Friday, August 5, 2011

'All the World's a Stage'
Actresses of the Regency

Sarah Siddons--the name resounds through the two hundred years since the Regency. She was the finest actress of the period, respected and admired. But she was not the only actress of the times; there were many, their names and their talents now forgotten.

Regency romances use actresses for many purposes. Heroines conceal their identities by treading the boards, courtesans ply their trade through the stage, ladies trick their gentlemen, gentlemen find their mistresses among them. But for many women, acting was a job--a trade, one of the few at which they could earn a living. And if gossip sullied their reputations, many of them did everything in their power to dispel the rumours about their lives and associations.

The popular journals of the days helped them, by publishing brief biographical articles. These articles immortalize women of lesser talent, perhaps, than Sarah Siddons, but no less determination and valor.

La Belle Assemblee, that most popular of ladies' magazines, offered each month "Biographical Sketches of Illustrious and Distinguished Ladies". It included some actresses among these ladies, and calls into question our accepted idea that women of the theatre were consistently condemned.

In May of 1812, La Belle Assemblee published this engraving of Mrs. Edwin, an actress, and offered a three page sketch of her life. She was the child of theatrical parents, and began her career in Dublin, as did many actresses of the day. Then, "she first emigrated to Cheltenham, where her private character which had stood unsullied midst all the seduction, glitter, freedom and temptations of private theatricals, soon procured her not only the patronage, but the personal esteem and protection of the first circles." In fact, the Duchess of York became her patron and her success in England was assured. She performed at the Lyceum after the Drury-Lane Theatre fire, and in 1812 was apparently earning "the particular praise of her professional contemporaries..."

A Miss Smith was likewise celebrated in a sketch in the March 1812 issue of La Belle Assemblee. Her background is not delineated at all--she appears suddenly on the stage in Lancaster, and then proceeds to Edinburgh, York and Birmingham before appearing in Bath. Despite her lack of known antecedents, she finds "the most fashionable people of Bath began to countenance and encourage her, and she was frequently invited to the houses of several of those ladies who direct this little metropolis of the west." She was invited to Covent-Garden Theatre in 1805 and achieved a success which led the writer of the biographical sketch to dub her the successor to Mrs. Siddons. "The style of acting in which Miss Smith has acquired a reputation which is daily increasing, is the same line to which Mrs. Siddons owes her fame."

The Ladies' Monthly Museum likewise published biographical articles on notable women of the day. They frequently included actresses: "Among the numerous candidates for histrionic fame, who are distinguished for their personal attractions, native worth, and rare perfections, we can never be at a loss for subjects to present our readers;...:"

In September of 1817, the Monthly Museum chronicled the life and career of Miss Maria Foote in its own florid and uncritical style. Her family history is detailed, and her parents' success on the stage of Plymouth Theatre, where her father was manager, noted. Maria began her career on stage as Juliet at age twelve. In 1814 she began appearing at the Theatre-Royal in London: "the audiences have been forward in bestowing applause, the critics of the days have not been backward in joining their just meed of praise." The article concludes "In fine, we have pleasure in saying, that she promises to stand one of the first and foremost in the drama."

In 1819, The Ladies' Monthly Museum is continuing to recount the lives of actresses. Miss Margaret Taylor was respectably descended from a naval officer, and we are told, put aside a promising theatrical career to nurse an ailing sister with whom she resided. The sister died in 1815 and in 1816 Miss Taylor began appearing at the Haymarket Theatre. The Museum's description of her is succinct:

"Miss Taylor is of a good height; her person is formed with great symmetry; she treads the boards with much ease and dignity; and her action is graceful and appropriate. She has a clear, sweet voice..."

The magazine notes that Miss Taylor is capable of "a very powerful and effective piece of acting", and mentions that in one of her roles, "there is not the least tincture of vulgarity."

It seems that the most actresses of the Regency avoided vulgarity even if a stage role called for it! They were careful of their reputations, serious about their careers, and considered worthy of recognition by society. It is a somewhat surprising take on an occupation that we are accustomed to assume was demeaning and held in disrepute.

'Til next time,



Louisa Cornell said...

Fascinating post, Lesley-Anne! And interesting to note that some actresses lived circumspect lives and were admired for their talent.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I found it quite a revelation to read the respectful, circumspect accounts in the magazines. They were an interesting group of ladies!

Jana Richards said...

I'm no expert on the Regency period, but I always believed that actresses were thought of as no better than prostitutes. It's nice to find out that a woman could have a career of her own and be thought of as respectable.


Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Hi Jana! It came as a surprise to me too--I knew Sarah Siddons was respected, but to discover these other actresses treated with esteem was really interesting. Thanks for stopping by :)