Bostonian Virginia Harned became nationally known in the worst possible way - a syndicated news story in 1889 about the travails of a star player dealing with a spoiled temperamental ingenue. She had circulated through the circuits in various supporting roles, beginning with Lady Despair in "The Corsican Brothers" at age sixteen. Then, Harry Lacy, star of "The Still Alarm," told in print how Harned refused a request to jettison a fur boa, grew careless in her scenes, and informed Lacy that she thought the part "all rot." The contretemps ended in a New York court and the dissolution of Lacy's partnership with Joseph Arthur, author of the play and co-manager of the company. Because the conflict refracted into a partnership split, Harned's credit in the eyes of theatrical managers was not exhausted. Indeed, she succeeded in getting a supporting position in the "Stars" Company with McKee Rankin in 1890.
Harned's advantages lay in her beauty, a face the top half of which resembled that of Sarah Bernhardt, a talent for wearing modern fashion, and an intensity on stage. Her disadvantages were a tendency to double take and oversell facial expressions and a tendency to lose focus in her diction when becoming impassioned. She played the female lead in Jerome K. Jerome's "The Maister of Woodbarrow" in late summer 1890. In 1891 her romance with actor E.H. Sothern became fodder for the gazettes, with illicit hotel rendezvous, published denials of mutual existence, and torrid stage moments in their performances in "The Dancing Girl."
By the time of her work with Sothern, Harned had become a thorough-going professional in her approach to work, and when she contracted work in "Lady Windemere's Fan" and her greatest triumph, "Trilby" she was entire control of her performance styles. Playing the young model who falls under Svengali's sway in "Trilby," Harned etched herself into the popular consciousness of Gilded Age America, and her stage transformation from innocence to shameless defined psychic transformation for women in a way more arresting to the broad public than the consciousness raising of Ibsen's heroines. Indeed, she was associated with the historic alteration in the status of women, being cast as Mrs. Sylvester in the half-hearted Anglo attempt to envision "The New Woman." She came to represent the anti-Puritanical possibility of life for a generation.
Still, audacity was not the whole of Harned's art. She proved to be a winsome comedian in "The Adventures of Lady Ursula" and a classic American heroine in "Alice of Old Vincennes" (1901), when she toured as a star for the first time. She remained associated with her husband Sothern until Julia Marlowe displaced her in his affections in 1910. They were divorced in 1911.
During her period with Sothern, Harned had become interested in writing and produced several works, including a drama, "The Idol of the Hour." Her performing career after "Iris" (1902) was characterized by touring rather than long runs on the New York stage in hits. Certain of her productions, such as the World War I era "Josephine" about Naploeon's beloved, inspired rather bald criticism. Even her 1905 revival of "Trilby" came in for pointed comment since she appeared decidedly more womanly than girlish. Despite the later diminution of her powers and stature, Harned from 1892 to 1902 was one of the galvanic figures on the American stage, and a byword for a kind of unbuttoned womanliness. David S. Shields/ALS