The Theatrical Legend of Mrs. Fiske

December 19 is the birthday of Minnie Maddern Fiske (Marie Augusta Davey, 1865-1932), almost invariably known in her day as “Mrs. Fiske”. (The use of a husband’s patronymic in combination with a married woman’s honorific as a stage name was a tradition that went all the way back to the Restoration, when women were first allowed to act on the English stage. The theatre was one of the few fields where women could work at all, let alone flourish. It was not unusual for a woman of the theatre to far outshine in fame and accomplishment the husband whose name she bore. Famous examples include Mrs. Siddons and Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Mrs. Fiske was one of the last, if not the last, to style herself this way.)

I bet you’ve heard the name — George Sanders’ Addison DeWitt utters it archly in All About Eve (1950).  He uses the name as an insult, as shorthand to indicate that something is out of date.  But in her own day, she was a force of change, a major factor in America’s transition from the old-school melodrama into realism.

Minnie was born into a theatrical family. Her mother had come to America from England with her six siblings as part of the family orchestra run by their father Richard Maddern. Of the seven siblings, the two brothers went on to be bandmasters, one sister married a stage carpenter, one sister married actor William Hodges: and three sisters became successful famous actresses: Mary, Emma and Lizzie. One of Minnie’s cousins Elizabeth Maddern, later became the first wife of Jack London. Lizzie married actor and theatrical manager Thomas Davey, who managed a chain of theatre houses in the south and west. Their child was born in New Orleans just a few months after the end of the Civil War. Minnie was acting onstage by age three. It was only natural and sensible for to take the Maddern name for her stage handle, given its fame.

At six she appeared in Boucicault’s Hunted Down and other plays in New York. A decade later she was already a leading lady in adult roles. At 17 she married LeGrand White, a musician she’d worked with while starring in the play Fogg’s Ferry. The liaison lasted six years. In 1890 she made the more fortuitous match, to Harrison Grey Fiske, editor and publisher of the Dramatic Mirror, and soon to be an important producer, director and playwright himself. Minnie briefly retired from acting, then returned as a director and playwright. Her own plays included A Light from St. Agnes and The White Flower, both 1896, and The Rose and The Eyes of the Heart, both 1905.

In 1897, she starred in the first stage adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (the novel had only been published five years previously). She later revived this popular role in 1902. In 1899 she produced, directed and starred in Becky Sharp, Langdon Mitchell’s adaptation of Vanity Fair. Probably her most popular stage role, she later revived it in 1904 and 1911. Other than this, she is best known as being the premier interpreter and promoter of the works (and aesthetics) of Ibsen in the U.S., starring in A Doll’s House (1902) Hedda Gabler (1903, 1904), Rosmersholm (1907), Pillars of  Society (1910), and Ghosts (1927). Other notable parts included the title roles in Salvation Nell (1907), Madame Sand (about George Sand, 1917), and Mis’ Nelly of N’Orleans (1919). In 1928 she returned to Shakespeare (one of her first roles as a child had been one of the young Princes in Richard III), in productions of Much Ado About Nothing and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Her last role was Mrs. Malaprop in a 1932 revival of The Rivals.

In the mid teens she committed her two most famous roles to film, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1913) and Vanity Fair (1915), her only two movies.

In 1917, a book was published entitled Mrs. Fiske, Her Views on Actors, Acting and The Problems of Production, which she dictated to Alexander Woollcott. You can read that fascinating book here. 

Mrs. Fiske and her husband were tireless opponents of the Theatrical Syndicate. She was also an important and influential early animal right activist.

When Mrs. Fiske became famous, she also assisted the careers of her family members. Mary Maddern appeared alongside her niece in many productions. Emma married theatrical manager Robert E. Stevens. Their children included Emily Stevens, a successful actress who appeared in many of Mrs. Fiske’s productions, and Robert Stevens, longtime director of the Rochester Community Players. Mrs. Fiske’s cousin Merle Maddern also appeared in many of her productions, and was a successful actress of stage and screen for decades, and was a member of Eva La Gallienne’s company for a number of years.

 

 

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