The first time I read the name Lena Ashwell was in connection with a production in 1902 of the Japan-set drama The Darling of the Gods. The second time I came across her was on a walk through 1970s Westbourne Grove where I encountered the former home of her troupe the Century Players. And then of course there was the role of the Lena Ashwell Players in entertaining troops in the Great War. So it became inevitable there would be a blog post about her. I’ve found this before. A person who seemed obscure or forgotten turns out to have a rich and fascinating history. (And why hadn’t I heard of them before?) I found so many pictures I decided to concentrate on her pre-war career this time
The director Herbert Beerbohm Tree took Lena to dinner with our friend Yoshio Markino to get some advice on turning Japanese for the part of Yosan.
She writes in her memoirs: “The movements and manners and make-up were taught to us by the most attractive and gentle of mankind , Yoshio Markino. Having read of the vegetarian diet and generally small demands of the highly evolved, I watched with envy and admiration that he had only a glass of milk for his lunch….Until I read his book on his life I had no idea that he was starving and that the one glass of milk was all he could buy. Pride may sometimes seem foolishness to the practical, but at the same time it is wise.”
She also says that Tree had not wanted her in the part and that it was the author David Belasco who had insisted on her. Experiences like this may have been the deciding factor in her becoming an actor-manager as she did for her next project. But before all that she was a promising young actress in the late 19th century….
As part of George Alexander’s company she appeared in a play called Sowing the wind in which she understudied the lead to begin with but later took over as a leading lady on a tour. In Ireland during winter the stages were very cold. “Sowing the wind is a costume play and my dress was very thin. The first act took place in a garden and the garden seat on which I had to sit was painted iron – it was almost imposible to prevent a squeal as one sat upon the freezing surface.”
Despite such hardships she was starting to get good notices. She worked for Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. at the Lyceum. In King Arthur “I had a short scene with Ellen Terry in the first act and had to be a corpse in the third….I can still see Sir Henry’s voice as he lifted the veil off my face…The winter was very cold and I had a horrible fear that one night I might sneeze; so a young doctor gave me a spray to use which very nearly ruined my life. I suppose at first it was not realised that cocaine was a dangerous drug.”
She was back at the Lyceum in 1896 to play the Prince of Wales in Richard III. Although he deplored the idea of an actress in a male role George Bernard Shaw singled her out for praise as “an actress of mark.”
The memoirs are full of anecdotes about the knockabout lives of young actors. Lena thrived in the life and had a growing reputation.
One of her first big sucesses was in Mrs Dane’s Defence, with Charles Wyndham. Lena played the title role. “None believed Mrs Dane would be a success. I was a dark horse and Mrs D ane was a woman with a murky past.” But: “Wyndham said that the applause when the curtain fell was the most tremendous he had ever known”
The King visited the play, and outside the theatre she saw her own face on rows of picture postcards. She was tasting the celebrity life like any modern actor. “I was pursued by detectives. Wherever I went they were there, watching me in restautants, waiting outside my house, following me in cabs…Whilst I was away in Berlin one of my servants had been bribed to report all my movements”
There were other examples of the celebrity life which would be recognizeable today:
As you can see from the pictures Lena was an attractive young woman. But like many young actresses she worried about her looks. She writes that on the way to a dinner party where she would be introduced to John Singer Sargent she repeated the mantra: “I am very beautiful. I AM very beautiful. I stepped out of the four-wheeler, passed up the staircase, the door was flung open, Miss Lena Ashwell was announced – I caught my foot in something and still bravely repeating the formula fell headlong into the room. The rest is silence.”
The run of Mrs Dane came to an end with the death of Queen Victoria.
Lena returned to Her Majesty’s Theatre to appear in an adaptaion of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection. The character of Katusha is an innocent girl, later tried as an accessory to murder,who becomes a drunk in prison, redeems herself in the hospital prison ward and ends up as “a saint in Siberia”
Beerbohm Tree was Prince Dimitry. Lena says “He had never been through the mill and remained in many ways an amateur.” The famous man sounds a bit trying to me. “During the love-scene in the first act he would amuse himself by unfastening all the hooks which did up my peasant’s dress at the back, leaving me to walk up the stage with my bodice unfastened. Even pins could not deter him, and at last I had to be sown into my frock.”
Enough to drive you to drink..or smoking.
Despite the distractions she also perfected a desperate scream for the scene in which Katusha is sentenced to exile in Siberia, which during rehearsals sent people at the theatre running to see who had been hurt. The play Leah Kleschna was written for her by CMS McLellan as a result of her performance.
She remained with Tree at the same theatre for Darling of the Gods. After that she intended to start her own company with her friend the American actor Robert Taber but during the run of Darling he died at the age of only 38. This was a devastating blow. Not only were they friends but they could have formed a lasting stage partnership.
This was them in 1900 in a play called Bonnie Dundie.
Lena eventually went ahead with the play, Leah Kleschna, a drama about a woman burglar.
The production was not entirely successful despite being put on in London and New York. Also a financial failure though “tremendously interesting” was The Shulamite, set in south Africa and first performed in Chicago
Lena came back from America ill and disheartened. This was when she met her future husband Dr Henry Simson. (She was not yet divorced from her first husband)
Lena encouraged Cicely Hamilton to write a comedy, Diana of Dobson’s about a shop girl who inherits a small amount of money which enables her to escape the drudgery of retail life for a short while.
Lena was thankful to play in a comedy at last.
I’m drawing to a close with a play at the Globe Theatre for which Charles Frohman engaged most of Lena’s company: Madame X.
It was another big drama ” I reduced the audience to tears; strong men broke down and sobbed aloud in the boxes; they laid out stores of handkerchiefs. I had many wonderful letters including one from Ellen Terry full of praise especially of my high, high death.”
The play was produced, I was interested to note by Dion Boucicault, who we came across as the owner of Hereford House and Coleherne Court. So this post has begun and ended with a link to another, an early case of six degrees of Kevin Bacon. More connections: Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was the father of film director Carol Read, who lived in Chelsea, and the grandfather of Oliver Reed who appeared in the classic Chelsea film I’ll never forget whatsisname. (Both via Tree’s mistress May Pinnet Reed)
There’s much more to Lena Ashwell’s life which we’ll save for another day.
This week’s pictures come from Margaret Leask’s book “Lena Ashwell: actress, patriot, pioneer” ,2012, and from Lena’s own “Myself a player” 1936. Thank to Westminster City Archives for loaning me the first and to Kim for transporting it to Kensington. The second I naturally found in our own Biographies Collection, a bona fide treasure trove of rare biographies and the envy of many a library. I found the subjects of two future blog posts down there this afternoon.
Attentive readers will remember that I promised you a post far from Kensington and Chelsea this week. Like all good actors Lena Ashwell found a way to push herself into the spotlight first. But the traveller in antique land will appear soon.