Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Ann West Bignall (d. 20 January 1805), actress, was born in England sometime in the middle or late 1760s, one of at least two daughters and a son of actors Thomas Wade West and Margaretta Sully West. With her parents and her husband, John Bignall, she arrived in the United States in 1790 and joined the Old American Company, one of the largest and most successful traveling theatrical companies in the country. Apparently finding the financial terms offered them unsatisfactory, the family opted instead to form its own company to tour the southern states. Under the leadership of Thomas West, the troupe established an annual theater circuit that extended from Alexandria to Charleston, South Carolina, and also included the cities of Fredericksburg, Norfolk, Petersburg, and Richmond. Alternately called the Virginia Company or the South Carolina Company depending on where it was playing, the troupe flourished until approximately 1810, when the last surviving founding member, Margaretta West, died.

Bignall developed her acting career under the stewardship of her parents, both of whom had performed in London. She benefited from the extraordinary talent her father displayed as a theater manager while assembling an accomplished troupe of actors that became the Old American Company's chief rival in the South. At its peak the Virginia Company employed a thirteen-member orchestra and thirty-three actors, including Thomas Sully, a young nephew of Margaretta West who later became a prominent portrait painter. Elizabeth Arnold, later the mother of Edgar Allan Poe, also performed briefly with the group. The company's extensive repertoire included tragedies, historical dramas, farces, comic operas, musicals, ballets, pantomimes, acrobatics, and fireworks. It often presented southern audiences with American premieres of the latest English productions. The troupe's success led Thomas West to commission Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1797 to design a theater in Richmond with almost 900 seats, but it was never built.

Bignall served as the company's leading comedienne for fourteen years. She was best known for such roles as Little Pickle in Isaac Bickerstaffe's farce, The Spoiled Child, Moggy M'Gilpin in The Highland Reel, a comic opera by John O'Keeffe and William Shield, and Betty Blackberry in O'Keeffe's The Farmer. Theater critics and audiences consistently praised her, even when the company's performance or the play itself was considered unsuccessful. She was known for always drawing a sizable audience. No unfavorable reviews of her have been found, which is unusual for the period. Even John Bignall, whose acting ability evidently exceeded hers, received criticism. Reviewers described her as a beautiful woman with a sweet voice and compared her to actresses of New York and Philadelphia. Commentators boasted that Bignall was capable of pleasing the critics of Drury Lane or Covent Garden in London. Aaron Burr, who visited the Petersburg theater on 30 October 1804, described her as "the best female actress in America," unequaled in comic roles.

While nothing is known of her acting career before she emigrated from England, Bignall's husband had been performing there as a strolling player using the stage name Mr. Moneypenny. A superb actor, he shared management of the Virginia Company with his father-in-law and played leading roles in both comedy and tragedy, often opposite his wife. So valuable was he to the Virginia Company that when his death from a lengthy illness seemed inevitable, Thomas West traveled to New York City and Philadelphia in search of an actor to replace him but reported that he could not find "a Bignall" there. The Bignalls may have had children. As early as 1791 playbills for the company listed Mr. Bignall Jr. and J. Bignall.

After John Bignall's death in Charleston on 11 August 1794, Ann West Bignall took over his responsibilities in the management of the troupe. She married James West in Norfolk on 22 May 1795. An English actor who had belonged to the Theatre-Royal in Bath, he made his American debut with the Old American Company in 1792 and joined the Virginia Company two years later. He specialized in comic opera roles and entr'acte songs. No children from this marriage have been identified, and West left the company after her death.

Ann West Bignall West died in Richmond on 20 January 1805. Her Richmond Enquirer obituary called her "the most distinguished ornament of the Virginia stage," and after her death that newspaper still compared actresses to "our old favorite, Mrs. J. West."

Sources Consulted:
Suzanne Ketchum Sherman, Comedies Useful: A History of the American Theatre in the South, 1775–1812 (1998), 85–102, 117–190; Sherman, "Thomas Wade West, Theatrical Impressario, 1790–1799," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 9 (1952): 10–28 (second quotation on 24); Martin Staples Shockley, The Richmond Stage, 1784–1812 (1977), 55, 76, 118; James H. Dormon Jr., Theater in the Ante Bellum South, 1815–1861 (1967), 23–26; second marriage reported in Virginia Star and Petersburg Weekly Advertiser, 4 June 1795, and Gentleman's Magazine 65 (1795): 701; she is identified in playbills first as "Mrs. Bignall," then as "Mrs. J. West," and finally as "Mrs. West, junior"; reviews in Richmond Virginia Gazette, and General Advertiser, 24 Nov. 1790, and Richmond Enquirer, 12 Sept. 1809 (fourth quotation); Matthew L. Davis, ed., Memoirs of Aaron Burr, with Miscellaneous Selections from his Correspondence (1836–1837), 2:347–349 (first quotation on 348); co-managership of Virginia Company documented in Petersburg City Hustings Court Deed Book, 2:442–443; obituary in Richmond Enquirer, 22 Jan. 1805 (third quotation).

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Kelly Henderson Hayes.

How to cite this page:
Kelly Henderson Hayes,"Ann West Bignall (d. 1805)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 1998 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Bignall_Ann_West, accessed [today's date]).

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