Facing the world (4) through Perdition

“I’m killin’ time, bein’ lazy”
(Listen to Marilyn being irresistibly lazy)

Acedia as a psychological condition was once prevalent among monks, nuns and other people in solitary professions. The creeping spiritual sickness was known as the noonday demon. By the early 20th century, it had spread to the cocktail set.

Acedia can be camp. There’s a manifestation in the film White Mischief (1987) when the jaded socialite Alice de Janzé looks at the sublime beauty of the setting sun and feels nothing: “Oh God, not another f******* beautiful day”.

Orson Welles’ Garbo is so beautiful, so poised, we don’t believe she has real, painful feelings. She comes over as spoilt, vain, and apathetic, not tragically depressed. In her inability to act being herself, she is a grand failure, a camp joke.

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Facing the world (2) through Beguiling Hollywood

“I want to be alone; I just want to be alone.”
Line delivered by Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel, 1932

garbo-clarence-s-bull-1929-the-kissPortrait of Greta Garbo in The Kiss, 1929 by the great Hollywood stills photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull.
Image: Beguiling Hollywood © Vickie Lester 2014

Orson Welles spins a tale about two incomparable beauties; Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo…truth or fiction? retold in the wittiest, most sophisticated blog in the west – Vickie Lester’s Beguiling Hollywood.

Garbo was sitting on a raised platform in the middle of the living room, so that everybody had to stand and look up at her. I introduced them. I said, “Greta, it’s unbelievable that you two have never met—Greta, Marlene. Marlene, Greta.” Marlene started to gush, which was not like her at all. Looking up at Garbo, she said, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, it’s such a pleasure to meet you, I’m humble in your presence,” and on and on. Garbo said, “Thank you very much. Next?” And turned away to somebody else. Marlene was crushed.

Read the full, illustrated story on Vickie Lester’s Beguiling Hollywood.

Orson Welles’ mischievous anecdote about a goddess so world-weary she is bored with being worshipped contains an allegory of acedia, the state of mind that drives people to retreat from responsibility to lonely indifference to their existence.

The shadows of facts and guesses about Welles, Marlene and Garbo loom over the tale, along with the suspicion that more than one of them was sending up the others.

Welles and Garbo both suffered from depression which has been diagnosed since as bipolar disorder; Marlene and Garbo are rumoured to have been lovers, many years before the party at which, according to Welles, he introduced them for the first time.

The affair might be a writer’s sexual fantasy turned into lucrative gossip, but it could also be an imagined consummation of an attraction between two powerful, androgynous rivals, an historical fiction with pyschological truth.

None of them corrected the received impressions of their private lives, or revealed their most desperate feelings, when they faced the world. The self needs protecting from exposure to other people if it is to stay true. You don’t know what they will do to it.

Orson Welles deflects all the latent sexual feelings, self-aggrandisement and fears of worthlessness into an amusing piece of apocrypha.

As Vickie Lester succinctly puts it, “truth or fiction?”, meaning, it doesn’t matter, art in the form of a funny story has been born.

Both are true; one reveals the outward parade of facts, the other what was going on inside people’s heads, their thoughts and passions, and secrets.

Myth and history interweave, informing each other, and it’s up to us to treat them as allies, not irreconciliable forces. We can’t understand one if we ignore the other.

It is a universal truth that could not have been illustrated without Vickie Lester, who has published her own beguiling Hollywood murder-mystery, It’s In His Kiss.

The one where Rachel rattles the teacups

It’s Rachel with a “sh”, not Rachel with a “ch”. Her full name was Elisa-Rachel Félix, but she was known to everyone by her professional stage name, Mademoiselle Rachel, or simply Rachel.

She was the biggest international theatre star of the mid-nineteenth century. Birthday, smurfday, but today is as good a day as any to be reminded of Rachel (21st February, 1821 – 3rd January, 1858), the Swiss-born Jewish actress whose passionate reinterpretations of French classical drama shook European audiences out of mannered Romanticism into the next cultural revolution of naturalism.

MlleRachelbyWilliamEtty

Portrait of Mlle Rachel, 1841-45, oil on millboard, by William Etty. York Art Gallery.
Image source: Wikipedia.
William Etty, in his usual way, found a melting feminine eroticism in the young Rachel’s huge eyes, curving lips, and glossy black ringlets, but the prettiness does not diminish her authority. In dark and ochre colours and rapid brushstrokes he evoked her intense, almost liquid mutability of expression, with those eyes like dark pools for anyone who dares look too deeply to drown in.

She was a social rebel, too, raised out of childhood poverty on the streets to commercial success and wealth by her own talent, and growing up determined to be owned by no-one but herself. She was contemptuous of bourgeois sexual morality and the patriarchal institution of marriage. Among her many lovers were a Bourbon prince and three members of the Bonaparte family, including Emperor Napoleon III, and was faithful to none of them.

Queen Victoria, a passionate woman herself, was a great fan of Rachel, but stopped receiving her after she was told about the actress’s prolific and democratic love life. For Rachel, personal freedom was worth a curtsey.

Scandal was good for business. The editor of The Milwaukee Journal in 1945 expected his readership to be as titillated by details of Rachel’s “wild love affairs” with “Princes, Paupers in parade of Sweethearts” as audiences had been during her American tour in 1855.

Rachel represented, and was, everything that fascinated and frightened Victorian society about female independence, creativity and sexuality – and Jewishness, a crucial part of her identity, for herself and many people in her audiences. She was the dark, exotic outsider of genius, who might be cast out of society any moment by bigots and idiots. 

She is one of the actresses who changed perceptions of feminine and racial equality.

Like Sarah Siddons, the tragic actress who had embodied Neoclassical and Romantic ideals in Britain a generation earlier, Mademoiselle Rachel combined steely control over her purist technique with such a commanding delivery of fathomless, sometimes murderous, passions that it was described by some contemporaries as “masculine”.

This was not synonymous with being butch: “masculine” was the go-to word for any woman whose expression of emotions or ideas was louder than the rattle of teacups. It was used not only of tragic actresses in full flood, or female writers demanding equal rights, but of the boisterous behaviour of the heir to the throne, Princess Charlotte, the might-have-been queen instead of Victoria, who broke the nation’s heart by dying in childbirth in 1817.

The word Charlotte Brontë used for Rachel’s power of conveying emotion was “genuine”. 

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Don’t be an actor, my son, not even a comical one

AN ACTOR’S TRAGEDY

“Though the world is so full of a number things,
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.

HenrySiddonsbyStump

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.” Continue reading

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)

Part Eight: Out of clay

siddons self-portrait

Self-portrait by Sarah Siddons, plaster bust c 1820 © Victoria and Albert Museum

At first, her mother’s death robbed Cecilia’s life of purpose. Two years later, she found a new mission when she married the phrenologist George Combe. She adopted his theories with evangelical zeal.

When she married, she surrendered all her worldly possessions, everything that her mother had earned by her own talents, to her husband, according to the matrimonial laws which did not give women rights over their property owned prior to marriage until 1882.

Under her mother’s influence, Cecilia had been brought up looking for the source of human character and behaviour in the passions; when she married she moved her enquiry into what she believed was a new science of the mind. Cecilia had lived all her life looking at her mother’s sculpted heads and watching her performances; now she examined the bumps on her husband’s collection of skulls and accompanied him on lecture tours.

There would be more than a pang of disappointment if the only surviving daughter of the Tragic Muse had given herself away to a pseudo-scientific quack. Not all of phrenology was rubbish: some of its elements survive in modern neuroscience which accepts that different mental abilities are localized in different areas of the brain.

Though his theories were flawed, and he was a shameless self-promoter, Combe was an influential and respected moral philosopher who, financed by his wife’s fortune, did valuable work towards education and prison reform.

A portrait by George Clint (which this blog has been refused permission by a national collection to upload for free) of Cecilia in her late twenties shows the same dark hair and dark eyes, the rich colouring and strong features of her mother, in a softer version; nothing like a subdued Regency ‘Miss’, which her brother George was worried she was doomed to be, she looks intelligent and penetrating; there is warm humour in her expression, a touch of wry amusement in her way of looking at the rest of a world; glowing in a composition of mature russets and golds, nothing superficial or trivial about her, she has a majestic presence of her own. She looks capable of anything she might set her mind to.

There being no use in a blog without pictures, and this blogger being a bad loser, here is an illustration of Romney’s soft-focus treatment of Sarah Siddons at about the same age as Cecilia in the forbidden portrait, with grateful acknowledgments to the ever-gracious V&A.

As Lawrence observed, the deep-set eyes and mobile brows that he knew so well are the same as Siddons’ niece, Fanny Kemble:

Romneyprint - CopyPrint of George Romney’s portrait of Sarah Siddons, 1783. Published in The Connoisseur magazine, ca. early 20th c. © Victoria and Albert Museum

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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.
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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)

NPG D22010; Fanny Kemble by Richard James Lane, after  Sir Thomas Lawrence

 Fanny Kemble (1809 – 1893) transatlantic actress, writer, abolitionist and feminist, in a print by Richard James Lane after drawing by Lawrence, published 1829 -1830. She was the fourth woman in her family to be taken over by, in her words, a”dangerous fascination” for the portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, forty years older than her. He flirted with her, as he did every woman who sat for him. He noticed, while sketching her face, that she had the same eyes as her aunt and his close friend, the dominant tragic actress of the British stage, Sarah Siddons.

PART SIX – The Opposite of People “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!” Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sarah Siddons and her two eldest daughters can be excused for their infatuation with Thomas Lawrence, because he was notoriously charming, an homme fatale “using sex as a sort of shrimping net”, like the “self-conscious vampire” Myra Arundel in Hay Fever one hundred and thirty years later. Gifted with more than just bedroom eyes, he had that rare knack of making usually sensible men and women feel sorry for him even when he was being mad and bad.

Noone, not even Sally and Maria, could think him of as a villain. He was a catalyst, an accidental destroyer, a personality who would have been invented by Romanticism if he had not existed. He wanted to please, not provoke other people, because he wanted to be loved, without understanding how to love in return.

The cracks in the habitual seducer’s charm showed when he was older – he “had smiled so often and so long, that at last his smile had the appearance of being set in enamel” – but at the time he was playing for the Siddons sisters, the philosopher William Godwin, whose wife Mary Wollstonecraft was a depressive, was so worried about the younger man that he warned him of the dangers of giving in to melancholy.

It was the worm in the bud of sensibility, the morbid strain in Romanticism, that we are heir to, not the suicidal depression, which is par for the course, but the narcissistic failure of compassion, of which empathy is the easy and therefore overrated part. Imagining someone else’s suffering is not the same as feeling it, as any good actor knows. Continue reading