Nance may have made her entry into the green-room amid royal auspices, but who can for a second believe that “she seldom spoke to any one of the actors”? There was in her composition too much of sunshine to warrant any such belief, and then we know that behind the scenes she was ever affable and friendly. If she did not brook familiarity which comes of contempt, and if she moved about among her companions with dignity, then so much the better.
Of Nance’s sweetness of temper and sterling common-sense, Cibber has left us an attractive memory. It seems that when the Drury Lane management determined to revive “The Provoked Wife” of Sir John Vanbrugh (January 1726), Colley suggested that Wilks should take a rest during the run of the piece, and allow Barton Booth to play the lover, Constant. The idea did not meet with Wilks’ approval; “down dropt his brow, and fur’d were his features”; and the green-room became the scene of a violent spat between Cibber and himself, with Mrs. Oldfield and other members of the company as excited listeners. Finally the author of the “Apology” said: “Are you not every day complaining of your being over-labour’d? And now, upon the first offering to ease you, you fly into a passion, and pretend to make that a greater grievance than t’other: But, Sir, if your being in or out of the play is a hardship, you shall impose it upon yourself: The part is in your hand, and to us it is a matter of indifference now whether you take it or leave it.”
[Illustration: SIR JOHN VANBRUGH By Sir GODFREY KNELLER]
Upon this Mr. Wilks “threw down the part upon the table, crossed his arms, and sate knocking his heel upon the floor, as seeming to threaten most when he said least.” Hereupon Booth generously yielded up the much disputed Constant to his rival with the remark that “for his part, he saw no such great matter in acting every day; for he believed it the wholsomest exercise in the world; it kept the spirits in motion, and always gave him a good stomach”—and the elegant Barton, be it remembered, was a great eater.
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“Here,” says Cibber, “I observed Mrs. Oldfield began to titter behind her fan. But Wilks being more intent upon what Booth had said, reply’d, every one could best feel for himself, but he did not pretend to the strength of a pack-horse; therefore if Mrs. Oldfield would chuse anybody else to play with her, he should be very glad to be excus’d. This throwing the negative upon Mrs. Oldfield was, indeed, a sure way to save himself; which I could not help taking notice of, by saying it was making but an ill compliment to the company to suppose there was but one man in it fit to play an ordinary part with her.