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Author: Michael Burke

Publication Year: 2011

Journal Volume: 25

Article Reference: NYIHR-V25-03

Download PDF: Matilda Heron - The Best Camille

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Matilda Heron - The Best Camille

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The woman dared to come in upon that painted scene as if it really was the home apartment it was represented to be! She did not slide in with her face to the audience and wait for the mockery that is called 'a reception.'

She walked in easily, naturally, unwitting of any outside eyes. The petulant manner in which she took off her shawl; the commonplace conversational tone in which she spoke to her servant, were revelations...Here was a daring reality...We felt ourselves in the presence of an inspired woman!1 O'Brien continues his description of the actress elsewhere: ?Miss Heron?s figure was commanding, and there was a certain powerful light in her eyes that startled and thrilled; but there was none of the beauty of the ?favorite actress.? The conquest that she achieved was purely intellectual and magnetic.? 2 Apparently her acting style was unusual for the time. She did not overreact to news, flail her arms about, or as we would put it today, ?chew the scenery.? The only reference that we have today to the prevalent acting style of her day can be in old silent movies where movement and gestures were exaggerated. She performed on stage in a perfectly natural manner. It could probably be called the nineteenth-century equivalent of today?s ?method acting.? With The Irish In San Francisco Throughout her career Matilda suffered from recurrent eye infections, sometimes so severe she was not able to work. One was so bad it nearly caused blindness, and she was forced to return to her family home in Philadelphia to convalesce. Shortly after her recovery she determined to try her luck in California. Since there was a great lack of entertainment there, it offered a financially rewarding place for theatre people. In 1853 Matilda and George Lewis left for San Francisco. The ocean trip was long, and the horseback ride through Panama arduous. Lewis became ill and died on the ship in the Pacific Ocean.

Matilda had borrowed money to finance this expedition, and now she was to arrive in San Francisco distressed, broke, and alone. She was ready to turn around and return home when she received an unexpectedly friendly welcome. Her reputation had preceded her. San Francisco was a frontier city starved for any entertainment, and the arrival of a famous actress from back East was a special event. In addition, there was a large Irish community there who looked forward to welcoming an accomplished artist and one of their own. Several young men got together to secure theatre bookings for her and also to ensure the houses would be full. On December 26, 1853, Matilda Heron appeared on stage for the first time in California, in one of her favorite roles, Bianca in Milman?s Fazio. She was an immediate success, playing to packed houses and rave reviews. One of them, in the newspaper Alta California, was especially complimentary: She has not the least rant, but she is simple, intense, graceful and true to nature. Her acting is that which touches the heart.... The play of ?Fazio? is in itself heavy, and only superior excellence can relieve it.... We mean to disparage no other actress when we say Miss Heron so far excels them all. We have no hesitation in saying that her first appearance was the greatest triumph ever achieved upon the stage in California.3 While in San Francisco, Matilda did a benefit performance for George Lewis?s widow and children, raising $1,600.00. The owners of the theatre gave her a $500.00 bonus, and several fans got together and presented her with diamond cross (later estimated to be worth about $800.00). The ringleader of her benefactors was Henry Herbert Byrne, a young lawyer with political aspirations who was prominent in the local Irish community.

After her success in San Francisco, Matilda toured the rest of California, with the same results. In what seems to have been an impulse she yielded to the constant entreaties of Henry Byrne and married him in a secret ceremony in June, 1854 at St Patrick?s Catholic Church in San Francisco. This decision was not very well Vol. 25, 2011