Saturday, December 26, 2015

(December 25, 1833 - November 6, 1916)

"Her sweetness, her susceptibility, her submission under suffering, her uncomplaining courage and repining resignation beneath undeserved persecution" made her ideal for such roles as Dot, Eily O'Connor, Jeanie Deans, and the wretched, beaten Smike." (Actors and Actresses, Vol. VI pp. 83-86).

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, her father was Thomas Robertson, an art publisher. She began her stage career at the age of ten as a singer at the Theatre Royal, Aberdeen, and acted in the play,
The Spoiled Child.   The family moved to Dublin and she later wrote she considered herself more Irish than Scottish.

She appeared in provincial companies with Fanny Kemble,
William Macready and the Terry family.  In Liverpool she acted with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean and joined Kean's company when he took over the Princess's Theatre in London.  Since she was only seventeen, she lived with the Keans and became their temporary ward.

Her debut in London occurred October 16, 1850 playing a page in A Wife's Secret. She met Dion Boucicault, the house dramatist.  For the Keans' benefit in 1852 he wrote an afterpiece called The Vampire which featured both Dion and Agnes. After an argument between Dion and Kean, he resigned and Agnes moved out of the Keans home, withdrew from the company, then joined Madame Vestris at the Lyceum and soon found herself unemployed.

Boucicault, attracted by her charm and beauty, wrote several more plays for her including performing five roles in The Young Actress, his adaptation of Edward Lancaster's play The Manager's Daughter.  Sold out houses at the Theatre Royal in Montreal and news of her success brought offers from every major city in the United States.  She opened the play at Burton's Theatre in NYC in late October, 1853.   She also married Dion Boucicault who became her manager. They acted in several of his plays on tour and in 1854 she played five characters in his comic sketch at the Broadway Theatre in New York.  Audiences nicknamed her "The Fairy Star," for the title of the piece.

Signed up for a summer season at Wallack's Theatre in New York (1857) they added Old Heads and Young Hearts and London Assurance in their repertoire in which Boucicault played Dazzle and Agnes played Grace. In September 1859 she played the title role in Dot, his successful dramatization of Charles Dickens' novel, The Cricket on the Hearth with Joseph Jefferson as Caleb Plummer. The play opened the season at the remodeled Union Square Theatre, (now known as the Winter Garden). In the same season she played the pitiful, abused Smike in her husband's adaptation of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby.  One of the sensations of the season was his play The Octoroon, in which she played Zoe, the girl with one-eighth Negro blood who is put up for auction as a slave. Dealing with the current attitudes of both Northerners and Southerners toward slavery, the play opened on December 6, four days after John Brown had been hanged.

Zoe in The Octoroon
In 1860 the Boucicaults joined Laura Keene's theatre with a string of hits: Jeanie Deans, Boucicault's adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's novel
The Heart of Midlothian, The Colleen Bawn, his play based on a true incident that had recently taken place in Ireland. She played Eily O'Connor, the Colleen bawn (fair-haired girl), a simple girl married to a wealthy husband who tries to have her murdered.
      In a triumphant return to London in 1860 they opened in The Colleen Bawn at the Adelphi Theatre which was the biggest success seen in London for decades.  
     They also presented The Octoroon in London but English audiences could not accept her death at the end of the play and so Boucicault wrote another ending  that spared her life.

Other successes by Robertson and her husband included Arrah-na-Pogue which ran for 164 performances in London; The Long Strike, one of the earliest examples of a play based on a labor dispute.   They continued to act in England and Ireland until 1868 when they announced their retirement from the stage while she was busy rearing their five children. In 1869 their sixth and last child was born.

Leaving their children in school in London, they sailed for the United States in 1872, began an engagement at Booth's Theatre and toured to Boston and other cities. Inspired by their enthusiastic reception in America, they applied for citizenship.  Unfortunately  their marriage was imperiled when one of Dion's mistresses followed him to the U.S. and Agnes sailed back to England in 1873.

Boucicault came to London in 1875 to persuade Agnes to play Moya in his play The Shaughraun with him starring as the vagabond. But their magic on stage was short-lived when their 20 year old son Willie was killed in a train accident.

In spite of attempts at reconciliation Boucicault went with a company to Australia where he married a young actress in the company. Agnes contended that they were still married and the court ruled in her favor.

After his death in 1890, she returned to America and a benefit was arranged for her at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York.
      E. H. Sothern,  Maurice Barrymore, Lillian Russell and their daughter actress Nina Boucicault appeared.

Nina Boucicault                      
She was described as small and delicate. Early pictures of her and descriptions by friends attest to her striking beauty. Her voice was described as sweet, and a critic for the New York Times wrote:
    "She had the prettiest of ballad voices and was always unaffected in the use of it."  (July 4, 1875)

In the juvenile comedy of her early career and in the breeches' parts she was bright and bewitching, but it was in serious and sad roles that she won the hears of her audience. To the popular melodramas of the day she brought charm, naturalness, and simplicity.

She wrote about her early life in "In the Days of My Youth", in Mainly About People, July 1, 1899.

REFERENCE:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989  Alice McDonnell Robinson

Friday, December 18, 2015

(December 19, 1865 - Feb. 15, 1932)

For her, Henrik Ibsen was an inspiration, because she found in his plays that life-sized work that "other players tell us they have found in Shakespeare."

Her father, Thomas W. Davey and her mother Elizabeth (Lizzy) Maddern Davey were entertainers.  Although she was christened Marie Augusta Davey, she appeared on stage as Minnie Maddern. At the age of three, she was singing and dancing during act intervals for the touring company her father managed and her mother performed in. 
Her formal acting debut occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas when another visiting touring company cast her as the Duke of York in Shakespeare's Richard lll.

In a speech she gave at a dinner in her honor in 1920,  she reminisced about her days as a child actor.
"I came upon the scene in what might be called the Twilight of the Palmy Days and my recollection of that period of apprenticeship is still vivid.  The stage child, then, as in my case, was often reared in a strictly religious atmosphere.  On Sunday night our mothers might be dancing in tarlatan skirts at the theatre, but on Sunday morning we were obliged to speak in hushed tones, wear starched skirts, listen to the reading of the Bible and if we sang, confine our repertory to hymns.
               "When I was twelve I had a huge repertory of widely contrasting parts that I might be called upon to play with little notice. 
          Sometime I would be cast for the Widow Melnotte in The Lady of Lyons and the next night Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin or I might be expected to play Little Mary Morgan in Ten Nights in a Barroom and sing "Father, Dear father, Come Home With Me Now"...
            "During that time it was my privilege to play children's parts with many of the illustrious
 actors of the period---the robust Barry Sullivan, the dynamic Lucille Western, the beautiful
Mary Anderson...Edwin Booth with his burning eyes and irresistible genius, Helena Modjeska, the essence of grace and charm..."
                                               As an adult actor, she debuted on May 15, 1882 at the age of sixteen in Fogg's Ferry, a comedy-melodrama by Charles E. Callahan.  The New York papers heralded her
Mrs. Fiske as Becky Sharp
performance, the Sun making a prophecy that she would more than fulfill:
"She has a native gift and disposition to her calling that will not be denied expression and which, if afforded any occasion of growth and development, cannot fail to make her a thoroughly popular artist in her line of small comedy.  She made a better impression than has been  made by any debutante in years."
    During the run of Fogg's Ferry, she married Legrand White, an accomplished musician who had joined the play's orchestra in order to woo her.  They commissioned Howard Taylor to write her next play
Caprice. It was the first of a number of plays to be written for her, and it gave early evidence of the support she would give new playwrights. In Caprice she sang "In the Gloaming," a song that became a popular ballad for decades.  However the play's run hardly outlasted their marriage which ended in divorce on June 25, 1888.  Within two years, on March 18, 1890, she married Harrison Grey Fiske, editor of the New York Dramatic Mirror. He eventually became her manager.
                                               Immediately after the wedding, Mrs. Fiske left the stage for almost four
Harrison Grey Fiske
years and began writing one-act plays including The Rose
The Eyes of the Heart and A Light from Saint Agnes. Upon her return to the stage her playwriting skills proved useful in doctoring scripts written for her.
        It was in 1894 that she appeared as Nora Helmer in Ibsen's 
A Doll's House in a single benefit performance at the Empire Theatre in New York. She championed the playwright's work in New York and on the road throughout the rest of her career both as actress and co-producer with hr husband.  Other roles were Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, Lona in Pillars of Society and Mrs. Alving in Ghosts.
      After A Doll's House, her next major triumph was as Tess in
Lorimer Stoddard's adaptation of Hardy's novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles,
a critical and popular success.
     Between 1897 and 1909 Harrison and Mrs. Fiske opposed the monopolistic Theatre Syndicate so that on her tours she performed in many inferior theatres and on improvised stages.  To combat the syndicate they leased the Manhattan Theatre in 1901, mounting productions known for their ensemble playing and their rejection of the star system.
    Mrs. Fiske felt that the star system encouraged the successful actor to be surrounded by inferior actors and that it had to be  "calmly and firmly wiped out."  The company continued until 1914.  As a director she strove for ensemble playing, noting that a production should possess a "perfect on a par with the performance of a well-balanced orchestra."
     She prodded actors to search out honest projections of their emotions and cautioned them not to rush their execution.  Her attention to detail in rehearsal impressed an eyewitness to write,"Nothing is too small for the eye and attention of Mrs. Fiske--whether it be the gesture of an actor, a detail in the stage setting or lighting, a tone of voice, or a strain of music---and it is her watchful care and artistic sense that have made her company a model one to see."

Salvation Nell
By 1906 the Fiskes had given up their lease of the Manhattan Theatre, since David Belasco and the Shubert Brothers, both now in opposition to the syndicate, provided the Fiskes with good New York theatres for their company and productions. 
     In 1909 the syndicate offered the Fiskes the use of any syndicate theatre on independent terms. At that time Mrs. Fiske was on tour in Edward Sheldon's Salvation Nell, which she had directed and in which she played the title role.  The highly successful production, written by Sheldon while he was a member of George Pierce Baker's Workshop at Harvard, illustrates her continuing support of new American playwrights.
     She made theatrical successes in Mrs. Bumpstead--Leigh by Harry James Smith in 1911; The High Road by Sheldon in 1912; Mis' Nelly of N'Orleans by Laurence Eyre in 1919. 

She did some silent films from her roles in successful plays in order to bring some financial solvency due to the financial drain from their struggle with the syndicate.  In 1911 Fiske was forced to sell the Dramatic Mirror, and in 1914 he declared bankruptcy.  By this time their marriage had become a "business partnership with mutual affection."

Her last years on the stage were spent touring revivals of her previous hits in renowned classics such as Sheridan's The Rivals, Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Much Ado About Nothing
    During her last decade, she received several honors: the League of Women Voters 1923 Award as one of the twelve greatest living American women, an honorary degree from Smith College in 1926 for being "the foremost living actress," an honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1927 for her services to the American stage, and the Good Housekeeping Award in 1931 as one of the twelve greatest living women.

      Her acting career lasted more than six decades.  She was heralded by her friend and critic Alexander Woollcott as "the loftiest artist on the American stage."  The theatre historian Garff B. Wilson noted that "before the theories of the Moscow Art Theatre gained currency in America, Minnie Maddern Fiske was teaching similar principles and applying them to productions."
     In her views  on "The Science of Acting",  she defined great acting as "a thing of the spirit, in its best estate a conveyance of certain abstract spiritual qualities, with the person of the actor as a medium.  The eternal and immeasurable accident of the theatre which you call genius, that is a matter of the soul. But with every genius I have seen---Janauschek, Duse, Irving, Terry---there was always the last word in technical proficiency.  The inborn, mysterious something in these players can only inspire. 
No school can make a Duse.  But with such genius as hers has always gone a supreme mastery of the science of acting, a precision of performance so satisfying that it continually renews our hope and belief that acting can be taught.
     "I have always been successful in teaching others to act. The young actors are pitched into the sea, poor children, and told to sink or swim.  But how many potential Edwin Booths go to the bottom, unchronicled and unsung? Though I suppose that a real Booth would somehow make his way. Of course he would."

She spent most of her life fighting the inhuman killing of the egrets for feathers and animals for furs.  Once Alexander Woollcott asked her what she would do with five million dollars if it were given to her.        She replied: "I should give a million to certain humanitarian causes. I should turn over a million to Evangeline Booth to spend among the poor she understands so well. I should turn over a million to Lenore Cawker of Milwaukee, who has taken the city's pound on her own shoulders, paying for almost all of it out of her own pocket and working from six in the morning until midnight. Of course I could easily spend the other two million in one afternoon helping to make women see that one of the most dreadful, shocking, disheartening sights in the world is just the sight of a woman wearing furs."

REFERENCE: Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989 ed.   Morris U. Burns
Binns, Archie (in collaboration with Olive Kooken) Mrs. Fiske and the American Theatre. 1955
Arliss, George, Up the Years from Bloomsbury. 1927
Woollcott, Alexander.   Mrs. Fiske, Her Views on the Stage. 1917

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

(December 1, 1830 - March 7, 1877)

Praised for her definitive performance in La Dame aux Camelias, she was born in Londonderry, Ireland, the youngest of five children. In 1842 her father moved the family to Philadelphia and her favorite brother developed into a successful businessman becoming president of the Heron line of coastal steamers.  Matilda attended a private academy situated very close to the prestigious Walnut Street Theatre. Stage struck, she studied elocution with Peter Richings, who groomed her for her theatrical debut at age 21 playing Bianca in Hart Milman's tragedy Fazio.  

Encouraged by her reviews, she was cast in romantic roles in stock companies, including Juliet at the National Theatre (Washington, D.C.) opposite the great Charlotte Cushman as Romeo.

In the winter season of 1854-1855, she reprised Bianca at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. While abroad she attended a performance of La Dame aux Camelias in Paris. Her brother suggested she translate the play, entitled Camille, as a starring vehicle for her.  Before bringing the play to New York, she presented it in St. Louis and other cities with increasing success.

When she appeared at Wallack's Theatre in New York (Jan. 22, 1857) the New York Herald critic wrote that she produced striking effects with electric rapidity.

  She was not the first American actress to play Marguerite Gautier, the courtesan who sacrificed her own happiness for the benefit of Armand, her lover.  Prominent theater critic  William Winter would write: "Other parts she acted; that one she lived."
    Jean Davenport had appeared in a censored version of Camille, which was then a very daring play.  Ms. Heron's version was candid, her style, naturalistic, less refined than that of the actresses who preceded her.

Although she was attractive with dark hair, flashing dark eyes, and a pure complexion, she was not conventionally beautiful. She achieved her effects on stage by the force of her intelligence and by a magnetism admired by critics who found her coarse and her accent too Irish.  Instead of idealizing Camille, she portrayed her as a suffering, passionate woman, which William Winter wrote in her obituary was a reflection of her own tempestuous life.
     At the height of her career she also played Medea in her own translation of Ernest Legouve's Medee. Whether she was dying for love or killing for love, she successfully conveyed the emotional storms of her stage characters.
      Her example influenced such actresses as the emotional
Clara Morris and helped inaugurate the realistic theatrical style of the early twentieth century.
      A benefit show was held at Niblo's Garden Theatre to raise funds for her in 1872.  Participants included Edwin Booth, John Brougham,
Jules Levy and Laura Keene.

     She acted until 1875 after which she lived quietly in New York City as a teacher of elocution.  Having had health issues throughout her career, she died at the age of 46, with 'Camille' engraved on her casket along with her real name.   She reportedly "suffered in her last days mental as well as physical pain which many strong men would have sunk under."

Her second marriage to the composer Robert Stoepel produced a daughter, Helen Wallace Stoepel, better known as actress  Bijou Heron (1862-1937). Bijou married the actor Henry Miller and their son was the famed theatrical producer Gilbert Heron Miller.

REFERENCES:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989   Mary R. Davidson
Heron, Matilda (1830-1877)

Friday, December 4, 2015

(December 4, 1861 - June 6, 1922)

When Alexander Graham Bell introduced long distance telephone service on May 8, 1890, her voice was the first carried over the line. From New York City, she sang "Sabre Song" to audiences in Boston and Washington, D.C.

"I can still recall the rush of pure awe that marked her entrance on the stage. And then the thunderous applause that swept from orchestra to gallery, to the very roof."
                                Marie Dressler, actress

Her birth name was Helen Louise Leonard; birthplace, Clinton, Iowa.  Her father was a moderately successful publisher of the Clinton Herald but her mother Cynthia Howland Leonard was an ardent feminist.  When Clinton, Iowa proved too provincial for her influence to be felt in the suffrage and equal rights movement. the family relocated to Chicago where her influence could be properly exercised.   She attempted to organize the women of the city but soon her feminist societies became a thorn in the sides of the city fathers. But her daughter Helen, nicknamed "Nellie" would be influenced by her mother's beliefs that a person's sex should not determine her place in society.

When she was fourteen, Lillian Russell possessed a lilting soprano voice and her mother was convinced she could become an opera star. She selected Leopold Damrosch to coach her daughter, who at seventeen, was capable of attaining a high "C."  Her mother and teacher began to prepare her for a career in grand opera, BUT at 18 Helen demonstrated her independence and secretly auditioned for and got cast in a chorus part in Edward E. Rice's production of
H.M.S. Pinafore (1879).
    She was so beautiful that she was soon fighting off stage-door Johnnies. In spite of the disappointment of both her mother and Damrosch, orchestra conductor Harry Braham fell in love with her and they got married in 1880. In 1883 following the tragic loss of their infant son, the couple divorced.

     Tony Pastor, producer at the Casino Theatre, heard her sing at the home of a friend and hired her on the spot. Fearing her mother's objections to her singing at music halls, he gave her a stage name and billed her as being from overseas.  On November 22, 1880, he introduced "Miss Lillian Russell, the English ballad singer, a vision of loveliness and a voice of gold." With her perfect complexion as well as hourglass figure, plus her soprano voice, she was on her way to becoming the greatest comic opera star of her era.

During the 1880s she performed in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on both sides of the Atlantic.  She also married again to Edward Solomon, a pit musician and would-be composer of comic opera.    In 1883 she made her london debut in her husband's Virginia and PaulReturning to America in 1885 she learned that he had been sued by an Englishwoman for bigamy and the second marriage was annulled.
     After a disastrous third marriage to a 'foppish narcissist' she walked out into the welcoming arms of Diamond Jim Brady and, while never lovers, they became lifelong companions and enduring friends. For forty years he showered her with extravagant gifts of diamonds and gemstones and supported her expensive lifestyle.
     In 1899 she joined the Weber and Fields's Music Hall, where she was happily engaged as the star of their vaudeville/burlesques.  She debuted in Fiddle-dee-dee which also featured De Wolf Hopper, 
Fay Templeton and David Warfield.  Other favorites were Whoop-de-doo and The Big Little Princess. Before the 1902 production of Twirly-Whirly, John Stromberg, who had composed several hit songs for her, delayed giving Lillian her solo for several days, saying it was not ready. When he committed suicide a few days before the first rehearsal, sheet music of "Come Down Ma Evenin' Star" was discovered in his coat pocket. It became her signature song and is the only one she is known to have recorded, although the recording was made after Russell's voice had deteriorated significantly.

Lady Teazle
Leaving Weber and Fields in 1904 she next played the title role of Lady Teazle, a musical version of The School for Scandal at the Casino Theatre and then began to perform in vaudeville.  After 1904 she began to have vocal difficulties, but did not retire from the stage. She switched to non-musical comedies and toured from 1906 to 1908 managed by James Brooks. Because her non-singing roles were not very successful, she returned to vaudeville and in 1912 experienced the first and most successful of several comebacks.  Weber and Fields took her on their triumphal national tour of Hokey-Pokey, which would be her last performance in a musical.
        Later the same year she was married for a fourth time, successfully, to Alexander Pollock Moore, publisher of the Pittsburgh Leader, and after her death, United States ambassador to Spain.

In 1915 she appeared with Lionel Barrymore in the motion picture Wildfire, which as based on the 1908 play in which she had appeared.  She continued to appear in vaudeville until 1919 when ill health forced her to retire from the stage permanently.

    Beginning around 1912 she wrote a newspaper column, became active in the women's suffrage movement (as her mother had been) and was a popular lecturer on personal relationships, health and beauty, advocating an optimistic philosophy of self-help and drawing large crowds.
      In 1913 she declared that she would refuse to pay her income taxes to protest "the denial of the ballot to women."  She did recruit for the U.S. Marine Corps during World War 1 and raised money for the war effort.  She was a woman of independent means and during the Actors Equity strike of 1919, she made a major donation to sponsor the formation of the Chorus Equity Association by the chorus girls of the Ziegfeld Follies.   In 1922 she traveled aboard the R.M.S. Aquitania from Southampton to the Port of New York and according to the NY Times, she "established a precedent by acting as Chairman of the ship's concert, the first woman to preside at an entertainment on shipboard."

A 1940 film about her presents a sanitized version of her life. It was directed by Irving Cummings who, as a teenager starting his career, had acted with Russell in the play Wildfire in 1908. It stars Alice Faye, Henry Fonda, Don Ameche, Edward Arnold as Diamond Jim Brady and Warren William.

She was known popularly as "The American Beauty." Her likeness appeared on cigar bands and matchbox covers. She was  the first pinup and love goddess and was instrumental in establishing the dignity and the art of the American musical theatre.  Effortlessly attaining eight high "C's" an evening, she brought to the music hall, the operetta, and burlesques the concept that refined talent, exquisite beauty and charm were not exclusive to the opera house.

RESOURCE:  Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989
Contributor:  Donal Ray Schwartz

WIKIPEDIA     Lillian Russell which contains a link to
the only recording of "Come Down Ma Evenin' Star" (1912)