Sarah Siddons, tragic actress

Monday 4 July 2011, 16:52

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Sarah Siddons was the most renowned actress of 18th century Britain. Her performances at Drury Lane and Covent Garden - particularly her portrayal of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth - were so powerful that audiences swooned and often had to be helped out of the theatre in various stages of distress. In the words of essayist William Hazlitt, Sarah Siddons "was tragedy personified."

And yet what many people do not realize is the fact that this incomparable tragedienne was born in Wales, in the little market town of Brecon. The date was 5 July 1755, and the place of birth was a room above a small tavern in High Street.

These days the place of her birth is known as The Sarah Siddons Inn and the pub sign, now proudly displayed outside the door, is a replica detail of Sir Joshua Reynolds' famous 1784 painting of the actress. When she was born here, however, the pub was called The Shoulder of Mutton, a tiny place that stood in the shadow of the much larger and grander St Mary's Church tower.

Sarah was the daughter of the actor-manager Roger Kemble, a man who travelled the country with his small troop of actors - a dozen at the most - entertaining people in the courtyards of country inns or market squares in a way of life that was not far removed from that of Shakespeare's strolling players over a century before.

Actors would each play several roles and while their performances were wildly applauded and greatly looked forward to, the travelling companies were certainly not regarded as respectable. Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mr Kemble, was a piece of advice that might have been given to Roger Kemble. It was advice he chose to ignore.

Acting was in the blood - Sarah's grandmother was the famous actress Fanny Kemble - and the lure of the footlights was too great, for both father and daughter. As a young child, Sarah was regularly appearing in her father's stage shows. By the time she was a teenager she was an experienced performer.

Legend has it that the handsome actor William Siddons, a member of Kemble's troop, proposed to Sarah during one performance at The Bell Inn at Brecon. Whether or not that is true, the announcement caused dismay to her parents who had intended her to marry someone of "greater quality" and Sarah was sent off to work as maid to Lady Greathead. It was a short engagement but it does show the social status of actresses at this time - and also the social connections of the Kemble family.

Realising that Sarah was serious, her parents relented and she returned to the company and duly married William. They had seven children, five of them dying young, but the marriage was not a success and eventually culminated in an informal separation.

Acting was more important for Sarah than marriage. After a false start when David Garrick booked her to appear at Drury Lane - she did not impress and the manager had to write to tell her that her services were not required - Sarah spent six years touring the provinces in what would now be called rep shows. She returned to the London theatre in 1782 in Garrick's adaptation of The Fatal Marriage. She was an instant success.

Over the next 20 years Sarah Siddons became the toast of Drury Lane. Her tall, beautiful figure and stunning good looks made her ideal for the role of Lady Macbeth, a part where she was easily and effortlessly able to show the vicious nature and passion of the woman who led Macbeth to his doom. Her personal favourite role, however, was not the evil Lady Macbeth but Queen Catherine in Shakespeare's little-known play Henry VIII.

Sarah Siddons was the most famous actress of her day, at a time when the job of actress was at last beginning to become respectable. She held soirées or receptions where the rich and famous - men such as the Duke of Wellington, Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson - regularly attended.

In 1802 Sarah left Drury Lane for Covent Garden, appearing there to more huge acclaim for a further 10 years. During her years on the stage it was recorded that "Siddons Fever" gripped the theatre going world, a form of mass hysteria with which many modern audiences may relate. Joshua Reynolds painted a famous portrait of her, even signing his name across the hem of her dress on the painting. It could not go on forever, of course, and on 29 June 1812, at the age of 57 years, Sarah retired.

During her farewell performance in Macbeth the audience was so moved that they simply refused to allow the play to continue after the sleepwalking scene where Lady Macbeth makes her final appearance. In desperation, the curtain was closed, only to re-open a few minutes later with Sarah in her day clothes, sitting centre stage.

She made an emotional speech that lasted for nearly 10 minutes before quitting the stage - not quite for ever as the lure of fame and public adulation were too great, and she did relent to did make the occasional guest appearance over the next few years.

Sarah Siddons died on 8 June 1831, renowned and acclaimed as the greatest actress the world had ever seen. Over 5,000 people attended her funeral and internment at St Mary's Cemetery in Paddington. These days there are statues to her, streets named after her and, of course, that pub in Brecon.

In 1952 the Sarah Siddons Award was created, thus imitating a fictional award of the same name that had originally been mentioned in the film All About Eve. The award is given each year by the Sarah Siddons Society for outstanding performance in the dramatic arts.

Perhaps the most interesting commemoration of the great actress, however, was the naming of an electric locomotive after her. This came in 1923, on an engine built for the Metropolitan Railway - the engine still exists and still runs, the oldest working main line electric locomotive in Britain. Not bad for a young girl from Brecon!

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