Le Gallienne, Eva

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Le Gallienne, Eva

(b. 11 January 1899 in London, England; d. 3 June 1991 in Weston, Connecticut), actress, director, and producer who founded the first classical repertory theater in America.

Le Gallienne was the only child of an English novelist and poet, Richard Le Gallienne, and a Danish journalist, Julie Nørregaard. She grew up in Paris, France, and attended the Colløge Sévigné. Inspired by performances of Sarah Bernhardt, she studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made her acting debut in London in 1914. The next year she sailed for New York. In 1918, while performing in a company with Ethel Barrymore, she formed her first important lesbian relationship with the notorious actress Alia Nazimova. From 1920 to 1925 she starred on Broadway and toured the country in Arthur Reichman’s Not So Long Ago and Molnar’s Liliom and The Swan.

At the age of twenty-seven and at the height of her fame, she turned her back on stardom and dared to challenge the male-dominated Broadway system of long runs, high prices, and typecasting. Supported by wealthy patrons such as Otto H. Kahn and the reclusive lesbian Alice De Lámar, she established America’s first classical repertory theater, the Civic Repertory Theatre (1926-1935). Associated with it was a school for apprentices that included Robert Lewis, Burgess Meredith, Arnold Moss, Howard da Silva, John Garfield, May Sarton, and J. Edward Bromberg.

At the end of the first season she had filled her theater to an average 78 percent capacity and had produced six out of eight critical successes. In November 1929 she was on the cover of Time and for two years she earned a place on the Nation’s’Roll of Honor.’ By her third season she was playing to 91 percent capacity. During the company’s ten years she staged thirty-seven plays in New York and toured the most successful ones during the summer. The most popular offerings included The Cradle Song (1927), Hedda Gabler, Peter Pan, Romeo and Juliet, and The Cherry Orchard (all 1928), Camille (1931), and Alice in Wonderland (1932). Her 1926 production of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters was its English-language premiere in New York.

Her popularity took a turn in the 1930s. With her focus on the classics, especially on the plays of Ibsen, she limited her following. Also, theatergoers had become more aware of her lesbianism. The influential and homophobic critic George Jean Nathan dubbed the Civic Repertory Theatre “the Le Gallienne sorority,” while countless cruel jokes and rumors began to circulate about activities at the theater.

In 1937 Margaret Webster moved into Le Gallienne’s professional and private life. Together they, along with Cheryl Crawford, founded the American Repertory Theatre in 1946. Le Gallienne starred in Henry VIII (1946), What Every Woman Knows (1946), John Gabriel Borkynan (1946), and Alice in Wonderland (1947), directing the latter two shows as well. Although they received considerable financial support and strong testimonials from Broadway luminaries, the company could not withstand union demands, the high cost of producing plays in repertory, and the many complaints over play selection. Accusations of communism leveled at both Webster and Crawford hurt ticket sales.

Le Gallienne’s life and career went steadily downhill. In 1951 her relationship with Webster ended, and except for sporadic successes her theater career was over. When not acting or directing she turned her energies to translating the plays of Ibsen and the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, as well as writing a biography of Eleonora Duse (The Mystic in the Theatre: Eleonora Duse, 1966) and her own autobiography With a Quiet Heart (1953). In the summers she often taught acting at Lucille Lortel’s White Barn Theatre in Connecticut. One of her young students was Peter Falk. During long stretches of inactivity she turned to alcohol for escape.

In 1957 Le Gallienne appeared as Queen Elizabeth in Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart, which was a stunning success. The attention brought her television roles as well as a five-year affiliation with the National Repertory Theatre (1961-1966), where she either acted in or directed the great plays of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Sheridan, Moliøre, and Euripides. In 1968 she joined the APA—Phoenix Theatre for one season, performing in Exit the King and directing The Cherry Orchard. Between 1957 and 1975 the once-prominent actress appeared in only 117 Broadway performances.

Le Gallienne returned to Broadway in 1975 with Ellis Rabb’s revival of The Royal Family. Although intended for only a two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the successful production went on to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and to Broadway, had a twenty-three week national tour, and finally became a television special.

Behind her public role as a famous actress, director, and producer, Le Gallienne led a private life troubled by her personal struggle with lesbianism. For more than fifty years she lived in shadows. Like many lesbians of her generation, she viewed herself as a man trapped in a female body. Because she was unwilling to hide behind a convenient marriage or to camouflage her relationships in order to boost her career, her sexuality became a nemesis that created her great need for privacy. Acting was a way of publicly expressing her personal feelings. She could reveal her soul when she performed. Some have said that her struggle with her sexuality drained her creative energy, others have said it was the very source of it. Regardless, it profoundly influenced her art, coloring her selection of scripts, casting choices, management decisions, style of acting, and ultimately her critical reception.

During her long career Le Gallienne earned a Tony Award for lifetime achievement (1964), an Emmy for her role in the television broadcast The Royal Family (1977), the American National Theatre and Academy’s National Artist Award (1977), and an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress in the film Resurrection (1980). At the age of eighty-two she received another Tony nomination for her performance in To Grandmother’s House We Go (1981). She did not win, but the New York Times paid tribute: “She has no equal on Broadway. It is easy to fall in love all over again with Eva Le Gallienne, her face, her voice, her poise, and her beauty.” In 1986, President Ronald Reagan awarded her the National Medal of Arts. When American Theatre 3 magazine celebrated the silver anniversary of the nonprofit-theater movement in America, they featured Le Gallienne and proclaimed that her efforts in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s “presaged a changing role for the theatre a generation in advance.” Along with Tyrone Guthrie, John Houseman, and Zelda Fichandler, she was credited for being one of the artists who “played a part in shaping America’s nonprofit theatre.” She died at her home in Weston of natural causes at the age of ninety-two.

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library contains clippings, photographs, and taped interviews with her associates. Hundreds of letters she wrote to Mercedes de Acosta are in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Civic Repertory Theatre Collection is housed at the Beinecke Library, at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Her autobiographies include At 33 (1934) and With a Quiet Heart (1953). There are two biographies of Le Gallienne: Robert A. Schänke, Shattered Applause: The Lives of Eva Le Gallienne (1992), and Helen Sheehy, Eva Le Gallienne: A Biography (1996). Another source is Schanke’s reference book Eva Le Gallienne: A Bio-Bibliography (1989). See also George Jean Nathan, “The Theatre,” American Mercury 14 (May 1928): 122; Peter Zeisler, “Toward Brave New Worlds,” American Theatre i (Nov. 1986): 5; and the New York Times (16 June 1974 and 16 Jan. 1981). An obituary is in the New York Times (5 June 1991).

Robert A. Schanke

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