As The Actress Said to the Cabinet Minister …(2)


Mrs. Sarah Siddons (Folger Shakespeare Library)

Part 2: Mrs. Sarah Siddons

Mrs. Sarah Siddons (née Kemble) was by far the leading tragic actress of her day. She was born in Brecon, while her theatrical mother and father were on tour, but she was very much a part of that remarkable theatrical dynasty that was the Kemble family of Hereford.

David Garrick ‘discovered’ her while she was still young and took her to London, but she was not a success at that time and returned to provincial theatre, playing again in smaller towns, plus some fashionable locations like Bath and York. Maybe she needed to learn more of her craft before facing London audiences. Richard Brinsley Sheridan eventually persuaded her to return to the London stage some years after this first ‘flop’ under Garrick’s management. The second time she was a sensation and her career was launched on its meteoric rise.

‘Tragedy Personified’

Sarah typically played the major tragic female roles, the most famous of her performances being that of Lady Macbeth. When she took this part, there were floods of tears, even hysterics, amongst the audience. Garrick had been famous for his intensity as an actor. Sarah too threw herself into her roles like an emotional tornado. Ladies regularly fainted; although one audience member, despite writing to a friend that he had just seen “the first actress in the world”, suggested it was becoming so fashionable to do so that someone was rumoured to be setting up a fainting school.

According to theater critic William Hazlitt, “[S]he was regarded less with admiration than with wonder, as if a being of a superior order had dropped from another sphere, to awe the world with the majesty of her appearance. She raised tragedy to the skies, or brought it down from thence. It was something above nature . . . She was not less than a goddess, or than a prophetess inspired by the gods. Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine. She was Tragedy personified. She was the stateliest ornament of the public mind.” Many contemporaries, including Lord Byron, believed she outshone not only all other women but also men in the theater. He saw Siddons at the end of her career and described her performance as the “beau ide ́al of acting”: [N]othing ever was, or can be, like her.”

She was, however, like Garrick himself not so good in lighter roles. Even as devout an admirer as William Windham was relatively lukewarm about her few attempts at these. On June 7th, 1786, he entered in his Diary “Mrs. Siddons did ‘Rosalind’ much better than the first time, but there is a want of … hilarity in it ; it is just, but not easy. The highest praise that can be given to her comedy is, that it is the perfection of art; but her tragedy is the perfection of nature.” (Parsons, Mrs. Mary. The Incomparable Siddons.,1909)

Nevertheless, Sarah was a genuine celebrity. She socialised with the cream of London society and was cultivated by many of the great men and women of her day, including George III and his wife, the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Devonshire, Edward Gibbon, Charles James Fox, Edmund Burke, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted her portrait repeatedly.

In Mrs. Siddons’s autobiographical Memoranda, we read, “He [Reynolds] always sat in the orchestra; and in that place were to be seen, O glorious constellation! Burke, Gibbon, Sheridan, Windham, and, tho last not least, the illustrious Fox. All these great men would often visit my dressing-room, after the play, to make their bows, and honour me with their applauses. I must repeat, O glorious days !” (Parsons, Mrs. Mary. The Incomparable Siddons.,1909)

William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels, set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. The first book in the series, “An Unlamented Death“, appeared in January 2015. A second book is now in its final stages and will be published in Spring 2015.

Will is also a local historian. In that guise, he researches topics relevant to the general period of his historical writing, gives talks to local groups and societies and is a regular volunteer guide at a nearby National Trust property. He finally has time for doing all this now he has retired.

For eleven years, Will and his wife lived in the USA, latterly in southern Arizona. This experience sparked an enduring love of the breathtaking beauty of the Sonoran Desert, as well as the history of the American West, especially Native American art and culture. As a result, Will became intrigued by the figure of Coyote: the Trickster God of many indigenous cultures across western states of the USA.

Will’s book of fantasy Coyote stories – in affectionate homage to this powerful archetype of human experience – will be published later in the year.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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