On the actress Ada Rehan.
Kiss Me, Kate is back, and long may it flourish. But let us not confuse that Kate—no matter her dynamism—with the real thing, Shakespeare’s own Katherine. She is the true shrew who wants no #MeToo, of whom, these days, there are few. Once, in the memory of those of a certain age, Elizabeth Taylor came close, but I wonder if she should count, since that casting was typed, and she really was never tamed.
No, only one woman played this role to its brim, and though she is dead, the same ought not to be true of her fame. Though you’ve likely never heard of her, she was the queen of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century New York stage and beyond, the straw that stirred the drink that was Augustin Daly’s unrivalled theater company, and the muse of many a critic, especially William Winter, who gave opinion-makers their opinions and who fawned a good deal but only over books, unless he was writing of Ada Rehan.
Though you’ve likely never heard of her, Ada Rehan was the queen of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century New York stage and beyond.
Born Delia Crehan in Limerick, Ireland, on April 22, 1857, Ada (whose stage name resulted from a misprint) came to Brooklyn when she was eight. Without much schooling and with no family history in the theater, she made her first appearance on stage at age thirteen as an emergency stand-in for her brother-in-law. Soon—still in her teens—she moved up into the company of the formidable Mrs. John Drew and acted with John Drew, Jr. (the uncle of John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore), who praised her lavishly. She did repertory with other companies, and before joining Daly’s she had already played Ophelia to Edwin Booth’s Hamlet; Lady Anne to John McCullough’s Richard III; Cordelia, Desdemona, and Celia in As You Like It; and Olivia in Twelfth Night.
On July 9, 1879, she answered Daly’s offer: “I write to formally close the engagement with you for the season of ’79 & ’80. I accept your offer of $35 per week with the understanding that you will increase it as you promised should I be worth more to you—which I sincerely trust will be the case. What I am most anxious for is to play good business, as I am refusing a positive leading position & higher salary to accept the engagement with you. However I will leave the matter of bus. entirely in your hands feeling confident you will do what is just.”
Before, with, and after Daly, Ada was also the mistress of “old comedy” (for example as Hyppolita in Colley Cibber’s She Would and She Would Not, as Lady Teazle in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, and as Peggy Thrift in William Wycherley’s The Country Girl). Often, though the productions were drab, the audience came to see her—tall, lithe, full and curly brown hair, comely of feature and physique, consummately skilled (including in a farcical athleticism), and thoroughly convincing (in part owing to her unstinting preparation). By her early twenties she was a star, had helped make Daly’s company the commanding theatrical enterprise of its long day, and, some say, had altered the course of New York stage history.
She opened as Katherine on January 18, 1887, beginning an unprecedented (for a Shakespeare comedy) run of 137 consecutive performances. That, according to Hardin Craig, the great mid-century Shakespeare scholar, marked the high pitch of acclaim for an actress in the role as well as the beginning of our modern stage history of The Taming of the Shrew. After Daly’s death, Ada herself successfully revived the play a number of times, both in New York and in London. In fact, nearly twenty years after her debut as Kate, people were still eager to see her—which was not the case with either her predecessors or her successors.
The theater, at Broadway and Thirtieth Street, held about a thousand people, with tickets priced at $1.50 (orchestra), $12 (Parisian boxes), and $15 (stage boxes). The sight lines and acoustics were excellent, and the stage, probably with three doors, could accommodate panoramic scenes. Suiting contemporary demands for naturalism, the production was typically lavish in its detail—by our standards very busy. One eyewitness describes “sumptuous boudoir and jewelled robes, gardens of Oriental magnificence, and forests which fairly reek with luxurious beauty and painted favors of nature.” Theatre Magazine thought the Italian design was “without that overloading of detail which seems to be de rigueur” [emphasis mine]. The New York Times allowed that the illusion of time and place was preserved by the inclusion of gold furniture once owned by King Bomba of Naples and by genuine sixteenth-century Florentine furniture in Act IV, the peak of Daly’s taming sequence.
Ah, the mutability of taste. George Bernard Shaw, who despised Daly but loved Ada, called it vaudeville, especially since music broke in frequently. Daly’s response, written in his privately printed prompt book (now in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin), was that the show “was decorated by only those accessories of scenery and costume which a conscientious director would [provide].”
As for the script proper, Daly was a restorer—sort of. His was the first American attempt to stage the original rather than David Garrick’s 1754 version. That was in spite of Winter, who had a hand in the mix and had his rules: the play should be less than three hours long, vulgarity and “fine literary passages” that did not advance the plot should be cut, and everything that impedes the action must go. Though Daly made Shakespeare’s five acts into four and cut some lines (“marry, so I mean, sweet Katherine, in thy bed”) as too lewd, he kept the subplots as well as the Christopher Sly Induction business, and—just like Will—he proceeded to forget about it.
Largely forgotten now, Daly (1838–99) seeded the ground that would become The Great White Way. But before becoming a producer he was a drama critic, an adapter of plays, and a playwright. As a manager he was a tyrant (“the autocrat of the stage”), levying heavy fines for lateness and forgetfulness, but he attracted and cultivated great talent, promoting (among others) Tyrone Power, Sr., Isadora Duncan, and Maurice Barrymore. (He also seems to have invented the trope of the ingénue tied by the mustachioed villain to railroad tracks.) Such would be his success that in 1893 he would open another theater, in London, and take his company on tour to England, France, and Germany, where Ada received raves.
Ada’s Kate was comedic rather than farcical, a woman who put an end to “quivering indignation” in the interests of a woman at odds with herself—and who, apparently, saw the humor in it all. Some of the other actors were panned, including Drew himself, but for Ada applause broke out a number of times during the performance. “Club men,” wrote the Times, “to whom enthusiasm is bad form, joined the rest.” And why not? Her face was “impassioned,” her “gray eyes flashing with pride or melting tenderness.”
She apparently accomplished what no actress before or since has been able to do. According to The New York Dramatic Mirror, amid towering scorn “she yet shows a womanly sweetness which makes . . . logical the denouement. . . . This contrast of a heart at war with circumstances and appearances that must be kept up has been . . . the hard test on which many lesser artists have gone to wreck.”
One account has Ada’s Kate metamorphosing so gradually that the change was barely noticeable. Another critic, incredulous, claimed to have seen two women simultaneously “whose refinement was evident even in outbursts.” A third said that her voice, hands, face, and entire body combined to show the thoughts passing through her mind. Her calling the sun the “mo-o-on” was marked by agonized vexation, but her “quiet” to Baptista was exquisitely comic as she flounced off the stage. Her silences at some points, and her softening voice at others, were alternately unsettling and tender.
According to other performers, including the great Ellen Terry, Ada herself was generous and attentive to others. With her “tempting beauty of eye and mouth,” “rich and varied voice,” “intelligence,” and “flashing wit,” she might have been proud. Instead, she was humble and reserved, as well as utterly lacking in jealousy. Not only Shaw, but Twain and Wilde (who had a mind to write a play for her after his release from prison) admired her greatly, women affected her manner of speaking, and ladies’ hats were named after her. She is the subject of a So-Called Dollar (not U.S. currency but one of many collectible commemorative coins issued to celebrate various expositions) and the model for a silver statue of Justice for the state of Montana. Her portrait, by Sargent, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Biographers really must get busy, beginning with McGhee. Our actors, at least, should know of Ada’s art.
Inexplicably, then, the Rehan bibliography is scant. In fact, the most thorough and reliable commentary on her art and career is “The Acting of Ada Rehan (Ada Crehan 1860–1916) : a study based on contemporary opinion,” a 1919 M.A. thesis for the University of Iowa by Mildred Mae McGhee. I wonder how many professional actors even know of her.
It is McGhee who documents the crowds who waited in long lines to buy tickets, that Ada received a “recall” after her first scene with Petruchio, that the hundredth performance was as crowded as the first, and that the next show, Needles and Pins, was postponed indefinitely. On the night of that hundredth performance, Daly gave everyone in the audience a souvenir: a copy of the play especially arranged from his own prompt book. Biographers really must get busy, beginning with McGhee. Our actors, at least, should know of Ada’s art.
After retirement she lived in New York and on the English coast. When she died in New York on January 8, 1916, from cancer, there were exuberant obituaries, and, twenty-five years later, a World War II Liberty ship was christened the S.S. Ada Rehan. Now her ashes are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, where she is eager to inspire, surely, any aspiring Kate to greater heights than her own.
New to The New Criterion?
Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.Subscribe