Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Intrepid Women: Actress Sarah Siddons, 1755-1831

Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Isabella reporting,

In my new book, A RECKLESS DESIRE, my humbly born heroine Lucia di Rossi is determined to become an actress, and the hero Rivers is equally determined to guide her to dramatic success. For her debut in London, Lucia appears as Ophelia in a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, a role that Rivers chooses as fitting her gift for tragedy.

The inspiration for much of Lucia's budding career comes from the most famous dramatic actress of the Georgian era, the legendary Sarah Kemble Siddons (1755-1831.) Although she was born into a theatrical family, Sarah's parents wished better for her than to be an actress, and also wished to remove her from the handsome but empty-headed leading man in the family troupe. They sent sixteen-year-old Sarah to Warwickshire, far from her sweetheart, where they hoped she would learn to become a lady's maid in a country house.

But Sarah forgot neither William Siddons nor acting, and entertained her fellow servants with dramatic readings in the servants' hall and before her master's guests. Finally her parents relented, and at eighteen, she married Siddons, and with him joined a provincial acting company. Word of her success there reached the famous London actor and producer David Garrick, who gave her her first role at Drury Lane in 1775.

It was a disaster. The critics were not kind, and she herself said that "she was banished from Drury Lane as a worthless candidate for fame and fortune."

But the twenty-year-old Sarah refused to be discouraged. She returned to playing lesser theaters to hone her craft and mature into the tragic roles that would become her specialty, and to bear the first of her seven children. When she returned to Drury Lane in 1782, her performance was a triumph, and she never looked back.

While most successful Georgian actresses were graced with conventional beauty (some things never change), Sarah's appearance was more striking than pretty. She was tall, with flashing dark eyes, a prominent profile, and an intensity that mesmerized audiences. She specialized in playing powerful roles of tragic women, and made Lady Macbeth her own. She fascinated artists as well as playgoers, and she sat for all the major portrait painters of the day - Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Gilbert Stuart, John Downman, George Romney, and Thomas Lawrence - who all attempted to capture her brilliance.

Sarah was remarkably dedicated to her career. Part of this was from necessity - she was the main support of her large family - and part was her own drive to perform. She continued to appear on stage throughout all of her pregnancies, usually up until a few weeks before giving birth. As her children grew, they were incorporated into her performances when her role called for her to play mothers. The audiences loved her all the more for it.

Sarah formally retired from the theatre in 1812 after a career that stretched forty years. As writer and critic William Hazlitt noted, "passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine. She was tragedy personified."

Upper left: Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784, Huntington Art Gallery.
Right: Sarah Siddons by John Downman, 1787, National Portrait Gallery.
Lower left: Mrs. Sarah Siddons by George Romney, c1785, private collection.


Jan O said...

Made famous again in "All About Eve" Bette Davis 1950 :)

Annelise said...

Have just ordered the book - can't wait to read it!!
Many thanks, Annelise

Jolene Rae Harrington said...

Interesting that young Sarah was sent to train as a lady's maid. Another quasi-theatrical, oft-painted Regency beauty, Emma Hamilton, had also been put into service as a young girl--with disasterous results. It seems that there were 3 main occupations for attractive lower-class women of the day: service, stage or streets!

witness2fashion said...

Siddons was sufficiently well-loved for humorous stories - some of them no doubt apocryphal -- to circulate. Apparently her sleep-walking scene as Lady Macbeth (in which she vainly tries to wash the blood from her hands) was a hair-raising performance. There's a story that, while shopping for dress fabric in a London shop, she inquired, "But, will it wash?" in such thrilling tones that the clerk fainted dead away.

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