Daughter of actor C. Leslie Allen, known for his mastery of old man roles, Viola Allen grew up reading Shakespeare aloud with her parents. In the April 1906 issue of Theatre Magazine, Viola Allen told the tale of her first professional performance. Her father was playing Old Roger in "Esmerelda" at New York's Madison Square Theater when the play's success put management in mind of organizing several touring companies. The eyes of William Seymour settled on Viola, and he requested she appear at the theater. Despite her lack of formal training, they thought her workable and prepared her to be one of the four touring "Esmerelda." Annie Russell who played Esmerelda in New York had grown tired of the part, departed early, so Viola debuted on a Broadway stage, demonstrating her self-possession, despite her 15 years of age. (In later retellings Annie Russell fell ill.)
In 1884, Allen developed her craft at the Lyceum to the point that tragedian Tomasio Salvini hired Viola to perform Desdemona and Parthenia during his American tours of 1885 and 1886. In 1887 she became the leading lady at the Madison Square Theatre, and in 1888 and 1889, the leading lady of the Boston Museum Theater Company. Playwright Bronson Howard created two roles expressly for her--in "Shenandoah" and "Aristocracy." Her triumph in these pieces won her the regard of the critical community.
By 1893, when she signed with the Empire Theater Stock Company, she was universally regarded as the finest American actress regularly appearing in drama. Her ability was in part a function of schooling, for her talent as a reader of literary texts enabled her to shape distinctive interpretations of parts. During her career, she never appeared in a supporting part though employed by Company until choosing to contract as an independent star after her spectacular success in 1900's "The Christian." Among her most memorable roles were Virginia in "Virginius," Rosamund Athelstand in "Sowing the Wind," Donna Colores in "In the Palace of the King," Julia in "The Hunchback," Dona Roma in "The Eternal City," Viola in "Twelfth Night," and Glory Quayle in "The Christian." She appeared in three silent motion pictures, the second of which, "The White Sister," was a substantial hit in 1915. It was based on a successful play she had performed in 1909.
By 1915 she had been acting for over thirty years and determined to leave the profession before any decline in her skills might diminish the regard in which she was held.
NOTES: "Viola Allen's Career," Lexington Herald (May 6, 1906). "Viola Allen, Star to be, Talks of Her Plays and Prospects," St. Louis Republic (May 15, 1898). David S. Shields/ALS