Not Having It All

While staying in Leeds in July 1782, Tate Wilkinson, the successful manager of a theater company touring the north of England, received a message asking him to visit Grace Phillips, an actress who, as Mrs. Francis, had once played Desdemona to his Othello. He found Grace and her three children in dire straits: newly arrived from Ireland and penniless, the family desperately needed work. But Grace Phillips was not asking Wilkinson for a place in his troupe for herself. Instead she proposed that he should employ her daughter Dorothy or, as she preferred to be known, Dora, aged twenty and now five months pregnant, the result of an affair with Richard Daly, a vicious Dublin theater manager who had forcibly claimed the rights of the casting couch.

Long before Noël Coward, Wilkinson knew only too well the problems of dealing with Mrs. Worthingtons who wanted to put their daughters on the stage. As he wrote later, “the mamma, like other mammas, and in particular actresses’ mammas, talked so fulsomely of her daughter’s merits, that I was almost disgusted, and very near giving a flat denial to any negotiation.” Eventually persuaded by hearing Dora recite a few lines and by her boundless self-confidence, Wilkinson agreed to let her play Calista, the title role in Nicholas Rowe’s tragedy The Fair Penitent.

Wilkinson advertised Dora as Miss Bland, but Grace protested: Dora’s father, Francis Bland, had abandoned the family seven years earlier. Dora was billed instead as Miss Francis. Like all such theater stories, this one would have no point unless Miss Francis was a triumph as Calista. By the time the company moved on to York, Wilkinson’s new star was too visibly pregnant, and the father too obviously invisible, to be acting as “Miss.” Wilkinson came up with a new idea: jokingly he likened Dora’s escape from Ireland to the Israelites’ fording the River Jordan from slavery to freedom and Miss Francis became Dora Jordan, the subject of Claire Tomalin’s superb biography.

If Wilkinson’s suggestion solved the problem of her stage name for the rest of her career, Dora Jordan’s life can seem like an endless search for an offstage name. Unable to use her father’s surname, Jordan never married, and thus never acquired the legal right to use a husband’s surname either. Many actors like Dora Jordan have undergone the experience of abandoning the name they might have thought of as their own, taking on a new public name for their work, these days answering the demands of Equity or a Hollywood studio. Actors are, in any case, used to being renamed, taking on a new name with each new role, and some of those roles, almost as the price of popular success, add their own resonances to the performers’ names, as, for instance, when Sylvester Stallone becomes unnervingly identified as Rambo and Rocky off-screen as much as on. The actor is public property, with an identity molded as much by the audience as by the star.

But Jordan’s life,…

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