Evans, Edith (1888–1976)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Evans, Edith (1888–1976)

English actress, one of the greatest in the 20th century, who was adept at Shakespeare and Shaw and famed for her interpretation of Restoration comedy and her performance as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Name variations: Dame Edith Evans. Born Mary Edith Evans in the Belgravia neighborhood of Westminster, London, on February 8, 1888; died at her country home in Goudhurst, Kent, on October 14, 1976; daughter of Edward Evans and Caroline Ellen (Foster) Evans; attended local London schools; early apprenticed as a milliner; married George Booth (a petroleum engineer), in 1925 (died 1935); no children.


Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1946); honorary doctorates in letters from The University of London (1950), Cambridge (1951) and Oxford (1954).

Made first appearance as Gautami in William Poel's amateur production of Sakuntala and as Cressida in his professional production of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida at the Haymarket Theater (December 12, 1912); appeared as Martin in Elizabeth Cooper (1913), as Gertrude in Hamlet, as Isota in The Ladies' Comedy, as Mrs. Taylor in Acid Drops, as Moeder Kaatje and as Miss Sylvia in My Lady's Dress (all 1914); appeared as Lady Frances Ponsonby in The Conference, as Miss Myrtle in The Man Who Stayed Home (1916), as the nurse in The Dead City (1918); toured in variety theaters with Dame Ellen Terry in scenes from Shakespeare (1918); appeared as The Witch of the Alps and as Destiny in Manfred (1918), as Nina in The Player Queen and as Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice (1919), as Moeder Kaatje and Lady Appleby in My Lady's Dress, as Mrs. Hunter in Wedding Bells (1920), as Madame Girard in Daniel, as Mrs. Van Zile in Polly with a Past, as Anne Radcliffe in The Witch of Edmonton, as Mrs. Barraclough in Out to Win, and as Lady Utterword in the first production of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House (1921); appeared as Mrs. Faraker in At The Wheel, as Cleopatra in Dryden's All for Love, as Kate Harding in I Serve, as Cynthia Dell in The Laughing Lady, as Ruby in Rumour (1922); appeared as Marged in Taffy, as Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and originated the parts of the Oracle, the Serpent and the She-Ancient in Shaw's Back to Methusalah at the Birmingham Repertory Company (1923); appeared as Mrs. Millamant in The Way of the World, as Daisy in The Adding Machine, as Suzanne in Tiger Cats, as Mrs. Collins in Shaw's Getting Married, as Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1924); appeared in Everyman, as Ann in The Painted Swan, as Evadne in The Maid's Tragedy (1925); worked with the Old Vic Company appearing as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, as Queen Margaret in Richard III, as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, as Mariana in Measure for Measure, as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, as Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor, as Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, as Rosalind in As You Like It, as Dame Margery Eyre in The Shoemaker's Holiday, as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, as Rosalind in As You Like It (September 1925–May 1926); appeared as Maude Fulton in Caroline, as Rebecca West in Rosmersholm (1926), as Mrs. Sullen in The Beaux' Stratagem, as Maitre Bolbec in The Lady and the Law, as Mrs. Millamant in The Way of the World (1927), as Miriam Rooth in The Tragic Muse, as Josephine in Napoleon's Josephine (1928), as Florence Nightingale in The Lady with the Lamp, as Orinthia in The Apple Cart (1929), as Mrs. Carruthers in O.H.M.S., as Suzanne in Tiger Cats, as Laetitia in The Old Bachelor (1931), as Irela in Evensong (1932), as Irma Peterson in Bulldog Drummond (New York, 1933), as May Daniels in Once in a Lifetime, as Gwenny in The Late Christopher Bean (1933), as Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, in The Viceroy Sarah (1934), as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (New York, 1934); appeared as Agatha Payne in The Old Ladies (1935), as Irina Arkadina in The Seagull, as Lady Fidget in Farquar's The Country Wife (1936), as Mother Savage in The Witch of Edmonton, as Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew (1937), as Sanchia Carson in Robert's Wife (1937–39), as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (1939), as Muriel Meihac in Cousin Muriel (1940), as Katherine Markham in Old Acquaintance (1941), as Hesione Hushaby in Heartbreak House (1943); entertained British troops overseas (1943–45); appeared as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals (London, 1946), as Katerina Ivanovna in Crime and Punishment, as Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World, and as Madame Ranevsky in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (1948); appeared as Lady Pitts in Daphne Laureola (1949), as Helen Lancaster in Waters of the Moon (1951–52); appeared in The Consul (1952); appeared as the Countess Ros-marin in Christopher Fry's The Dark is Light Enough (1954), as Mrs. St. Maugham in Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden (1956), as Queen Catherine in Henry VIII (in London, Paris, Antwerp and Brussels, 1958), as the Countess of Rousillon in All's Well That Ends Well and as Volumnia in Coriolanus (1959), as Queen Margaret in Richard III (1961), as Violet Lazara in Gentle Jack (1963), as Judith Bliss in Coward's Hay Fever (1964), as Mrs. Forest in Enid Bagnold's The Chinese Prime Minister (1965), as the female narrator in The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God (at the Edinburgh Festival, 1968), as Queen Margaret in Richard III; toured in the recital Edith Evans…and Friends (1973-74); appeared as the comical dowager queen in a television production of "The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella."


The Queen of Spades (1948); The Last Days of Dolwyn (1948); as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (1951); Look Back in Anger (1959); The Nun's Story (1959); Tom Jones (1963); The Chalk Garden (1964); Young Cassidy (1965); The Whisperers (1966).


"Waters of the Moon," "The Importance of Being Earnest" (in Canada), "Crooks and Coronets," "Scrooge," "Craze," "Hay Fever," and "The Slipper and the Rose."

Edith Evans was born Edith Mary Evans in the Belgravia neighborhood of Westminster, London, on February 8, 1888, the only daughter of Edward and Caroline Evans . Her only brother

died at the age of four. Despite her surname, she was not of Welsh descent as often supposed, both of her parents' families having deep roots in Surrey. Like many of the great actresses of her generation (Gladys Cooper , Peggy Ashcroft , etc.), Edith Evans came from a modestly comfortable middle-class family, her father having been a civil servant exercising an administrative function in the postal service, and her mother having run her home as a boarding house. As a child, Edith Evans attended St. Michael's School in nearby Chester Square in the Pimlico district but, again, as was usual with girls of her generation, she left school at age 15 to become an apprentice, in her case to a milliner because, as she said, "I wanted to make beautiful things." This was a goal that she would pursue throughout her life.

Edith Evans, so great an actress, spent the first ten years of her working life making hats. There was no theater in her background, she rarely attended plays, and she evinced no interest in a theatrical career, until, at age 16, for social reasons, she joined an elocution class. There, encouraged by her teacher, she began to appear in amateur performances, though she did not set foot on a stage until 1910, at age 22. Then, in 1911, quite by chance, she was seen performing as Beatrice in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, directed by William Poel, at that time head of the Elizabethan Stage Society. The following year, he invited her to appear in Cambridge in the role of Gautami in his amateur production of the classic Hindu drama Sakuntala; she made her London debut the same year in his Elizabethan Stage Society production of Shakespeare's baffling and difficult Troilus and Cressida, for which she received both a standing ovation from an audience largely made up of Shakespearean experts, and good reviews in the press. This experience was enough to decide the 24-year-old milliner to turn professional which she did before the year was out. She then played three more roles under Poel's direction: Knowledge in the medieval morality play, Everyman, a bishop in The Trial of Joan of Arc, and, in 1914, Queen Gertrude in Hamlet.

Thereafter, Edith Evans appeared regularly on the London stage throughout World War I but left it briefly in 1917 to tour the provincial variety theaters with Dame Ellen Terry , the greatest English actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, playing Mistress Ford in the basket scene from The Merry Wives of Windsor and Nerissa to Terry's Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Terry took Evans under her wing. In later years, Evans gave much credit to her first teachers, asserting that she learned more from Poel than from any of her later directors, and more from Terry than from any other actress with whom she played. Ellen Terry's daughter, Edith Craig , said at the time: "Edith Evans is the only one of our younger actresses who has enough personality to play up to mother." Evans gave tribute to Terry for her speaking ability, claiming that she had merely followed the great artist's instructions to "speak up" and continued to do so for the rest of her career. She also studied voice under Elsie Fogerty , founder of the Central School, and on other occasions gave Fogerty full credit for teaching her to make the best use of her rich vocal talents.

At the end of her provincial tour, Evans left for France to perform with the Lena Ashwell Troupe, entertaining British soldiers at the front, a personal and professional obligation that she would fulfill during World War II as well. After the war, Evans returned to the London theater appearing in a variety of contemporary plays such as in the dual roles of The Witch of the Alps and Destiny in Manfred (1918); as Nina in The Player Queen (1919); in the dual roles of Moeder Kaatje and Lady Appleby in My Lady's Dress, as Mrs. Hunter in Wedding Bells (1920); as Madame Girard in Daniel and as Mrs. Van Zile in Polly with a Past. In these immediate postwar years, however, Evans continued to appear in classic plays as well as modern. In a few years, she began to show great promise as a classical actress, appearing as Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice (1919), as Aquilina in Otway's Restoration drama, Venice Preserv'd (1920) and in the Jacobean tragedy The Witch of Edmonton (1921).

It was in October 1921 that Evans first made her appearance in a work by George Bernard Shaw, playing Lady Utterword in the London debut of his Heartbreak House. Thereafter, she became well known as an interpreter of Shavian parts and in October 1923 created the roles of the Oracle, the Serpent, and the She-Ancient in his Back to Methuselah at the Birmingham Repertory Theater.

But it was in Restoration comedy that Evans was first to make her name. The overthrow of England's king Charles I in 1649 had led to the closing of the theaters and the flight of many of its best writers and performers to France. With the fall of the Cromwellian regime in 1660, however, and the restoration of the monarchy, the theaters not only reopened but did so with a bawdiness and wit that reflected a backlash against the suppression of native British earthiness. For nearly 50 years thereafter, a succession of gifted playwrights gave forth with a dazzling series of witty and saucy "Restoration comedies" that never cease to be produced on the English-speaking stage. It was as Mrs. Millamant—"she of the thousand lovers"—in Congreve's The Way of the World (1924) that Edith Evans, now 36, achieved her first critical triumph, receiving rave reviews from the leading critics. From this time on, she was not only a star but was considered to be one of the outstanding actresses on the English stage. At the time, James Agate, critic for the London Times, wrote that, in the part of Millamant, Evans possessed "the very genius of humour," while, in his biography of her published in 1954, J.C. Trewin wrote: "Other players have explored the Restoration. One feels that Edith Evans has always been there before them.…She can let a sentence stream out upon the air, a silken scarf unfurling in a light wind. She can let the voice crackle through an intricate pattern; a mazy damascene or else flash a speech home with a thrust and a twist."

Edith Evans' triumph in The Way of the World was immediately followed by her appearance in a modern play, The Tiger Cat, another critical and public success. Thereafter, however, she astonished the London theater world by abandoning the West End stage to work for an entire season (1925–26) at the struggling Old Vic Company across the river in the then unfashionable county of Surrey. Asked why she buried herself in a small theater surrounded by tenements and selling seats at a shilling a ticket, Evans said that she "wanted to stretch her lungs a bit in Shakespeare." In her months at the Old Vic, she played over a dozen roles, from Cleopatra (a failure) to Queen Margaret in Richard III (a triumph) to the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (which later in her career she would turn into another triumph).

Shortly after leaving the Old Vic in 1926, Evans appeared as Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, her sole attempt as an Ibsen heroine. She returned to Restoration comedy in the role of Mrs. Sullen in The Beaux' Stratagem (1927 and 1930). In between, she teamed with Leon M. Lion as co-manager of Wyndham's Theater. Here, she appeared as Maitre Bolbec in The Lady and the Law and then successfully revived The Way of the World followed by the poor and poorly received The Old Bachelor (1931). This last play was not Evans' sole failure, however, for, like any actress, her career was by no means an unbroken string of triumphs. She was not well received in the role of Viola in Twelfth Night (1932), which some critics held that she played as if it were a Restoration part, nor as the heroine in The Taming of the Shrew (1937).

Unlike Peggy Ashcroft, whose rare appearances in New York led to her being almost un-known in America until the end of her career, Evans was no stranger to Broadway audiences. Highly regarded by American critics, even when her plays were not commercially successful, her appearance on the New York stage was always considered one of the high points of the season. Her first emergence there was as Florence Nightingale in The Lady with the Lamp by Reginald Berkeley, at the Maxine Elliott Theater (1931), and then in Evensong (1933) in both of which she was warmly applauded by the critics though neither play did well. True success in New York came to Evans only when she played Juliet's Nurse, which came as a result of her having come into the orbit of John Gielgud in 1932. A gifted actor, Gielgud was also a gifted director, and under his guidance, Evans had returned to the role of the Nurse in his production of Romeo and Juliet at the Oxford University Dramatic Society, with Peggy Ashcroft as Juliet. There, Evans gave what was considered by the critics to have been a virtually definitive performance. In 1934, she repeated the role in New York in the Katharine Cornell production of Romeo and Juliet, with Basil Rathbone as Romeo and Brian Aherne as Mercutio.

[Edith Evans] can bring tears to your eyes by the sheer splendour of her voice…; the beauty of each vowel just hangs in the air, lingering a moment…, assuming a crystalline shape in the mind and then melting away.

—Kenneth Tynan

Once more under the direction of Gielgud, Evans appeared in The Old Ladies (1935), a macabre melodrama in which she was required to play a malevolent old woman. It was under Gielgud's direction that Evans reached new heights in her career, performing for the first time in a Chekhov play as Irina in The Seagull with Gielgud in the role of Trigorin and Ashcroft as Nina, and then in the Gielgud revival of Oscar Wilde's most famous comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. While enthusiastically received in the Russian play, her success as Chekhov's Irina was completely overshadowed by her triumph as Wilde's Lady Bracknell, one of the great comic performances on the English stage. So well did she interpret this otherwise totally unrealistic caricature, that, thereafter, the role was considered to be virtually her personal property, and thankfully it was later preserved on film. In the scene where the hero confesses to Lady Bracknell that he has no idea who his real parents are as he was found in a handbag abandoned in a railway station, the aristocratic dowager utters the horrified cry "In… a… HAND… bag!," which in the mouth of Edith Evans became one of the classic lines in English comedy.

As she grew older, Evans returned to some of the comedies in which she had appeared in her youth, not hesitating to take the part of the older character in plays in which she had once triumphed in the younger role. Thus, to her successes as Lady Utterword in Heartbreak House, and as Millamant in The Way of the World, she added the role of Hesione Hushaby in the former (on tour during World War II), and that of Lady Wishfort in the latter (1948). Like many other British theatrical stars, Evans spent most of the war years entertaining the troops (going to Gibraltar, for example, with a company that included Gielgud and Beatrice Lillie ), so much so that, after the war was over, she was awarded the coveted title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an honor only rarely accorded to a theatrical personage before that time.

After the war, Evans returned to Shakespeare playing Cleopatra for the second time but, unfortunately, with even less success than before; she was now simply too old for the part. She then took a two-year leave from work but in 1948 returned to the Old Vic company which, bombed out of its own venue during the wartime blitz, was still performing at the New Theater. It was here, in 1948, that she played Lady Wish-fort in The Way of the World followed by an outstanding portrayal of Madame Ranevsky in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. The following year, she scored another triumph in James Bridie's play Daphne Laureola, a modern drama, in a performance that T.C. Worsley described as Evans "at the height of her powers." When the Old Vic Theater was reopened in 1950, Dame Edith Evans was invited to present the prologue at the opening-night gala program. The same year, she again "made the jump," as she termed her expeditions to New York, recreating her role as Lady Pitts in Daphne Laureola on Broadway to critical and public acclaim.

It was not until she was 60 that Evans consented to appear in motion pictures, but once she did so, she took to the medium and made several films that have preserved an invaluable record of her artistry. Her first film was a screen version of Alexander Pushkin's famous tale of gambling, The Queen of Spades, in which she appeared opposite Anton Walbrook. This was followed by her role as an old Welsh woman in Emlyn Williams' The Last Days of Dolwyn (1951), after which she immediately set to work filming The Importance of Being Earnest. Later, she also appeared as the Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooge, a dramatization of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and as the poverty-stricken landlady in the film version of John Osborne's play, Look Back in Anger. But her most successful film role was in The Whisperers for which she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress of the year.

The location of the British film studios in the outskirts of London facilitated an actor's appearing in films and stage plays simultaneously, and throughout the 1950s Evans continued to work in the theater, appearing as Helen Lancaster in N.C. Hunter's comedy Waters of the Moon (1951); as the Countess Rosmarin in Christopher Fry's The Dark is Light Enough (1954); and performing brilliantly in Enid Bagnold 's The Chalk Garden (1956). Returning to the Old Vic in 1958, she gave another outstanding performance as Queen Catherine in Shakespeare's Henry VIII. These years saw the flowering of a veritable Golden Age in the British theater. Dame Sybil Thorndike and Gladys Cooper were still performing; Peggy Ashcroft, Laurence Olivier, and John Gielgud were at the heights of their careers; Michael Redgrave and Paul Scofield were appearing regularly; The Old Vic and the National Theater were flourishing; revivals of Shakespeare, the Restoration playwrights, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shaw were regular occurrences, and new playwrights, such as Christopher Fry, John Osborne, and Enid Bagnold, were enriching the English theatrical repertoire. It was in this glittering age that Dame Edith Evans, still only in her 60s, together with Thorndike, with whom she co-starred in Waters of the Moon, presided as two queens.

In March 1964, Evans was invited to appear in the program Homage to Shakespeare at the Philharmonic Hall in New York in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Bard's birth. Now 76, this was her last visit to the United States, and the same year she made her last appearance at the Old Vic in a revival of Noel Coward's comedy Hay Fever, which had had its first staging in 1925. A shallow piece of froth, it nevertheless offered a marvelous role as a vain and aging actress, and Evans made the most of it, giving a performance that Richard Findlater described as one of "comic genius."

As an actress, her artistry consisted in her ability to cut a part down to its bare essentials and then build it up again piece by piece in such a way as to present an original interpretation while remaining completely true to the character as written. There was never any artificiality in her acting or her interpretation of a role, and she never warped or twisted a part to suit her own purposes. Evans had a magnificent voice and her timing was flawless; without being a particularly funny person, she had an enormous sense of fun that she conveyed through the comic characters she so often portrayed. For all that, she was adept at serious roles and even at tragedy and could convey a sense of humanity through even the most shallowly written characters of the Restoration plays.

Evans was a private person; there were few actresses of her generation who so succeeded in keeping their lives separate from their public personas as she did. She lived with her parents until she was 37 but then, in 1925, suddenly married George Booth, a petroleum engineer who was resident manager of British-controlled oil interests in Venezuela, managing to keep this a secret for several months. The couple were often separated when Booth's business took him to South America, and they had no children, but they were apparently devoted to one another, and, when Booth died in 1935, Edith Evans did not remarry. Relationships with others existed over the years, but she kept them out of the public eye, mentioning them in her biography only obliquely as "heartbreaks." In 1967, she said in an interview with Rex Reed:

I have a secluded little flat right near Piccadilly Circus in London, which is very much like living near your Times Square in New York, and I am alone much of the time. But there is a difference between loneliness and aloneness. You can be alone like I am but not lonely. Thirty years ago I lost my mother and my husband in the same year. I was inconsolable. I think of them often especially my mother. I had so little conscious appreciation of the security and warmth they gave me. Now if I could only have them again. I want to say things to them. Share little triumphs with them.…But I had to press on.

Although Evans lived alone, both in her flat at the Albany in Piccadilly and at her Tudor country home, and had a reputation for being a poor interview, she was anything but stand-offish and had a heartiness and directness about her that reminded some observers of the Restoration characters that she so excelled in playing. A religious woman who devoutly adhered to the Christian Science faith, she repudiated prejudices against people because of the groups to which they belonged, considering people to be essentially the same the world over and all children of God.

Concerning her art, Evans could be ambivalent. In 1967, she told Reed: "People always ask me the most ridiculous questions. They want to know 'How do you approach a role?' Well, I don't know. I approach it by first saying 'yes,' then getting on with the bloody thing." Yet, on another occasion, she said, "An actress must learn to dig out of a part the character in the mind of the playwright and make it live from her own consciousness. I place myself in the role, study over it, dig down to its foundations until I actually feel that I am the character and then—the rest is easy."

Despite her advancing years, Evans refused to retire and was reluctant to look backwards. "I'm no good talking about the past," she once said, "I live for now. I'm much better now than ever before and my best days are still to come." In 1971, she appeared in Jean Anouilh's Dear Antoine at the Chichester Festival; in 1974, at age 86, no longer able to carry a full play, she appeared at the Haymarket Theater in a recital entitled Edith Evans…and Friends, in which she had been touring since the year before and in which she read poems and recited passages from her great roles, interspersed with musical selections by the "friends." Frail and sadly aged but still gifted with her magnificent voice, she was making her last appearance on any stage. In early 1976, she appeared as the comical dowager queen in a television production of "The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella." It was the last role of her career. Later the same year, she gave a performance of her solo show before a select audience after which she announced that, having already suffered a heart attack, she was closing her life on the stage. Dame Edith Evans died at her country home in Goud-hurst, Kent, some 40 miles southeast of London, England, on October 14, 1976, at age 88, from respiratory complications following a head cold. She had been an actress for over 60 years. Her death occurred a few weeks after that of her great contemporary, Dame Sybil Thorndike; together, they were widely considered the greatest English actresses of the 20th century.


Beaton, C.W.H., and Kenneth Tynan. Persona Grata. London, 1952.

Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1966.

Findlater, R. The Player Queens. NY: Taplinger, 1977.

Herbert, Ian, ed. Who's Who in the Theater. 16th ed. NY: Pitman, 1977.

Oxford Companion to the Theater. NY: Oxford U. Press, 1993.

Philadelphia Free Library, Theater Collection.

suggested reading:

Trewin, J.C. Edith Evans. London, 1954.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey

More From Encyclopedia.com

You Might Also Like