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The Sarah Siddons Audio Files

Romanticism and the Lost Voice

Judith Pascoe

Publication Year: 2013

“The theatre scholar’s daunting but irresistible quest to recover some echoes of performance of the past has never been more engagingly presented than in Pascoe’s account of tracing the long-silenced voice of Sarah Siddons. Her report is a warm, witty, and highly informative exploration of the methodology and the pleasures of historical research.” —Marvin Carlson, author of The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine During her lifetime (1755–1831), English actress Sarah Siddons was an international celebrity acclaimed for her performances of tragic heroines. We know what she looked like—an endless number of artists asked her to sit for portraits and sculptures—but what of her famous voice, reported to cause audiences to hyperventilate or faint? In The Sarah Siddons Audio Files, Judith Pascoe takes readers on a journey to discover how the actor’s voice actually sounded. In lively and engaging prose, Pascoe retraces her quixotic search, which leads her to enroll in a “Voice for Actors” class, to collect Lady Macbeth voice prints, and to listen more carefully to the soundscape of her life. Bringing together archival discoveries, sound recording history, and media theory, Pascoe shows how romantic poets’ preoccupation with voices is linked to a larger cultural anxiety about the voice’s ephemerality. The Sarah Siddons Audio Files contributes to a growing body of work on the fascinating history of sound and will engage a broad audience interested in how recording technology has altered human experience.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. 2-9

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pp. ix-xii

The British romantics were the last generation to go unrecorded, and so they stand on the far side of a cultural divide. The Victorians left behind a vast archive of images and sound impressions that testify to how they looked and sounded, or rather, communicate the reassuring thought that how they looked and sounded has been preserved...

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pp. xiii-xiv

I am grateful to the American Council of Learned Societies for the fellowship that allowed me to ‹nish this book and to the University of Iowa for granting me leave time and research support through the Arts and Humanities Initiative and the Obermann Center. I also thank Stuart Curran, Michael Macovski, Peter Manning, Esther Schor, and Garrett...


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pp. xv-xvi

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Chapter One

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pp. 1-10

On Paddington Green in West London, near where the actress Sarah Siddons was buried in 1831, there stands a memorial statue erected in her honor (fig. 1). Sculpted by Leon Chavalliaud and unveiled by Henry Irving in 1897, the marble Siddons...

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Chapter Two

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pp. 11-18

But instead I returned to Iowa and kept thinking about Siddons’s voice in a distracted and unproductive way as I went about my daily business of teaching romantic poetry. The romantics were the last generation that went unrecorded, and so inspired a particular fascination with their voices. Henry James associated Siddons with a romantic past...

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Chapter Three

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pp. 19-25

Who was the first actor to have his voice recorded? Perhaps it was Henry Irving, the actor who did the honors at the 1897 unveiling of Siddons’s statue at Paddington Green. By 1897, Irving, who was born seven years after Siddons died in 1831, was an elderly thespian who probably took a personal interest in the way Siddons was being...

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Chapter Four

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pp. 26-33

Early accounts of Sarah Siddons’s voice survive chiefly in anecdotes of her childhood. We are told by her biographers that Siddons was given elocution and singing lessons from her mother, Sarah Ward Kemble, whose father had once managed a troupe of comedians in Warwickshire. Siddons’s father, Roger Kemble, was a strolling player...

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Chapter Five

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pp. 34-40

If you are an undergraduate at a large Midwestern university in the United States and you sign up for a summer school class entitled “Voice for Actors,” you will find yourself playing games designed to get you breathing hard. And if you are a middle-aged college professor auditing this class, not because you have theatrical aspirations but because...

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Chapter Six

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pp. 41-48

The whole-body approach to the voice espoused by Thomas Sheridan and my “Voice for Actors” teacher also survives in Roland Barthes’s locution “the grain of the voice,” which he defines as “the body in the singing voice,” and as that something that comes directly from “the depths of the body’s cavities, the muscles, the membranes...

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Chapter Seven

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pp. 49-56

Coleridge wrote a single poem about Sarah Siddons as part of a series of eleven “Sonnets on Eminent Characters,” which he published in the Morning Chronicle. The poem’s narrator describes the tales told by a “Grandam,” and in so doing makes reference to some of Siddons’s famous roles. The grandmother conjures the witches in...

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Chapter Eight

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pp. 57-64

Siddons’s performing career spanned four decades during which time London theaters were being steadily enlarged, sometimes as a result of their tendency to burst into flame. The Covent Garden theater, which in 1792 housed 1,897 theater patrons, succumbed to fire in 1808; after it was redesigned and reopened, it could accommodate 3,000 audience...

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Chapter Nine

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pp. 65-71

Not long after I started thinking about Siddons’s voice, I read an article by J. Paul Hunter that came to hover over my endeavors like the little cloud that is stalled over Blake’s piper in the introduction to Songs of Innocence. In the article, Hunter talks about aesthetic forms that lose their intended audience as standards of taste radically change. His...

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Chapter Ten

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pp. 72-79

Romantic theatergoers not only enjoyed performances that we would find overwrought, they enjoyed watching these performances over and over and over again. In fact, the intensity of their pleasure seemed to stem partly from the repetition, which allowed for a deep familiarity with the lines and gestures associated with particular...

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Chapter Eleven

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pp. 80-88

It’s possible there was no stage role more familiar to romantic theatergoers than Hamlet. Romantic era theater audiences were swimming in Hamlets, recalling how Hamlet lines were spoken by prior Hamlets, and inflating these memories whenever a brash tradition- ›outing Hamlet roiled the water.1 So, for example, when Siddons’s...

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Chapter Twelve

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pp. 89-95

If we want to judge what role Siddons’s voice played in creating the Siddons phenomenon, the transfixing and traumatizing of audience members, we must look at the series of public readings she gave across the length of her career. Before the king and queen at Frogmore, in an assembly room in Dublin, and in the Argyle public room in London...

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Chapter Thirteen

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pp. 96-103

Over the course of my research, I consulted a farrago of alluring Siddons artifacts. I handled Siddons’s fragile copy of Cymbeline, which revealed that she had only one page to change into her night dress for the bed chamber scene. I looked over the seating chart for one of Siddons’s readings, and I examined the list of signatories on a petition...

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Chapter Fourteen

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pp. 104-112

I decided to make one last-ditch effort to become the kind of listener who could appreciate Siddons. Belatedly determined to listen to Siddons’s most famous speeches, even if I could only hear them spoken by actors who came after her, I descended into the nether regions of the library’s media center. A work study student with a Shuffle clipped to her...

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Chapter Fifteen

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pp. 113-120

In 1817, at the age of sixty-two, Sarah Siddons played Lady Macbeth for the last time and was panned by William Hazlitt, who regretted having to record the progress of her decay. He wrote, “Her voice is somewhat broken since last year; her articulation of some words, particularly where the sibillant consonants occur, is defective; and her delivery...


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pp. 121-138


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pp. 139-152


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pp. 153-160

E-ISBN-13: 9780472027958
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472117666

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance