Linda Hamilton, Lucy Lawless, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lawrence ... the long list of contemporary female action stars keeps getting longer. But English stage actress Esme Beringer may hold claim to having been the first of the line, starting way back in 1896.
At that time Esme and her sister Vera were already popular actresses, with Esme displaying a particular talent for cross-dressing "breeches roles", i.e. playing young male characters. According to a review:
Miss Esme Beringer, in figure and appearance, is very suited to boys' parts, the first in which she appeared being as Romeo to her sister's Juliet. In Romeo she was called upon to practise the art of fencing, and once having tried it, she became most enthusiastic, and astonished her masters with her aptitude. She is a devotee to all athletic and gymnastic exercises, is fond of riding, bicycling, swimming and walking, and she considers fencing one of the best means of keeping healthy and developing the figure.
As Esme herself was to report in an interview:
"… When I and my sisters were quite little at home, we had a fencing master, Sergeant Elliot. That, I suppose, was when I first learned to love fencing.
After that I left it alone for a time, but my early tuition came in useful years afterwards, when Captain (Alfred) Hutton very kindly and generously offered to prepare me for Romeo and Juliet, which was produced at the Prince of Wales' (theater).
His knowledge of swordsmanship of the period, as well as instruction, were invaluable."
She developed an ongoing fascination with the revival of historical fencing styles, a project spearheaded by Captain Hutton and his colleague, the writer Egerton Castle, who reconstructed systems of swordplay that had not been practiced since the days of William Shakespeare; the flashing, ambidextrous play of the rapier and dagger, the broadsword and handbuckler and the great two-handed sword.
Esme's next action role was in 1902, as the co-star of Saviolo, a play written by Egerton Castle himself and set entirely within the fencing academy of Master Vincentio Saviolo in the year 1565. Her stage fencing was described, somewhat condescendingly, by one reviewer as being "remarkably graceful and agile, considering the rather heavy weapons used". The following passage excerpted from Castle's short story My Rapier and My Daughter, which was adapted from the play script, gives some sense of the action:
Here with his dagger he parried a furious lunge; then, with equal ease, took a murderous cut upon his hilt. "Now, about those silken points of thine — it offends mine eye to see thee partly shorn. 'Twere neater to have none, or so it seems to me."
And, nimbly traversing right and left in front of his opponent, with the extreme edge of his blade he severed in quick succession the remaining points on the disordered doublet.
"These twain upon thy sleeve," he went on, bantering, "they have a lonely look!"
Now he evaded another stroke by the most unexpected incartade which placed him on his adversary's flank; and, upon the instant, sliced off yet another ribbon.
By this time Strange was beside himself with rage. The skill which could have traversed his body a score of times or more, which could have slashed his face and hands, was yet nothing to the skill which thus spared, yet left its scornful mark at every stroke and in touches as delicate as a lady's scissors. Better to lie weltering in blood than to be played with thus, defeated and yet protected!
"Draw blood, Saviolo! . . . Wound, kill!" he panted, "but leave these devil's pranks!"
During the first decade of the 20th century, Esme Beringer participated in numerous historical fencing displays with Hutton, Castle and their other students, and in 1902 she both chaired and competed in an "ancient swordplay" display for the Playgoer's Club. This involved actual contests with the weapons as well as staged demonstrations. A reviewer from the Stage newspaper wrote:
The two performances given by Miss Esme Beringer and Mr. George Silver (an actor who shared the name of the famous Elizabethan-era swordsman) were marked by a keenness and promptness of attack and defence that raised the enthusiasm of the spectators. Their first contribution was a very spirited engagement with rapier and dagger, in which Miss Beringer, though vanquished finally, revealed considerable skill and alacrity. Not less absorbing and stimulating was their encounter with dagger and cloak, in which some very smart play was witnessed, Mr. Silver scoring two points to one.
Esme, whose gymnastic skills also leant themselves to swashbuckling stage stunts such as high falls and swinging on ropes, later developed and starred in a short play called At the Point of the Sword, whose purpose was essentially to justify a "terrific combat" between herself and her co-star:
All were delighted by the grace and skillfulness of Miss Beringer's fencing, and her thrust and parry were declared excellent. Indeed, the trifle served to show how fine a swordswoman the talented actress is, and her cleverness in the play of rapier and dagger (…) Miss Beringer has made so thorough a study of the art that even during her holiday this year, she and the gentleman who appears with her at the Palace Theatre practised daily with their foils and daggers, much to the astonishment of the quiet neighbours who looked on in horror.
She went on to become an instructor with the Actresses' Foil Club, which had originated as the "ladies' branch" of the Actors' Sword Club. While the Actor's Club was suspended during the First World War, the Actresses' Club continued during wartime. Thus, it is not unlikely that Esme continued the Hutton/Castle lineage of historical fencing into the 1920s, and possibly beyond.
Swordswoman Esme Beringer passed away, aged 93 years, in 1972.