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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