Elizabeth O’Neill – A Great Tragedienne

A couple of months after the guillotining of Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth O’Neill was born in Drogheda, Ireland, on 12 December 1793. She was the eldest daughter of John O’Neill, Esq., a theater manager, and his wife, who was a daughter of a Mr. Featherstone of Longford County. O’Neill was raised in poverty and noted by one local tradesman to have been “the ‘little cratur’ [sic] running barefoot about the streets.”[1]

Elizabeth O'Neill, Public Domain

Elizabeth O’Neill. Public domain.

O’Neill may have been barefoot, but by the time she was twelve years old she made her acting debut. The first time she stepped onto her father’s stage, she received applause and became a resounding success. In fact, her acting ability soon outpaced the Drogheda theater, and she found herself under the wing of the manager of the Belfast Company, a man named Mr. Talbot.

Two years later she moved to the Dublin stage. This occurred after a Dublin manager came knocking at her door. “Her debut in the Irish metropolis was equally auspicious to her fame.”[2] At the time she performed both in tragedies and comedies and equally captured the heart of her audience in either role.

Because of her creative, she soon found herself in London. At the time, the best-known female tragedienne of the 18th century, Mrs. Sarah Siddons, had just retired. Attempts to replace Siddons had proven ineffectual until Elizabeth O’Neill came along. To demonstrate what O’Neill was up against, theatre biographer Henry Barton Baker of the twentieth century wrote of Siddons:

“[W]hen she played Aphasia in Tamburlaine, after seeing her lover strangled before her eyes, so terrible was her agony as she fell lifeless upon the stage, that the audience believed she was really dead, and only the assurance of the manager could pacify them. One night Charles Young was playing Beverly to her Mrs. Beverly in The Gamester, and in the great scene was so overwhelmed by her pathos that he could not speak.”[3]

Fortunately, O’Neill was up to the task and she became Siddons’ successor. It happened when Elizabeth O’Neill made her London debut on 6 October 1814, in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Penny Illustrated Paper reported:

“In this, she made a great hit, to use the profession term, than any actress of her day had done. ‘When the curtain fell,’ writes one who was present on the occasion, ‘and the comedy of the Merry Wives of Windsor was announced for the next evening, there was a universal cry for the repetition of Romeo and Juliet, which was accordingly substituted, in compliance with the loudly expressed wish of an audience crowded up the very ceiling.’ From that day forth Miss O’Neill became one of the leading favourites of the London stage and it was whispered by many of her admirers that she would ultimately disturb Mrs. Siddons in her possession of the tragic throne.”[4] 

Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The paper was right because O’Neill’s portrayal of Juliet “fixed her fame [thereafter].”[5] From then on she performed nightly and progressively received raises until she was earning thirty pounds per week. Her success at provincial theaters was equally remarkable: “at Portsmouth, she was in receipt of seventy-five pounds per week.”[6]

She wasn’t just a star on stage. Off stage her conduct was “exemplary and ‘without reproach.'”[7] She was described as graceful, sweet and delicate. Her physical attributes were wonderful too. She was said to have blue eyes and light hair with “expressive features … [and] her voice … a mournful cadence.”[8] She was also described as being in height “little above the middle size, her countenance full of intelligence and sensibility, and her general comportment displaying that modesty and diffident feeling.”[9]

Elizabeth O’Neill assumed roles that were “in the loftier walks of tragedy, and great praise was awarded for her powerful [performance] in Juliet, Belvidera, and Jane Shore.”[10] However, in 1816 she decided to forgo tragic characters for comedy, but, unfortunately, her comedic abilities did not receive the praise she expected. This induced her to return to her former tragic characters because she seemed “formed for scenes of terror and agony.”[11]

In 1819, Elizabeth O’Neill married an Irish gentleman of fortune, Sir William Becher, M.P. (later Sir Becher), and retired from the stage. During her career she “realized twelve thousand pounds a year by her professional services … [and] as an actress, she was considered the greatest of the age in which she lived.”[12] She achieved admirers by the dozen and was noted by one admirer to be “a lovely ardent creature, with whose griefs we sympathized, and whose sorrows raised our pity.”[13]

Lady Becher by John James Masquerier, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Elizabeth O’Neill after she became Lady Becher. By John James Masquerier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Elizabeth O’Neill died at the age of eighty on 29 October 1872. Her remains were interred in the family vault at Castlemartyr churchyard. The Ballyhass National School, in which O’Neill had taken a great interest, had its windows draped in black and a black streamer suspended from its roof in honor of their patroness. It was also reported that O’Neill’s funeral cortege was more than a mile long. In addition, a brief biography was published in the Penny Illustrated Paper a week or so after her death. In part it stated:

“During her brief reign on the stage … her earnings were settled on her family. Lady Becher had spent the last twenty-two years of her life in widowhood, retired from the world, and residing for the most part in the remote district in which she breathed her last. By her union with Sir William Becher she had a family of three sons and two daughters.”[14]

References:

  • [1] Oxberry, William, etal., Famous Actors, 1894, p. 191.
  • [2] Jones, Charles Innigo, etal., Memoirs of Miss O’Neill, 1816, p. 8.
  • [3] Baker, Henry Barton, History of the London Stage and Its Famous Players, 1904, p. 131.
  • [4] “Stories of To-Day,” in Penny Illustrated Paper, 9 November 1872, p. 295.
  • [5] Jones, Charles Innigo, p. 24.
  • [6] The Actor Or, a Peep Behind the Curtain, 1846, p. 46.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 49.
  • [8] Oxberry, William, p. 203.
  • [9] Jones, p. 11.
  • [10] The Actor Or, a Peep Behind the Curtain, p. 46.
  • [11] The European Magazine, and London Review, Vol. 66, p. 384.
  • [12] The Actor Or, a Peep Behind the Curtain, p. 48.
  • [13] Oxberry’s Dramatic Biography and Histrionic Anecdotes, 1825 , p. 49. 
  • [14] “Stories of To-Day,” p. 295.

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