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She yielded so entirely to the emotions she was called upon to depict, that in stage dialogues she often turned pale or flushed red, as varying passions prompted.
In Nathaniel Lee's “Rival Queens; or, The Death of Alexander the Great,” she, on one occasion, played Roxana to Mrs. Boutell's Statira. A dispute arose between the ladies as to the wearing of a certain veil, which the latter affirmed to belong to her part; and the stage-manager decided in her favour. Both actresses went upon the stage with their passions strongly excited, and probably the wrath and jealousy with which the dramatist endows the rival queens were never more faithfully represented. When, in the gardens of Semiramis, Roxana seizes her hated enemy, and a final struggle takes place, Mrs. Barry exclaiming, “ Die, sorceress, die ! and all my wrongs die with thee !” drove her keen dagger right through Statira's steel-bound stays. A slight wound was the result; and a considerable commotion. When the matter came to be investigated, Mrs. Barry protested that she had been carried away by the excitement of the scene; but there were not wanting censorious tongues to declare that she enjoyed the punishment she had inflicted on a rival.
To dwell on the record of Mrs. Barry's frailties would be humiliating and unprofitable. Like most of the actresses of her time, she lived a life of unbridled indulgence, which the contemporary wits of the coffee-houses knew how to paint in the darkest colours. She had a daughter by Sir George Etherege, who died before her mother. Tom Brown censures her averice; others speak of her as cold and heartless; but the woman to whom poor Otway addressed the six pathetic letters preserved in his
published works could not have been without some singular charm.
As Mrs. Betterton does not figure in the Chroniques Scandaleuses of the Merry Monarch's reign, we know but little of her history ; but for thirty years she was on the stage, and all that time she ranked amongst its greatest ornaments. As Miss Saunderson she won the heart and hand of the great actor, Thomas Betterton; and it is on record that she played Ophelia to his Hamlet, during the period of his courtship, and that the audience dwelt with particular interest on their dramatic love-passages, knowing that the two were shortly to be united in wedlock. Their married life was without a cloud; as their professional careers were without a failure. So profound was Mrs. Betterton's love for her noble husband, that at his death, in 1710, she lost her reason, and survived him only eighteen months.
Pepys always refers to this charming actress as Ianthe, from the part she played in Davenant's “Siege of Rhodes." His numerous allusions evidence the esteem in which she was held by the public. It was due to her artistic merits as well as to her unblemished private character that she was chosen, in 1674, to instruct the Princesses Mary and Anne in elocution. Afterwards, she was engaged to teach the Princess Anne the part of Semandra in Lee's noisy tragedy of “Mithridates." When Betterton died, Queen Anne settled on his widow a pension of £500 a year.
Cibber says—" She was so great a mistress of Nature, that even Mrs. Barry, who acted Lady Macbeth after her, could not in that part, with all her superior strength and melody of voice, throw out those quick and careless strokes
of terror, from the disorder of a guilty mind, which the other gave us, with a facility in her manner that rendered them at once tremendous and delightful.”
In November, 1685, when the United Company, comprising the “ best talent” both of Davenant and Killigrew's old companies, opened their season at Drury Lane
Theatre, among the leading ladies, and second only to Mrs. Barry, were Mrs. Mountfort, and Mrs. Bracegirdle.
Mrs. Mountfort was the soul of comedy; and in Cibber's admirable portrait-gallery he devotes to this charming actress one of his most finished sketches. She was mistress, he says, of more variety of humour than he had ever known in any one actress. “This variety," he continues, " was attended with an equal vivacity, which made her excellent in characters extremely difficult. As she was naturally a pleasant mimic, she had the skill to make that talent useful on the stage. When the elocution is round, distinct, voluble, and various, as Mrs. Mountfort's was, the mimic there is a great assistance to the actor. Nothing, though ever so barren, if within the bounds of nature, could be flat in her hands. She gave many brightening touches to characters but coldly written, and often made an author vain of his work, that, in itself, had but little merit. She was so fond of humour, in what part soever to be found, that she would make no scruple of defacing her fair face to come beartily into it, for when she was eminent in several desirable characters of wit and humour, in higher life, she would be in as much fancy, when descending into the antiquated Abigail of Fletcher, as when triumphing in all the airs and vain graces of a fine lady; a merit that few actors care for. In a play of D'Urfey's now forgotten, called “The Western Lass,' which part she acted, she transformed her whole
being-body, shape, voice, language, look and featuresinto almost another animal, with a strong Devonshire dialect, a broad laughing voice, a poking head, round shoulders, an unconceiving eye, and the most bedizening dawdy dress that ever covered the untrained limbs of a Joan trot. To have seen her here, you would have thought it impossible that the same could ever have been removed to, what was as easy to her, the gay, the lively, and the desirable. Nor was her humour limited to her sex, for while her shape permitted, she was a more adroit, pretty fellow than is usually seen upon the stage. Her easy air, action, mien, and gesture, quite changed from the coif to the cocked-hat and cavalier in fashion. People were so fond of seeing her a man that when the part of Bayes, in ‘The Rehearsal,' had for some time lain dormant, she was desired to take it up, which I have seen her act with all the true coxcomly spirit and humour that the sufficiency of the character required.
“But what found most employment for her whole various excellence at once was the part of Melantha, in Marriage á la Mode.'* Melantha is as finished an impertinent as ever fluttered in a drawing-room, and seems to contain the most complete system of female foppery that could possibly be crowded into the tortured form of a fine lady. The language, dress, motion, manners, soul, and body, are in a continual hurry to be something more than is necessary or commendable. The first ridiculous airs that break from her are upon a gallant, never seen before, who delivers her a letter from her father, recommending him to her good graces as an honourable lover. Here, now, one would think that she might naturally show a little of the sex's decent reserve, though never so
* Dryden's comedy, produced in 1672.
slightly covered. No, sir! not a tittle of it! Modesty is the virtue of a poor-souled country gentlewoman. She is too much a Court lady to be under so vulgar a confusion. She reads the letter, therefore, with a careless, dropping lip, and an erected brow, humming it hastily over, as if she were impatient to out go her father's commands, by making a complete conquest of him at once; and that the letter might not embarrass her attack, crack! she crumbles it at once into her palm, and pours upon him her whole artillery of airs, eyes, and motion. Down goes her dainty, diving body to the ground, as if she were sinking under the conscious load of her own attractions; then launches into a flood of fine language and compliment, still playing her chest forward in fifty falls and risings, like a swan upon waving water; and, to complete her impertinence, she is so rapidly fond of her own wit that she will not give her lover leave to praise it. Silent assenting bows, and vain endeavours to speak, are all the share of the conversation he is admitted to, which at last he is relieved from, by her engagement to half a score visits, which she swims from him to make, with a promise to return in a twinkling.”
She made her debut on the stage as Miss Percival, and enacted the character of Nell in “The Devil to Pay." After her marriage to William Mountfort, her best characters were Melantha, already spoken of, and Belinda in Congreve's “Old Bachelor.” Mountfort, a comedian of brilliant merit, who played the airy, graceful, ardent lover as to the manner born, was slain by Captain Hill in 1692; and his widow soon afterwards married the actor Verbruggen. She died in 1703.