In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

 “Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

Mrs Siddons by Joshua ReynoldsMrs Siddons as The Tragic Muse, Melpomene, with the figures of Pity and Terror behind her, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1784. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California. Image: Wikipedia

PART SEVEN – “Keep your mind on your art.”
Sarah Siddons’ advice to Macready (1793 – 1873)

After her formal retirement from the stage, Mrs Siddons gave readings from Shakespeare at soirées given in her home, at which her daughter Cecilia acted as a fierce usher, making sure the audience behaved, and reassuring her mother that her powers were intact.

Rustling, coughing, munching, and the bathetic sounds of mobile phones, are distracting enough in a large theatre nowadays, but it is even harder to maintain dramatic illusion in small domestic settings, lit by oil lamps and candles, where refreshments are being served on a table in the interval.

Once, the suave portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, summoned back to the reading sooner than expected, suffered the embarrassment of having to finish eating a slice of toast as inaudibly as possible while the Tragic Muse resumed her platform performance.

Despite such incidents, the readings were not ridiculous; somehow, Mrs Siddons made them sublime. They inaugurated the Victorian popularity of public readings later in the century, most famously the ones by her niece Fanny Kemble (reputedly better at impersonating male characters than her father Charles) and Charles Dickens, part of a dubious dramatic tradition that still thrives in one-woman/man shows, book readings on radio and celebrity promotional tours of today.

Mrs Siddons was able to do more hold her audience; she transported them to a different plane of apprehension. Maria Edgworth, listening to Mrs Siddons as Queen Catherine felt she “had never before fully understood or sufficiently admired Shakespeare, or known the full powers of the human voice and the English language”.

She and her fellow guests were so rapt that they forgot to applaud; their “perfect illusion” was “interrupted by a hint from her daughter or niece, I forget which, that Mrs Siddons would be encouraged by having some demonstration given of our feelings”.

The crash landing of her willing disbelief made Maria Edgworth feel let down by actorly vanity. Audiences wanted Mrs Siddons to be above mortal needs. A great actor has godlike powers on stage to alter audiences’ states of mind, but only a stupid actor thinks they are a god. The gap between the power of acting and the personal vulnerability of the actor is as unbridgeable as the distinction between the reigning sovereign and their private person, completely separate entities, often, in the days of couchee and levee, occupying separate beds.

Mrs Siddons was grand, but she was not conceited. You are only as good as the performance you have just given. You cannot please everyone in the audience. There is always someone unmoved, someone else unpicking you, someone else disappointed that you are fatter and not as good as you were twenty years ago. The emotional effects for which you are famous might flop any day. She had made herself a great actress through patient application and subjective observation, not divine inspiration.

catherineofaragon - Copy

Print depicting Sarah Siddons as Catherine of Aragon in Henry VIII, from a drawing by John Hayter, published 1829. There was a demand for Siddons iconography even in her old age, when she had officially been retired for nearly two decades, and after her death.
© Victoria and Albert Museum

Money was important to Mrs Siddons, as it was to a self-made man like Lawrence, who grew up supporting his parents and sisters from his earnings. Contemporaries, expecting artists to live on ideas, sometimes sneered at their materialism. Formative experiences had made both of them terrified of penury and childishly dependent on acclaim.

They were the biggest stars of their respective professions, two of the most famous people in the country, on familiar terms with princes and philosophers. They were proud, not sycophantic; they put the demands of their art before anything else.

But the child is father or mother of the grown-up. Always inside Thomas Lawrence Knight, President of the Royal Academy, FRS, the nation’s most fashionable portrait painter, there was an anxious little boy catching pennies from coach travellers flattered by their sketched portraits, and inside Mrs Siddons, leading tragedienne, reading preceptress to the royal family, favourite of the Prince Regent, the friend of Johnson and Scott, Reynolds’ Tragic Muse and Hazlitt’s prophetess inspired by the gods, there was a twenty-year-old actress afraid that Garrick didn’t think she was good enough.


Gold and Japanese lacquer snuffbox given to Mrs Siddons by the Prince Regent © British Museum.
George IV, showing his sensitive, arty side, was a loyal patron and personal friend of Sarah Siddons, and godfather and sponsor of her younger son. He was theatrical himself, a good mimic, who spent extravagantly to make his personal fantasies real. When, as Regent, he came to call on her at home in Westbourne Green, then a rural hideaway, now under the shadow of Westway, her house looked as if it had been built round them, two enormous actors on a tiny Georgian stage-set. The area was too secluded, even dangerous, at night, and Mrs Siddons moved her household, including her two companions, her daughter Cecilia and Patty Wilkinson, to Upper Baker Street, where she complained to the Regent about the new building developments spoiling her view.

Mrs Siddons was understandably jealous of her value in a male-dominated market. She was notoriously mean about appearing for other actors’ benefits, but this was partly due to pressures of time and energy during the annual acting season; she gave numerous charity performances after her official retirement, not always for members of her own family.

She and her agent-husband were tough negotiators with theatre managers for her high appearance fees, which drove down other cast members’ wages. She was not callous or particularly selfish: everything in her life, including her own peace of mind, was subjugated to improving and sustaining her art.

When she was fifty-seven and on the verge of retirement, she advised the nineteen-year-old Macready, whose promising talent she had just applauded spontaneously in the wings – “Bravo, sir, bravo!” – while waiting for her cue to join him on stage playing his wife: “…study, study, study, and do not marry till you are thirty. I remember what it was to be obliged to study at nearly your age with a young family about me. Beware of that: keep your mind on your art, do not remit your study and you are certain to succeed.”

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Paper scrap of Shakespearean characters depicting Sarah Siddons and William Macready printed ca 1890 © Victoria and Albert Museum. So embedded was Mrs Siddons in the national consciousness as the epitome of a tragic actress, that her merchandising continued long after her death, especially in association with certain roles. This is a scrap of fantasy casting, because Siddons, the most acclaimed Lady Macbeth of her day, and Macready, the most popular Macbeth of his, never acted in the play together. The chromolithograph was printed long after they were both dead, and had been merged into theatrical legend.

Even without modern advantages of birth control, the dilemmas and challenges she overcame as a professional career woman were the same as a working mother’s today.

Her celebrity and financial independence of men made her a target for caricaturists, who, finding no other vices in her, aimed at her supposed avarice. Sarah Kemble, the child of touring actors, had started with nothing, and left the world bequeathing her only surviving daughter a comfortable income for the rest of her life.

Print by Gillray, Theatrical Mendicants, relieved, published 1809. Sarah Siddons and her brothers Charles Kemble and John Philip Kemble begging for money to rebuild Covent Garden Theatre. Mrs Siddons appears as a more forceful masculine presence than her fawning brothers; even in caricature, she retains dignity © Victoria and Albert Museum.

© Pippa Rathborne 2015

3 comments on “In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

  1. PJR says:

    Mrs Siddons shared the same opinion as you about Reynolds’ Tragic Muse: nearly forty years after it was painted, she praised “the sober grandeur of the colouring – almost an absence of colour”. In her characteristically grand way, she liked to think that she had influenced the composition herself.


  2. aubrey says:

    What a magnificent face she had! Mobile, expressive – one more weapon for her actor’s arsenal. I am reminded of another actress from about this time – perhaps a bit earlier: Sophia Baddeley. She was not particularly talented, but her beauty was such that her status as a courtesan was unmatched. She faced the same challenges as Mrs. Siddons, and failed miserably. Yet for all her bad management, greed and foolishness – when she was at the height of her powers she was the talk of the town.

    This might be my favorite Reynolds painting; using different shades of the same color, it is like cutting a single diamond and capturing all of the different facets on canvas.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. beetleypete says:

    I can now see the full extent of her celebrity status. The memorabilia and souvenirs, produced long after her death, and the desire of her public to see her name endure. I am reminded of those who collect similar items today, and the industry behind these collections. I fear that they are more about profit in the modern world, and less about adoration and admiration.
    Another enthralling episode, in a series that will stay with me forever.
    My very best wishes as always. Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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