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Margaret Webster

A Life in the Theater

Milly S. Barranger

Publication Year: 2004

In Milly Barranger, Margaret Webster has found the perfect biographer. In Margaret Webster, Milly Barranger has found her perfect subject. She brings to vivid life a fascinating and important theater figure whose public and private lives were of equal interest. In this carefully researched book, Webster's colleagues, lovers, and friends shine as brightly as she did. I wish she were here to read it. -Marian Seldes "Margaret Webster is a highly welcome addition to our knowledge of the first important female director in American theater. Remembered now especially for her staging of Othello with Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen, and Jose Ferrer, Margaret Webster was probably the best-known, in-demand, and admired director of Shakespeare in America in the 1940s and 1950s. Fascinating throughout, the book's discussions of working with Robeson, and of HUAC, which targeted her just as her career was reaching a peak, make for especially engrossing reading." -Oscar Brockett Margaret Webster: A Life in the Theater is an engrossing backstage account of the life of pioneering director Margaret Webster (1905-72). This is the first book-length biography of Webster, a groundbreaking stage and opera director whose career challenged not only stage tradition but also mainstream attitudes toward professional women. Often credited with first having brought Shakespeare to Broadway, and renowned for her bold casting of an African American (Paul Robeson) in the role of Othello, Webster was a creative force in modern American and British theater. Her story reveals the independent-minded artist undeterred by stage tradition and unmindful of rules about a woman's place in the professional theater. In addition to providing fascinating glimpses into Webster's personal and family life, Margaret Webster: A Life in the Theater also offers a who's-who list of the biggest names in New York and London theater of the time, as well as Hollywood: John Gielgud, No-l Coward, George Bernard Shaw, Uta Hagen, Sybil Thorndike, Eva LeGallienne, and John Barrymore, among others, all of whom crossed paths with Webster. Capping Webster's amazing story is her investigation by Senator Joseph McCarthy and HUAC, which left her unable to work for a year, and from which she never fully recovered.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theate

Title Page

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pp. vii-x

On director Margaret Webster's desk in the offices of the Theatre Guild on West Fifty-second Street in October 1943 were neatly arranged pencils, promptbooks, volumes of Shakespeare's plays, a telephone, typewriter, and other detritus of a Broadway director preparing for one of the most momentous openings ...


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pp. xi


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pp. xiii-xviii

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pp. 1-4

This is a biography of Margaret Webster, who initially wanted to be a leading actor in the manner of her parents, Ben Webster and Dame May Whitty, but instead became the leading director of Shakespearean plays on Broadway. A single telephone call from actor-manager Maurice Evans catapulted her from ...

Act One: 1905 - 1936

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1. An Itinerant Childhood

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pp. 7-26

Margaret Webster's life in the theater began in earnest in London at age twelve when she appeared in a benefit called The Women's Tribute. A company of "star" actresses was rehearsing the benefit performance, written for the occasion by Louis N. Parker, when the "Youth" in the allegory took sick. ...

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2. Serious Beginnings

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pp. 27-43

Young actors, like Margaret Webster, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Ralph Richardson who were just starting out in the London theater in the 1920s, usually found work in the stage societies and theatrical membership clubs that flourished as fringe groups along side London's commercial theaters. The best known ...

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3. The Old Vic and the West End

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pp. 44-60

With the exception of new plays by George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, and J. B. Priestley, British commercial theater of the 1920s was strangely insulated from the social changes taking place in the postwar years. An industrial-technological society was advancing toward new benefits of wealth, ...

Act Two: 1937 - 1949

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4. Broadway Nights

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pp. 63-84

In 1937, New York's commercial theater district was drab and dirty. It extended along the thoroughfare between Fortieth and Sixtieth Streets and teemed with traffic noise, jostling crowds, garish cinema marquees, and enormous billboards. The number of Broadway productions had been shrinking for several seasons because of ...

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5. Giants and Pygmies

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pp. 85-107

With a reprieve from performances for four months, Webster traveled through Europe, observing from London to Paris to Genoa the impending catastrophe of a world slouching toward war. Hitler's armies were poised to overrun Czechoslovakia and Poland, precipitating Britain's declaration of war. It was the ...

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6. Battle of Angels

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pp. 108-130

During the first five years of the new decade, the world was at war. Despite Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, theatrical life in the United States proceeded with amazing equanimity. In the 1940 - 41 season, the Theatre Guild's Twelfth Night, with Webster directing, opened on Broadway, joining such popular successes as ...

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7. The Making of Othello

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pp. 131-154

The long road to a Broadway production with Paul Robeson as Othello began in 1939, when he asked Webster to direct him in the title role.1 He had seen her production of Hamleton Broadway, and he in turn was not unknown to her. She had seen him as Othello in London in 1930; five years later, she had appeared ...

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8. The American Repertory Theatre

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pp. 155-188

Nineteen forty-five began on a high note for Margaret Webster. Despite the frissons among the players, Othello was a landmark production in American theatrical and racial history. Webster had previously been recognized with two honorary degrees, the first, from Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, and the second from ...

Act Three: 1950 - 1972

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9. Life at the Opera

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pp. 191-222

As the Marweb bus roared across middle America, Webster was in New York working on the production of The Devil's Disciple that was transferring from the City Center to Broadway. The City Center, with the drama wing under the general direction of Jean Dalrymple, had become a congenial place for showcasing productions ...

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10. McCarthy

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pp. 223-256

At the same time that Margaret Webster was engaged by the two principal opera companies in New York City, she was experiencing the Sturm und Drang of America's political scene at midcentury. As she staged bitter operatic stories about the complications of governmental authority opposed to individual freedoms ...

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11. Unfinished Business

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pp. 257-281

Following her experiences with the FBI, the U.S. Passport Office, and McCarthy's subcommittee, Webster sought refuge in the late fifties from the blacklist and from a changing Broadway in England's repertory companies and with City Center's theater and opera companies. Commuting between London and New York ...

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12. Losing Battles

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pp. 282-304

The National Repertory Theatre in the early sixties brought Margaret Webster and Eva Le Gallienne together professionally for a final time. Despite the unhappy demise of the American Repertory Theatre and the Margaret Webster Shakespeare Company, the women continued to believe fervently in the value of repertory ...

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pp. 305-312

Margaret Webster's friends and colleagues eulogized her in memorial services in New York City and in London. At the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration (known as "The Little Church around the Corner") on East Twenty-ninth Street, some two hundred friends and coworkers attended the service held ...


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pp. 313-336

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 337-342


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pp. 343-367

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780472026036
E-ISBN-10: 0472026038
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472113903
Print-ISBN-10: 0472113909

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theate