Limerick / New York / Rest of the World
1860 – 1916
Ada Rehan was once one of Ireland’s most celebrated actresses, yet she is barely remembered by us today. Born Delia Crehan in Shannon Street, Limerick on April 1860 22nd (or possibly, 1857 according to varying sources), Rehan moved to Brooklyn with her family when she was still a child. A mistake made early in her career by the manager of Arch Street Theater, Philadelphia who billed her as Ada C. Rehan inspired her stage name. She adopted the new name and earned an international reputation as an excellent Shakespearean actress, lauded particularly for her roles in his comedies.
Statuesque, with striking grey-blue eyes and rich brown hair, Rehan’s appeal was much celebrated. According to theatre critic William Winter: “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 Ada 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 where she enjoyed leading lady status for twenty years, enjoying enormous success on the stages of America and Europe. For a time, she was considered a worthy rival to the great actress of the time, Sarah Bernhardt.
In 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 Ada, insisting that: “‘I would sooner see her play the part of Mrs. Erlynne than any English-speaking actress we have, or French actress for that matter.” Daly turned him down.
Years later, Wilde, recently released from prison, was negotiating with Daly to write a new play for Rehan. Sadly, Daly died unexpectedly during these negotiations. For Rehan this was as much a personal tragedy as a professional one and she was touched by Wilde’s kindness afterward.
Rehan took over negotiations and agreed to pay Wilde an advance of £100 with the promise of £200 on acceptance in return for ‘a new and original comedy, in three or four acts’. Once he realised that the deadline agreed was wildly optimistic, he offered to return the £100, which he had spent, but he was dead before raising the required sum.
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 two decades later when a US Navy cargo ship was named the USS Ada Rehan.
Thanks to Eleanor Fitzsimons, author of Wilde's Women, for this fabulous biography.
Letter to Augustin Daly, August 1897 in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart Davis (Eds) (London: Fourth Estate, 2000), p.489
W. Graham Robertson. Time Was, the reminiscences of W. Graham Robertson (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1945), p.231
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