“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)
PART ONE – A Celebrity’s Tragedy
Sarah Siddons, oil on canvas c 1784, attributed to William Hamilton (or Thomas Beech).
© Victoria and Albert Museum.
Siddons dominated the female tragic roles on the English stage for over 30 years. Her stately performances in the most immediate of art forms articulated the eighteenth century’s ideal of the sublime, and her representations of the classical passions, in combination with her outwardly virtuous private life, won over audiences as diverse as George III, who appointed her Reader to his family, his son the Prince Regent, with whom he never agreed about anything else, and Lord Byron, who admired her more than any other actor, male or female, worth more than Cooke, Kemble and Kean all put together.
Even the Duke of Wellington, as famous for dry understatement as she was for grand pathos, was a fan.
Going to see her act was like an ecumenical religious event. Hazlitt said she was a goddess, Tragedy personified. By the time she died in 1831, she had outlived two kings, her friend, the portraitist Lawrence, the poet Byron, her brother and fellow-actor John Philip Kemble, her upstaged and discarded husband William Siddons, and, worse than anything that a mother should endure, five of their children, but not her reputation.
The mystique of the Tragic Muse had been preserved, but only just. Even before her formal retirement in 1812, something had gone wrong. “She was no longer the same….” complained Hazlitt of her inaudibility and disproportionate emphases. She kept making ill-advised and distressing comebacks: “her voice appeared to have lost its brilliancy”; “….she laboured her delivery most anxiously as if she feared her power of expression was gone” (Robinson).
She had gone from goddess to joke.In her prime, acting tragic emotions at the times of her private bereavements had given her “a full vent to the heart which, in spite of my best endeavours, swells with its weight almost to bursting ; and then I pour it all out upon my innocent auditors”. She once said that she never acted so well as when her heart “was heavy concerning the loss of a child”.
As she got older and private sorrow was heaped on private sorrow, the fear of over-expressing emotion cast her into “an unbending and freezing dignity”.
She had changed physically, too. She had always been statuesque, so beautifully proportioned that she looked taller than she really was, and when she was younger, her lean, supple body had given grace to her rhetorical gestures that her many pregnancies and the births of seven children had not altered.
In 1802, during an Irish tour, an anonymous critic complained she had got fat, and her voice too hard and masculine; but they were still over-awed by her ability to convey passion in every look and motion.
A few years later, in her fifties, she had put on so much weight that she got stuck in a chair during a performance of her favourite Shakespearean part, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII.
The living classical statue had become an immoveable lump of stone. She was still popular, but the audiences who went to see her for their edification winced, and the audiences who paid for “I’m a celebrity…” Schadenfreude laughed. Did we ever fool ourselves that by giving a foreign name to a common thing we make it rarer than it is?
We, in the audience of an actress light years away, wonder at the loss of her technique, judgment and taste in her mid-fifties.
We should discount her fondness for ale because, in an age as gossipy as ours, minus technology, the only hint that the dignified Mrs Siddons ever acted under the influence was left by her sardonic husband, who said that drinking small beer was good for her stage crying. Flippant remarks made by failed actors about their far more talented and successful wives are not reliable testimony. He had to get his own back somehow.
We can’t tell how much the cause was physiological or psychological; how much was due to change in her, or the change in fashion for heroes and heroines; if it was impaired breath control, due to the Kembles’ predisposition to asthma and other respiratory disorders; or if she had become mannered, slow and unwieldy, her energy and her nerves worn out from decades of eliciting audience response, but still unable to give up because she was addicted to acting, and the ambition to be the best.
And she needed the money. She had children to support and she might live to be seventy-six, with no State benefits, not even, after a glorious career raising the acting profession’s reputation, inspiring poets and painters, hard-working people and over-privileged princes, an Equity contribution to her funeral expenses.
Mrs Siddons, whether we would have liked her acting or not, was the most significant British stage actress there has ever been, so it is frustrating that no historical research or intuitive leap across time will prove that at the end of her career she was either giving a bad impersonation of her former self, or risking a new theatrical naturalism, daring to show the nakedness of emotions, the indistinct articulation of deranged thoughts, the fragility of old, heartbroken women. She was capable of both.
That is why her daughters, the eldest and the youngest, who knew her better than anyone else, put up with her. They saw her greatness, and her weakness, and loved her the same.
One fear for all stage actors is that they are only as good as their next performance. Another is that they will be found out, or superseded in public estimation, as her brother John Philip Kemble was by Kean. In every time, every place, there are good actors and bad actors, never mind their style or technique, but their commercial success is determined by market demand and fashionable perception. Even fantasy is subject to socio-economics.
Imagining this apparent disintegration of a great talent recalls Billie Holiday’s ‘Lady in Satin’ recording, fifty-six years old, where the croaking, sometimes out of tune, voice abused by alcohol is at first shocking because it is uncomfotable to hear; and then shocking because the intimacy of her emotional truth shatters the barrier between performer and auditor. It’s not entertainment; through artistry stripped of art, we are in her head.
Mrs Siddons as Isabella in ‘Measure for Measure’, engraving by John Hall, 1785 of drawing by Johann Heinrich Ramberg © Victoria and Albert Museum. The motion of the slim and graceful actress is portrayed as ethereal. She is portraying moral virtue and believably transcends the physical and spiritual worlds.
The individual named Sarah Siddons was rewarded by fame and fortune in the last quarter of the 18th century because she answered a call to give audiences emotional relief during Enlightenment and Revolution, and she was silenced when the practical failure of their ideologies to alleviate human suffering coincided with her own waning capabilities.
The theatre critics who were dismayed by Siddons’ decline could not forgive her because her acting had enunciated the philosophy of their age. The Enlightenment had declared war on superstition and intolerance, the pillars of organized Christian religion, not on faith, which Voltaire defined as “respect for things incomprehensible”.
In order to interpret the external world the new individualism created its own mythologies, proliferating the late 18th century and early 19th century with personifications of nature and abstract ideas. The comforting need for heroes intensified during a time of terrifying social and political instability – the personality cult of Napoleon was easier to apprehend than the Hydra of Revolution and Terror.
By 1817, it was better in some people’s opinion, like Hazlitt’s, that the personification of Tragedy withdraw completely than embarrass everyone with her devitalized voice and too solid flesh.
Yet others would not give her up. In 1815 she was still Byron’s ideal actor, and he invited her to return to Drury Lane for the season he was co-producing, not out of sentiment or box office appeal but to restore high acting standards of epic grandeur. She declined. She was in Edinburgh, giving charity performances of tragic heroines for the benefit of her son’s widow and childen, transmuting her private grief into public art.
The Kembles were committed to following the underlying moral principle of each scene and believed that all character motivation was explicable. Once the threats of invasion and anarchy were neutralized, and a repressive government secure in power, a younger, more rebellious spirit was needed, that thrilled to danger in place of decorum, accepted the mystery of unknown unknowns, worshipped self-made celebrities and self-tortured libertines, not hereditary mad kings and their dissipated heirs, and responded to the wildness of nature, not the pleading of the rational mind.
For Mrs Siddons, one of those high-achieving actors who never want to leave the stage, and for whom acting was a vent for their own sorrows, retirement was a personal and career tragedy.
In old age, she plaintively remarked to an afternoon visitor: “Oh dear, at this time I used to be thinking of going to the theatre”, opening up to us a glimpse of the yawning gap in her life without acting.
The prolific author and journalist Edward Topham in The Moment of Imagination, inspired by the image of Mrs Siddons, print published 1785 © Victoria and Albert Museum.
She had embodied the Enlightenment’s preoccupation with reasoning as the means to understand motive and improve human nature, the very notion that Romanticism, with its emphasis on personal sensory experience and spontaneous passions, sought to overthrow, but along with her vigorous rhetorical gestures and action, the truthfulness of her simulations of feeling elicited unprecedentedly emotional reactions in socially mixed audiences.
She enabled the working poor along with bourgeois, intellectual and aristocratic elites to touch the sublime by experiencing terror and anguish as enjoyable sensations, at a time when flirting, talking, eating, food-throwing and sometimes rioting among audiences were occupational hazards. They could experience the thrill of screaming in unison at the same time as Mrs Siddons, deep in character as one of her tragic heroines.
She provided therapy for the late 18th century theatre-going public and raised its self-esteem. All that sobbing and fainting during her performances reassured people they belonged to a compassionate society.
Sometimes, her tearful grief was not technically assumed, but sprang naturally from a union with the person she was playing, so she could not claim it was acting at all: “I felt every word as if I were the real person, and not the representative”. This emotional method distinguished her acting from her more cautious, equally cerebral, brother, John Philip Kemble.
With Siddons, there was no longer any doubt that acting could be more profound than disguise, that it was an art, not a craft as it was described by Hamlet, when he marvelled that the Player King could pretend to feel sympathy for Hecuba so convincingly. Siddons felt genuinely sorry for her characters, which is not to be confused with the theatrical disaster of self-pity.
Chalk drawing of Sarah Siddons, artist and date unknown © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Her acting reconciled intellect and emotion, neoclassicism and Romanticism; she was a constant during a volatile period.
Hazlitt, in the Examiner, described her effect on the mind of her audience, “startling its inmost thoughts” and “rousing deep and scarce-known feelings from their slumber.” – and it is this scarce-known quality that puts Siddons into the heart of Romanticism, fulfilling the movement’s psychological and mystic demands on artistic performance.
Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers by Henry Fuseli, oil on canvas, exhibited 1812 © Tate Gallery London. Traditionally, the painting is supposed to represent Mrs Siddons in her most famous part, which she chose for her official farewell performance to the stage in 1812. The power of her emotional range and expressive miming stirred the imaginations of vastly different audiences, from the respectable bourgeoisie to the Romantic Gothic preoccupations of Fuseli, revealing sadistic desires hidden deep inside the psyche.
The successful careers and fame of the Kembles were built on foundations laid by David Garrick, who had raised the cultural status of the interpretative art of acting, and the social respectability of actors, in the mid-18th century as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael had raised the profession of artist in the Renaissance. Only a minority of lucky actors felt the benefit; the majority struggled to make a living as always, but the few who were celebrated by society were treated as artists in their own right.
Byron, when he adopted his sultry malcontent pose and skull accessory, must have been influenced consciously or unconsciously by Kemble’s (much taller) Hamlet. Sir Thomas Lawrence, the favourite portraitist of the ruling classes in Regency England, was a regular play-goer who lit his sitters theatrically and dramatized their likenesses in fleeting expressions of emotion or profound contemplation, transforming the most prosaic of politicians into a romantic actor.
John Philip Kemble as Hamlet, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas 1801 © Tate Gallery London. The ‘classical school’ epitomized by Kemble (1757 – 1823) was eventually eclipsed by the naturalism and passion of Edmund Kean, whose sensational performance as Shylock in 1814 caused a Romantic Gothic revolution in acting.
One of Mrs Siddons’ fellow actors Charles Mayne Young, observed that during performances “She was, the most lofty-minded actress I ever beheld”. Her demeanour, and her brother Kemble’s, contrasted with the apparent spontaneity of Kean, who would turn somersaults between acts, showing how effortlessly his genius could flit from the artificial to the real world.
In public opinion, Mrs Siddons couldn’t do sexy or funny – there was Mrs Jordan for that. She would have liked to have done comedy, and it is easily imaginable how her gravitas and poetic fervour would have worked if she had been cast in the right parts. She had no Morecambe & Wise to reveal to the world how hilarious her straightness could be.
Except with her family and closest friends, including Lawrence, Siddons was a shy, reserved woman, lacking in social charm, unsuitable in many ways for early modern celebrity. Like many actors, she didn’t feel or claim to be interesting except on stage. There, she ruled.
Her home life, like a queen’s, was subjugated to her professional function. She was financially responsible for her children, until the sons were grown up, and her husband, who earned less than she did; nobody in this pre-Victorian family questioned that she was a professional working mother.
Sophisticated contemporaries mocked her off-stage portentousness, and the way she handled everyday objects, a fur muff or a knife and fork, as if they were props in a bloody drama, but she was perfectly capable of sending herself up. The anecdote about Gainsborough’s struggle to represent her facial features – “Damn the nose, there’s no end to it” – originates with her.
Others, including her friend Sir Walter Scott, laughed affectionately at her compulsive habit, shared with her brother John Philip Kemble, of speaking in blank verse on the most mundane of social occasions, the telling sign that the stage, not this world, was their natural habitat.
The Kemble brothers and sisters came down to earth when necessary: desperate for a commercial hit during his management of Covent Garden, John Philip brought on an elephant for the 1811-12 panto season.
Lady Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1784. Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
Coincidentally or not, Fuseli’s interpretation of the sleepwalking scene has many of the characteristics of Mrs Siddons performance in her most famous part, the same sudden entrance, the horror in the eyes, and the physical spontaneity with which she imbued rhetorical gesture, the outward signs of a mind deranged by violent and rapid changes of imagery, descending into madness.
She first played Lady Macbeth in Bath in 1779; London audiences did not see her until 1785, when she was dressed in white robes for the sleepwalking scene:
Tinted transparency print by George Harlow of Mrs Siddons in the sleepwalking scene in ‘Macbeth’, early 19th century © Victoria and Albert Museum. The set is a picturesque Regency Gothic castle.
Acting often feels like balancing on the edge of an abyss. Mrs Siddons was a strong personality, utterly in control of herself in public, but she had known from when she was twenty how it felt to fall.
She had been given the sort of break young actresses dream of: she appeared opposite Garrick at Drury Lane. It was her big chance, and she flopped. The audience despised her, or Garrick dropped her for his own reasons. We can conjure that she was still stiff, wooden; her emoting beside the experienced realism of Garrick seemed unnatural; her voice was not melodious; she was not coquettish and girly enough; she did not fit in with the company politics.
Like thousands of young women before and after her, Sarah Siddons was determined to be the greatest actress of her age and refused to admit defeat. Retreating in good order is the sign of a great general. She withdrew from London back to the provincial theatre circuit, where, rather than give audiences second-rate ham, she taught herself on the job, and gave the best in tragedy they had seen.
Like a sculptress of a self-portrait, Sarah Siddons looked harder at herself and her methods, realized she had been hacking away with the wrong tools and wrong amount of force, and started all over again, mixing the plaster and cutting away at the hardening material to mould a more truthful representation. The first goal of an actor is to capture likenesses.
When at last, six years later, in 1782, she was asked back to Drury Lane by the new manager, Sheridan, her self-regeneration was complete. She triumphed and her 30 year reign began.
TO BE CONTINUED