Sarah Siddons

Definition

Theater

  • (Sarah Kemble; 1755 - 1831) One of the great British actressesof all time. William Hazlitt wrote of her, "She was tragedypersonified. To have seen Mrs Siddons was an event in everyone's life."Siddons's furious performance as Queen Katherine in Henry VIIIso frightened an actor playing one of the minor roles that he vowedhe would "not for the world meet her on the stage again".

    Her acting once made George III weep. The king, who couldnot stand even a hint of tragedy in a play, went to see her in thecomedy The Mysterious Husband, not realizing that the lastact contained a death scene. When the actors reached this part ofthe play he sobbed loudly and said to his wife, "Charlotte,don't look, it's too much to bear!" The play, by royal request,was never performed again.

    Sarah was the eldest of 12 children of Roger Kemble and SarahWard, who managed a touring company; her brothers John, Charles, andStephen Kemble were all actors (see Kemble family).She made a poor debut in The Merchant of Venice in 1775 atGarrick's Drury Lane but seven years later won renown there as a tragicactress in Garrick's Isabella. Later in her career she becameknown for her Shakespearean roles, most notably Lady Macbeth; herperformance in the sleepwalking scene was particularly celebrated.In 1802 Siddons and her brother, John Philip Kemble, took over CoventGarden. She continued to appear there until her last season (1811 - 12),during which she gave an amazing 57 performances.

    Off stage Siddons was unpopular: actors found her unapproachableand she gained a reputation for being discourteous to her admirers.She never forgot the hardships of her childhood; even when she waswell off she was known for her stinginess, gaining the nickname 'LadySarah Save-all'.

    A play about her, Mrs Siddons, starred Sybil Thorndikein 1933. She is also said to be the resident ghost at the BristolOld Vic (see ghosts).

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