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Betterton [née Saunderson], Mary (c.1637–1712), actress and acting teacher, was about twenty-five when she and obtained a marriage licence on 24 December 1662. Nothing is known of her childhood. According to John Downes, Mary Saunderson was among the first actresses Sir William Davenant hired for the Duke's Company in 1661 and lived with the others under the care of his wife (Downes, 49–50). Some months before Mary and Thomas got married Samuel Pepys noted gossip that implies they were living together (Pepys, 22 Oct 1662). However, this irregularity is the only one reported of Mrs Betterton. Unlike many of her colleagues, she attracted no sexual lampoons, and the Bettertons' marriage lasted ‘in the strictest amity’ through the vicissitudes of nearly forty-eight years (Account).

Mrs Betterton immediately became a leading actress, later a teacher, eventually the ‘housekeeper’. Wilson lists more than sixty roles for her (Wilson, 117–19). Mrs Betterton played in both comedy and tragedy, succeeding best in serious and pathetic roles. Samuel Pepys referred to her as ‘poor Ianthe’ from her earliest part, in William Davenant's Siege of Rhodes. Her gift was not for ‘airy’ roles in comedy but for comparatively sedate ones, such as the exemplary Porcia in Samuel Tuke's Adventures of Five Hours or Florinda in Aphra Behn's Rover. She often played the second female lead and seldom appeared in farce. She excelled at dramatic parts such as the duchess of Malfi and her most enduring role, Lady Macbeth. Colley Cibber considered her ‘so great a Mistress of Nature’ that she could ‘throw out those quick and careless Strokes of Terror from the Disorder of a guilty Mind … with a Facility in her Manner that render'd them at once tremendous and delightful’ (Cibber, 161–2). Plots often, but by no means automatically, paired Mrs Betterton with her husband.

Between 1666 and 1669 Mrs Betterton's activities are poorly recorded. Following Davenant's death in 1668 Thomas Betterton became co-manager and could promote his wife's career, adapting scripts for her such as The Amorous Widow and The Roman Virgin. When the new Dorset Garden Theatre opened in November 1671, the Bettertons took up residence there rent-free as building superintendents. They shared their home with two informally adopted daughters, , who was with them from the late 1660s, and Elizabeth Watson, who came about 1686, both of whom they trained to act. They were highly respectable. In the autumn of 1681 Mrs Betterton coached Princess Anne for a private production of Nathaniel Lee's Mithridates (Boswell, 131). The anonymous Life of Thomas Betterton (1749) reported an unconfirmed oral tradition that in the winter of 1674–5 Mrs Betterton gave lessons to Princess Anne and her sister Mary for the court masque Calisto.

By 1676 Mrs Betterton found that her age was presenting difficulties. When Elizabeth Barry joined the company, playwrights such as Thomas Otway, Thomas D'Urfey, and Aphra Behn chose to feature the younger woman in their scripts. The change was gradual: Mrs Betterton continued to receive dramatic roles, such as Jocasta in the Dryden–Lee Oedipus or Andromache in John Banks's Destruction of Troy (both autumn 1678), and Andromache in John Dryden's Troilus and Cressida (spring 1679). Like her male colleagues, she presumably continued to appear in the parts she ‘owned’. Yet her new roles in serious plays began to shrink in size. The extreme is Lucrece in Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus (December 1680), who kills herself at the end of a single scene. A gap in records of Mrs Betterton's career occurs between January 1682 and November 1689, when many old plays were revived after the King's and Duke's companies merged.

The handful of new roles Mrs Betterton acquired after this are distinctly mature, though Cibber ranked her among the ‘principal Actors … at the Head’ of the company he joined in 1690. In Dryden's Cleomenes (April 1692) she played the mother of the title character (acted by her husband). Southerne emphasized her age in his dyspeptic comedy The Maid's Last Prayer (February 1693). Mrs Wishwell, ‘a Woman turn'd of fifty’, makes her living as a society bawd. Dryden, producing Love Triumphant in January 1694, entrusted to Mrs Betterton the sizeable role of Queen Ximena.

In late November 1694 Mrs Betterton was among the senior actors who signed the ‘petition of the players’ against the oppressive management of Christopher Rich and Sir Thomas Skipwith (Milhous and Hume, 1483). With regard to her, the patentees responded that her 50s. per week was paid ‘in Complement to Mr Betterton she not appearing in any parts to the satisfaction of the Audience’ (ibid., 1486). Rosters for the company the rebels set up at Lincoln's Inn Fields in April 1695 included Mrs Betterton but she seems not to have performed (ibid., 1496, 1513, 1552, 1647). In the spring of 1703 she was listed as ‘Housekeeper & to teach to act’ at £80 a year in the plan drawn up by Vanbrugh for a new United Company (ibid., 1713). Cibber mentions that ‘When she quitted the Stage several good Actresses were the better for her Instruction’ (Cibber, 161–2). After the move to Vanbrugh's new theatre in April 1705, Mrs Betterton presumably became a pensioner. The last trace of her on a roster is a draft for autumn 1709 at the token sum of £25, but she was dropped from the implemented version (Milhous and Hume, 2053, 2064). She took her husband's death in April 1710 very hard: Steele reported that she temporarily lost her reason. According to Cibber, Queen Anne ‘order'd her a Pension for Life, but she liv'd not to receive more than the first half Year of it’ (Cibber, 161–2). The traditional widow's benefit was played for her on 4 June 1711; she wrote her will on 10 March 1712; and she died in London, and was buried beside her husband in Westminster Abbey on 13 April 1712.

Judith Milhous


C. Cibber, An apology for the life of Mr. Colley Cibber, new edn, 1, ed. R. W. Lowe (1889), 161–2 · J. H. Wilson, All the king's ladies: actresses of the Restoration (1958), 117–19 · J. Milhous and R. D. Hume, eds., A register of English theatrical documents, 1660–1737, 2 vols. (1991) · J. Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, ed. J. Milhous and R. D. Hume, new edn (1987) · Highfill, Burnim & Langhans, BDA, 2.96–9 · An account of the life of that celebrated tragedian, Mr Thomas Betterton (1749) · E. Boswell, The Restoration court stage (1660–1702): with a particular account of the production of ‘Calisto’ (1932), esp. 131, 180 · The Tatler (2 May 1710) · L. Hotson, The Commonwealth and Restoration stage (1928), esp. 233–4 · W. Van Lennep, ed., The London stage, 1660–1800, pt 1: 1660–1700 (1965) · Pepys, Diary · B. Podewell, ‘Elizabeth Watson's childhood: biographical notes on a Restoration actress’, Theatre Survey, 19/2 (1978), 180–82

Wealth at death  

£40; also bequests to be paid out of untraced government pension: Highfill, Burnim & Langhans, BDA