Lena Ashwell (1872-1957)

Lena Ashwell Lena Ashwell
(signed postcard, J Beagles, 28C, c.1905/6) as Leah Kleschna
(signed postcard, matt, Rotary Photo, 200M, c.1905/6)

Lena Ashwell (whose real name was Lena Margaret Pocock) was born on 28th September 1872 on board the ship Wellesey in the River Tyne, England. She was raised and educated in Canada. Later, deciding to pursue a singing career, she studied music at Lausanne in Switzerland and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Her voice, however, proved to be inadequate and, apparently on the advice of Ellen Terry, she became an actress.

In 1891, she made her stage debut in The Pharisee. Shortly afterwards, she appeared, with Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving in King Arthur. At first, it was her youthful beauty rather than her acting skills that impressed - but her stage skills developed rapidly. Her appearance, somewhat unusually, as Prince Edward in Irving's 1896 production of Richard III considerably enhanced her reputation and, for the next twenty years, she was one of England most famous and best loved actresses.

Among her many stage successes were Shakespeare plays (including Portia in a 1900 production of Julius Caesar and Emilia in the 1902 Othello), as Lygia in Quo Vadis (1900) and the title roles in Henry Arthur Jones's Mrs. Danes's Defense (1900) and C. M. S. McLellan's Leah Kleschna (1905).

In 1906, although still continuing to act, she went into theatre management, first briefly at the Savoy and then, from 1907 to 1915, she ran her own theatre, the Kingsway.

In 1908, she married Sir Henry Simpson, the royal obstetrician (who was later the surgeon when Queen Elizabeth II was born).

After the commencement of the First World War, in 1915, she began organizing companies of professional actors to entertain the allied armies in France. By the end of the war, twenty-five of her companies were performing for the troops in Europe. For this work, Lena Ashwell was awarded the Order of the British Empire. 

After the war, she started the Once-a-Week Players (later known as the Lena Ashwell Players) that, extending the idea of the troop entertainers, presented plays with minimal scenery and props in village and suburban halls. After this, she managed the Century Theatre from 1924 to 1929 - the year of her last stage appearance. Her autobiography, Myself a Player, was published in 1936.

Lena Ashwell Lena Ashwell
Lena Ashwell as Deborah Krillet
in The Shulamite. Signed postcard 
(Rotary Photo, 200P)
Lena Ashwell (left)
as Lady Kilross with
Kate Rorke (right)
in The Sway Boat.
Click photo for enlargement

Lena Ashwell died in London on March 13, 1957.

On December 26, 1896, Bernard Shaw, in his review of Sir Henry Irving's production of Richard III, wrote:

"Italian opera itself could go no further in folly than the exhibition of a pretty and popular young actress in tights as Prince Edward. No doubt we were glad to see Miss Lena Ashwell - for the matter of that we should have been glad to see Mrs. John Wood as the other prince - but from the moment she came on the stage all serious historical illusion necessarily vanished, and was replaced by the most extreme form of theatrical convention. Probably Sir Henry Irving cast Miss Ashwell for the part because he has not followed her career since she played Elaine in King Arthur. She was then weak, timid, subordinate, with an insignificant presence and voice which, contrasted as it was with Miss Terry's, could only be described - if one had the heart to do it - as a squawl.

Since then she has developed precipitously. If any sort of success had been possible for the plays in which she has appeared this year at the Duke of York's and Shaftesbury Theatres, she would have received a large share of the credit of it. Even in Carmen, when, perhaps for the sake of auld lang syne, she squawled and stood on the tips of her heels for the last time (let us hope), her scene with the dragoon in the first act was the one memorable moment in the whole of that disastrous business.

She now returns to the Lyceum stage as an actress of mark, strong in womanly charm, and not in the least the sort of person whose sex is so little emphasized that it can be hidden by a doublet and hose. You might as well put forward Miss Ada Rehan as a boy. Nothing can be more absurd than the spectacle of Sir Henry Irving elaborately playing the uncle to his little nephew when he is obviously addressing a fine young woman in rational dress who is very thoroughly her own mistress, and treads the boards with no little authority and assurance as one of the younger generation knocking vigorously at the door.

Miss Ashwell makes short work of the sleepiness of the Lyceum; and though I take urgent exception to her latest technical theory, which is that the bridge of the nose is the seat of facial expression, I admit that she does all that can be done to reconcile us to the part that should have burlesque of her appearance in a part that should have been played by a boy"

You may also be interested in these associated sites:

The Camerino Players

Medieval Drama Links

Bibliography of Cornish Medieval Drama

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