The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

a Henry for her time

So the short answer to last week’s crocodile mystery is that this is a picture of Gwen Lally in the role of Henry V:

Gwen Lally as Henry V
Gwen Lally as Henry V

How did I know that’s who this was? Well, click on the image and you’ll be taken to the file in Luna, where the metadata clearly indicates that it is “Gwen Lally as Henry V” and the bottom of the image (which I trimmed off for the crocodile post) is labelled “Henry V.” But that’s about all the information it provides, aside from the call number “Scrapbook B.67.1.” Because the Folger Theatre is currently staging Henry V, I was looking through our digital image collection to see what images we had of actors in the role of Henry. I was struck by this one, since it was the second one in our digital collection of a woman playing the role of Henry V (the first is from the first half of the 19th century and shows “Mrs Egerton as Henry the Vth”). While there are certainly plenty of male parts that were played by women over the centuries—Sarah Siddons playing Hamlet and Charlotte Cushman playing Romeo come immediately to mind—but I wasn’t aware of Henry V being one of those roles.

There was something else, too, that struck me about the image, and that’s the odd quality of it: it looked like an image taken from a magazine, not from a photograph. And so I called up the scrapbook and set to work.

The scrapbook is, as you’ll see from the slideshow, full of clippings about and images related to the play (click on the thumbnails above to open up the slideshow). It’s not clear who compiled it; the dealer’s letter doesn’t name the maker. But it was certainly completed before 1925, when it was offered to Mr Folger, and a quick glance suggests that most of the clippings date before 1920.

The image of Gwen Lally comes in the section of the scrapbook devoted to images of actors in the play, and looking at it in the scrapbook itself, it’s clear that it was a clipping from a magazine or newspaper, rather than a photograph:

"Gwen Lally: A London Actress in Masculine Roles"
“Gwen Lally: A London Actress in Masculine Roles”

It doesn’t shed a lot of light on the specifics of this performance, but it does reveal a great deal about its circumstances, clearly tying in the presence of a woman in the role of the English king with the vacuum left by men fighting in Europe. While the scrapbook does indicate a date for this clipping (1916, which corresponds with the text’s account of this happening during the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death), it doesn’t provide any further details about where the clipping came from. The tone is a bit snarky: the climax of difficult and uncongenial activities for women is playing Henry V. (I’m not sure that really is that hard for women to do, especially given the long history of women playing male parts in Shakespeare’s plays, though I suppose the fashion of seeing Henry as an ideal English king might put particular pressures on that performance.)

I haven’t been able to work out quite when and under what capacity Lally played Henry. She was a member of the Old Vic’s tercentenary celebrations, and it’s possible that she played Henry in that capacity. Gordon Williams suggests, in his book British Theatre in the Great War: A Reevaluation, that she reprised the role of Henry in May 1917 during a matinee performance at the Ambassadors. 1 Lally was certainly a player in the British theater scene in the first half of the twentieth century. She’s remembered now primarily as a prominent pageant director, the first women to be so. There are some great photographs of her in later life, including this undated one now part of the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library:

Gwen Lally Digital ID: th-27902. New York Public Library

It’s hard to look back at that picture of Lally in 1916 without knowing of her later success in taking on jobs formerly held by men. When I see that she produced an all-female Henry VIII in 1924, or when I look at the portraits of her with a hairstyle that looks very much like an eighteenth-century wig worn by upperclass men, it’s tempting to project back onto her Henry and to see a life-long engagement with questions of gender roles. Whether that is true or not, it’s helpful to keep in mind that theater is always as powerful as it is because it speaks to us in our own moment. The Chorus in Henry V opens the play asking the audience to let the actors, “ciphers to this great account, / On your imaginary forces work” but it is also true that it is the audience who works their imaginations on the actors, bringing their sense of the world to the theater’s fiction. Whether Lally’s 1916 performance as Henry V was a precursor to later gender rebellion or not, it was certainly indicative of a world that was struggling with how to continue even as war was going on and men were fighting and dying.

Update (February 10, 2013): Mitch Fraas kindly looked up some more details in The Era‘s annual play index and found two productions of Henry V for 1916, but neither lists Gwen Lally as a cast member. I’m inclined to think her performance might have been a one-off, part of a festival or special occasion. If anyone has full access to The Era, I’d love to know what is in the two articles that Williams cites in his account of Lally’s playing Henry V: 10 May 1916 (p21?) and 30 May 1917 (p9).

  1. Gordon Williams,  British Theatre in the Great War: A Reevaluation (Continuum P, 2003) p270. Williams cites two articles from The Era (10 May 1916 and 30 May 1917) as his source for this, but I haven’t been able to access those articles to see what they report. I am grateful to Mitch Fraas for helping me track down that citation.


  • Thanks from me too (and hello Sylvia!). Lally sounds fascinating. What struck me was that Lally could have contributed to the figure of the pageant mistress in Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts (1941). She’d be the right age – more so than Ethel Smythe whom most biographers cite as the source of the character’s personality. Google can only tell me that she knew GB Shaw, whom Woolf also of course knew. Woolf rather naughtily suggests that Miss La Trobe, the pageant maker, has a mysterious past which includes a possible origin in Tasmania (she didn’t much care for the Antipodeans she knew); it’s a way of signalling her ‘outsider’ status as both artist and lesbian. Miss La Trobe is also a strong feminist. When I get back to Oz I’ll check my Woolf collection to see if there are any other possible links. Can’t remember offhand if there’s any Shakespeare refs in Between the Acts, though the other novels are full of WS quotations. Woolf may have seen Lally’s Henry V!

    • Hi Penny–I don’t know Between the Acts, but it sounds like I’ll have to read it! I also will follow up with our photography department to see why we have that image in our database. It wasn’t done as part of a larger project, so it was likely ordered by a researcher. Perhaps we can learn more about Lally if we can work out who else is interested in her. And I’d love to hear any updates on what you find out!

  • Sarah, your timing is extraordinary – the day you made your post I sent in my entry on Lally to the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography! I had already found the photo on the Folger’s website and have listed it in my bibliography.

    I have been researching the British 20th century pageant movement for some years. The early 20th century revival of Shakespeare seems to have inspired the pageant movement, which began with Louis Napoleon Parker’s Sherborne pageant in 1905, which led to an outbreak of ‘pageantitis’ that swept Britain and spread to the US. Nearly all the individuals who worked as pageant masters started their careers at Her (later His) Majesty’s

    Anyway, here is a brief summary of Lally’s career:

    Lally, Gwen (1882-1963) [real name Gwendoline Rosalie Lally Tollendal Speck], pageant master, theatre producer, actress, dramatist and lecturer was born on 1 March 1882 in London, the eldest daughter of three children of Reverend Henry G Speck and Rosalie Hughes Dalrymple. Lally was educated at home, privately, and studied for the stage under actress Rosina Filippi.

    Lally made her first appearance on the stage with a walking-on part in Tree’s Nero at His Majesty’s in 1906. She subsequently appeared in her own variety sketches, singing and acting and always playing male parts. Between 1915 and 1916, she was engaged by the Old Vic, acting alongside Sybil Thorndike. She made an enduring friendship with the manager Lilian Baylis as well as other women associated with the feminist-theatrical set around the Old Vic, including Vera Holme and Edith Craig. At the Old Vic she again played male roles, including Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice and Osric in Hamlet. She later said that she was the only actress who had never appeared on stage in a skirt. After the Old Vic, Lally did some more variety sketches and then gave up acting.

    Lally started giving acting lessons in about 1918 and taught Peggy Ashcroft and Diana Wynyard. In 1923 she became closely involved with with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and worked as an adjudicator for drama competitions for various regional federations. As you say above, she directed 100 WI women in a pageant play production of Henry VIII in 1924. She then directed a number of WI pageants with casts of 100s. She was also involved with Mary Kelly’s Village Drama Society who put on small village pageants.

    The Pageant of Forest in 1929 was Lally’s first large pageant. It had a finale written by A.A. Milne, featuring his nine-year old son Christopher Milne playing Christopher Robin and other children playing Winnie-the-Pooh and the other characters. Vita Sackville-West also contributed a specially written poem to the pageant. Lally went on to regularly direct further large pageants with casts of 1000s until 1952. Like her friend Frank Lascelles, her pageants were largely silent with musical accompaniment (Parker’s were more scripted). She embraced technology and her Birmingham pageant (1938) even included large motorised dinosaurs.

    Lally also directed 2 seasons of repertory theatre in Leeds and Southend-on-Sea. She published 2 volumes of poetry and a play in verse, Jezebel, which was the first biblical play ‘passed’ for performance by the Lord Chamberlain. She frequently contributed articles on pageantry, theatre and historical costume to magazines and also lectured on these subjects in Britain, the US and Canada, as well as broadcasting on the radio.

    Lally’s striking appearance was much remarked upon. She was tall and slim and was always photographed with short hair in men’s or very masculine clothes. She appears to have carefully constructed her image in a number of dramatic publicity photographs by Warchawski Studios. George Bernard Shaw told her ‘you are a pageant in yourself: a George Washington pageant’. I have not been able to find out much about Lally’s private life other than the fact she never married. She clearly knew the feminist-theatrical set around Baylis at the Old Vic and there’s a striking photo of her in male dress is in Vera ‘Jack’ Holme’s papers.

    Finally, I wonder as well whether she was Woolf’s model for Miss La Trobe. However, it has also been suggested that Mary Kelly was the model.

  • Deborah, thank you so much for sharing this with us! So had your research turned up her playing Henry V in an Old Vic production? Or was that a benefit performance or something akin to a one-off? It’s frustrating not to have this show up in Shakespeare stage histories but wonderful to know that you’ve done an entry for her for the ODNB. She sounds like a fascinating person, and I’m glad to learn some more about her!

  • According to my notes (compiled from J.P. Wearing, The London Stage 1910-1919: A calendar of plays and players, vols I & II, Scarecrow press, Metuchen NJ & London, 1982; Who was who in the theatre: 1912-1976, vol 3, I-P, Gale Research Co, 1978; Was Who 1961-1970, p. 646 Adam & Charles Black, 1979), Lally played a French prisoner in performances of Henry V at the Old Vic in 1915 and 1916. Perhaps she stood in as the King in one of the 1916 performances? I don’t have any reviews listed for these performances. As you say, she played the King in a performance of Henry V at the Ambassador’s Theatre in 1917.

    She appeared in the Shakespeare Pageant at Covent Garden, held as part of the Shakespeare Tercentenary Festival in 1916. However, this was as a peasant in The Winter’s Tale.

  • A very interesting read. Gwen Lally was my mother-in-law’s sister. I have letters and photographs that she gave to her nephew, my late husband. My husband and his younger brother took part in at least one of her pageants. I did not meet her but heard all about her from my husband and his brother. She was a vicar’s daughter: her sister married my father-in-law and her brother was in the diplomatic service. She was fairly open about her sexuality within the family and lived with her partner whose first name I cannot remember. She was Mrs Gibson I think and had been widowed.

  • Gwen Lally’s performance in the courtship scene from Henry V is reported in ‘The Sketch’ magazine April 1918. This was for a wartime fund-raising matinee. A search of the British Newspaper Archive shows that Lally did a number of performances of this kind.

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