Nellie Farren

Nellie Farren
Nellie Farren

Nellie Farren (1848 – 29 April 1904) was an English actress and singer best known for her roles as the "principal boy" in musical burlesques at the Gaiety Theatre.

Born into a theatrical family, Farren began acting as a child. She made her professional adult debut in 1864 and joined the company at London's Olympic Theatre, performing in Shakespeare, contemporary comedies, dramas and musical burlesques. From 1868 to 1892, she performed at the Gaiety Theatre, which specialised in musical burlesque, becoming famous in the male and principal boy roles, which permitted an actress in the Victorian era theatre to show her legs in tights. Farren gained a large following among the theatre's mostly male audience.

Farren created the role of Mercury in Gilbert and Sullivan's first collaboration, Thespis and created or played roles in works by Dion Boucicault, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, William Congreve and Henry James Byron, among many others. In the 1880s, she created roles in the series of famous Gaiety burlesques with musical scores by Meyer Lutz, often written by Fred Leslie. Some of her most famous of these later roles were the title characters in Little Jack Sheppard and Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué. She also became a co-producer of the Gaiety Theatre.

After Farren suffered an attack of rheumatic fever in 1891, her health forced to retire from the stage in 1892. Her popularity was evidenced by a famous gala benefit for her at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1898 attended by nearly the entire theatrical community at which the most famous actors of the day performed, and which raised the astonishing sum of ₤7,000 for her retirement.


Life and career

Farren in Ruy Blas

Ellen "Nellie" Farren was born in Lancashire to a theatrical family. Her grandfather, William Farren, was a well-known actor. Her father, Henry Farren, and her uncle, William, were both actors.[1] Farren was married to actor Robert Soutar,[2] and their son, J. Robert Soutar, also had a career as an actor, singer and stage manager.[3]

Early career

She first appeared on the London stage at the age of seven, at the Victoria Theatre, playing Genie of the Ring in Dick Whittington. But her juvenile roles were limited, and she completed her education.[4]

Farren's adult professional debut was at the Victoria Theatre as Ninetta in The Woman in Red in 1864. Later that year, she moved to the Olympic Theatre, where she stayed for two years, playing in a number of pieces, including The Hidden Hand by Tom Taylor; My Wife's Bonnet by John Maddison Morton, the burlesques Prince Camaralzaman, or, the Fairies' Revenge and Faust and Marguerite; and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, as the Clown.[5] She also played the title role in Lydia Languish, Nan in Good for Nothing, Jo, and later Smike, in Nicholas Nickleby, and Sam Willoughby in The Ticket-of-leave Man.[4] The manager of the Olympic, Horace Wigan, and playwright Tom Taylor, each of whom directed shows at the theatre, taught Farren much about stagecraft and encouraged her to experiment and expand her acting.[6]

Gaiety Theatre Years

Nellie Farren

Farren began her long tenure at the Gaiety Theatre, managed by John Hollingshead, in December 1868 in On the Cards and in the title role of Robert the Devil by W. S. Gilbert, a burlesque of the opera Robert le Diable, which opened the theatre and ran until May 1869.[7] Her husband, Robert Soutar, was an actor, stage manager and writer for the theatre.[8] Farren next played the title role in Alfred Thompson's Columbus!, or the Original Pitch in a Merry Key (1869).[9] Farren continued as principal boy at the Gaiety for the next 25 years, first under Hollingshead and then under George Edwardes, performing the lead in dozens of shows, many also starring Edward Terry, Kate Vaughan and Fred Leslie. "Principal Boy" roles permitted the actress to show her legs in tights, and Farren became very popular with the young men of the Gaiety audience, who would wear a coloured scarf to show support for their favourite actress. Farren's colours were dark blue, light blue and white, and she could look out over the audience to compare the number of fans displaying her colours as compared to the colours of the other actresses.[10] According to Hollingshead, Farren developed a "spinal complaint, which troubled her in her early Gaiety career [and] developed into locomotor ataxy" later.[11]

Other roles in the 1870s included Miss Hoyden in The Man of Quality, Tilly Slowboy in Dot (Dion Boucicault's version of The Cricket on the Hearth); Miss Prue in Love for Love; Princess of Trebizonde (1870), based on the Jacques Offenbach operetta; Mercury in Gilbert and Sullivan's first operatic collaboration, Thespis, or, the Gods Grown Old (1871); Ali Baba (1872); Polly Neefit in Shilly-Shally (1872), by Anthony Trollope and Charles Reade; Antony and Cleopatra (1873); Clemency Newcome in The Battle of Life, (based on Charles Dickens's Christmas story of that title); The Bohemian G-yurl and the Unapproachable Pole (1877); and title roles in Henry James Byron's farce Little Doctor Faust (1878)[5] Byron's Handsome Hernani, or The Fatal Penny-Whistle (1879);[12] and Robbing Roy (1879).

Sheet music from Monte Cristo, Jr.

Farren's Gaiety pieces in the 1880s included Lutz and Robert Reece's burlesques of The Forty Thieves (1880), Aladdin (1881) and Little Robin Hood (1882),[5] Ariel (1883, by F. C. Burnand, based on The Tempest),[13][14] Blue Beard (1882), Byron's Little Don Caesar de Bazan (a send-up of Boucicault's play), Camaralzaman (1884), Mazeppa (1884), Little Jack Sheppard (1885), Monte Cristo Jr.(1886), Dr. Frankenstein in Frankenstein, or The Vampire's Victim (1887), Miss Esmeralda, or The Maid and the Monkey (1887), Fra Diavolo, Gulliver, Rip Van Winkle, Sonnambula, Cinder Ellen up too Late (1891), A Model Trilby, or A Day or Two after du Maurier (1895), and dozens of others.[15] Perhaps the most successful of her later roles was the title role in Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué (1889, by Fred Leslie and H. F. Clarke, a take-off of Victor Hugo's play Ruy Blas),[5] which she and Fred Leslie toured in Australia (with Sidney Jones) and elsewhere in 1891. In 1888-89, she, Leslie, Letty Lind, Sylvia Grey, Marion Hood and the Gaiety company had toured the U.S. and Australia with Monte Christo, Jr. and Miss Esmeralda.[16]

In addition to these burlesques, Farren also appeared in other comedies such as in The Hypocrite, William Congreve's Love for Love, Vanbrugh's Relapse, The Grasshopper (1877, an adaptation of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy's La Cigale), and a number of farces. James McNeill Whistler saw The Grasshopper and was charmed by Farren as the 'grasshopper', a girl who escapes from a circus troupe. In January 1878, Whistler made drawings of her in performance.[17] On 3 May 1886, the Gaiety Theatre was host to a benefit concert for its music director, composer Meyer Lutz, including a scene from his burlesque Little Jack Sheppard, in which Farren performed.[18] The same year, Farren helped George Edwards obtain the lease to the Gaiety and became co-producer of the Gaiety company's shows.

Last years and death

Fred Leslie and Nellie Farren in Little Jack Sheppard

Returning from Australia in 1891, Farren suffered an attack of rheumatic fever which aggravated her spinal disease. She had to withdraw from the London production of Cinder Ellen up too late. This progressively crippled her, and Farren was mostly retired from the stage by 1892, by which time she had become too crippled to work.[19] In 1895, Farren managed her own company at the Opera Comique but had little success.[20] One piece that was well reviewed was A Model Trilby; or, A Day or Two After Du Maurier, by Charles H. E. Brookfield and William Yardley, with music by Meyer Lutz. The piece was a burlesque of the Haymarket Theatre's hit adaptation of George Du Maurier's popular novel, Trilby.[21]

George Edwardes organized a gala benefit for her at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on 17 March 1898. The star-studded event, attended by a standing-room only crowd of 3,000 people (including her long-time fan, the Prince of Wales), lasted six hours.[22] It included a performance of Trial by Jury in which W. S. Gilbert played the Associate, the barristers were all playwrights, the jury were principal comedians, and the chorus girls were real chorus girls from the Gaiety mixed in with leading ladies. Principals included Barrington, Pounds, Lytton, Passmore, and Perry. Also given was the premiere of a J. M. Barrie playlet, "A Platonic Friendship". Kate Vaughan danced, after an absence from the stage of twelve years. Henry Irving recited The Dream of Eugene Aram, Ellen Terry played Ophelia, Chevalier sang Mrs. Hawkins, Dan Leno gave Hamlet, Marie Tempest sang "The Jewel of Asia", and Hayden Coffin sang "Tommy Atkins."[22] In a pantomime, Ellaline Terriss played the Fairy Queen, Letty Lind played Columbine, Arthur Roberts was a policeman, and Edmund Payne was the clown. Marie Lloyd and several music hall stars danced, Coffin appeared again, and Farren herself was discovered on stage with Charles Wyndham. Marie Bancroft, Lydia Thompson, Kate Santley, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, John Hare, Clara Butt, and many other famous actors performed, as did the choruses of The Geisha, The Circus Girl and other popular shows.[22][23][24] Barely able to walk with the aid of crutches, Farren said a few words and made a joke. The benefit raised an estimated ₤7,000 for her retirement.

painting by Walford Graham Robertson, 1902
Photo and signatures of Farren, Terry and Gaiety friends
as Ruy Blas

Farren's retirement, coupled with Fred Leslie's death, brought to an end the type of Gaiety burlesque associated with them, at the same time that Edwardian musical comedy was taking over London theatre. Farren's last public appearance was at a "Nellie Farren Night" at the Gaiety Theatre on 8 April 1903. A performance of The Toreador was followed by The Linkman, a revue of old Gaiety hits in which she had performed, written by, and featuring, George Grossmith Jr. At the end of the evening, Farren gave a speech from the stage.

Farren died in London a year later, aged 56. In 1908, a racehorse was named after her.[25]


  1. ^ Hollingshead, John. Gaiety Chronicles (1898) A. Constable & Co., London
  2. ^ Article about the Gaiety tour of Australia
  3. ^ Short biography of Farren
  4. ^ a b Reid, Erskine and Herbert Compton. The Dramatic Peerage (1892) Raithby, Lawrence & Co. Ltd., London, pp. 80–81
  5. ^ a b c d Information from Footlight Notes website
  6. ^ Hollingshead, p. 448
  7. ^ Digital Guide to Gilbert & Sullivan
  8. ^ Stewart, Maurice. 'The spark that lit the bonfire', in Gilbert and Sullivan News (London) Spring 2003.
  9. ^ Information about the Columbus burlesque
  10. ^ Hamilton, Frederick Spencer, The Days Before Yesterday (2005)
  11. ^ Hollingshead, John. Good Old Gaiety (1903) London, p. 14
  12. ^ Information and images regarding Handsome Hernani, or The Fatal Penny-Whistle
  13. ^ NY Times article that includes a brief review of Ariel
  14. ^ Information about Ariel, 1883
  15. ^ Plarr, Victor G. Men and Women of the Time (1898) G. Routledge, London
  16. ^ NY Times article that describes the U.S. performances
  17. ^ Information about Farren, Whistler and Hollingshead
  18. ^ Information about several Farren performances
  19. ^ Some information about Farren
  20. ^ Footlight Notes 14 June 2003
  21. ^ The Times, 18 November 1895, p. 3
  22. ^ a b c Account of the benefit by an audience member
  23. ^ "Notabilities to Take Part in the Nellie Farren Benefit - Sale of Seats Nets $25,000.". The New York Times. 27 February 1898. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  24. ^ Information from the Simon Moss website
  25. ^ Nellie Farren, Standardbred racehorse

External links


  • Hilton, George W. Nellie Farren (1997) Sir Arthur Sullivan Society
  • Hollingshead, John. Good Old Gaiety: An Historiette & Remembrance (1903) London:Gaity Theatre Co.

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