Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

The Showman's Daughter: Mary Effie Collette, Actress

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

The Showman's Daughter: Mary Effie Collette, Actress

Article excerpt

The "Personal Card" pages of the Era theatrical newspaper of the late nineteenth century are testimony to the veritable armies of young aspiring actresses seeking fame through employment on the stage. However, with the exception of a tiny minority of the more eminent and successful, the careers of the vast majority await resurrection. It was into this increasingly competitive milieu that Mary Collette (1871-1961) was to enter in the late 1880s, and had she not the benefit of well-known theatrical parents then she too might have remained anonymous. Her mother was the actress Blanche Julia Wilton (1856-1934), well-known for her soubrette roles, and one of a number of acting sisters eclipsed by the eldest, Marie Wilton (1839-1921), the later Lady Bancroft (Ince "Charles Henry Collette"). (1) Mary's father was Charles Collette (1842-1924), a famous comedian who enjoyed a long and distinguished career (Ince "Natural Born Showman"). After she retired from the stage in 1903 Mary's run of "good connections" continued when she married into the Bryant family associated with the then Royal Household. Her husband, Ernest Widdows Bryant (1876-1913), formerly Third Clerk to the Prince of Wales (the later King Edward VII), was later Clerk to Queen Alexandra, a post he obtained just two months after the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901. Mary's brother-in-law (Ernest's older brother), Sir Francis Morgan Bryant (1859-1938), attended the funeral of Mary's father in 1924. He was Secretary of the King's Private Secretary's Office, and father of the historian and writer, Sir Arthur Wynne Morgan Bryant (1899-1985). (2) Following Mary's marriage in 1904 (at which Marie Bancroft was a witness) and the subsequent birth of two daughters, (3) Mary was thereafter to be a full-time nursemaid to her ailing husband who died of diabetes. (4) Mary Collette developed into an accomplished comedienne, musician and vocalist, talents reflected in the wide diversity of engagements she attracted during her professional career, and was on the whole treated paternalistically and affectionately by reviewers given the great popularity of her father and the gentle nature of his daughter. (5) Hers is the story of a rising young actress whose family connections contributed significantly to her career advancement. Although she attracted few leading roles her performance profile is far from insignificant for a relatively minor actress. A list of her roles is given at the end.

Mary Collette began her acting career in the child role of Wilkins Micawber junior in an adaptation of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield at the Southampton Theatre Royal in January 1883. At this time her parents were on tour in the Channel Islands in "The Colonel" Company of the actor-manager Edgar Bruce. Her father (known as "The Jersey Sunflower" to Lily Langtree's "The Jersey Lily") took the lead as Colonel Woottweell W. Woodd of the U.S. Cavalry, the role that made him famous. During such periods Mary was in the guardianship of her maternal aunts Ida Ann Fletcher nee Wilton, the later Mrs Fletcher-Elmes, and Georgina Wilton, both younger sisters of Marie Wilton. Immediately prior to her professional debut, a sixteen year-old Mary, in the care of the actress Kate Phillips (who was well known to Mary's father), attended an amateur performance of John Palgrave Simpson's comedy A Scrap of Paper at the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal in December 1887 (Bury & Norwich Post, 27 Dec. 1887:5). The choice of play could not have been a coincidence because Mary would be acting in the very same play less than one year later. Her professional debut occurred under the tutelage of Madge Kendal and her husband W. H. Kendal during a farewell provincial tour following their famous years (from 1879) at the St James's Theatre, King's Street, (where Mary understudied) with the actor John Hare. This tour lasted four months starting at the Hull Theatre Royal in September 1888 with a revival of Arthur Wing Pinero's The Ironmaster (adapted from Georges Ohnet's drama Le Maitre de Forges) in which Mary played Suzannne, and Pinero's The Squire in which she played the ingenue role of Felicity Gunnion. …

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