Our History – The female ‘Hamlet’

  • 18
  • Dec

Delve deeper into the history of our borough with our series of posts in collaboration with Islington Museum and the Local History Centre. All objects mentioned are on display or held at these venues. Read the full series here.

Early women performers at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Islington

When Sadler’s Wells opened in 1683, it was 23 years after actresses first appeared on stage. Prior to 1660, female roles were acted by adolescent boys but after the Restoration (of the monarchy), Charles II encouraged theatre managers to employ women.

The earliest evidence found of a woman headlining at Sadler’s Wells is 1740, when a Mrs Rayner danced ‘The Parting Lovers’. There may well have been female performers before this year but earlier records mainly consist of adverts for performances with few artist names given.

Other early female entertainers include another Miss Rayner (presumably a relation of the above) who, in 1748, demonstrated her skills on the rope while having candlesticks attached to her feet. And in 1759, Miss Isabella Wilkinson performing on the wire fell and broke both legs!

Miss Marriott: the female ‘Hamlet’

In 1862, a year after the retirement of Samuel Phelps, actor-manager of Sadler’s Wells and resident of Canonbury Square, a married couple, Mr Robert and Mrs Alice Edgar undertook the management of the theatre. Mr Edgar occupied himself with the administrative business of the theatre whilst Mrs Edgar became its leading lady, acting under the name Miss [Alice] Marriott.

An obituary for Miss Marriott in the Sadler Well’s Theatre Archive held at Islington Local History Centre reveals that she first appeared on the London stage in 1854. On becoming co-manager of the Wells, she produced plays as well as acting in them and had “equal success [with] parts so opposed as Juliet and Lady Macbeth.” Playbills in the archive describe her as “the eminent tragedienne” for her title role in ‘Jeanie Deans! or, The Sisters of St Leonards’. This play was highly popular and had been adapted from Walter Scott’s novel ‘The Heart of Mid-Lothian’.

Her greatest success however came when she played ‘Hamlet’, which she first played at Sadler’s Wells on 22 February 1864. During the late 19th Century many actresses had undertaken this role and Miss Marriott’s interpretation of William Shakespeare’s drama was so successful that she played the part for 50 nights in London. It appears that Miss Marriott developed a taste for playing the lead male role in productions, as she would later play Romeo in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Miss Marriott stayed at Sadler’s Wells for six years before touring the world with her own company; she regularly returned to Sadler’s Wells and, in 1881, again became manager of the theatre. In the late 1880s she joined the Lyceum Company where she acted alongside Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, the greatest actors of their generation. Miss Marriot died on Christmas day 1900 aged 76. Edgar Wallace, the creator of ‘King Kong’, was her illegitimate grandson.

Sadler’s Wells’ history is richly scattered with women who have steered its fortunes, including:

  • Mary Warner, joint manager in the 1840s
  • Mrs Bateman, who restored the theatre in 1879
  • Lilian Baylis, who re-opened the theatre in 1931
  • Dame Ninette de Valois, who established its reputation for ballet in the 1930s
  • Dame Margot Fonteyn, who trained and danced at Sadler’s Wells in the 1930s and 40s

Why not contact Islington Local History Centre and make an appointment to find out more about women at Sadler’s Wells Theatre?

View the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Archive catalogue.

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