Look to the Lady: Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, and Judi Dench on the Shakespearean Stage
Book Review by Alan Gomberg
How has Shakespearean acting (and stage acting in general) changed since the 18th century? How has the English theatre changed? Russ McDonald, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has come up with an offbeat way to write about these subjects in Look to the Lady: Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, and Judi Dench on the Shakespearean Stage (University of Georgia Press; list price $26.95).
In three chapters (one for each actress), McDonald covers the lives and careers of Siddons, Terry, and Dench, including discussions of each actress's style, appearance, and interpretative choices in some of the Shakespeare roles she played, with particular emphasis (as the title suggests) on Lady Macbeth, a role they all played. Along the way he also conveys a good deal about the theatrical world in which each actress worked. McDonald does all this in 144 pages (not counting a brief introduction, the notes, and the bibliography).
I suspect that relatively few of us have read full-scale biographies of all three, and McDonald's deft summaries effectively give us a feel for each actress's life and times. The author is good at suggesting the similarities and contrasts among the three without belaboring them, and the book is generally a charming and informative read.
McDonald moves in chronological order, starting with Siddons. Much of the Siddons chapter is rather gossipy, in a fun way. Although she was revered to a degree that no earlier actress had been and as few have been since, the fees she commanded and her seeming desire for ever more money provoked both mockery and outrage. McDonald reprints a cartoon of the time depicting Siddons as Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, reaching upward for suspended bags of gold.
In addition, she was sometimes the subject of nasty gossip about her private life. She even was the victim, when in her late forties, of an early 19th-century stalker, a young law student, causing her to call upon the law for protection.
Siddons's greatest role was generally regarded to have been Lady Macbeth, despite a youthful failure in her first attempt at the role when she was still acting in the provinces. By her own account, quoted by McDonald, the first time she played the role she started to work on it the night before the first performance. (McDonald notes how this suggests the "slapdash, rushed nature of theatrical production in that period.")
McDonald tries with some success (quoting from contemporary accounts and Siddons's memoirs) to give us a sense of what her later, ecstatically received performances of the role were like.
Although she played eighteen Shakespeare roles during her career, McDonald tells us that, apart from Lady Macbeth, "her most admired and beloved parts were not Shakespearean, but rather the heroines of contemporary dramas, often historical, which allowed her to suffer nobly." This does make it odd that McDonald also writes that each of the subjects of his book "was acknowledged to be the greatest interpreter of Shakespeare's heroines in her time." Was Siddons really the greatest Shakespearean actress of the day if she excelled in so few Shakespeare roles?
For many of her contemporaries, Siddons brought a naturalness to her performances that was revolutionary, but there were some who found her a brilliant but essentially artificial actress, even if she calculated her effects brilliantly and the goal of the calculation was to seem natural.
She also had a masculine power possessed by no other actress of the time. She even played Hamlet, though it did not become one of her signature roles and she never played it in London.
This was one of several respects in which Siddons is contrasted with Ellen Terry, who was widely regarded as a particularly feminine actress (as the Victorians understood femininity). As with the chapter on Siddons, there is one odd contradiction in what McDonald writes: he asserts that Terry was more successful in Shakespeare's comedies than in the tragedies, yet he also writes, "The parts at which she excelled and which she repeated most frequently ... are mostly women who are ultimately victims or who are balanced by a corresponding male figure: Juliet, Ophelia, Beatrice, Portia, Desdemona, and such non-Shakespearean women as Margaret in Faust, Queen Henrietta Maria in Charles I, and Camma in Tennyson's The Cup." That list does not really support the idea that she was best at comedy. Nonetheless, it can be said even of her great tragic roles that they were generally ones in which charm and lightness of touch, qualities that she possessed in abundance, could be quite effective.
Charm was a word frequently used in connection with Terry, though she hated when the word was applied to her performances. She believed that the secrets of her success lay primarily in what she termed "the three Is": imagination, industry, and intelligence - of which the most important was imagination. Though she notated her scripts in great detail regarding intonations, pauses, and vocal effects, she was considered the most spontaneous and natural of actresses, which did not please everyone. (Henry James, for one, wished for less naturalness and more art.)
Another contrast with Siddons was that Terry usually deferred to the choices of her stage partner, Henry Irving, in both repertoire and interpretations, as opposed to Siddons's aggressiveness in running her own career. For example, Terry never played Rosalind, a role for which she was believed ideally suited, because there was no role in As You Like It that Irving wished to play. As with Siddons, most of the contemporary plays in which she appeared were not of lasting importance, and she resisted Shaw's entreaties that she attempt Ibsen (though she did play Shaw's own Captain Brassbound's Conversion, which he wrote for her). Another similarity was that both often overturned the ways in which the roles they undertook had traditionally been played.
To return to contrasts, Terry was considered (perhaps even by herself) to have been a failure as Lady Macbeth, if a fascinating, "divinely beautiful" (as one critic put it) failure.
Like Siddons and unlike Terry, Dench had a great success as Lady Macbeth. Possessed of neither Siddons's powerful and striking appearance nor Terry's great (if somewhat unconventional) beauty, she has excelled in both the comic and the tragic heroines as well in plays by a wide variety of contemporary playwrights.
If the book has a throughline, it is in the movement over time toward a more naturalistic and spontaneous style of playing. If Siddons was considered by most observers to have been more natural and realistic than earlier actresses, and Terry was believed by some to have gone too far in that direction, Dench has probably gone much further than either of them would have dared. Even though Dench puts more emphasis on the playing of the verse rhythms than Terry had (and perhaps more than Siddons had as well), which might seem to suggest that she is a less naturalistic performer, in other ways she moves further in the direction of spontaneity. Where Terry scrupulously notated her scripts, Dench prefers to not even read the script until the first day of rehearsal. Once she is in the midst of rehearsal, she often leaves her script at the theatre overnight, "preferring to deliberate about the character without benefit of the words," in order to let her subconscious instincts come to the surface.
Of course, Dench is the one actress here about whom most of us are likely to have read a good deal, and some of the material here may be familiar to those who have read John Miller's biography Judi Dench: With a Crack in Her Voice and John Lahr's New Yorker article about her. Still, McDonald has arranged all of the material effectively, and after reading about two actresses from the past it's nice to read about one you have seen. McDonald maintains a high level of interest throughout the three chapters.
McDonald's prose is almost always clear, unpretentious, and grammatically correct, providing a welcome respite from the sloppy writing that mars too many books on theatre. I did wish for a bit more in-depth exploration of individual performances at certain points, but there probably is a limit to how much of that is possible, especially with Siddons and Terry.
Look to the Lady, though not the last word on these actresses, is a worthwhile and entertaining book.
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