Restoration- Era Performers:
Anne Bracegirdle & Mary Hodgson
In exploring the “mad songs” of John Eccles, the colorful histories of Anne Bracegirdle and Mary Hodgson emerge, two accomplished singer-actors of the Restoration theater scene in London. By 1695, John Eccles had become principal composer of the newly formed Lincoln’s Inn Fields theater company. For its plays, Eccles composed songs, choruses, overtures, orchestral dances, ceremonial scenes and masques. Both Bracegirdle and Hodgson were members of the troupe, but their celebrity had been established far before their collaboration with Eccles at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Anne Bracegirdle was one of the most celebrated singer-actresses of the Restoration stage. In 1688, she became a member of the United Company, playing such roles as Semernia in Aphra Behn’s The Widow Ranter and Lady Anne in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Her popularity grew, and she joined the ranks of a new phenomenon: “celebrity” actors who drew more audience to the plays than the plays themselves.
After treatment of actors at the United Company deteriorated, Bracegirdle joined her fellow troupe members in a “walk-out” in 1695. They established their own actor-lead cooperative, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Poet and playwright William Congreve was a close friend of Eccles, and Congreve wrote the majority of his plays to be performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A purported lover and intimate friend of Anne Bracegirdle, Congreve continually created roles in his plays specifically for her. She premiered the role of Millamant in The Way of the World in 1700, as well as the role of Venus in Eccles’s The Judgment of Paris in 1701 with a libretto by Congreve. “I burn, my brain consumes to ashes,” however, is an earlier air by Eccles from D’Urfey’s 1694 The Comical History of Don Quixote. It is an incredible example of the “mad song,” a genre in which a female character "loses her reason" over unrequited or broken love. The stark changes in mood, tempo, and melody made these songs an excellent opportunity for Restoration female performers to abandon societal norms of behavior to create eccentric and virtuosic theatrical moments.
Manuscript page from Dido's aria, "When I am laid in Earth"
Photo: Julliard Collection
While Anne Bracegirdle was known best for her acting ability, Mary Hodgson, her colleague and frequent collaborator, made a reputation for herself based on her vocal ability. Born in 1673, she sang the role of Mystery in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen in 1692 with the United Company, and in that same year, wed actor John Hodgson, taking his last name. When the United Company’s monopoly over theater in London was finally broken, Mary and her husband joined Lincoln’s Inn Fields where she then interpreted over 28 of Eccles’s songs and dialogues. Known primarily for her vocal talents, she performed roles in the range of a modern-day mezzo-soprano. Hodgson performed the role of Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1700, as well as premiered the role of Juno in Eccles’s The Judgment of Paris in 1701. She was also well known as a soloist at York Buildings, London’s primary concert venue. “Love’s but the frailty of the mind” is an air, written specifically for Hodgson by Eccles in Act III of The Way of the World, Congreve’s last theatrical work for Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1700.