Heroines of the Old-Time Stage

March 1, 2021
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,
by John Singer Sargent

From ancient Greek and Roman times all the way up to Shakespeare’s day, women weren’t permitted to act on the legitimate stage. Female roles were usually played by boys. (The plot of the film Shakespeare in Love turns on this practice.) The development of opera in the 17th Century began to open up possibilities for female performers, but they didn’t become fully accepted in England until after Charles II retook the throne in 1660. Charles enjoyed theater and saw no reason to bar women from the stage. Indeed, his longtime mistress, Nell Gwyn, was a star of Restoration comedy.

Female performers reached new heights of celebrity in the 19th Century. With travel becoming safer, faster, and more comfortable, great actresses could command adoring audiences all around the world. On Sarah Bernhardt‘s first American tour in 1880, she performed Adrienne Lecouvreur in French to a New York audience willing to pay up to $40 a ticket – over $1,000 in today’s money. The spectators were so enraptured, even though many didn’t understand French, that she was compelled to make 27 curtain calls.

The volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders have contributed to Project Gutenberg a number of fascinating accounts of the great actresses of those bygone years. For example, Heroines of the Modern Stage, published in 1915, gives thumbnail sketches of the careers of Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Eleanora Duse, and other legendary female performers of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Bernhardt and Duse also feature in Jules Huret’s 1901 slice of theatrical life, Loges et Coulisses (in French), which includes contemporary interviews with both of them as well as with Gabrielle Réjane.

Memoirs and recollections of these stars abound. English actress Ellen Terry was best known for her spectacular success in the Shakespeare productions of her professional and romantic partner, the great actor-manager Henry Irving. Her memoir, The Story of My Life: Recollections and Reflections, published in 1908 when she was in her sixties, recounts her long career on the stage from the age of nine. Terry came from a theatrical family; her parents, both of them actors, had 11 children, of whom five became actors (Kate Terry was John Gielgud’s grandmother). Ellen Terry and Her Sisters, by theatrical historian T. Edgar Pemberton, gives an account of the siblings’ careers.

Sarah Bernhardt was the daughter of a courtesan whose clientele included some of Paris’s richest and most influential men. Though Jewish by birth, she was educated in an exclusive Catholic convent. In her 1907 memoir, My Double Life, she recalls that she wanted to become a nun, but, after a “family council,” she was prevailed upon to study acting at the Paris Conservatoire. She was initially not a success. But her career skyrocketed after she appeared as the female lead in Alexandre Dumas’s play Kean in 1868. She continued acting well into the 20th Century, even after having a leg amputated in 1915 due to an earlier stage injury, and she even appeared in several silent films. Distributed Proofreaders volunteers contributed several works relating to Bernhardt to Project Gutenberg, such as her 1921 novel The Idol of Paris, as well as reminiscences by people who knew her (Sarah Bernhardt as I Knew Her, by Mme. Pierre Berton, Sarah Bernhardt, by Jules Huret, and a chapter of The Puppet Show of Memory, by Maurice Baring).

Fanny Kemble was another well-known English actress of the 19th Century. Born, like Ellen Terry, into a noted theatrical family, Kemble rose to stardom immediately after her 1829 debut, at the age of 20, as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Her tour of the United States with her father in 1832 is recounted in her Journal of a Residence in America. In 1834, she retired from the stage to marry Pierce Butler, a wealthy American who inherited vast plantations – and hundreds of slaves – in Georgia. Kemble lived on one of the plantations in the winter of 1838-1839, and she was appalled at the treatment of the slaves. She kept a meticulous journal of the horrors she witnessed, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. But it remained unpublished until 1863, years after she had left her husband, when friends urged her to publish it in an effort to stop England from recognizing the Confederacy during the American Civil War. After retiring from the stage, she also published two memoirs, Records of a Girlhood and Records of Later Life.

The stories of these great ladies of the stage are just a small part of the theatrical gems glittering in Project Gutenberg’s collection – and admission is free.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer, in celebration of Women’s History Month.

The Art of Stage Dancing

November 24, 2010

It started as an all-too-common story: a young performer — an actor, dancer, musician, stage director — from the Midwest comes to New York to break into the big time on Broadway. His specialty act on the piano wowed ’em in his hometown, and he’s determined that it’ll wow ’em in New York.

But when he gets there to play his first gig, he finds that there’s no piano at the theater. Worse, he discovers that someone has stolen his act and has already performed it all over town. Now he has no job. He has no money. He trudges from agent to agent in a vain search for a break. He now understands why they call Broadway the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

But the dream of Ned Wayburn (1874-1942) wasn’t broken yet. His ragtime piano playing eventually caught the attention of one of the great Broadway stars of the 1890s, May Irwin, who hired him to accompany her for the princely sum of $25 a week. And from that big break grew Wayburn’s outstanding career as the first important choreographer on Broadway.

Actually, Wayburn didn’t care for the title “choreographer.” He styled himself as a director, and from 1901 into the 1920s he was one of the kings of Broadway, his spectacular vaudeville shows drawing huge crowds. He perfected synchronized chorus-line dancing, using large numbers of attractive young female dancers in imaginative, precisely-timed production numbers. He hit the pinnacle of his career when he directed the Ziegfeld Follies several years in a row, from 1916 to 1923.

But in spite of his success, financial security frequently eluded Wayburn. He went bankrupt for the first of several times in 1908. He bought a theater in 1915 to showcase his own productions, only to have it shut down four months later. He became involved in a messy divorce and was nearly jailed for failing to pay alimony.

Fred and Adele Astaire

Fred and Adele Astaire, pupils of Ned Wayburn

To shore up his finances, Wayburn opened a dance school in Manhattan in 1905. Among his early students were a young Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. By the 1920s, the school was a Broadway institution, training legions of dancers in Wayburn’s unique styles of tap dancing (which some claim he invented), acrobatic dancing, “modern Americanized ballet,” specialty dancing, and ballroom dancing. The Art of Stage Dancing, written in 1925, is essentially a book-length advertisement for the Ned Wayburn Studios of Stage Dancing — but a fascinating advertisement nonetheless.

Wayburn’s book is chock full of photographs of the Broadway stars of yesteryear whom Wayburn had taught, or with whom he had worked, in his long career: Fred and Adele Astaire, the Dolly Sisters, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Marion Davies, Gertrude Lawrence, Al Jolson, and a host of other greats who are now, alas, forgotten.

But the book is more than just a self-congratulatory plug for Wayburn and his school. It’s also a complete guide for the would-be dancing star (primarily female, of course), with detailed, richly illustrated chapters on dance styles, steps, and tempos (with music); makeup and costume; stage technique; exercise, diet (with daily menus to slim down or fatten up), and health; and much more. Wayburn even threw in a collection of sample contracts so that his students would know what to expect in the real world.

Wayburn believed fervently in the power of confidence as the key to stage success:

Be patient, you who would star and see your name go up in the bright lights on the Great White Way. Do not get discouraged. You will meet with obstacles on the route to fame undoubtedly, as others have done, and, like the others who have finally arrived, you must overcome them one at a time as they appear, by sheer force of willpower, determination, pluck or whatever you desire to call it. If you are a weakling and lack strength of character do not ever take up a stage career, for you will get many a bump; so be prepared to stand it. For only those who are determined to succeed will ever reach the top, where there is plenty of room always.

Unfortunately, no amount of confidence could stop the march of time for Wayburn. The Depression brought both vaudeville and the Ned Wayburn Studios to a slow and painful end. Wayburn went bankrupt for the last time in 1935; he died in 1942 at the age of 68. But his legacy lives on in every Broadway show with a chorus line.

The Art of Stage Dancing was the 14,000th title posted to Project Gutenberg by Distributed Proofreaders.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

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