One of the greatest character actresses of the early 20th century, Marie Bates often personified the most "humane" character in a play--the one whose fallibility, sympathy, understanding, surprise and resignation made every moment in the drama alive. Four of her roles became performances etched in the memory of a generation of playgoers: Miss Houston in "The Music Master," Mrs. Egan in Belasco's "The Auctioneer," the eccentric aunt in "Zaza," and Mrs. Murphy in "Chimmie Fadden."
A Bostonian who marched across the stage as a fairy in one of the Boston Museum Theater Company fantasies at the age of six, she took readily to the theater. As a girl she became a fixture at the Bowery Theater in New York doing a song and dance act under the name Little Maria Melville. She signed onto the Ellseler Stock Company and played Topsy for years in tours of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." In 1873 she was the lead in Augustin Daly's drama "Divorce," but she determined she lacked the sexual appeal to be a soubrette, or the gravitas to be a tragedienne; so she sought out character parts and became expert in limning odd relations (Aunt Abigail in "County Fair"), landladies, and lovable widows. Her Bostonian upbringing equipped her with one of the great Irish mother accents to sound on the American stage.
She enjoyed a particularly congenial professional relationship with actor David Warfield during the final years of her career.
NOTES: "Miss Marie Bates. She Talks Entertainingly of Her Experiences on the Stage," Cleveland Plain Dealer (Apr 8, 1895), 4. David S. Shields/ALS