Lena Ashwell by Margaret Leask - Read Online
Lena Ashwell
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Skillfully written and complemented with photos, this biography is the first to honor British actress-manager Lena Ashwell. In a rapidly changing world, Ashwell was crucial to the advancement of women in English theater and in the formation of the National Theater. The book highlights the inspiring woman’s other valuable accomplishments as well, including her efforts to raise money during World War I for thousands of concert-party troop entertainments and regular theater performances she established throughout local London communities. From her first appearance on stage in 1891 to the end of her life, this is Lena Ashwell’s story.
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ISBN: 9781907396755
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Lena Ashwell - Margaret Leask

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The Society for Theatre Research

The Society for Theatre Research, founded in 1948, brings together those interested in the history and technique of the British theatre, and it encourages research into these subjects. Lectures are held in London and members receive the Society’s illustrated journal, Theatre Notebook, as well as (at least) one book annually. The Society makes substantial Research Awards and in 1998 instituted the Theatre Book Prize. New members are welcome. Details of subscription rates and a list of past publications appear on the Society’s website - www.str.org.uk - or may be obtained by writing to: The Society for Theatre Research, PO Box 53971, London SW15 6UL.

First published in Great Britain in 2012 by

University of Hertfordshire Press College Lane



AL10 9AB


© Margaret Leask 2012

The right of Margaret Leask to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilised in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-1-907396-64-9 hardback

ISBN 978-1-907396-65-6 paperback

Typesetting and design by Tetragon

Printed in Great Britain by Henry Ling Ltd

Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders and obtain relevant permissions.

Dedicated, with gratitude, to the memory of two strong women who gave me great support, encouragement and love:

Peggy Leask and June Quentin


List of Illustrations

List of Abbreviations



1. Actress: early performing career

2. Actress-manager

3. Pioneer, 1908 to 1914

4. Patriot, 1915 to 1919

5. Pioneer and patriot: the Lena Ashwell Players

6. 1930 to 1957

Appendix 1 Ashwell as actress: plays, roles and theatres in which she appeared

Appendix 2 Lena Ashwell Players: touring schedule, 1919-1929

Appendix 3 Lena Ashwell Players: repertoire

Appendix 4 Members of the Lena Ashwell Players




1.1 Ashwell (Martin) in The Pharisee, Islington Grand, 1891 (photographer unknown, author’s collection), p. 3

1.2 Ashwell (Rosamund) in Sowing the Wind, Gaiety, 1894 (Chancellor Photo, author’s collection), p. 5

1.3 Ashwell (Edward, Prince of Wales) in Richard III, Lyceum, 1896 (Theatre Museum, V&A Picture Library), p. 9

1.4 Ashwell (Joan Mallory) in The Mayflower, Royal Court, 1899 (J. Beagles & Co, author’s collection), p. 12

1.5 Ashwell (Lady Jean Cochrane) and Robert Taber (John Graham of Claverhouse) in Bonnie Dundee, Adelphi, 1900 (Rotary Photo, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 14

1.6 Ashwell (Mrs Dane) in Mrs Dane’s Defence, Wyndham’s, 1900 (Biograph Studio, author’s collection), p. 17

1.7 Ashwell (Katusha) in her peasant’s costume for Act I, Resurrection, His Majesty’s, 1903 (Raphael Tuck, author’s collection), p. 23

1.8 Ashwell (Katusha) in Resurrection, His Majesty’s, 1903 (Raphael Tuck, author’s collection), p. 23

2.1 Ashwell in the title role of Marguerite, Coronet, 1904 (Rotophot, author’s collection), p. 36

2.2 Tragedy: Miss Lena Ashwell, The Sketch, 18 October 1905, p. 38

2.3 Ashwell in the title role of Leah Kleschna, New Theatre, 1905 (Ellis & Walery, author’s collection), p. 40

2.4 Ashwell in the title role of Leah Kleschna, New Theatre, 1905 (Play Pictorial, May 1905), p. 42

2.5 Ashwell (Ninon de L’Enclos) and Henry Ainley (Chevalier de Bellormé) in The Bond of Ninon, Savoy, 1906 (Rotary Photo, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 45

2.6 Ashwell (Deborah Krillet) in The Shulamite, Savoy, 1906 (Rotary Photo, author’s collection), p. 47

2.7 Ashwell (Deborah Krillet) in The Shulamite, Savoy, 1906 (Rotary Photo, author’s collection), p. 48

2.8 The Kingsway seating plan, Iris Intervenes programme, 1915 (author’s collection), p. 55

2.9 Kingsway programme cover, The Truants, 1908 (author’s collection), p. 57

2.10 l-r C.M. Hallard (Harry Chesterton), Ashwell (Irene), Henry Vibart (Charles Summers), Norman McKinnel (Philip Wycherley) and Dennis Eadie (Sir Peter Wycherley) in Act III, Irene Wycherley, Kingsway, 1907 (Dover Street Studios, Production Souvenir Folder, author’s collection), p. 60

3.1 Who is London’s Best Dressed Actress? London Sketches, 7 March 1908, p. 72

3.2 l-r Nannie Bennett (Miss Smithers), Ashwell (Diana), Christine Silver (Miss Brant), Doris Lytton (Miss Morton) and Muriel Vox (Miss Joy) in Act I, Diana of Dobson’s, Kingsway, 1908 (Dover Street Studios, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 74

3.3 Ashwell in the title role of Diana of Dobson’s, Kingsway, 1908 (Dover Street Studios, author’s collection), p. 75

3.4 C.M. Hallard (Captain Bretherton) and Ashwell (Diana) in Diana of Dobson’s, Kingsway, 1908 (Dover Street Studios, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 77

3.5 Ashwell (Lady Kilross) and Master Philip Tonge (Freddie Cartwright) in The Sway Boat, Kingsway, 1908 (Dover Street Studios, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 81

3.6 Ashwell (Countess of Killone) and Allan Aynesworth (Denzil Trevena) in The Earth, Kingsway, 1909 (Dover Street Studios, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 86

3.7 Ashwell (Jacqueline Fleuriot) and Arthur Wontner (Raymond Fleuriot) in Madame X, Globe, 1909 (Rotary Photo, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 89

3.8 C.M. Hallard (Laroque) and Ashwell (Jacqueline Fleuriot) in Madame X, Globe, 1909 (Rotary Photo, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 90

3.9 Ashwell at the time of her second American tour, 1911 (Matzene, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 94

4.1 Concert Party Poster, Rouen, February 1915 (Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection, Bristol), p. 118

4.2 Concert Party performance, France, 1915 (press photo, reproduced in Stage Year Book 1919), p. 121

4.3 YMCA Grand Concert Poster, 1915 (Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection, Bristol), p. 122

4.4 Concert Party audience, France, 1915 (press photo, reproduced in Stage Year Book 1919), p. 123

4.5 Concerts at the Front pamphlet, 1916 (Concerts at the Front scrapbook Volume 1, Department of Collections Access, Imperial War Museum, Lena Ashwell Collection, 09/771), p. 128

4.6 Concert Party maps France, Egypt and Malta (Concerts at the Front scrapbook Volume 1, Department of Collections Access, Imperial War Museum, Lena Ashwell Collection, 09/771), p. 129

4.7 The Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert Party, Malta, 1916 (photographer unknown, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 132

4.8 The Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert Party, Egypt, 1916 (photographer unknown, courtesy of Stuart Gough), p. 137

4.9 Petticoat Lane Poster, December 1917 (Imperial War Museum, London, PC0770 Cat. No. IWM PST 6257), p. 140

4.10 Announcement of women recipients of British Empire orders, Daily Graphic, 25 August 1917 (Associated Newspapers Limited and British Library Board), p. 145

4.11 Excelsior Hall flyer, Bethnal Green, November 1919 (Concerts at the Front scrapbook Volume 3, Department of Collections Access, Imperial War Museum, Lena Ashwell Collection, 09/771), p. 158

5.1 The Aim of the Players, Lena Ashwell Players’ pamphlet, 1923 (author’s collection), p. 168

5.2 The Century Theatre interior, Illustrated London News, 23 January 1926, p. 180

5.3 Century Theatre Programme for The Ship, Century Theatre, 1925 (author’s collection), p. 182

5.4 Lena Ashwell, Director of the Lena Ashwell Players, Country Life, 20 November 1926 (Country Life Picture Library), p. 188

5.5 Promotional leaflets for the Century Theatre and Holloway, Spring 1927 (author’s collection), p. 193

5.6 Esmé Church, Illustrated London News, 23 January 1926, p. 197

6.1 Century Theatre interior, 1994 (photograph by author), p. 214

6.2 Ashwell aged 80 (courtesy of Henry Macnicol), p. 220

6.3 Promotional leaflet for Jotham Valley, Coronet, New York, 1951 (Moral Re-Armament Archives), p. 221

6.4 Bust of Ashwell stored at the National Theatre, 1994 (photograph by author), p. 225



My research and preparation was made possible by support from a University of Sydney postgraduate scholarship and a research award from the Society for Theatre Research, for which I am most grateful. It was also made possible by the support of those who shared my enthusiasm for Ashwell’s work, either by seeking out information while on their own journeys or by sharing their related research. My special thanks to UK editors Elizabeth Schafer and Marion O’Connor of the Society for Theatre Research; to colleagues Professors Jim Davis, Penny Gay and Kate Newey; to Jean Cooney in Sydney, whose experienced editor’s eye provided focus; and to Larry Collins, Geoff Blackburn (Legion of Frontiersmen), Richard Fotheringham, Christopher Fry, Michael Kilgarriff and the late Godfrey Kenton. My thanks also to staff at the Theatre Museum, London, in the 1990s; the Imperial War Museum, London; the British Newspaper Library, Colindale; Mary Huth of the Rush Rhees collection, University of Rochester, USA, and Aline Faunce, Moral Re-Armament Archives, England. Special thanks to Lena’s nephew, Henry Macnicol, who gave me an insight into her later life; to Karl Levett, whose packages of Ashwell postcards and programmes always arrived at the right moment to encourage me; and to Stuart Gough who made his personal collection of Ashwell memorabilia available. I was sustained by memories of colleagues who encouraged me in the pursuit of scholarship, the late Marysia Kreisler, Marlis Thiersch and Philip Parsons. Thanks are also due to my generous family and friends, including Jan Duncan, Brian D. Barnes, Mary Quinton, Christine Roberts and especially Brendon Lunney. I am grateful for his love, patience and quiet determination to help me complete this story.

Siegfried Sassoon, ‘The Concert Party’, is quoted by kind permission of the Estate of George Sassoon. John Masefield, Sonnets of Good Cheer to the Lena Ashwell Players, is quoted by kind permission of the Society of Authors, Literary Representative, Estate of John Masefield.


Lena Ashwell first entered my life in 1992 when I read Donald Spoto’s biography of Laurence Olivier. Although amused to learn she had fired this great actor from her company in 1925, I was more intrigued by the brief mention of her wartime work and her ‘Once a Week Players’ touring London boroughs in the 1920s. At the time I was Principal Arts Officer for Westminster City Council, talking with many borough-based arts organisations, including the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, about ways we could work together to engage local residents in arts activities.

I discovered the Theatre Museum’s large, untouched collection of Lena Ashwell scrapbooks and my curiosity was aroused - I think by the sense that my career at this time had in some way had its origins in the work of this pioneer. When I realised she had pursued an active dialogue with local authorities to make theatre accessible to residents, I felt a great affinity with her, which grew to awe and respect as I uncovered more of her extraordinary life. Through the Society for Theatre Research, I found further scrapbooks in the Imperial War Museum and realised that not only was her story unusual; it needed to be told.

Although Lena Ashwell published four books including an autobiography in 1936, she provided little detail about or explanation of her work, particularly during the 1920s, choosing rather to convey her strong belief in the value of theatre in society and its importance in the life of the nation.

As my research took me on its journey, I met three people who had known her: actor Godfrey Kenton, playwright Christopher Fry and her nephew, Henry Macnicol. They agreed with G.B. Shaw’s view, in his 1933 preface to Lillah McCarthy’s Myself and My Friends, that she was one of those actresses ‘who had awakeningly truthful minds as well as engaging personalities’ and concurred that she was an inspiring, formidable woman, totally committed to the important role theatre and its practitioners can play in society.

Yet it seemed she had been largely neglected in theatre histories; even the Peter Lamda bust of her, inscribed ‘Lena Ashwell OBE, Actress and Pioneer of a National Theatre’, languished out of sight in the Chairman’s unused bathroom at the National Theatre. I set about to acknowledge and celebrate her contribution.

My research journey began and ended in Westminster: not far from the Theatre Museum I found a tribute to her at the (now fire-damaged) Westminster Theatre, which eloquently summed up my appreciation of her. Dressing Room 2 was dedicated to ‘Lena Ashwell: actress, patriot, pioneer’. This is her story…


Actress: early performing career

She was a queer-looking child, handsome, with a face suggesting all manner of possibilities. When she stood up to read the speech from Richard II she was nervous, but courageously stood her ground. She began slowly, and with a most ‘fetching’ voice, to think out the words. You saw her think them, heard her speak them. It was so different from the intelligent elocution, the good recitation, but bad impersonation of the others! ‘A pathetic face, a passionate voice, a brain’, I thought to myself. It must have been at this point that the girl flung away the book and began to act, in an undisciplined way … but with such true emotion, such intensity, that the tears came to my eyes … It was an easy victory for her. She was incomparably better than any one. ‘She has to work’, I wrote in my diary that day. ‘Her life must be given to it, and then she will … achieve just as high as she works’. Lena Pocock was the girl’s name, but she changed it to Lena Ashwell when she went on the stage.¹

Thus wrote Ellen Terry, describing the occasion in 1890 when she distributed medals at the Royal Academy of Music while her daughter, Edith Craig, was studying there. Although she didn’t know it at the time, Terry’s response to Lena Pocock influenced not only this young woman’s future, but also future directions in English theatre, which continue to resonate today.

Lena Margaret Pocock was born into a close-knit family of intrepid and determined individualists. Her father, Charles Ashwell Pocock, to whom she was devoted, was a Clerk in Holy Orders and a Royal Navy Commander.² His uncle was the sea artist Nicholas Pocock, and there was a seafaring tradition in the family. Lena was born on 28 September 1869³ on board the Wellesley training ship, berthed on the river Tyne and ‘commanded’ by her father as a home for ‘boys unconvicted of crime but under suspicion’.⁴ Her mother, Sarah Stevens, was also from a seafaring family. Lena, always called Daisy by her family, was the second youngest of seven children, one of whom died when the family was in New Zealand. She was closest in age to Roger, Ethel and Hilda, while her eldest siblings, Francis and Rosalie, left home when she was very young.

Her early schooling was in England, but when she was eight, Lena’s father’s health broke down and the family moved to Canada, living in a wood cabin near Brockville, overlooking the St Lawrence River. ‘Here was great beauty; but also great discomfort. No water laid on in the house, no drainage, no gas nor electric light, no modern conveniences whatever.’ But there was ‘a river to swim in, a canoe to sail or paddle, a forest to wander in, and at home, plenty of hard work’.⁵ An avid reader, she ‘had a passion for words and their sound … illegitimate had a swinging kind of sound, and I liked to sing it’.⁶ She attended a government school, but her education was interrupted by expulsion (perhaps because of the above), illness and a family move to Toronto. In 1887 her mother, aged 48, died in a carriage accident. Lena and Hilda became boarders at Bishop Strachan’s School for Young Ladies, where Lena established a pattern to be repeated throughout her life. Determined to work hard, she rose before dawn and matriculated at the University of Toronto fourteen months after her mother’s death. Devastated by the loss of his wife, Pocock gave up his Treasury of God work and moved to Europe with his three daughters.

Lausanne, Switzerland, was their destination, where Lena attended a French-speaking school and studied music at the Conservatoire. She was preparing to be a governess, but on hearing her sing, an English cathedral organist recommended study at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Lena’s father disapproved and she ‘was torn between my love for my father and my determination to follow my dream and be an opera-singer’.⁷ Helped by a wealthy school friend, Belle Hevener, she managed to go to London and stayed with some unwelcoming cousins until, on her acceptance into the Academy, her father, Ethel and Hilda joined her and they set up house together.⁸

Encouraged by Ellen Terry, after graduation Lena Ashwell (taking her name from her father’s family) set her sights on a theatrical rather than musical career. She described herself as ‘passionate and terribly nervous’, in which state she made her professional debut at the Islington Grand Theatre on 30 March 1891.⁹ Her role, a servant girl in The Pharisee, was notable mainly because, overcome with stage fright, she left the stage without uttering the four words assigned to her.¹⁰

Between this small debacle and October 1900, Ashwell’s career took a similar path to that of many aspiring actresses, although she was based mostly in London and did not learn her trade on tour or with provincial companies. She sought employment from producers such as Frederick Harrison at the Haymarket, who promised not to forget her, should an opportunity arise, after her appearance in That Dreadful Doctor.¹¹ Initially, she did not impress George Alexander and was disappointed when not given a promised role in London following a minor part (at Terry’s intervention) in his 1892 touring production of Lady Windermere’s Fan. As she describes in her autobiography,

the control of the theatres was in the hands of the actor-managers, most of whom had been through every kind of experience … in the provinces before they arrived in London. To be engaged in these managements was as if you were permitted to pay a visit to some distinguished house where your host was always present to see that all the fine traditions and accepted laws of hospitality were conformed to and where everyone knew his or her position in the general scheme of life.¹²

1.1 Ashwell (Martin) in The Pharisee, Islington Grand, 1891

(photographer unknown, author’s collection)

Ashwell was cast in some noteworthy productions (and some less memorable), making her West End debut in two curtain-raisers, Through the Fire and Two in the Bush (which preceded the comedy Gloriana at the Globe between November 1891 and early February 1892), where she conformed to the practice of playing a small role and understudying. She established friendships with Eva Moore and Gertrude Kingston, and was a member, briefly, of the ill-fated Amy Roselle’s company, in Man and Woman at the Opera Comique in early 1893.¹³ The Referee noticed that ‘Miss Lena Ashwell, a refined and sympathetic young actress, made a big step forward’, but Moore sensed Ashwell was unhappy.¹⁴ It appeared Roselle did not like her and did nothing to make things easier for her. According to Moore, ‘Lena, in those days, was a vague person, which was rather extraordinary, as she was a very fine athlete, and the two qualities did not seem to go together.’¹⁵

Through Terry, Ashwell met producer Joseph William Comyns Carr, who engaged her to understudy Winifred Emery in Frou-Frou at the Comedy in June 1893.¹⁶ On signing a two-year contract with him, she had guaranteed work but little choice of roles. While understudying Rosamund in Grundy’s Sowing the Wind, she played in the curtain-raiser, In Strict Confidence, and from mid-December to early February 1894 appeared in daily matinees of The Piper of Hamelin.¹⁷ She had a minor break, replacing the indisposed Emery on the third night of Frou-Frou and impressing the company and the small audience who remained. Alice Comyns Carr ‘plied her with sal volatile during the intervals, but I don’t think she really needed the stimulant … the minute she was back on the stage all discouragement slipped from her. She was an artist, and enthusiasm and excitement … her best restoratives … Perhaps the greatest tribute … was Emery’s rapid recovery … the understudy was only allowed to play the role for one night!’¹⁸ Mrs Comyns Carr described her as ‘the gentle girl with the good voice … very adaptable … and though very modest about her own capabilities, took her new vocation with the utmost seriousness, and studied almost night and day to fit herself for the part’.¹⁹ Ashwell, aware of her inexperience, observed later that at the time she might not have been able to repeat the performance, which was ‘inspired by a sudden opportunity … Acting is a curious, elusive art and difficult to really learn … it is necessary not only to make an effect but to know exactly in what way the effect has been produced.’²⁰

She then played in Buchanan’s comedy Dick Sheridan and, when Frou-Frou returned to the repertoire, played Pauline for the matinees, taking the lead when it went into the evening bill. Like many actresses, she had special admirers, including Reginald Golding Bright, who became an agent and apparently enjoyed talent spotting.²¹ His letters, signed ‘your sincere admirer’ and commenting on her performances, provide insight into the strengths and weaknesses of her acting:

Your only fault on Saturday was that you spoke your lines too quickly and consequently the audience lost much of what they should have heard … you will of course remedy this defect … the part is a poor one … after all it is only a question of time, for talent and genius such as yours cannot long remain hidden.²²

Golding Bright sent stamps so that she could send him a telegram if called to play Gilberte Brigard in Frou-Frou. He could not resist giving her advice: ‘Work it up deliberately until you reach crescendo (the meaning of which you as a musician will comprehend).’²³ On 9 April 1894, when Ashwell played Emery’s role, Golding Bright wrote with praise tempered with criticism: ‘you rose to a height which even I had scarcely expected of you … though I fear the strain rather told upon you’. She was very nervous, had taken some prompts and he felt she hurried her words on occasion. He wrote two notices of her performance, sent to the Star and the Sun, the latter publishing a shortened version, under his nom de plume Leonard Fanfare. He hoped her elevation to the top ranks would mean he could write more detailed praise of her work.

In May, Ashwell was ‘lent’ by Comyns Carr for a Royal Court revival of Marriage, in a season that ran into July. She enjoyed this play, which was reviewed enthusiastically by the Daily Telegraph: ‘Miss Lena Ashwell is evidently one of the actresses of the future. She has a voice of infinite tenderness and variety, a voice full of expression and charm, and an earnestness that is better than all. Miss Ashwell does not take up acting as a trivial pastime, but a serious undertaking. Her heart is in her work and she shows it in every line of it.’²⁴

1.2 Ashwell (Rosamund) in Sowing the Wind, Gaiety, 1894

(Chancellor Photo, author’s collection)

She returned to Comyns Carr’s tour of Sowing the Wind, opening at Dublin’s Gaiety in mid-August.

This popular love story involved the illegitimate daughter of a gentleman whose adopted son falls in love with her; the drama focused on the resolution of unknown identities and of her mother’s reputation before they could be united. The Irish critics were generous and Ashwell was relieved, having struggled to take on the mantle of Rosamund from Evelyn Millard who had toured it with the grand old actor W.H. Vernon playing the father. As she gained confidence, Vernon ‘drilled and drilled me in the path of virtue, but at last gave me up in despair and told me to play the part in my own way … It was in Dublin that I was allowed to act the part without trying to be like someone else.’²⁵ Her instincts paid off for the Irish Times, whose reviewer found it difficult

to fully convey how truthfully Miss Ashwell interprets this difficult role. There are very many temptations to overdo it, to tear passion to tatters. But in all she does there is a perfect naturalness, and reserve of force, which, combined with her intelligent rendering of the dialogue, her tenderness of expression, pathos, youth, charming grace, sympathetic voice, and freshness, render her acting almost perfect. There was something intensely impressive and powerful in her delivery (it was too artistic to be called mere declamation) of the lines in defence of erring woman, or rather in denunciation of that society which shrinks from the stricken sister … in [this] … the gifted young actress was sublime.²⁶

Others recognised her strong inclination to naturalism. An admirer, John Glover, wrote: ‘I have never witnessed or listened to anything that stirred me so deeply, and made me experience so keen enjoyment as your natural acting … I have no object but to express my deep obligation for a benefit conferred, and for the revelation afforded of what true acting is.’²⁷ She then experienced the rigours of provincial touring, described with wry humour in Myself a Player, and gave promotional interviews to local newspapers, declaring to the Blackpool Gazette that she was ‘the property of Mr Carr for two years, wailing [sic] like a famous character in fiction, for something to turn up’.²⁸ When asked why she had gone on the stage, when originally educated to be a governess, she responded: ‘I think you must see that I would not probably have been much of a success as a governess, and I do like to get on in whatever I take up.’²⁹

In 1895 Ashwell had a rare opportunity: to play with Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in Comyns Carr’s King Arthur, which opened at the Lyceum on 12 January. As the Queen pointed out: ‘It is always promotion for a young actress to go to the Lyceum, even though it be to take a part smaller than some she may have already played.’³⁰ As Elaine (she was also Terry’s understudy), Ashwell was noticed, attracting favourable reviews: ‘The actress spoke from her heart, and when she was not speaking she was showing the workings of her soul; an art that few young actresses understand.’³¹ She adored Irving, but her first experience in his company was not easy. Irving’s grandson, Laurence, writes that Terry’s ‘undisguised partiality for Frank Cooper’, ³² who was playing Mordred, set tongues wagging and Ashwell was distressed ‘to discover an undercurrent of petty rivalries and conspiracies in what she looked upon as a hallowed temple of the art in which she was so earnest an initiate. One night, in the wings, Irving found her in tears. Is there anything I can do? he asked, adding by way of kindly consolation, You know - we were born crying.’³³ Golding Bright wrote with unqualified praise of her performance as Elaine, but sensed tension in her demeanour. He felt she was overworking herself to an alarming extent:

Ambition in a young actress is highly commendable; but do not, let me implore you, carry it too far. You have done well … since I saw you play the blind girl in Young Mrs Winthorp at an amateur entertainment, which first gave me a hint of hidden powers. Be advised and take a good rest … Nature will have its revenge for hours stolen from sleep and given to study, and a breakdown is to be dreaded.³⁴

But for Ashwell, despite these tensions, it was a ‘golden time … I was in the seventh heaven. The stage-door of the Lyceum is still the same, and I can’t pass it now without a thrill.’³⁵ The run of King Arthur was an emotional time: Oscar Wilde was arrested and, she remembered, ‘the atmosphere of London was horrible and cruel. His plays were so very brilliant, and I had seen him when I was in Lady Windermere’s Fan, so I felt that he was a friend in desperate trouble.’³⁶ She also knew the Terry/Irving partnership was breaking up. There were a number of influences at work, but ‘the great difficulty was that there were few leading parts for the mature woman. All the heroines were young. Heroes might be any age, but the older women were merely backgrounds to the drama.’³⁷ Later, Ashwell was deeply affected by the fact that Terry, for financial reasons, was giving ‘one-night stand’ American lecture tours at the age of 65: ‘Almost all the histories are tragic of those who devote their lives to art.’³⁸

King Arthur played for over 100 performances; from the playbills it appears Ashwell last played Elaine on 25 May, and was replaced by Annie Hughes. The Comedy Theatre playbill for The Prude’s Progress, which opened on 22 May, includes Ashwell in the cast, so it seems she played both roles for a few days. Her ‘Nelly Morris is a lovable creation, the loyalty and devotion of the self-sacrificing sister being sweetly delineated. Mr Arthur Playfair makes the egoism of Travers extremely amusing.’³⁹ Ashwell also played Sybil in A Practical Joker, a new comic curtain-raiser, which joined the bill in mid-June.⁴⁰ Golding Bright noted ‘a growing tendency to allow your voice to be tinged with a note of sadness which is ever present and is apt to become just a wee bit monotonous’.⁴¹ For the St James’s Gazette she ‘revealed a genuine sense of humour and particularly in the semi-tragic passages, played with a mock intensity that at once stamped her as a comedienne of approved ability’.⁴² It was during this time she became engaged to Arthur Playfair and they married in late 1895.

No longer under contract to Comyns Carr, in September 1895 she played Blanche in Her Advocate at the Duke of York’s. Now established in London, Ashwell obtained work on a regular basis without any further long-term contractual agreements. The reviews of Her Advocate were mostly positive, and she was grateful for the good notices, especially as

the part is a difficult one to play, as, speaking as a woman, I think there are few of my sex who would have made such determined efforts to hold a recreant lover or to accept his lukewarm manifestation of second-hand affection. However, it is my duty to work on the lines laid down by the author, and the character certainly meets with appreciation, especially from the men … I wonder why it is I am always being cast for the love-sick maidens?⁴³

Already determined to pursue a career as a serious actress, Ashwell was keen to gain insight into human nature. Her research took her to a Sunday service at Wormwood Scrubs prison and she expressed interest in visiting Bethlem insane asylum, and in being present at a murder trial. She described her ideal part as one in which

humour and pathos are combined … when you hardly know whether to laugh or cry - that is, to me, true pathos … But I am getting almost tired of pathetic parts: I want a change - something lighter … [but] we [actresses] are always wanting to do the very thing we can’t, and we are too apt to forget that the public are far better judges of our capabilities than we are ourselves.⁴⁴

She was thinking about the roles she was best suited to and soon recognised that to have choice, she would have to take more control over her career.

Reviewing her next performance, in The Fool of the Family at the Duke of York’s, G.B. Shaw was very critical of her vocal ability, wishing ‘Miss Ashwell would remember there are short vowels in the dictionary as well as long vowels’.⁴⁵ During the summer of 1896 she played in a new comedy, A Match-maker, at the Shaftesbury and in Carmen at the Gaiety.⁴⁶ Neither play was considered worthwhile. ‘With positive regret is the name of Miss Ashwell associated with this unfortunate production. Her refined, graceful and sympathetic work only serves to heighten the painfulness of Miss Nethersole’s performance [as Carmen].’⁴⁷ Then, surprisingly, Irving cast her as Edward, Prince of Wales, in Richard III, opening at the Lyceum on 19 December. The Daily Telegraph considered her ‘pathetic voice and utterances had a world of meaning in them’,⁴⁸ but Shaw took issue with Irving’s casting while recognising Ashwell’s recent development as an actress worthy of notice:

1.3 Ashwell (Edward, Prince of Wales) in Richard III, Lyceum, 1896

(Theatre Museum, V&A Picture Library)

From the moment she came on the stage all serious historical illusion necessarily vanished … Probably Sir Henry cast Miss Ashwell … 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 a voice which contrasted as it was with Miss Terry’s, could only be described - if one had the heart to do it - as a squall. Since then she has developed precipitously … She now returns … 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