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 ONE – A Celebrity’s Tragedy

2006AV2988Sarah 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. Continue reading