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  • Succeeding the Siddons:Eliza O'neill and the triumph of the romantic style1
  • James Armstrong (bio)

At the beginning of 1812, Sarah Siddons gave a series of farewell performances in preparation for her announced retirement later that year. These performances gave observers a chance to comment upon the legacy of the great actress, as well as to express concern over the fact that no leading tragedienne seemed poised to take her place. The celebration of siddons could not help but be tinged with an anxiety about the future of the stage. In appreciating the accomplishments of the actress, observers noted the absence they foresaw after her departure. How could anyone hope to take her place? Without Siddons, whatever would become of the drama?

Seeing Siddons in Edward Moore's The Gamester on 21 april 1812, Henry Crabb Robinson wrote in his diary:

Her voice appeared to have lost its brilliancy (like a beautiful face through a veil); in other respects, however, her acting is as good as ever . . .. Her smile was enchantingly beautiful; and her transitions of countenance had all the ease and freedom of youth. If she persist in not playing Mrs. Beverley again, that character will, I am confident, never be played with anything like equal attractions. And without some great attraction in the performers, such a play ought not to be represented.

(198) [End Page 171]

Robinson uses the coming absence of Siddons as a way to appreciate what he has just seen. Still, it is striking that the disappearance of the star should necessitate for him the loss of the play from the repertoire if a suitable successor were not found. For those who did wish to see another Mrs. Beverley—not to mention another Belvidera or Lady Macbeth—the loss of Siddons would be keenly felt (Fig. 1).

Not only was Siddons renowned for acting in established plays, she was also an important figure in the development of new dramas. Writing about Siddons in his Reminiscences, the actor William Charles Macready did not quote William Shakespeare or Thomas Otway, but rather Joanna Baillie's play De Monfort, which premiered at the Theatre Royal in Drury lane in 1800. Baillie's description of Jane De monfort, the part Siddons originated, seems tailor-made for the actress. Macready, apparently quoting from memory, records these lines:

So queenly, so commanding, and so noble,

I shrank at first in awe; but when she smiled,

For so she did to see me thus abashed,

Methought I could have compassed sea and land

to do her bidding.

(Macready 40)2

Macready's recollection of these lines shows the admiration the theatrical world had for Siddons, and also reflects her central role in generating and shaping new work. It was not just fellow actors, but playwrights who sought to "do her bidding" if they wished to have their work staged.

During the craze for German dramas by August von Kotzebue (1761-1819), Siddons appeared in some of the first English adaptations of Kotzebue's work. At Drury Lane, she appeared in both The Stranger and Pizarro, inspiring adapters to considerably rewrite the parts she played to suit her particular talents and public image. When Siddons became the first woman in England to play Mrs. Haller, the penitent adulteress in The Stranger, Richard Brinsley Sheridan rewrote a good deal of Benjamin Thompson's translation (Campbell 198). It is possible Sheridan had a role in softening the character for Siddons, making Mrs. Haller more sympathetic to British audiences, and it is abundantly clear he greatly altered the part of Elvira that Siddons played in Sheridan's own Kotzebue adaptation Pizarro. Knowing the part would be played by a grand and eminently respectable actress, Sheridan changed Elvira from an opportunistic hero-worshipper to a [End Page 172]

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Figure 1.

Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1784. 240 x 148 cms.

© Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections, San Marino, California.

[End Page 173] penitent wronged woman who grandly reprimands the Spanish forces (Moody 270). The star performer left her mark on Kotzebue's plays even if she never suggested a line...


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