Thursday, 8 August 2013

Among Tigers and Panthers

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
Portrait by Thomas Lawrence; Tate Gallery, London. Photo: Tate, London 2011 
The Tragic Muse of Neoclassicism and prophetess of Romanticism in a portrait of 1804, when she was nearing fifty, in which her lifelong friend, Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 -1830), displayed her powerful physique and brooding presence with such panache that she looks like a bruiser about to step forward and knock you out....  
Born in Wales to the Kemble family of actors in 1755, Siddons dominated the female tragic roles on the English stage for over 30 years, and like many great classical actors she combined masculine and feminine qualities in the authority and sensitivity of her interpretations. Even the Duke of Wellington, as famous for dry understatement as she was for rhetorical grandeur, was a fan.  

Her stately performances in the most emotionally immediate of art forms articulated the eighteenth century's ideal of the sublime, and her representations of the classical passions, in combination with her outwardly virtuous private life, won over audiences as diverse as George III, who appointed her Reader to his family, and Lord Byron, who admired her more than any other actor, male or female, worth more than Cooke, Kemble and Kean all put together. 

Going to see her act was like an ecumenical religious event. Hazlitt said she was a goddess, Tragedy personified. When she died in 1831 she had outlived two kings, Lawrence, Byron, her younger brother John Philip Kemble, her upstaged and discarded husband William Siddons, and, heartbreakingly, five of their children, but not her reputation.

On stage, Siddons embodied the Enlightenment’s preoccupation with abstract reasoning as the means to human amelioration, the very thing that Romanticism sought to overthrow, but alongside her graceful rhetorical gestures, her simulations of feeling were so realistic that she produced unprecedentedly emotional reactions in audiences, who sobbed and fainted, and on some rare occasions she was affected herself, her tearful grief no longer technically assumed, but springing from a union with the person she was playing, so she could not claim it was acting at all: "I felt every word as if I were the real person, and not the representative". Her performances reconciled intellect and emotion, neoclassicism and Romanticism; she was a constant during an age of revolution and reaction.

Hazlitt, in the Examiner, described her effect on the mind of her audience, “startling its inmost thoughts” and “rousing deep and scarce-known feelings from their slumber.” - and it is this scarce-known quality that puts Siddons into the heart of Romanticism, fulfilling the movement's more psychologically challenging and mystic demands rather than the sensual, shining surface represented by Lawrence. 

Her fellow actors respected her; one, Charles Mayne Young, observed that during performances, on-stage and off, "She was, the most lofty-minded actress I ever beheld". Her demeanour, and her brother Kemble's, contrasted with Kean, the actor whose perceived naturalism and spontaneity superseded their classical style, liked to turn somersaults between acts, showing how effortlessly his genius could flit from the artificial to the real world.

Mrs Siddons couldn't do sexy or funny - there was Mrs Jordan for that. Siddons was a shy, reserved woman, lacking in social charm, unsuitable in many ways for early modern celebrity, and sophisticated contemporaries mocked her off-stage portentousness, but she was good at telling stories against herself. The anecdote about Gainsborough's struggle to represent her facial features - "Damn the nose, there's no end to it" - originates with her. 

Others, including Sir Walter Scott, laughed at her behind her back for her compulsive habit, like her brother John Philip Kemble's, of speaking in rhythmic phrases, the telling sign that their natural habitat was the stage, and the external world alien to them.
She was a sincere lover and astute judge of art. In 1789 she trained herself in sculpture, an alternative, private, creative outlet which sustained her through emotional crises and her retirement.

Lady Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1784
Oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image source: Web Gallery of Art
Mrs Siddons first played the part in Bath in 1779; London audiences did not see her until 1785, when she was dressed in white robes for the sleepwalking scene. Coincidental or not, Fuseli's interpretation has many of the  characteristics of her performance, the same sudden entrance, the horror in the eyes, and the physical spontaneity with which she imbued rhetorical gesture, the outward signs of a mind deranged by violent and rapid changes of imagery, descending into madness. 

Lawrence's portraits of Siddons are among his most intuitive paintings, far more honest than some of his “too flattered and pinky” (the verdict accorded one of his male portraits by Joseph Farington) commissioned society work. Self-dramatizing by nature, ever presenting a mask of smiling charm to the world that he was desperate to please, he had a sincere respect for acting. When he painted Mrs Siddons, rather than avoiding, like other painters, the challenging masculine aspects of her stage persona, the fierce concentration of her gaze, her imposing height and the powerful build of her shoulders and arms (reminiscent of Mrs Freke’s “masculine arms” in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda), he celebrated them.

For the last full-length portrait, when the natural studio light from the high source used by Lawrence faded, she posed by lamplight till two o’clock in the morning, so he could finish the painting in time for the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1804.13 It was the year after Sally’s death; Siddons looks older and hefty, as she steps forward towards the audience as she would during one of her Shakespearean readings; the simple composition would be neo-classical, except for the free brush work, the great swathes of red and black, the injured look on her face, hinting at emotional disturbance. There is nothing pinky, flattering here, and the effect of her powerful physique is breath-taking, without us even being able to hear her voice.

We think of one as the treasure of the Establishment, rendering female passions respectable, and the other its terror, but Sarah Siddons and Mary Wollstonecraft were socially well-acquainted, and only five years apart in age. Wollsonecraft's "Vindication" of the Rights of Woman and her other moral "Strictures" were condemned as the "masculine" aberration of a virago; the actress's powerful interpretations of women driven by passion, whether it was ambition or love, was universally admired. 

Sarah Siddons was the main breadwinner for her family, her star earnings far exceeding her husband’s, whose acting career was entirely eclipsed by her own. He was a stringent and sometimes irritable critic of other people's acting, particularly his wife's; nowadays, he would have become a director. 
Mrs Siddons was one of those inspirational career women who do not want to share power with anyone else of her sex. Her sisters as well as her brothers were on the stage, but she discouraged her daughters, whether from jealousy or protectiveness, from emulating her. She cherished them; they were accomplished, well-educated, raised among the leading cultural figures of the day; they were brought up to be ideal companions, financially supported by their mother. Delicate health prevented the two eldest from earning their own living. The youngest, who was very intelligent, was brought up to be her mother's companion and solace in a melancholy old age.

From her early experience, Mrs Siddons knew as well as any actor that the stage is a cruelly competitive and unfair place where no-one ever feels safe, particularly women. She did not thrive on rivalry; money and security worried her, and her husband; she was notoriously mean about participating in other actors’ benefit performances * and conscious of her own value in a male-dominated market.

The esteem in which Mrs Siddons was held by the public and critics was higher than that of any other actor, male or female, but her brother John Philip Kemble was given grander honours on his official retirement than she had on hers. Stung by this proof of the difference in the official status of male and female actors, Mrs Siddons remarked that "perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this”.