Mary Ann Graham was probably born in 1728 in Birmingham, the daughter of the captain’s steward on the “Ariel”, William Graham and his wife Mary. Her early years are a blank, but she seems to have made her first stage appearance in Dublin as Anna Bullen in “Henry VIII” on 22 January 1753 under the manager Thomas Sheridan, who presumably used his oratorical expertise to train Mary Ann. She then came to London, where she may have begun her theatrical chores at Drury Lane as a dresser and bit-part player. The first certain evidence we have of her acting there dates from 25 February 1754, when she appeared as Marcia in “Virginia”; the prompter Cross noted her as ‘a gentlewoman who never appear’d on the stage before.’ Paul Hiffernan in “The Tuner” in March described Miss Graham as ‘a new Actress with a graceful Figure, pleasing Voice, and praiseworthy Deportment.’ She acted the title role in “Jane Shore” for her benefit on 29 April. After a few more appearances, Miss Graham disappeared from the stage, and when she returned it was as Alcmena in “Amphitryon” on 15 December 1756, advertised as Mrs (Richard) Yates. Her husband (q.v.), a secondary player in the company, seems to have devoted at least some of his time to managing her career, though Mary Ann proved to be quite capable of managing herself, and she worked her way to the top of London’s select list of prima donnas.
Mrs Yates seems to have received training from the author Arthur Murphy and from David Garrick, but her acting, which was often described over the years as imperious, haughty or lofty, seems to have been patterned more after the declamatory style of the early eighteenth century. Since her forté was tragedy, that style worked effectively. Though she appeared in comedies – Lady Townly in “The Provok’d Husband”, Violante in “The Wonder”, Sylvia in “The Recruiting Officer” and the like – she was most comfortable in serious drama: Calista in “The Fair Penitent”, the title roles in “Zara” and “Jane Shore”, Lady Randolph in “Douglas”, Monimia in “The Orphan”, Belvidera in “Venice Preserv’d”, Desdemona in “Othello”, Cordelia in “King Lear” and Andromache in “The Distrest Mother” – among many other characters. In the 1760s she established herself as the equal of Mrs Cibber and Mrs Pritchard, Garrick’s other queens, but when Cibber and Pritchard died (in 1766 and 1768 respectively) Mrs Yates, then in her prime, lost her Drury Lane engagement because of a disagreement with Garrick over salary. The “Universal Museum” made it clear that she was carrying her husband: ‘Dicky could not say a word for himself.’
She moved to Covent Garden, where she first appeared on 16 October 1767 as Jane Shore and then was seen in 1767-68 in some of her old characters as well as Cordelia in “King Lear”, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra in “All for Love” and Gertrude in “Hamlet”. James Harris attended her benefit on 13 March 1769 and scribbled a note to John Hoadly about it: ‘Never a fuller [house] – pit and boxes thrown together: she acted the part of Electra in the Orestes of Voltaire, translated on purpose for her [by Dr Thomas Francklin]. For tone, and justness of elocution, for uninterrupted attention, for everything that was nervous, various, elegant, and true, in attitude and action, I never saw her equal but Garrick.’ But, again, Mrs Yates demanded more salary than Covent Garden’s manager Colman would pay (£600 for the season for herself plus ‘the usual salary for her husband,’ according to the papers). Colman said he wouldn’t have Mrs Yates for any price. So she and her husband bought into the opera house – the King’s Theatre – where their interests remained until 1778. Mrs Yates proposed offering a season of both operas and plays but was turned down by the Lord Chamberlain, for the Licensing Act of 1737 restricted straight plays to Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and, during the summers, the Haymarket.
During her absence from the London stage Mary Ann and her husband acted in Edinburgh and with Ri