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Siddons [née Kemble], Sarahfree

(1755–1831)
  • Robert Shaughnessy

Sarah Siddons (1755–1831)

by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1783–4 [Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse]

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA, USA

Siddons [née Kemble], Sarah (1755–1831), actress, was born on 5 July 1755 at the Shoulder of Mutton inn in Brecon, the first of the twelve children of Roger Kemble (1722–1802), an actor and theatre manager, and his wife, Sarah Ward (1735–1807), the daughter of John and Sarah Ward. Like her sisters, she was baptized into her mother's religion as a protestant (her brothers were baptized, after their father, as Catholics), at St Mary's Church, Brecon, on 14 July 1755. Seven of her siblings (four sisters and three brothers), including Charles Kemble, Ann Julia Hatton, and Stephen George Kemble, also entered the acting profession, and her brother John Philip Kemble became the most important actor and manager of his time; Siddons was to establish herself as the most acclaimed tragic actress of her own age, and she has subsequently been widely regarded as the greatest female performer in English theatrical history. In her own lifetime she achieved the status of a popular icon, playing a key role in the social legitimation of the acting profession, moving from the reputedly disreputable world of provincial touring theatre to the salons of the aristocracy, and amassing substantial personal wealth. Her public success, however, was attended by a great deal of personal sadness: her marriage to the philandering and feckless William Siddons, although nominally enduring, was an unhappy one and ended in informal separation, and she outlived five of her seven children.

Early life and career

Although Sarah Kemble's life was spent in the theatre from the very beginning, she entered the profession itself in the face of some parental opposition. To a certain extent this repeated the pattern seen in her own parents' careers, in that her maternal grandfather, John Ward, had initially opposed his daughter's choice of Roger Kemble as a husband. With the Kembles on the road for most of the year, Sarah received her formal education at a succession of day schools in the midlands and the north of England and was trained in elocution and singing by her mother. By the age of twelve she had managed to cultivate such a sufficiently convincing demeanour of gentility that she was invited to attend, free of charge, Mrs Harris's School for Young Ladies at Thornloe House in Worcester. Treated with condescension by her more well-heeled fellow pupils, she discovered that she could find favour by shining in school theatricals. During this period she began to appear with Kemble's company in a variety of parts (her first recorded role being Ariel in The Tempest in Coventry at the end of 1766). Also in the company at this time was the actor William Siddons (1744–1808), whom she was later to marry. About 1770, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, Sarah began a romance with William; when her parents, sceptical about William's prospects, opposed it, it merely served to strengthen the relationship. The Kembles had also encouraged the advances of a local Brecon squire, Mr Evans, who was infatuated with Sarah; when William discovered this he accused Roger Kemble of treachery and was as a consequence dismissed from the company. Sarah, however, refused to marry Evans, and in 1770 was sent into service with the Greatheeds of Guy's Cliffe, Warwick, where she remained for two years, first as a maid and then as Lady Mary Greatheed's companion. She continued to correspond with William throughout; in the end the Kembles withdrew their opposition to the match, and on 26 November 1773 William and Sarah were married at Holy Trinity Church, Coventry. The couple rejoined Kemble's company for a year, then left in 1774 to join Chamberlain and Crump's company and set up for the summer in Cheltenham, which was becoming an increasingly fashionable spa town. It was here that Siddons's talents first came to the notice of certain well-connected and influential individuals who were to prove instrumental in the advancement of her career. Her portrayal of Belvidera in Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd (which was to prove one of her most popular roles) attracted the attention of Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, second Baron Bruce of Tottenham, and his much sought-after stepdaughter Henrietta Boyle; Henrietta, who became a lifelong friend, was sufficiently impressed by Siddons to offer to supervise and supplement her wardrobe with her own clothes. Lord Bruce, in addition, recommended Siddons to David Garrick on his return to London.

During the Cheltenham season Siddons was pregnant, and she gave birth to her first son, Henry, in Wolverhampton on 4 October 1774. Garrick, meanwhile, responded to the recommendation he had received by sending one of the leading members of his company, Tom King, to observe Siddons in Cheltenham. Although King reported very favourably back to Garrick, it was not until 1775, when the actor–manager received word from a friend, the Revd Henry Bate, confirming King's account, that he arranged to engage Siddons with his Drury Lane company. By this time Siddons was heavily pregnant with her second child (this did not prevent her from playing Rosalind in As You Like It); according to Bate, her face was 'one of the most beautiful that ever I beheld', although he added that her voice struck him as 'at first rather dissonant' and 'somewhat grating', and he speculated that 'her figure must be remarkably fine, when she is delivered of her big belly, which entirely mars for the present her whole shape' (Manvell, 23). An exchange of letters between Bate, Garrick, and William Siddons followed, as they negotiated over the date for Sarah to join the Drury Lane company following the anticipated birth. The issue was resolved when Siddons went into labour during a performance in Gloucester on 4 November; the next day her first daughter, Sarah Martha, was born. Urged by Garrick to make the journey to London at the earliest opportunity, Siddons and her family moved to the capital in the middle of December.

Sarah made her first foray onto the London stage on 29 December 1775, as Portia in The Merchant of Venice. This début, which was billed as that of 'a Young Lady (being her first appearance)', was a disaster. Siddons misjudged the scale of the Drury Lane Theatre, which was considerably larger than those in which she was accustomed to performing; she was badly costumed, and, intimidated by the London society audience, she moved awkwardly and hesitantly and lost her voice. It is fair to assume that the effect of an extremely recent birth, the demands of caring for two very young children, the fact that her family was existing on very limited means, and the hostility and suspicion with which she was regarded by the other actresses in Garrick's company also contributed to her failure of nerve. The judgement of the press was almost unanimously negative; most damningly, the Morning Chronicle of 30 December recorded that she had 'vulgarity in her tones'. For six months she struggled miserably through a succession of parts in comedies for which she was clearly ill-suited (the Morning Chronicle concluded that 'she had no comedy in her nature'), while also being (as she later interpreted it) exploited by Garrick as part of his manoeuvring against two of his leading actresses, Mrs Yates and Miss Younge. Siddons left London for the 1776 summer season in Birmingham, hopeful of securing further employment at Drury Lane in the winter. While at Birmingham she was informed by Garrick's prompter that she was not to be re-engaged.

Town and country, 1776–1782

Mortified by her experience at Drury Lane, and in poor health, Siddons resolved to carry on, for the sake, as she repeatedly put it, of her 'poor babies' (Manvell, 38). She spent the next six years in a wide variety of theatres outside London; in 1776–7 this included spells in Liverpool and Manchester and with Tate Wilkinson's company at York. Before long she began to rebuild her confidence and her battered reputation, achieving growing recognition and acclaim as it became increasingly evident that her most powerful talents were for tragedy rather than comedy. Wilkinson, who was working hard to improve the conditions of the acting profession outside London by attempting to extricate it from its disreputable, provincial associations, and who was one of Sarah's most generous supporters, recorded that there was never 'so great a favourite, as a York actress, as Mrs Siddons was in that short period' (Wilkinson, 255). In 1777 her brother John Philip Kemble joined her in Joseph Younger's company in Liverpool, and in January 1778 Siddons played Desdemona opposite Kemble's Othello. This was followed, in March, by a piece of casting which gives a good indication of where her reputation stood in relation to his, by her playing Hamlet to his Laertes.

For the autumn season of 1778 Siddons was engaged by John Palmer the younger at his Theatre Royal in Bath, the city which was now the centre of fashionable society outside London. It was here that she established herself as the most popular, acclaimed, and sought-after actress of her time. In her first season, aged twenty-four and pregnant with her second daughter, Maria (b. 1 July 1779), Siddons worked tirelessly, rehearsing and performing nearly thirty roles while also travelling between theatres in Bath and Bristol. In the following season, beginning in September 1779, she took on the roles for which she would become legendary, including Constance in King John, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, and Lady Macbeth, and she became an increasing object of interest to fashionable society, being befriended by socialites such as Sophia Weston, Mrs Hester Thrale (Mrs Piozzi), Fanny Burney, and Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire. It was in Bath that she first encountered the child prodigy and painter Thomas Lawrence. Socially and professionally successful, Siddons had every intention of remaining in Bath, but by the end of the 1770s the fear of financial insecurity which she never managed to overcome made it inevitable that she would move to London, where her earnings could be vastly increased. From 1780 onwards, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who had taken over the management of the Drury Lane Theatre, made repeated attempts to persuade her to return to the London stage, and in 1782 she finally acquiesced. On 21 May she played her last benefit in Bath, and, in a coup de théâtre which a number of her fellow performers thought in rather dubious taste, revealed her 'THREE REASONS' for her departure by bringing her children onto the stage. It was not the last time that Siddons's professional and maternal identities would be so publicly linked. She was, moreover, pregnant with her fifth child, Eliza Ann, who was born on 2 June (her fourth, Frances Emilia, who was baptized on 6 April 1781, had died as an infant). Siddons gave final appearances in Bath, Bristol, and Cheltenham and, at the end of September 1782, moved to London.

Triumph and tragedy, 1782–1800

There could hardly have been a greater contrast between Siddons's ignominious departure from Drury Lane in 1776 and her triumphant return there six years later. Sick with apprehension, she made her first appearance on 10 October 1782 in the title role in Garrick's version of Thomas Southerne's Isabella, or, The Fatal Marriage. It was an immediate success. Reports rapidly began to circulate of the majestic scale and intensity of her acting, and of the scenes of near-hysteria that it tended to provoke. In his Memoirs of Mrs Siddons James Boaden records 'sobs and shrieks among the tenderer part of her audiences', and

those tears, which manhood at first struggled to suppress, but at length grew proud of indulging … the nerves of many a gentle being gave way before the intensity of such appeals, and fainting fits long and frequently alarmed the decorum of the house, filled almost to suffocation.

Boaden, 195

A contemporary commentator tells of how Siddons's Jane Shore made 'two ladies among the spectators fall into hysterics, and one of them had to be carried out, laughing convulsively' (Booth, 19). That such breaches of decorum took place so repeatedly and in so spectacular a fashion may testify to Siddons's power and charisma as a performer, but they also suggest a deeper catharsis, in that the specific kinds of tragic suffering that she conveyed (more often than not, blameless women victimized, exploited, and destroyed by men) had particularly painful resonances for her audiences (and, perhaps, for Siddons herself) in the context of a society wherein the majority of women 'lived in a world of men who defined and circumscribed them, and denied them … the most basic of civil rights' (ibid., 31). Such emotional reactions were unprecedented, as was the hyperbolic vocabulary of grandeur, majesty, and awesomeness which contemporary commentators on Siddons employed to describe her stage presence, technique, and acting style. Siddons's characteristic performance style is best thought of in terms of the transition from neo-classicism to romanticism—the first aspect becoming visible in a classically inspired, literally statuesque composition of posture, gesture, and costume which rendered her characters as legendary, iconic figures, the second element being found in the focused emotional intensity of her delivery. As audience reactions indicate, it was a mesmerizing combination that seemed to transform the actress into a force both of and beyond nature, and which readily lent itself to romantic notions of the sublime.

Still in her late twenties, Siddons became a cult figure, an object of veneration, even near-worship, and was greatly in demand in fashionable society. She received her first invitation to read before the king and queen early in 1783; at the queen's command, she was appointed reader to the royal princesses. Her earnings rapidly multiplied. In common with all married women of the time, however, she had no control over her income, which legally belonged to and was managed by her husband. This would eventually exacerbate the Siddonses' marital difficulties, as William proved to be quite inept in his handling of the finances. In June 1783 Sarah travelled to Dublin to play Isabella at the Smock Alley Theatre, and in October returned to Drury Lane. The following summer, at the end of the Drury Lane season, she initiated a pattern of work that she maintained for the next decade, by embarking upon a punishing schedule of touring in the north of England and Scotland. Despite the fact that she was now earning quite considerable sums of money, Siddons continued to work compulsively (and to the detriment of her health). This did not always reflect entirely favourably upon her, particularly on the occasions when she became entangled in the inevitable jealousies and ill feeling generated by the benefit system (whereby individual actors could collect the proceeds of a night's performance or offer them for charitable purposes), and she acquired a reputation for meanness and ruthless self-interest. In one particularly damaging instance it was rumoured that, during her 1784 visit to Dublin, she had refused to offer a benefit for the actor West Digges, who had been paralysed some months before (although she eventually did so, rather reluctantly, on 23 August). In October of the same year the story went round that she had similarly refused to offer a benefit for the actor William Brereton (who was in reality fairly well-off and hardly in need of charitable support), which resulted in her being hissed offstage by a hostile Drury Lane audience, although she eventually succeeded in placating her critics. Such gossip was connected to other rivalries: between Brereton and John Philip Kemble, and between Siddons and the actress Anne Crawford, who was in her late forties during the period of Siddons's ascendancy, and whose position as London's pre-eminent tragic actress was rapidly being eclipsed by the rival who was twenty years her junior. Crawford had performed in Dublin during Siddons's first visit there, and in November 1783 she tried to challenge Siddons directly by playing Lady Randolph in John Home's Douglas (a part closely associated with Siddons) at Covent Garden; sadly for Crawford, the comparisons that were drawn between the two actresses were unanimously to her detriment.

On 30 September 1783 John Philip Kemble made his own London début, as Hamlet, and made almost as much of an impression as Siddons had the previous year. Brother and sister first appeared together at Drury Lane in Edward Moore's The Gamester on 22 November, and they followed this with King John on 10 December, in which Kemble played the King and Siddons Constance. Although Constance appears in only three scenes, this was one of her most impressive portrayals (it was assisted by some deft reordering of the text so that Constance became the play's dominant force), and it entailed an identification with the role that was far in advance of its time. As she later recalled, Sarah would leave her dressing-room door open between her scenes; thus, overhearing events on stage, she could work herself into an appropriate frenzy, as they would cause 'bitter tears of rage, disappointment, betrayed confidence, baffled ambition, and, above all, the agonizing feelings of maternal affection to gush into my eyes'. Consciously or not, her account of Constance's 'maternal tenderness desperate and ferocious as a hunted tigress in defence of her young' (Campbell, 1.215) recalls the ever-present rationale for her own reputed ruthlessness. Constance was one of a succession of portrayals of Shakespearian tragic heroines in which Siddons stressed elements of thwarted, distorted, or betrayed conjugal or maternal love, and which included Lady Macbeth, which she first played in London in February 1785 (and which, as her most significant role, is discussed in more detail below), Volumnia in Coriolanus in 1787, Katherine in Henry VIII in 1788, and, in 1801, her final new role, Hermione in The Winter's Tale.

By the mid-1780s Siddons was established as a cultural icon. If her charismatic presence in the theatre produced delirious results, the circulation of her image throughout middle-class English culture in the late eighteenth century in a variety of narrative and visual forms both underpinned and further contributed to her mythical and monumental status. The already considerable impact of her performances was magnified beyond their immediate moment as she, and they, became the subject of discourse and debate within the rapidly expanding and proliferating genres of theatre journalism and commentary, which were in turn addressing themselves to a growing, increasingly critical readership; as it did in person, the figure of Siddons in print provided a focus for the emotional exploration and moral evaluation of a range of contemporary preoccupations and anxieties, particularly in the area of female sexuality. Siddons was also the subject of a wide range of visual representations, as she was commemorated in paintings, sketches, prints, and caricatures in the roles for which she became famous. During the 1783–4 season she sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds as The Tragic Muse, which soon became one of the most well-known images of the actress. Seated on a throne, flanked by allegorical personifications of Pity and Terror, Siddons is simultaneously tragedy's source of inspiration and its monumental embodiment. By the mid-1780s Siddons was settling into her niche in London society, mixing with the nobility, writers, and politicians; her acquaintances included Dr Johnson, Edmund Burke, and William Windham. For the next fifteen years she maintained the pattern of alternating between Drury Lane in the winter months and regional tours in the summer.

Although this period of her life saw her at the height of her popularity and critical acclaim, it was also one in which Siddons experienced professional and personal difficulties. On the former count, the continuing saga of her reputed meanness was further complicated by the difficulties that arose from Richard Brinsley Sheridan's haphazard and less than scrupulous management of Drury Lane, which led to her breaking with the theatre for the 1789–90 season. In April 1788 she suffered a miscarriage; two weeks later her youngest daughter, Elizabeth Ann, died, aged six. The 1790s also saw a marked deterioration in her relationship with her husband. Although he had shown early signs of promise, William Siddons's own career as an actor had long since petered out in the shadow of his wife's, and his main role had been to manage the money that she earned but which he legally owned. Rumours of his infidelities began to emerge, which eventually proved to be of substance when (according to her close confidante, Mrs Piozzi) Sarah discovered in August 1792 that the ill health that had afflicted her for a decade was the result of venereal infection from her husband. According to Mrs Piozzi, the façade of loyalty and marital harmony that Siddons continued to maintain masked deep resentment and 'indignant melancholy' (Manvell, 184). Her seventh child, Cecilia, was born on 25 July 1794; she was back acting at the Haymarket a month later. During this period the Drury Lane Theatre was rebuilt on a far larger scale than before, and this was to confront Siddons with the problem that had caused her so much anxiety at her London début. Having thrived upon the relative intimacy of the old theatre, she was now faced with the need to adjust the scale of her performances to the altered size and configuration of the new auditorium. When Drury Lane reopened on 12 March 1794, with Siddons and John Kemble in a lavish new production of Macbeth, it quickly became evident that the enlargement of stage and auditorium, and the increased sophistication of the stage machinery, had shifted the emphasis towards elaborate spectacle. Although Siddons was initially enthusiastic about the theatre, it would prove to render her own mode of acting obsolete. Throughout the 1790s financial pressures drove her through a succession of parts in plays of inferior quality; the greatest indignity was her performance as Elgiva in Fanny Burney's disastrous tragedy Edway and Elgiva in March 1795. Even 'the solemn accents of Siddons herself' failed to rescue its 'ludicrous circumstance' (Campbell, 2.192); mortifyingly, Siddons's death scene was played to ribald laughter. Siddons continued to act at Drury Lane until the turn of the century, by which time Sheridan owed her more than £2000 in unpaid salary, while William Siddons negotiated to no effect on her behalf.

The final decade of the eighteenth century brought the Siddons family heartache in the form of its entanglements with the portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, whom Siddons had encountered in Bath a decade earlier. From the moment of his arrival in London in 1787 at the age of eighteen, Lawrence was a celebrity: precociously talented, impulsive, narcissistic, charming, and extravagantly irresponsible in his financial and emotional affairs, he was both a charismatic figure and a dangerous one. In 1796 he began an affair with Siddons's daughter Sally, then twenty-one, which led to a marriage proposal the following year. Sarah and William Siddons refused to consent to the match. Siddons's doubts were complicated by her own attachment to Lawrence and the fact that her relationship with William Siddons was becoming increasingly distant. When the relationship between Lawrence and Sally cooled, the latter's eighteen-year-old younger sister Maria stepped in, arranging clandestine meetings with the painter which culminated (again, in the face of stiff parental opposition) in a formal engagement early in 1798. At this point, however, Maria's health began to deteriorate, prompting Lawrence to attempt to renew his attentions to Sally. As Maria's state steadily worsened, Lawrence became increasingly desperate and obsessive in his efforts to gain access to Sally; Sarah Siddons, meanwhile, was torn not only by work commitments, which were enforcing separation from a daughter who was terminally ill with consumption, but also by the conflict between her desire to protect Sally and Maria from Lawrence and her own feelings of sympathy and affection for him. Maria died on 7 October 1798, but not before she had extracted on her deathbed a solemn promise from her sister not to undertake any further liaison with Lawrence. Siddons's opposition to the relationship, which had taken its toll on her own health, confirmed the pact; none the less, she continued to maintain a friendship with Lawrence for the next thirty years until his death. Sally Siddons was rather less fortunate; she died five years after her sister.

Lady Macbeth

Although Siddons owed her popular success to her command of a wide range of tragic roles, many of them in plays by her contemporaries which have since vanished from the repertory, her most celebrated part, and the one with which she continues to be associated, is that of Lady Macbeth. Not only her contemporaries but many later commentators have considered her portrayal to be definitive; in 1812 Charles Lamb, who tended to doubt that Shakespeare's tragedies could or should be staged at all, wrote that 'we speak of Lady Macbeth, while we are in reality thinking of Mrs S'. The association was to become firmly fixed in the English cultural imagination by the numerous paintings, sketches, and engravings of her in the role. Siddons first tackled the part in her early twenties during her time in Cheltenham, and she continued to play it throughout her career, up to and after her retirement in 1812. Her prolonged immersion in the part took place in the context of the intense and sustained interest in Macbeth within late eighteenth-century English literary and theatrical culture—an interest that was substantially motivated by the play's perceived relevance to events of the French Revolution. As a study in regicide, Macbeth afforded English theatre audiences a glimpse of something both fascinating and unspeakable; in the figure of Lady Macbeth, Siddons and her spellbound spectators found a focus for their own darkest fears. Siddons's accounts of her approach to the role are revealing, in that they indicate that her attempts to find her way into the character through imaginative identification and empathy did not just constitute a new and innovative acting method, but also took her into potentially dangerous psychological territory. As she later recalled, she was in the habit of learning her parts at night when she first took on the role, and had planned to rote-learn the part on the eve of the first performance, naïvely believing that 'little more was necessary than to get the words into my head'. However, as she went on 'in the silence of the night' to the assassination scene:

the horrors of the scene rose to a degree that made it impossible for me to get further. I snatched up my candle, and hurried out of the room in a paroxysm of terror. My dress was of silk, and the rustling of it, as I ascended the stairs to go to bed, seemed to my panic-struck fancy like the movement of a spectre pursuing me.

Fitzgerald, 1.32–3

Siddons's record of her appalled reaction to Shakespeare's text, which seems designed to establish her moral distance from her character, actually leads her into an uncanny, and troubling, identification with it, as she echoes Lady Macbeth's ascent to the bedchamber (where, ironically enough, she finds her 'husband fast asleep'). As Siddons depicts herself climbing guiltily towards a bedchamber containing not a soon-to-be-murdered king but the husband who, by the time she narrated this incident, had given her more than enough cause for resentment, the distinctions between the evil character and the good mother, wife, and actress seem less clear-cut than propriety might demand. For Siddons, the moral of this story was that she was sufficiently shamed by the result of (as she saw it) her own immaturity, idleness, and complacency that it 'cured me of procrastinating my business for the remainder of my life'; but it also indicates that the embryonic psychological approach to character could also subtly destabilize the conventional moral categories within which a figure such as Lady Macbeth had previously been assigned.

Siddons's task with Lady Macbeth, as she saw it, was that of finding points of sympathy rather than presenting her (as had previous actresses) as a 'fiend-like Queen' who was, in Dr Johnson's words, 'merely detested'. As Siddons put it in an essay written some time around 1816, Lady Macbeth's propensity for evil had to be seen neither as innate and immutable nor as her sole defining characteristic; she should be regarded rather as a woman riven with conflicts between her feminine nature and ruthless ambition. Adopting what was at the time the new approach of conceiving the role as an organic whole rather than as a series of spectacular but isolated moments, she suggested that Lady Macbeth should be 'most captivating to the other sex,—fair, feminine, nay, perhaps, even fragile' and 'captivating in female loveliness' (Campbell, 2.11); for only this could explain her hold over her husband. Thus Macbeth was driven towards regicide by the goadings of his wife, who, once the murder had been committed, collapsed with remorse as her essential femininity reasserted itself. This was an innovative reading of the part, not just because it contained the suggestion that the Macbeths' criminal acts were the perverse consequence of a profound marital love and loyalty, but also because it secretly questioned the moral priorities associated with the play. If the wickedness of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth was a matter not of nature but of the circumstances within which they found themselves, might this not put the murder of the king (which had such powerful resonances for late eighteenth-century English audiences) in a different light?

In fact, the effect of Siddons as Lady Macbeth in performance was at first less ambivalent than her considered and sympathetic account of the character suggests. She first played the part in London, on 2 February 1785, opposite William Smith, who was generally agreed to be a weak foil to her; however, when John Kemble took over the part of Macbeth in March, their partnership became legendary. Where Kemble presented Macbeth as an introspective and naturally virtuous man, wracked with guilty imaginings the deeper he progressed in crime, Siddons was mesmerizingly powerful, a terrifying rather than a delicate and pathetic figure. Her most unforgettable moment was the sleepwalking scene, in which Siddons caused some consternation by breaking with the established stage tradition of carrying a candle throughout, choosing instead to set it down to concentrate on the washing of her hands. If this was perceived as faintly disrespectful to her predecessors in the part (notably Hannah Pritchard, who had played opposite Garrick, and whose interpretation had until then been regarded as definitive), Siddons silenced criticism by stamping her unquestionable authority on the role. Although she envisaged Lady Macbeth as a woman deserving of understanding and sympathy, she was apprehended as a vast, malign force beyond nature. William Hazlitt wrote:

we can conceive of nothing grander … it seemed almost as if a being of a superior order had dropped from a higher sphere to awe the world with the majesty of her appearance. Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine; she was tragedy personified … she glided on and off the stage like an apparition. To have seen her in that character was an event in every one's life, not to be forgotten.

Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays

History was to prove Hazlitt right: Siddons's Lady Macbeth continues to be regarded as the one against which all later interpretations have been judged.

Final years, 1800–1831

The turn of the nineteenth century marks the beginning of the final phase of Siddons's stage career. In March 1802 she studied her last new role, that of another wronged wife and mother, Hermione in The Winter's Tale. Although she was still much acclaimed, it was becoming evident that she was no longer at her best: she was beginning to tire more rapidly, and ticket sales, particularly for her London performances, began to decline. In the summer months she continued her heavy provincial touring schedule. From 1801 onwards she suffered from erysipelas, as well as from rheumatoid arthritis; she was also prone to bouts of depression and sickness. At the end of the 1801–2 season she and John Kemble resigned from Drury Lane; he bought into the Covent Garden Theatre while she went to Ireland with Tate Wilkinson's daughter Martha (known as Patty), who had become her constant companion and would remain so until Siddons's death. Although she continued to impress critics and audiences, it was reported that she was visibly putting on weight and that her voice was sounding strained. None the less, she managed to draw large crowds in Dublin for an interesting experiment in cross-dressing, her portrayal of Hamlet on 27 July 1802. Siddons's swordplay in the final scene attracted praise: she had been tutored by a fencing instructor, Mr P. Galindo, who also played Laertes. Siddons's close friendship with Galindo and his wife, Catherine, an actress who had played alongside Siddons in Ambrose Philips's The Distrest Mother, was another unfortunate liaison, which in 1809 led to Mrs Galindo publishing accusations of an illicit affair between the actress and her husband, and of her subsequent betrayal of her family. Siddons had been introduced to the Galindos by Patty Wilkinson; according to Catherine, Galindo had fallen in love with her, abandoned his wife, and spent much of his time driving her about in his carriage.

Whether or not there was a covert relationship between Siddons and Galindo, she was made godmother to the Galindos' daughter in July 1803. In March 1803 Siddons learned that her father, Roger Kemble, had died the previous December. On her return to England in April she stopped in Shrewsbury, where she received a letter from her husband written an hour before the death of her daughter Sally. This was followed by confirmation that Sally had died on 24 March. In London she made overtures to Thomas Harris, the manager of Covent Garden, to employ Galindo. When John Kemble, who had been abroad, got to hear of the plan he was outraged, and ordered Harris to retract the offer. The Galindos followed Siddons to London (where, Mrs Galindo alleged, Galindo was secretly her constant visitor), and the association continued for the next four years. Siddons lent Galindo £1000 to enable him to buy into a partnership with William Macready for a theatre in Manchester. When the venture collapsed, Siddons called in the debt; according to Mrs Galindo, this was a calculated and vindictive attempt to ruin them. Siddons did not get her money back, and the relationship was finished. Meanwhile stories were circulating of an affair between Siddons and Thomas Lawrence, for whom she had sat in March 1804. William Siddons was driven to issue a press advertisement offering a reward of £1000 for information about who was responsible for the rumours, to no effect. In any case, William and Sarah Siddons, who had spent the last few years increasingly apart, were informally separated by October. William moved to Bath, where he died on 11 March 1808. Together with Patty Wilkinson and her sole surviving daughter, Cecilia, Siddons moved to Hanover Square.

Siddons continued to tour during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. She was briefly engaged at the rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre, which opened on 18 September 1809 with Macbeth. Once again, the move to a new theatre was an unhappy experience for Siddons, this time because the management's decision to raise admission charges and increase the number of expensive private boxes precipitated the protests from the pit that came to be known as the Old Price (or OP) riots. Kemble's attempt to move the theatre upmarket (and, in the process, subtly to alter the social composition of its audiences) was viewed by the OP protesters as an assault upon the ancient rights and privileges of common theatregoers, as denying them access to the nation's drama (and, in particular, to Shakespeare). After thirty-seven nights of barracking, Kemble acceded to the rioters' demands; ticket prices were brought down and the number of boxes was reduced. Unsurprisingly, Siddons was appalled by what she, along with many other commentators, regarded as an outbreak of radical militancy. She wrote to her daughter-in-law, Harriet Siddons, that the riots were a 'barbarous outrage to decency and reason', adding ominously, 'where it will end heaven knows' (Manvell, 295). If the OP protests represented a temporary victory against theatrical profiteering, they also constituted a challenge to the authority of the patent theatres themselves, with which Siddons's Shakespearian career had been closely associated. She played her final season at Covent Garden in 1811–12, ending with a highly emotional farewell benefit on 29 June 1812, when she played Lady Macbeth. According to Joseph Farington, her rendition so affected the spectators that they again exercised their power to curtail the performance by refusing to let the play continue after the sleepwalking scene. After a considerable time had elapsed, a curtain was drawn back and Siddons was discovered 'sitting at a table in her own character'. Veiled and dressed in white satin, she stood up to face the cheers and applause, finally enforcing silence by a bow and curtsy. She spoke a farewell address which lasted eight minutes: 'having finished, the loudest claps followed, and she withdrew bowing and led off by an attendant … her appearance was that of a person distressed and sunk in spirits' (Farington Diary, ed. Greig, 7.89).

Siddons returned to Westbourne Farm, Harrow Road, London, where she had lived since 1805, to spend her time entertaining, sculpting, and travelling with her daughter and Patty Wilkinson. Although she continued to offer private readings and recitals at home, she at first kept away from the theatre as far as was possible, with the exception of rare appearances in benefits for members of her family. Concerted efforts were made to lure her back to the stage; within a year of her official retirement a petition calling for her return was organized. Siddons sensibly resisted the call, perhaps aware that her waning powers risked blighting her glorious reputation. Her occasional appearances in the next decade proved that she could still move and impress; none the less, in 1817 William Hazlitt severely criticized what he regarded as Siddons's prevarication over her retirement, wishing that she 'would either return to the stage, or retire from it altogether', since by her 'uncertain wavering between public and private life, she may diminish her reputation, while she can add nothing to it'. As the embodiment of a sublime conception of tragedy in Hazlitt's account, Siddons's status as a figure of sublimity in memory and imagination was now such that her actual living presence was not only no longer necessary but positively unwelcome:

if we have seen Mrs Siddons in Lady Macbeth only once, it is enough. The impression is stamped there for ever, and any after-experiments and critical inquiries only serve to fritter away and tamper with the sacredness of the early recollection.

Hazlitt, Criticism and Dramatic Essays, 276

Siddons's earlier performances had acquired an afterlife which would prove to be enduring. Absolutely her final stage appearance was on 9 June 1819, in a benefit for Charles Kemble, although the private recitals continued. Her forty-year-old son, Henry Siddons, had died of tuberculosis in 1815; Siddons recorded that this loss 'seems to have laid a heavier hand on my mind than any I have sustained' (Campbell, 2.360). Mrs Piozzi died in 1821, John Kemble in 1823; Siddons passed the final decade of her life in a state of deep melancholy. Her niece Fanny Kemble (who was later to achieve a level of celebrity as an actress that would rival that of her aunt) recorded her 'vapid vacuity' and 'apparent deadness and indifference to everything' (Kemble, 64); invoking the romantic image of Hamlet, she described a weary, solemn figure, dressed in black: 'She has stood on a pinnacle till all things have come to look flat and dreary; mere shapeless, colourless, level monotony to her'. The friendship with Thomas Lawrence was maintained, with a final twist in 1828 in that the painter developed an intense but brief romantic interest in Fanny Kemble, who was said to bear an uncanny resemblance to both Sarah and Sally Siddons. He died on 7 January 1830.

On 31 May 1831, aged seventy-five, Siddons fell ill with acute erysipelas. This quickly led to severe sickness and fever, and she fell into a coma on 7 June. She died at her house at 27 Upper Baker Street the next morning, 'peaceably, and without suffering, and in full consciousness', in Fanny Kemble's account. Her funeral, which took place on 15 June, featured eleven coaches of mourners, which included the Drury Lane and Covent Garden companies, and drew crowds of more than 5000. She was buried in St Mary's churchyard in Paddington. Sarah Siddons was already established as a mythical figure well before her death, to the extent that she was discouraged from making live stage appearances in her final years because they tended to corrupt the image of greatness that had been established early in her career. Since she was the subject of countless visual representations as well as reviews, eulogies, panegyrics, letters, and diary accounts, Siddons's likeness and personality were very much in the public domain in her own lifetime; posterity has continued to afford her a hallowed space in theatrical tradition and cultural history. In the final years of her life Siddons collaborated with her biographers: James Boaden's Memoirs of Mrs Siddons appeared in 1827, and Thomas Campbell's Life in 1836. Campbell sculpted a statue of her for the north transept of Westminster Abbey in 1849; L. Chavalliaud's sculpture (modelled on Reynolds's Tragic Muse) was unveiled by Sir Henry Irving on Paddington Green in 1897. A range of popular and scholarly biographies was published in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Siddons continues to exert a fascination in part because her biography (like those of many successful women) appears to conform to a familiar pattern of public success shadowed by personal tragedy, and also because she seems both to belong to natural thespian aristocracy and to embody a vanished golden age of classical acting that could seemingly move spectators almost beyond the bounds of endurance. Ultimately, however, Siddons's enduring significance may lie less in the written records than in the pictorial representations of her, both within and out of roles. Whatever view is taken of her acting or of her personal character, in this respect her status as icon seems assured.

Sources

  • R. Manvell, Sarah Siddons: portrait of an actress (1970)
  • J. Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs Siddons, 2 vols. (1827)
  • T. Campbell, Life of Mrs Siddons, 2 vols. (1834)
  • C. Parsons, The incomparable Siddons (1909)
  • Y. Ffrench, Mrs Siddons, tragic actress (1954)
  • M. Booth, ed., Three tragic actresses (1996)
  • T. Wilkinson, The wandering patentee, or, A history of the Yorkshire theatres from 1770 to the present time, 4 vols. (1795)
  • P. Fitzgerald, The Kembles: an account of the Kemble family, 2 vols. (1871)
  • The Farington diary, ed. J. Greig, 8 vols. (1922–8)
  • W. Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's plays (1817)
  • W. Hazlitt, Criticism and dramatic essays (1851)
  • F. A. Kemble, Record of a girlhood, 3 vols. (1878)

Archives

  • Bath Central Library, notebooks
  • Folger
  • Harvard TC
  • JRL, papers
  • BL, letters to Lady Barrington, Dep. 9389
  • BL, letters to Lord Hardwicke, Add. MS 35350
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Noel and Byron families
  • JRL, letters to Hester Lynch Piozzi
  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., letters to Charles Hotham

Likenesses

  • T. Cook, line engraving, pubd 1783, BM, NPG
  • G. Romney, oils, 1783, priv. coll.
  • J. Reynolds, oils, 1783–4, Hunt. L. [see illus.]
  • J. Flaxman, Wedgwood medallion, 1784, Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire
  • H. Hone, watercolour miniature, 1784, NG Ire.
  • F. Bartolozzi, stipple, pubd 1785 (after H. Hone), NG Ire.
  • T. Gainsborough, oils, 1785, National Gallery, London
  • T. Lawrence, portrait, 1786, Tate collection
  • J. Downman, chalk drawing, 1787, NPG
  • W. Beechey, oils, 1793, NPG
  • T. Lawrence, oils, 1796, NPG
  • T. Lawrence, oils, 1797, NPG
  • J. Webb, line engraving, pubd 1798 (after J. Reynolds, 1784), NG Ire.
  • R. Dighton, etching, 1799, BM, NPG
  • T. Lawrence, oils, 1804, Tate collection
  • J. Henning, enamel paste medallion, 1807, NPG
  • plaster medallion, 1807 (after J. Henning), Scot. NPG
  • G. H. Harlow, group portrait, oils, 1817 (Court for the trial of Queen Catherine, Henry VIII), Royal Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Museum, Stratford upon Avon
  • G. F. Phillips, stipple, pubd 1825 (after enamel miniature by H. Hone; after his watercolour miniature), NG Ire.
  • J. Hayter, chalk drawing, 1826, BM
  • C. Turner, mezzotint, pubd 1826 (after T. Lawrence), BM, NPG
  • F. Chantry, statue, 1831, Westminster Abbey, London
  • J. Bromley, mezzotint, 1832 (after J. Reynolds), NPG
  • T. Campbell, statue, 1849, Westminster Abbey, London
  • T. Campbell, marble relief, NPG
  • L. F. Chavalliaud, marble statue, Paddington Green, London
  • R. Crosse, miniature, V&A
  • A. Edouart, drawing, silhouette, NPG
  • G. H. Harlow, oils (as Lady Macbeth), Garr. Club
  • G. H. Harlow, pencil and wash drawing, Brodie Castle, Grampian
  • G. H. Harlow, pencil drawing, Bowood, Wiltshire
  • T. Lawrence, pencil drawing, Garr. Club
  • J. Reynolds, oils, second version, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
  • S. Siddons, clay bust, V&A
  • attrib. G. Stuart, oils, NPG
  • R. Westall, oils (as Lady Macbeth), Garr. Club
  • prints, BM, NPG
  • watercolour on card (S. Siddons?), Scot. NPG
P. H. Highfill, K. A. Burnim, & E. A. Langhans, , 16 vols. (1973–93)