AN ACTOR’S TRAGEDY
I know we should all be as happy as….”
from ‘Make ’em Laugh’ sung by Donald O’Connor, Singin’ in the Rain, 1952, music by Brown, lyrics by Freed, indebted to Cole Porter’s ‘Be a Clown’, sung by Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, in The Pirate, 1948
One of the saddest and most repeated histories in the world is of the child who knows they are not as great as the parent they spend their life trying to emulate.
Hero with a fatal flaw: the tragically bad actor Henry Siddons (1774 – 1815), eldest son of the great tragic actress, Sarah Siddons, by Samuel John Stump, watercolour portrait miniature, 1808. “He is a fine, honorable, but alas! melancholy character. He is not well indeed…”* His anxiety and lack of self-confidence are apparent, even painted on a piece of card 79mm x 64mm. (NPG) Image source: Wikipedia
They are the collateral damage of celebrity, or genius, or romance, compelled to follow the same vocation as their mother or father, deaf to other callings, dazzled by star dust, enthused with idealism, often determined to work hard, unable to shine, unable to be happy.
The falling-off is steepest in public or artistic careers, and is not confined to celebrity families. The freeloading brats of celebrities raised by nepotism in any industry, political, business or entertainment, get all the press, but there are noble failures, who feel much and barely leave a mark.
Fame and talent are not indivisible. Children of unlucky actors are just as likely to be inspired to go into the same profession as children of rich and famous ones. It’s not a career choice, it’s an hereditary gift or curse; they are not sure which until there is no going back. Sometimes they have talent and ability, but not the temperament to withstand the slings and arrows of their vocation.
Of all the members of the Kemble dynasty of Shakespearean tragedians, the most tragic is Sarah Siddons’ eldest son, Henry, because he inherited all her passion for performance and her intellect for analysing character, without her talent and resilience.
All he had ever wanted to be was an actor, and he was entirely unsuited for an actor’s life. He was perfectionist, and acutely, even morbidly, sensitive to rejection and criticism. The family was fully aware that he suffered from excessive anxiety. His mother worried about his “melancholy character.”
She did her best to stop him becoming an actor. She wanted him to go into the church; he would have been perfect casting for a Jane Austen hero, sweet-natured, virtuous Edmund in Mansfield Park. He needed permanence, not the “lottery” of theatre, as his uncle John Kemble described it, ” at one time…successful, at another a total failure”.*
He defied the mother he adored, because he was in thrall to the stage, the unrequited love of his life. No-one thought he was very good; the intentions were all there, he aspired high and he was conscientious and hard-working, but he had neither sufficient technical ability, nor the capability to lose himself in a part.
None of this would have mattered if he had been thick-skinned or lucky; there are plenty of bad actors who get along very well through nepotism and the credulity of critics. “What does an actor want with a conscience, anyway?” (Pinocchio 1940, Walt Disney Productions)
His mother’s “poor, dear Harry” also wrote plays, which flopped, of course. They were probably no worse than lots of other now forgotten, unperformed Regency plays.
This story of a loser sounds too common and too sad to be read further, but Henry Siddons did not give up, and seems to have been an intelligent and loveable person. Sir Walter Scott, a close friend of his mother’s, had enough faith in his competence to secure him the license to manage the Edinburgh theatre, a notoriously struggling business which Henry ran in a constant state of “hypochondriac fears”, his uncle complained.**
There were two successful achievements in Henry’s life, after all: he wrote a manual on Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action (1807), adapted from Engel’s Ideen zu Einer Mimik of 1785. It was intended to give the Regency actor tips on every passion they might need to simulate on stage – Love, Pride, Grief, Tranquil Joy, Distraction and Persuasion, even Fashionable Impudence had their own posture – but over sixty years later the graphic depictions of human physical behaviour during extremes of emotional stress, or mundane social interaction, were consulted by Charles Darwin in his research for The expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872).
The other success was that though Henry never found his holy grail of acting, he found true love and happiness in his marriage in 1802 with Harriet Murray, the daughter of a respected Scottish actor, and a highly capable, intelligent, independent woman in her own right.
Harriet was respected by her mother-in-law, and by Henry’s cousin, the actress Fanny Kemble, who considered her one of the most remarkably self-controlled and forceful personalities she ever met, under cover of the most gentle and charming manner imaginable. She acted being herself, which is not the same as being a fake.
His sister Sally noticed that Henry was so nervous at his wedding, shaking and “pale as death”, that in his eagerness he said ‘I will’ and tried to put on the ring too soon; the self-composed bride “looked very beautiful in a white chip hat, with a lace cap under it.”***
There was no happy ending for them as a couple: Henry died of consumption in 1815, aged forty, leaving Harriet with four young children to bring up and bequeathing her the license for the Edinburgh theatre, which she ran successfully in business with her brother for twenty-one years.
Harriet Murray Siddons (1783 – 1844) by John Wood, portrait miniature. Image source: Wikipedia
Loving wife and mother, and successful career woman, she confounded Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideal of women as independent “rational creatures” by exploiting instead of abandoning her “fascinating graces…to stand alone”.
“Henry Siddons was a sensible judge of dramatic poetry and, as a player, he had merit in certain parts, as well as industry and application. But he was not a great actor. He was by far too sensitive for the vocation, and felt all its rubs and criticisms with too morbid acuteness. His very resemblance to his mother was a misfortune to him, by always challenging invidious comparison. Mrs Siddons told me he was the most unfortunate man in his choice of a profession, but the most judicious and happy in the choice of a wife.” From Thomas Campbell’s ‘Life of Mrs Siddons’, 1834
* Sarah Siddons. letter to Mrs Pennington, 2 June, 1801
** Letter from Sir Walter Scott to Daniel Terry, May 5th, 1825
*** Letter from Sarah Martha Siddons to Patty Wilkinson, July 2, 1802