From 1879 until the turn of the century Ada Rehan, born Ada Crehan, reigned as the foremost leading woman in North America, presiding over the stage of Augustin Daly's 5th Avenue Theatre in New York City. Performing over 300 roles during her career, Rehan proved equally adept as a comedienne and as a tragedienne, though the roles cast her more frequently in the former capacity than the latter.
Blessed with a prodigious memory, a mellifluous voice, a graceful carriage, and an imaginative capacity to project into an extraordinary range of different personae, Rehan prospered because of an intuitive standard of artistry that she followed rigorously. She benefited by being taken in hand by Daly, the greatest shaper of dramatic talent in 19th-century America, who accustomed her to an ensemble style of acting that depended upon a close attention and attunement to words and actions of fellow performers. Though she played in Shakespearean classics, modern drawing room comedies, costume dramas, and melodramas, she was never blamed by critics for the failure of any play (and some of Daly's offerings did not succeed) during the entire course of her career.
Born in Limerick, Ireland, and brought to America as a child, she entered onto a stage career with her two sisters as the "Misses O'Neill." While a teenager she married actor George Doud Byron and debuted in company's production of "Across the Continent." She received her first tutelage as an actress under Mrs. John Drew in Philadelphia in 1873. From 1873 until her engagement by Daly in 1879 she led a peripatetic life, migrating from company to company, city to city - Philadelphia to Louisville to Albany to New York City.
When Daly witnessed her perform in 1878 he saw two things: an ingenue with unfinished technique and a lack of awareness of the entire stage, and more importantly, a performer who had a rare ability to elicit the care of her audiences. Daly with characteristic boldness informed her that she had the makings of a supreme artist and informed her how her genius might find a proper scope in his company.
The number of memorable characters Rehan brought to life during the twenty years she stood preeminent would be taxing to list. She was the quintessential innocent young thing as Peggy Thrift in Garrick's "The Country Girl." As Sylvia, the mischievous girl who could act demure in a dress and saucy in trousers, she singlehandedly restored the repute of Farquhar's "The Recruiting Officer" for the 19th century. As the lovelorn Oriana in "The Inconstant" she made a doleful creature seem heroic in her attempts to maintain her hold on the attention of fickle Mirabel. In an era when Lady Teazle in Sheridan's "School for Scandal" served as a test piece for comediennes, Rehan's was the most bouyant, countrified, and romping of the era. She was fiery and sexy as Katherine in "The Taming of the Shrew," and mock-mannish as Rosalind in "Twelfth Night." In melodrama she excelled as Julia in "The Hunchback," and in poetic drama, created the role of Maid Marion in Tennyson's "The Forresters."
Daly's attraction to modern comedies also insured that Rehan played several variations of the modern heroine - feminine, willful, with a roguish streak: Flos Bargiss in "7-20-Eight," Nisbe in "The Night Off" and Nancy Brasher in "Nancy & Co." When the role required that the energy be damped, and the characterization more sentimental, she accomplished that as well, for instance as Kate Verity in "The Squire." English audiences particularly relished her performances in Arthur Wing Pinero's plays: Mrs. Posket in "The Magistrate" and Georgiana Tidman in "Dandy Dick."
After Augustin Daly's death, Rehan toured as a star under Lieber & Co. management, but grew increasingly isolated from her fellow professionals. She took no other director's or performer's advice, and the performances became respectable rather than entrancing. Beginning in 1904 she began to experience health issues that became increasingly debilitating. In 1908 she left the stage. David S. Shields/ALS