Divas Of the Theatre

Interesting article below about the National Portrait Gallery in London and their showing of famous divas of the theatre.

Written by Ruth Leon

Sometimes the best theatre in London isn’t in a theatre. Despite it being the height of the season, with every West End, subsidized and fringe theatre lit every night — despite a queue of plays and musicals waiting for theatre space, praying for a flop so the theatre will become available — despite a procession of star actors and playwrights jockeying for ink and recognition, the most theatrical event in London is over at the National Portrait Gallery, where an exhibition of paintings of “The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons” is just opening. This is where the London theatre really started, after Oliver Cromwell tried, and nearly succeeded, in making England a republic and, with his Puritanism, destroyed the all-male pre-Revolutionary theatre.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the new king, Charles the Second — renowned libertine and lover of women, especially actresses — opened the theatre to women, destroying an entire industry of boys playing women’s parts and taking the saucy redhead Nell Gwyn, formerly a Covent Garden orange-seller and now the toast of the comic theatre, as his official mistress. There are some serious scholars who believe he actually married her, although that’s unlikely.

Actresses in the 18th century, although generally not considered respectable or wife material by royalty or the aristocracy, had a unique position in London society. The best and most famous had their own households with servants, carriages and elegant accommodations. A good actress with a regular company could afford the most fashionable dresses, wigs and hats and was seen at the best public events. They were independent women with their own incomes at a time when all the assets of a woman, no matter how rich or aristocratic, were automatically transferred to her husband upon marriage.

A 1785 portrait of Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough

These were the celebrities of the 1700s, and their every move was followed by their fans; these paintings are the equivalent of rockstar posters. The marketing that surrounded them included renderings of them in all kinds of media, from intimate biographies to wall tiles, playing cards, snuff boxes and figurines, which their besotted fans would snap up as soon as they came on the market. The audiences would have known the identity of each actress on sight, whether the paintings portrayed them as themselves or in one of their famous roles. Hardly surprising, then, that the great artists of the day — Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, William Hogarth — queued up to paint them. This exhibition brings to life both the plays and the performers.

These women were admired and envied, the objects of adoration for the young bloods of the town and the mistresses of the rich and distinguished. Some of them even married into society: Lavinia Fenton, Polly Peachum in the first cast of A Beggar’s Opera, eventually married her lover, the Duke of Bolton, and Giovanna Baccelli, a famous dancer and singer whose portrait by Gainsborough is one of the highlights of the exhibition, married the Duke of Dorset. Some of the most interesting subjects — Mary Robinson, Frances Abington, Elizabeth Inchbold — became writers, poets or playwrights of considerable distinction when they retired from the stage, maintaining their position as independent women of wealth, in control of their own lives and money.

They were the Lady Macbeths, the Perditas, the Ophelias of their day, and their fame alone attracted audiences to Drury Lane and Covent Garden, just as Judi Dench and Maggie Smith do today. Everyone knew the names and the favorite roles of Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson, Peg Woffington, Dorothy Jordan, Nell Gwyn and their colleagues, and you had to have seen their latest performances to be able to converse in the coffee houses and London parks.

Grand ladies of the time also wanted to act, but of course they couldn’t be seen at a public theatre, so in the private houses and stately homes, aristocratic women often put on plays for family and friends. One of the most fascinating paintings in the current exhibition shows Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire — two ladies at the very top of society — and their friend, the sculptress Anne Seymour Damer, as the Three Witches in a private performance of Macbeth, painted by Daniel Gardner in 1775. Because of the closeness and the friendships that grew between the painters and the actors in a London where show was a business even then, the portraits in this exhibition were, in themselves, an intrinsic part of the theatre theatrical. It’s wonderful to see them together at the National Portrait Gallery, (geographically) exactly where they should be — just steps from Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

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