'Neill was lost to the stage, and never returned to it, not even in the cause of charity. Soon after the marriage, by the death of his uncle, Mr. Becher succeeded to the baronetcy, and from henceforth the famous actress led the life of a baronet's wife in a pleasant nook in the County Cork, rarely leaving a home endeared to her by many ties.

In that amusing book, "On and off the Stage," by Sir Squire and Lady Bancroft, it is related that when Lady Becher was quite an old woman she happened to be in London, and went to the Garrick Club to see her own portrait, which now adorns the staircase. She stood before it for some time, and then burst into tears. Probably, her bygone triumphs were unrolled before her—again she heard the shouts of applause,—again she saw the closely packed houses—the fainting men and women—the rows upon rows of intent faces—held spellbound by the magic of her genius. It was as a dream when one awaketh. But she had her compensations—she had the love of her husband and children, she had the esteem and affection of hosts of friends, and, after all, fame to a woman is but as a "royal mourning in purple" for happiness, and can never satisfy the heart. Lady Becher died in 1872 at the great age of eighty-one.