Elizabeth Barry, who became the first great actress on the English stage, was born about 1658, the daughter of the barrister Robert Barry, who was ruined by his raising a regiment for Charles I at his own expense. There are many stories about Elizabeth’s early life, including one that the Earl of Rochester had trained her in the role of Isabella in “Mustapha”, which she performed before Charles II. But her first performance of record was in the small part of Draxilla in Otway’s “Alcibiades” at the Dorset Garden Theatre in late September 1675. Over the next several years she appeared in such roles as Leonora in “Abdelazer”, Elvira in “The Wrangling Lovers”, Lucia in “The Cheats of Scapin” and Emilla in “The Fond Husband”. She also gave birth to a daughter by Rochester in December 1677. In the 1679-80 season she took on several major roles, including Lavinia in Otway’s “Caius Marius”, and the following season she was the leading lady of the Duke’s company, playing Cordelia in the Tate version of “King Lear”, Leonora in “The Spanish Fryar”, and Belvidera in Otway’s “Venice Preserv’d”, in the premiere, probably on 9 February 1682. Otway, with whom she had an affair, had written the role expressly for her. There were other lovers, including the dramatist Sir George Etherege and the Earl of Dorset. She became notorious for her amours, prompting several satires, including one called ‘Three Late Marriages,’ in which she is referred to as ‘slattern Betty Barry.’
She displayed in her acting a high pitch of emotion coupled with a great degree of control that suited her for the great roles of Lady Macbeth, Calista in “The Fair Penitent”, Roxana in “The Rival Queens”, Evadne in “The Maid’s Tragedy” and Cleopatra in “All for Love”. She retired from the stage in 1709 and died on 7 November 1713, at about the age of 55. As an actress she had been of the highest order. The portrait of her after Kneller in the Garrick Club (G0047) is a copy of the original at Strawberry Hill. She is pictured kneeling by William III, with the actress Ann Bracegirdle by her side, in another canvas by Kneller at Hampton Court Palace. There is an extensive notice of her in the BDA.