THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH THEATRE (1880-1920)
by Sydney Higgins
| DOROTHEA BAIRD as Trilby
(signed postcard, matt, Beagles, 755, c.1900)
Dorothea Baird was born in Teddington (GB) on May 20, 1875. Her first stage appearances (when she was sixteen) were as one of the young women who were invited to participate in the student productions at the then all-male Oxford University. It was at this time she met H B Irving. In 1894, she joined Ben Greet's company, making her London debut as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The following year, Beerbohm Tree chose her to play Trilby opposite his Svengali in his production of Trilby at the Haymarket Theatre. It opened on October 30, 1895, and was a phenomenal success. As had happened when the play had earlier been premiered in the United States, Trilby created a sensation. Playing as she did a modern woman, who smoked continuously, went everywhere barefoot and wore a style-setting soft hat, Dorothea Baird as the talk of the town. Everybody went 'trilby' mad. There were, of course, the copies of her headwear for men that still perpetuate the name but, in addition, the shops filled with all kinds of Trilby souvenirs, there were a dozen Trilby-musical-hall songs and Toulouse Lautrec named his yacht 'Trilby'.
as Rosalind in
As You Like It.
Click photo to enlarge
In 1896, Dorothea Baird married H B Irving. Over the next few years, she played major roles in many plays including Hermione in The Winter's Tale, Rosalind in As You Like I and, in 1900, Helena in Beerbohm Tree's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that ran for 153 performances (from January 10-May 26) at Her Majesty's Theatre. She did not restrict herself to Shakespeare, however, in 1902, for example, playing the herd-boy in Tattercoats, a dramatization of the children's fable.
Having, with Trilby, already created one of the most famous female roles in a Nineteenth Century, it is noteworthy that, in 1904, she appeared in the first production of one of the Twentieth Century's most successful non-musical play, Peter Pan, playing the part of Mrs Darling.
Both plays were also enormous triumphs for the du Maurier family. George du Maurier had written the best selling novel Trilby on which the play was based; his son, the actor-manager Gerald du Maurier played Captain Hook (and Mr Darling) in Peter Pan; and, it was for the five young children of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies - Gerald's sister - that James Barrie had originally spun the story of Peter Pan. Another coincidence - in the first production of Peter Pan, to fill in during the elaborate scene-change from the Frozen River to the House Underground, Gerald du Maurier gave impersonations of fellow actors, Beerbohm Tree, Martin Harvey and Sir Henry Irving - Dorothea Baird's father-in-law.
After Sir Henry Irving's death in 1905, H B Irving established his own company, and, for the rest of her theatrical career, Dorothea Baird toured with her husband playing mainly repeats of Sir Henry Irving's best remembered performances.
In 1913, she retired from the stage. She had undoubtedly been an actor of considerable talent - more so, it has been rumoured, than her husband. But, like so many women of her era, her theatrical career was subordinate to that of her husband's. Six years after she retired, her husband died. She did not return to the stage but involved herself in charitable causes, especially those concerned with infant welfare.
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