Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Frances Abington

Frances Abington, born Frances Barton in 1731, is probably best remembered for originating the role of Mrs. Teazle in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play A School for Scandal. While that was one highlight of her career, she actually had a long and varied life upon the British stage.

According to biographer Austin Brereton, young Frances, known as "Nosegay Fan," could be seen daily as a girl selling flowers in St. James's Park. As she got older, she began reciting the works of Shakespeare and other authors in the piazza at Covent Garden. She later "became a servant to a French milliner in Cockspur Street, acquiring thereby a taste for dress, afterwards of great service to her," Brereton writes.

Numerous authors have remarked on the actress's fashion sense, which must have come in handy at a time when performers were usually asked to provide their own costumes. Miss Barton made her stage debut at the Haymarket Theatre in 1755, appearing as Miranda in Susanna Centlivre's comedy The Busybody. From there she went to Bath, and the following summer she played in Richmond, where someone from Drury Lane spotted her and hired her for London's most prestigious theatre company.

It was while working at Drury Lane that Miss Barton became Mrs. Abington, marrying James Abington, her music-master and one of the trumpeters in the Royal service. The marriage does not appear to have been a particularly happy one, and Frances left London for Dublin, where she acted at the Smock Alley Theatre, playing such roles as Mrs. Sullen in George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem and Kitty in James Townley's High Life Below Stairs. While acting these parts, "so nice was her taste in dress that the 'Abington cap' was the rage among the Dublin ladies," Brereton claims.

In 1762, Abington returned to Drury Lane, but she clashed with the theatre's manager, David Garrick. In 1782 she went over to the rival patent theatre at Covent Garden. She made her last public appearance on stage there on April 12, 1799, when she acted as Lady Racket in Arthur Murphy's comedy Three Weeks After Marriage in a benefit performance for Alexander Pope (the actor, not the poet).

Abington excelled in numerous Shakespeare roles, including Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and Olivia in Twelfth Night. Here's an engraving of her playing Rosalind in As You Like It.