Helen Hayes

Definition

Theater

  • (1900 - 93) Diminutive US actress, known as the First Lady ofthe American Theatre. Hayes made her debut at the age of fiveand appeared on Broadway aged nine in the musical Old Dutch.("I have never yearned to be an actress," she wrote inher autobiography, "because I always was one.")

    As a young woman she won acclaim in Kaufman and Connelly's 1922hit To the Ladies but got mixed reviews in the Theatre Guildproduction of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1925), in which she playedthe queen as a 1920s flapper (one critic commented on her "fallenarchness"). To enhance her stage technique, which was initially toodependent on a sweet manner and a clear pleasant voice, she studied boxingand fencing. Great success came in the role of Maggie in J. M. Barrie'sWhat Every Woman Knows (1926), a part she returned to some 12 yearslater. When she became pregnant during the run of Coquette (1929) andwished to leave the show, the producer Jed Harris sued and lost, leading to aclause in contracts that defines pregnancy as an 'act of God'. In 1931 Hayeswent to Hollywood to make the first of her dozen films.

    Although she was highly praised as Mary, Queen of Scots inMaxwell Anderson's Mary of Scotland, her greatest role camein 1935 when she played Queen Victoria, in Laurence Housman's VictoriaRegina which ran for 969 performances. Hayes never found thecourage to play her two royal parts in Britain but in 1948 finallymade her London debut in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie.

    In 1955, when she celebrated her 50th year on the stage, theFulton Theatre on 46th Street was renamed the Helen Hayes Theatrein her honour, making her only the second US actress so honoured (thefirst was Ethel Barrymore). She played there in 1958 in Eugene O'Neill'sA Touch of the Poet.

    In 1961 she toured 28 countries sponsored by the US StateDepartment, and the next year joined the Shakespeare Festival Theatrein Stratford, Connecticut, for Shakespeare Revisited whichthen toured America. Two years later she founded the Helen Hayes RepertoryCompany to present Shakespeare readings at universities. She retired from livetheater in 1971, having developed an allergy to stage dust; her farewellperformance was given in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.

    When the Helen Hayes Theatre was demolished in 1982, she wassaid to be proud that "I've outlasted all that brick and stoneand steel".

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