Elizabeth Barry - Early Career

Early Career

A frequently repeated anecdote holds that the 17-year-old Barry at first performed so unskillfully that she was fired from the company several times, but was transformed into a brilliant actress by the coaching of her lover, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. While multiple sources confirm that Rochester was Barry's lover, the only source for the coaching story is a Life of Barry published in 1740 – 65 years after the events – by Edmund Curll, well known for his fanciful and inaccurate biographies.

Barry was a successful comedienne who created a variety of Restoration comedy heroines throughout her career, but her greatest impact on Restoration drama was as a tragic actress. Her capacity for projecting pathos was an inspiration to playwrights Thomas Otway and Thomas Southerne in the three famous tragic roles they wrote for her: Monimia in Otway's The Orphan (1680), Belvidera in Otway's Venice Preserved (1682), and Isabella in Southerne's The Fatal Marriage (1694). These three roles, wrote the prompter John Downes, "gain'd her the Name of Famous Mrs. Barry, both at Court and City, for when ever She Acted any of these three Parts, she forc'd Tears from the Eyes of her Auditory, especially those who have any Sense of Pity for the Distress't."

In his autobiography many years later, Colley Cibber recalled the power of her voice: "When distress of Tenderness possess'd her, she subsided into the most affecting Melody and Softness. In the Art of exciting Pity, she had a Power beyond all the Actresses I have yet seen, or what your Imagination can conceive." Elizabeth Howe has argued that it was Barry's success in the role of Monimia that "clinched the movement away from heroic drama and started the establishment of 'she-tragedy' as a popular genre." Barry was always described as being a plain woman. Portraits suggest intelligence but heavy features, and the playwright Thomas Shadwell writes in a letter in 1692 that it would have been better to have staged Nicholas Brady's The Rape in Roman dress, "and then w'th a Mantle to have covered her hips Mrs Barry would have acted ye part." Apparently none of this mattered to contemporaries. Even though Barry was "the ugliest Woman" in the world off stage, wrote the anonymous A Comparison Between the Two Stages (1702), she was "the finest Woman in the World upon the Stage."

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