Compton, Fay (1894–1978)

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Compton, Fay (1894–1978)

English actress. Born Virginia Lillian Emmeline MacKenzie in London, England, on September 18, 1894; died on December 12, 1978; one of five children of Edward (an actor and founder of the Compton Old English Company) and Virginia (Bateman) Compton (an actress and daughter of American impresario H.L. Bateman); sister of novelist Sir ComptonMackenzie; attended Leatherhead Court School, Surrey, and a school in Paris; married producer H.G. Pelissier, in 1911 (died 1913); married comedian Lauri de Frece (died 1921); married actor Leon Quartermaine (divorced 1942); married actor Ralph Michael (divorced 1946); children: (first marriage) one son, director Anthony Pelissier.

Selected films:

She Stoops to Conquer (1914); One Summer's Day (1917); Judge Not (1920); A Woman of No Importance (1921); The Old Wives' Tale (1921); A Bill of Divorcement (1922); This Freedom (1923); The Loves of Mary Queen of Scots (1923); The Eleventh Commandment (1924); The Happy Ending (1925); London Love (1926); Robinson Crusoe (1927); Zero (1928); Fashions in Love (US, 1929); Cape Forlorn (Love Storm, 1931); Tell England (The Battle of Gallipoli, 1931); Waltzes from Vienna (Strauss' Great Waltz, 1933); Autumn Crocus (1934); The Mill on the Floss (1937); So This Is London (1939); The Prime Minister (1941); Odd Man Out (1946); Nicholas Nickleby (1947); London Belongs to Me (Dulcimer Street, 1948); Britannia Mews (The Forbidden Street, 1949); Blackmailed (1950); Laughter in Paradise (1951); Othello (1952); Lady Possessed (1952); Aunt Clara (1954); Town on Trial (1956); The Story of Esther Costello (1957); The Haunting (1963); Uncle Vanya (1963); The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970).

Born into one of England's long-established theatrical families, Fay Compton made her debut at 12 in a Christmas play called Sir Philomir or Love's Victory; from then on, she was never out of work. Reaching worldwide audiences very late in her career, with her portrayal of Aunt Ann on "The Forsyte Saga" television series, her varied and distinguished career embraced stage, film, and television, and afforded her the opportunity to work with some of the greatest playwrights, directors, and actors of her time.

Compton was in The Follies (1911) when she met and married her first husband, the show's producer, H.G. Pelissier, who was 20 years her senior. He died in 1913, at age 39, leaving the 19-year-old Compton with a son. She played in a series of farces before marrying comedian Lauri de Frece and traveling with him to the United States, where, in 1914, she made her New York debut as Victoria, in the musical Tonight's the Night. The couple toured the States, returning to England during World War I.

Compton then moved away from musicals, attempting a variety of roles and working with directing giants Charles Hawtrey, H.B. Irving, and George Alexander. This period was highlighted by her appearances in the title role in Peter Pan (1917), as Blanche Wheeler in Fair and Warmer (1918), and as the lead in Somerset Maugham's Caesar's Wife (1919), a plum emotional role.

In 1920, she played the title role in J.M. Barrie's Mary Rose, a play about a young mother who disappears and returns years later to find that the world has changed though she has remained the same. Critic W.A. Darlington described the arc of Compton's portrayal as "radiant at the beginning of the play and almost unbearably pathetic at the close." Compton played opposite actor Leon Quartermaine, whom she married after being widowed for a second time. They appeared together again in Maugham's The Circle (1921), as well as in Barrie's Quality Street (1921). In 1925, they co-starred in Ashley Duke's comedy The Man with a Load of Mischief, which was followed by This Woman Business, The White Witch, and a revival of Mary Rose (all 1926). Compton divorced Quartermaine in 1942. Her fourth and last husband was actor Ralph Michael; they also divorced in 1946.

Compton did not undertake a Shakespearean role until she opened as Ophelia to John Barrymore's Hamlet in 1925. She repeated the role with Sir Godfrey Tearle in 1931 and with John Gielgud in 1939, prompting James Agate to call her the best Ophelia he had ever seen. Critic J.C. Trewin was more explicit: "This was no chit around Elsinore, but the true 'rose of May,' a girl profoundly hurt; someone who might indeed have mourned as she did for the Hamlet she had lost…. [S]he was herself a noble mind o'erthrown. I have not forgotten Fay Compton's Ophelia and those wide, reproachful eyes." In 1935, at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, Compton played Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Rosalind in Love's Labour's Lost. Her Ophelia found numerous revivals, and Shakespearean roles continued to be a mainstay of her career.

Compton's later work included performances with the Old Vic, for which she won particularly good reviews for her Regan in Gielgud's King Lear (1940). A subsequent portrayal of Constance of Britagne (Constance of Brittany ) in King John brought accolades from Audrey Williamson , who called her work "all that her long experience, silver voice and emotional range had led us to anticipate—grief and distraction truly blent, with both the flash of imperiousness and tenderness of affection." Other later successes included Ruth in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit (1941) and Martha Dacre in Esther Mc-Cracken 's No Medals (1941). In 1948, Compton received the Ellen Terry Award for her role as Mary in Family Portrait. In 1959, she appeared on Broadway for the first time in 20 years in the lackluster God and Kate Murphy. Joining Laurence Olivier at the first Chichester Festival in 1962, she played Marya in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and Grausis in The Broken Heart.

Early in her career, Compton made a number of silent films in England, then went to Hollywood in 1928 for her first American film Fashions in Love, co-starring Adolph Menjou. Her only other American film was Lady Possessed in 1952. With her debut on the London music-hall stage in Songs (1939), her career was also peppered with performance in pantomimes and variety-show tours.

In 1959, when Fay Compton was 65, her memory began to fail, evoking criticism of her Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, in which she was forced to paraphrase speeches. A year later, however, she was considered back in form for her role as Comtesse de la Brière in What Every Woman Knows. Peter Roberts, in Plays and Players, called the role "beautifully done," adding: "Drama students who want to learn to laugh naturally on the stage and at the same time to adopt a French accent that is not an embarrassment should hie them to the Waterloo Road." Fay Compton was awarded a CBE in 1975 and continued to perform up to her death in 1978.

suggested reading:

Compton, Fay. Rosemary, 1926.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Compton, Fay (1894–1978)

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