Theatre History-Lena Ashwell
As I researched various actresses throughout the History of Theatre, one in particular stood out to me. I have heard of this actress but knew little about her. The more I read of her the more intrigued I became.
During the Golden Age of Theatre, 1880-1920, many actresses were involved in spreading the availability of theatre to all. What truly grabbed my attention was the statement, “Lena Ashwell is known as the first to organize large-scale entertainment for troops at the front, which she did during World War I.”
What was it in this woman’s life that made supporting troops during times of conflict a quest?
Lena Ashwell was born Lena Margaret Pocock on September 28, 1872. She was the sixth child of seven; two brothers (one died in childhood) and four sisters. Interestingly her father was captain of a ship which served as a home for delinquent boys. Lena was born on the training ship “Wellesey” on the River Tyne in the North of England. Lena’s first eight years were spent on this ship with her family. At age eight her family moved to Canada. Lena’s father changed careers, a clergyman in the Church of England. She went from a home on a ship to a wooden cabin overlooking the St. Lawrence River. Later her family moved to Toronto where Lena attended Bishop Strachan’s School for young ladies. Lena was an excellent student, graduating ahead of her age group. Lena’s mother was killed in an accident during Lena’s last year in school. Her father was stricken by the loss of his wife and ended up moving back to Europe with Lena and two of her sisters. They settled in Lausanne, Switzerland. Here Lena attended the Conservatiore, which was French speaking, where she studied music.
From this education, Lena decided on a career as an opera singer and gained acceptance into the Royal Academy of Music. In 1880 Lena delivered a recitation, in the audience was Ellen Terry. Ellen was certain that Lena’s future was in acting.
Lena’s professional debut was March 30, 1891, where she played “Martin” in “The Pharisee.” The production was held at the Islington Grand Theatre, London. From this debut Lena was cast in numerous minor roles; learning the trade and gaining experience. Once Lena was well established it allowed the luxury of picking her parts without long term contracts; Quite an accomplishment for a woman during those times.
By 1906 Lena was not only established, but one of the most famous and best loved actresses in England. Her popularity sparked the embarkment of her first tour of the USA. Lena, “The Great English Emotional Actress,” performed in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Pittsburgh. Upon her return to England, Lena assumed temporary management of the Savoy. Lena’s stint as manager of the Savoy provided the impetus to running her own theatre, the Kingsway from 1907 to 1915.
Lena Ashwell married actor Arthur Playfair in 1896. However due to Arthur’s excessive drinking the marriage failed. In 1908 Lena both divorced Arthur and married Sir Henry John Forbes Simson, the royal obstretician.
Shortly after the start of WWI Lena began organizing groups of professional actors to entertain allied troops in France. These “concert-parties” as they were referred, comprised mostly female actors. To fill the male roles in the popular play excerpts Lena recruited local soldiers.
At the end of WWI over 600 artists had taken part in the “concert-parties.” During the signing of the Armistice Lena had 25 groups “in the field!” They performed in France, Malta, Egypt and Palestine, also at various military camps in England and hospitals. Lena Ashwell received the distinguished award of the “Order of the British Empire” in 1917.
After WWI, Lena started the “Lena Ashwell Players” which were originally knows as the “Once-a-Week Players.” This company stayed together until 1929 when they were disbanded for “tax reasons.”
In 1919, Lena served as one of the five Vice Presidents on the newly founded British Drama League. With the league’s moral support and supply of actors, Lena purchased the Bijou Theatre in Bayswater, now to be called The Century. Although the Lena Ashwell Players were defunct, Lena maintained her acting, British Drama League involvement, and management of The Century.
Lena passed away March 13, 1957, in London.
Lena Ashwell incorporated her acting abilities, her intelligence, and her fame to produce a woman to lead all women. She accepted challenges, organizing ventures unheard for most women of her time. Her vision of the future always remained flexible. Lena’s life experiences teach lessons to all.