Thursday, 30 July 2015

Tragedy Personified: Sarah Siddons

The term "showbiz legend" is much bandied about these days when it comes to the world of entertainment, sometimes with less reason than others. Sarah Siddons, the first lady of the Georgian stage, was truly deserving of that lofty title. From humble beginnings she rose to the pinnacle of her craft, leaving her adoring fans gripped with Siddons fever as they flocked to her performances in droves. Famed as a tragedian, she will forever be associated with one particular role, that of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth.


Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by Henry George Harlow, 1814
Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by Henry George Harlow, 1814

When the celebrated Mrs Siddons played the lady of Dunsinane for the first time on 2nd February 1785, she was just 29 years old. With her tall, commanding figure and strikingly handsome looks Siddons made an instant and lasting impact; she would return to the role multiple times over the four decades that followed, making the part entirely her own. 


The majestic actress was known for the passion and fervour of her performances, bringing a deep understanding to each role as she practised the method of her day. Theatrical legend has it that, so intense was her portrayal and so blazing the look in her eyes, swooning ladies in the audience had to be carried from the theatre in order to recover their composure. The essayist, William Hazlitt, famously wrote that Siddons was "tragedy personified", a sentiment with which her fans certainly agreed. 


In fact, away from the stage her life contained tragedy enough to inspire a thousand such performances. Her marriage to William Siddons ended in separation and five of their seven children predeceased their mother. She channelled her unhappiness into performances of startling intensity, focusing particularly on the famous hand washing scene. Siddons broke with tradition by setting down Lady Macbeth's candle to instead concentrate on repeated, hypnotising motions as she washed the blood from her hands again and again.



Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785
Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785

In her essay, Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth, Siddons shares her thoughts on the role and the reasoning behind her own stylistic choices. She displays a rich understanding of Lady Macbeth, whom she considers to be "made by ambition, but not by nature, a perfectly savage creature". The essay makes for fascinating reading, offering deep insight into this most remarkable actress and the way in which she approached her roles. 


Georgian theatre is occasionally depicted as an almost ridiculous place, with overblown performances and overheated thespians but in Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth we are privy to share what would appear to be a modern approach to the text, with Siddons examining dialogue, movement and psychology in her efforts to inhabit the role.


After a long and celebrated career, Sarah Siddons gave her farewell performance in the role that she had made her own at the Covent Garden Theatre on 29th June 1812. The reaction of the audience to the sleepwalking scene was so rapturous that they gave an ovation that seemed as though it might never end, forcing the curtain down. After a short delay in which the adoring applause continued, the curtains opened again to show Sarah sitting on stage in her own clothes, no longer in character. Once the crowds finally fell silent she gave a farewell speech of almost ten minutes in length, the actress as overcome with emotion as the audience who adored her.


10 comments:

  1. Akin to yourself,Madame-a true"Lady"-Even the likes of Mrs Hannah More felt privileged in corresponding with her.

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  2. Another wonderful post from Gin Lane! ...my dear, you make the reader see Mrs S. I'm reminded of John Singers Sargent's painting of Ellen Terry in the same role later. These legendary performances are closed to us unless someone paints or writes of them with vision...you have.
    Thank you

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  3. How amazing , I would of love to have seen her preform.

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    1. So would I, it must have been phenomenal.

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  4. What a wonderful post, Catherine. I could envision Mrs Siddons trying to erase Duncan's blood..."Out damned spot". Thank you.

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    1. A pleasure! How I would have loved to see her perform...

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  5. MDE G. WHAT TIME YOU MUST SPEND IN RESEARCH AND PRESENTATION? GORGEOUS THINKER YOU ARE... ATK

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