Ada Rehan was one of Ireland’s most celebrated actresses but she is barely remembered by us today.
Born Delia Crehan in Shannon Street, Limerick on 22 April 1860 (or perhaps 1857), Rehan moved to Brooklyn with her family when she was still a child. Her unconventional name was the result of typographical error made by the Arch Street Theater of Philadelphia, early in her career, when management billed her as Ada C. Rehan. She adopted this as her stage name and gained an international reputation as an excellent Shakespearean actress, doing particularly well in his comedies.
Statuesque at 5′ 8″, with striking grey-blue eyes and rich dark brown hair, she was much admired. Theatre critic William Winter, who wrote a book about her, recorded that:
‘Her physical beauty was of the kind that appears in portraits of women by Romney and Gainsborough—ample, opulent, and bewitching—and it was enriched by the enchantment of superb animal spirits.’
Of course, there was far more to her than her looks. Oscar Wilde described her as:
‘that brilliant and fascinating genius.’
In 1879, Rehan joined impresario Augustin Daly’s New York based theatre company; she remained his leading lady for twenty years, enjoying enormous success on the stages of America and Europe. For a time, she was considered a worthy rival to the magnificent Sarah Bernhardt.
In September 1891, when Wilde was assembling his cast for the first production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, he wrote to Daly requesting that he consider the part of Mrs. Erlynne for Rehan, insisting:
‘I would sooner see her play the part of Mrs. Erlynne than any English-speaking actress we have, or French actress for that matter,’ [i]
Daly turned him down.
In 1897, after Wilde was released from prison , Daly offered him an advance to write a new play for Rehan, but negotations faltered and Daly died in Paris on 7 June 1899. For Rehan this was as much a personal tragedy as a professional one and she was touched by Wilde’s kindness at this very difficult time, remembering:
‘Oscar Wilde came to me and was more good and helpful than I can tell you – just like a very kind brother…I shall always think of him as he was to me through those few dreadful days’. [ii]
Wilde finally agreed terms with Rehan in February 1900. In return for an advance of £100 with the promised of £200 on acceptance, he agreed to write:
‘a new and original comedy, in three or four acts.’
It was to be produced anonymously:
‘in London at a first-class West-End theatre’. [iii]
Wilde assured Rehan that he would have her play finished by 1 June, but he soon realised that this deadline was wildly optimistic. Although he offered to return her advance, which was long gone by then, he asked that she give some time to raise it. Rehan was disappointed but agreed to the delay. Perhaps inevitably, Wilde never managed to return her money and he was dead before the year was out.
Ada Rehan retired from the stage in 1906, and lived in New York City until her death in 1916. Obituaries were published in the New York Times and the Limerick Chronicle, and she was commemorated more than two decades later when a WWII Liberty ship (a US Navy cargo ship) was named the USS Ada Rehan.
Ada Rehan is undoubtedly one of Wilde’s Women.
[i] Letter to Augustin Daly, August 1897, Complete Letters, p.489
[ii] Robertson, Time Was, p.231
[iii] Russell Jackson, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Contract for a New Play 1900’ in Theatre Notebook, Volume 50, Number 2 contained in Volumes 50-52 (Society for Theatre Research, 1996), p.113