Friday, October 10, 2008

Tart of the Week: Peg Woffington

Margaret Woffington's career began began at an early age when her bricklayer father suddenly died. She roamed the streets of Dublin singling for money or selling watercress door to door to support her family. It was in these humble beginnings that she was 'discovered' at the age of ten, and given her start on the stage.

For about 10 years Peg acted and danced in various theaters around Dublin in order to get by. Her big break came in 1737 (probably age 17) when her Ophelia met great acclaim in a production of Hamlet. This allowed her the prestige and money to travel to London in 1740 to attempt to make it big there. She luckily was immediately met with success, although this could be because she took a breeches role. It never hurts to show some skin in showbiz!

Not only did Peg show a skill in playing breeches roles, which she was given quite frequently, but she took to playing aristocrats well. An interesting fact considering her voice was described as "harsh." Peg quickly gained the reputation of being a leading comic actress and began having friends in high places such as the Gunning Sisters and one of the most famous actors in history, David Garrick. In fact, a love bloomed between the two thespians and they lived together (in sin!) for a while. The couple had planned to wed but Peg ended up dumping him.

She went on to have numerous public affairs with men in high places such as the Earl of Darnley and MP Charles Hanbury Williams but managed not to have any children. A smart tart, I say! Actually she was known for being a kind, genuine person, however tart-like. In fact, she was so well-liked she was even the president of Thomas Sheridan's Beefsteak Club in Dublin. Normally clubs were a place for men to gamble and and be debaucherous so women were not allowed. Peg was actually the only woman member in the Beefsteak Club as well as President. It was whispered, however, that Peg didn't get along with fellow popular actresses George Anne Bellamy and Kitty Clive. Many heated arguments are said to have erupted between the actresses up until Peg's death.

Like any good actress, Peg left with a dramatic exit. While playing Rosalind in a Covent Garden production of As You Like It, she suddenly collapsed and was said to be paralyzed. Although she recovered from her accident, it forced her retirement. She spent the next three years in ill-health under the care of an army officer, until she died in 1760 at the age of 40.


  1. I love your tarts of the week Heather. Particularly when they involve actresses. Amazing that once upon a time, actress and prostitute were almost the same thing.

  2. Thank you Elizabeth, coming from you is a compliment indeed!

    I come from the Mrs Siddons school so I always hated that stereotype of actress=prostitute because it made it so difficult for the few non-slutty actresses to be taken seriously. But the more actresses I learn of the more I realize that once again, stereotypes don't appear out of nowhere.

  3. I've just been reading biographies of this one, and there were two amusing stories (I think the source is "Comedy Queens of the Georgian Era" by John Fyvie).
    Firstly, a contemporary described her has "having all of the feminine virtues except one".
    The other related a dialogue between her and and a drama critic regarding her many "breeches" parts. She said "Half of London thinks me a man" and the critic replied "And the other half knows for a fact that you are a woman".

  4. That is great! I love 18th century wit.

  5. Another fabulous post. It seems to me that few of these 'tarts' led long and prosperous lives. They might have lived high on the hog for a period of time, but in the end many wound up just like Peg Woffington - alone, destitute, and ill, and dying at an early age.

  6. Ah, Davy. No where near as immaculate as presented in Robertson's play.