On the Legendary Mrs. Siddons

Portrait by Gainsborough
Portrait by Gainsborough

Today is the birthday of Sarah Siddons (Sarah Kemble, 1755-1831). Mrs. Siddons, as she was usually styled after the fashion of the times, is a legendary figure in theatre history. She was the oldest child of actor-manager Roger Kemble; four of her younger siblings and numerous nephews and nieces including the famous Fanny Kemble followed in their footsteps (most of her own children died young). Sarah’s debut was as Ariel in her father’s production of The Tempest. She was 11 at the time. In 1773 she married William Siddons, a member of the company.

From 1782 through 1802 she was a star of Drury Lane, where she was most famous for her portrayal of Lady MacBeth. Her own favorite character was Queen Catherine in Henry VIII. She was also renowned for her Desdemona, Rosalind and Ophelia. In 1784 she was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the work entitled Mrs. Siddons as Tragic Muse:


After leaving Drury Lane she acted sporadically at Covent Garden, retiring in 1812. Mrs. Siddons is memorialized throughout England in monuments and statuary, and is a frequent point of reference in literature. Every year, Chicago’s Sarah Siddons Society gives an award to a distinguished female actor.

For more on show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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