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An art nouveau poster of Ada Rehan

Who was Ada Rehan, and what is her significance in relation to Shakespeare?

Today’s guest blog is by Mareike, Collections Librarian with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust since the beginning of 2009. She has a strong background in art history, and is going to tell you about one of her discoveries in the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive:

While searching for an RSC production poster, I came across an Art Nouveau poster of the American actress Ada Rehan. Being a lover of all things Art Nouveau, the style and colours appealed to me. The style is very reminiscent of Alphonse Mucha, the poster artist, famous for his representations of beautiful, elegant, young women, whose work is inextricably linked with Art Nouveau.  I have been a fan of Alphonse Mucha for many years, and have a collection of Mucha postcards displayed on my walls.

Ada Rehan

Who was Ada Rehan? Was she as famous as Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress who modelled for Mucha’s posters? Ada Rehan, as I found out, was one of the leading actresses at her time. Born in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, she emigrated to America when five years of age. The theatre manager Augustin Daly saw her perform at New York’s Grand Opera House and recruited her to his company. The Daly-Rehan partnership was long and hugely successful, and Rehan became a star mainly known for her portrayals of comic heroines--in particular, Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew. However, Daly, who was twenty years her senior and her manager, had great power over her career, and after his death she couldn’t imagine carrying on acting: “If I ever go on again with my work I fear it will be more of the machine than the artiste [sic]… I am so indifferent I cannot think.” Her career was firmly in the hands of patriarchal control, and when Daly treated her badly, she was unable to break away from him. This contrasts with the image of the strong, statuesque woman in the Art Nouveau poster and other pictorial and artistic representations of Rehan. She was the model for the statue of Justice displayed at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Strong, confident, and athletic, Rehan was the first model to be considered for this sculpture, as she seemed to embody the ideal of femininity at the time. Women were among Rehan’s keenest followers, who wanted to be like her and imitated her style and clothes. I am convinced they displayed pictures of Rehan on their walls too… hopefully a reproduction of this poster will be made available for people to display some time.

P.S.: Want to find out more about Ada Rehan? Here are a few recommendations:

-         Strange duets: impresarios and actresses in the American theatre, 1865-1914 by Kim Marra

-         The theatre of Augustin Daly: an account of the late nineteenth century American stage by Marvin Felheim

Ada Rehan: a study by William Winter