Kendal, Madge (1849–1935)

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Kendal, Madge (1849–1935)

English actress who was enormously famous in her day. Name variations: Dame Madge Kendal; Mrs. Kendal; Margaret Brunton Robertson. Born Margaret Shafto (also seen as Sholto) Robertson on March 15, 1849 (some sources cite 1848) in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, England; died on September 14, 1935, in Hertfordshire, England; the 22nd child and last daughter of William Robertson (an actor and theatrical manager) and Margherita (also seen as Margaretta) Elisabetta (Marinus) Robertson (an actress-comedian); sister of dramatist T(homas) W(illiam) Robertson (1829–71); married W(illiam) H(unter) Kendal (an actor), on August 7, 1869 (died 1917); four children.

Selected theater:

made stage debut as Marie in The Orphan of the Frozen Sea (Marylebone Theater, February 20, 1854); made adult London debut as Ophelia in Hamlet (Haymarket Theater, July 29, 1865); appeared as Blanche of Spain in King John, Desdemona in Othello, Cupid in Exion, Jessica in The Merchant of Venice (all at Haymarket Theater, 1865); Anne Carew in A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing, Julie in Richelieu, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (all at Theater Royal, 1866); toured as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Peg Woffington in Masks and Faces, and Pauline Deschappelles in The Lady of Lyons (1866); Edith Fairlam in The Great City (Drury Lane Theater, 1867); Georgina in Our American Cousin (Haymarket Theater, 1867); Alice in Brother Sam, Ada Ingor in David Garrick, Blanche Dumont in A Hero of Romance, Marguerite in A Wife Well Won, Hippolyta in She Would and She Would Not (all at Haymarket, 1887); Florence in On the Cards and Lady Clara Vere de Vere in Dreams (both at Gaiety Theater, 1868); toured in As You Like It, Twelfth Night, She Stoops to Conquer, The School for Scandal, The Rivals, The Heir-in-Law, and The Country Girl (with Haymarket Company, 1868); appeared as Charlotte in The Hypocrite, Lilian Vavasour in New Men and Old Acres, Florence Marigold in Uncle's Will, Princess Zeolida in The Palace of Truth, Queen Selene in The Wicked World, Mrs. Van Brugh in Charity, Ellen Petworth in Barwise's Book, Lydia Languish in The Rivals, Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal, Rosalind in As You Like It, Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Miranda in The Busy Body, Ada in Faded Flowers, Ethel in A Little Change, Mrs. Whymper in His Own Enemy, Mrs. Sebright in The Overland Route, Lady Gay Spanker in London Assurance, Jessie Meadows in Single Life, Elinor Vane in A Madcap Prince, and Mrs. Honeyton in A Happy Pair (all with the Haymarket Company, 1869–74); title role in Lady Flora, Mrs. Fitzroy in A Nine Days' Wonder, Lady Hilda in Broken Hearts, Susan Hartley in A Scrap of Paper (all at Court Theater, 1875); Lady Ormond in Peril, Clara Douglas in Money, Dora in Diplomacy (all at Prince of Wales Theater, 1876); Countess d'Autreval in The Ladies' Battle and Kate Greville in The Queen's Shilling (both at the Court Theater, 1879); Lady Giocanna in The Falcon, Mrs. Sternhold in Still Waters Run Deep, Isobel Ransome in Good Fortune, Millicent Boycott in The Money Spinner, Anne Carew in A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing, Mrs. Pinchbeck in Home, Mrs. Frank Preston in The Cape Mail, Kate Verity in The Squire, Mrs. Beresford in Impulse, Nora Desmond in Young Folks' Ways, Clair de Beaupre in The Iron Master, Lilian Selkirk in The Castaways,

Agnes Roydant in Mayfair, title role in Antoinette Rigaud, Countess in The Wife's Sacrifice, Mrs. Spencer Jermyn in The Hobby Horse, title role in Lady Clancarty, Lady Amyot in The Wife's Secret (all at the St. James Theater, 1879–87); Lady Vivash in The Weaker Sex, Kate Desmond in A White Lie (Court Theater, 1889); American debut as Susan in A Scrap of Paper (Fifth Avenue Theater, New York City, October 7, 1889), followed by four American tours 1890–92; toured as Paula in The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (Provincial tour, England, 1893); fifth tour of America, 1894–95; Mrs. Armitage in The Greatest of These (Garrick Theater, London, 1896); Sara Leaster in A Flash in the Pan, Dorothy Blossom in The Elder Miss Blossom, and Mrs. Grantham in Not Wisely But Too Well (tour of the Provinces, 1896–98); Margaret Hulestone in The Poverty of Riches, Mildred Archerson in The Likeness of the Night, and the Duchess of Cluny in The Secret Orchard (tour, 1899); Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor (His Majesty's Theater, June 1902); Anne McLeod in One People (tour, and Coronet Theater, London, May 1903);Marjorie Lyall in Dick Hope (tour and Coronet Theater, December 1903); Audrey Whitby in The Housekeeper and Nora in The Bird at the Neck (both at the St. James Theater, fall 1905); Mrs. Hyacinth in A Tight Corner, Constance Livingstone in The Whirlpool, Madame Armières in The House of Clay (all at Coronet Theater, 1907–08).

Born into one of England's oldest theatrical families in 1848, Madge Kendal was the daughter of William Robertson, an actor and theater manager, and Margherita Marinus Robertson , a Scandinavian-born actress who also distinguished herself by giving birth to 22 children, Madge being the last. Others of the Robertson clan (E. Shafto Robertson and Fanny Robertson ) also aspired to the stage, although only brother T.W. Robertson, a playwright and creator of the "cup-and-saucer dramas" (so called because of their realistic domestic settings), achieved any notoriety. Kendal's father, in partnership with J.W. Wallack, managed the Marylebone Theater in London, and it was there that young Madge made her acting debut just short of her sixth birthday, playing Marie in The Orphan of the Frozen Sea (1854). She made her adult London debut at age 17, playing Ophelia to Walter Montgomery's Hamlet. By the time of her marriage to actor William Hunter Kendal, known as W.H. Kendal, at age 21, she was the veteran of over 50 parts. On her wedding night, she appeared with her new husband in As You Like It, and from then on their careers were inseparable.

Although Mrs. Kendal always professed that William was the superior actor (often citing his remarkable ability to turn pale at will), it was she who was the box-office draw. Indeed, Madge Kendal was considered the greatest comedian of her generation. "I defy any other actress, living or dead, to get a laugh out of some of the poor lines with which Mrs. Kendal simply rocked the house," said Mary Jerrold , who acted with the Kendals for over three years. "And what control she had! One moment she would have her audience roaring with laughter and in a flash she could have them quiet as mice." Kendal was also adept at playing darker emotions. As one critic noted: "Nor is she much less at home in the more pathetic portions of her part."

The Kendals performed with the Haymarket Company until 1874, during which time Madge played in all the classics as well as new plays. Her biographer, T. Edgar Pemberton, vividly remembered her early triumph as Charlotte in The Hypocrite: "I can conscientiously say that I have never seen anything so perfect on the stage. The sweet, vivacious, graceful and altogether winsome Charlotte of that evening will ever linger in the memories of those who were fortunate enough to witness the impersonation." After the Haymarket Company broke up, the Kendals toured on their own, then joined John Hare at the Court Theater in 1875, where Madge was first seen as Susan Hartley in an adaptation of a Sardou comedy, A Scrap of Paper, a role she would repeat many times. In 1879, William Kendal went into partnership with John Hare at the St. James's Theater. The Kendals remained at the St. James's until 1888, playing leading roles in numerous productions, although many of the plays of their later years did not survive. In February 1887, they gave a command performance of the comedy Sweethearts for Queen Victoria at Osborne House, after which Madge received a brooch shaped like a royal crown and encrusted with precious stones.

In the autumn of 1889, the Kendals set out for their first American tour, making their New York debut at the Fifth Avenue Theater on October 7 in A Scrap of Paper. The New York Dramatic Mirror reported that Mrs. Kendal's "skills as a comedienne were not exaggerated. Her art is as fine as old point lace, and yet it is laid upon a temperament so genuinely sympathetic and so pliant and transitional that there is no sign of effort, no direct exhibition of method in anything she does." The Kendals would make four subsequent tours of America, the last one covering 40 cities. Upon Kendal's return to the London stage in June 1896, in the role of Mrs. Armitage in The Greatest of These, George Bernard Shaw wrote: "Mrs. Kendal, forgetting that London Playgoers have been starved for years in the matter of acting, inconsiderately gave them more in the first ten minutes than they have had in the last five years, with the result that the poor wretches became hysterical and vented their applause in sobs and shrieks."

Kendal was highly disciplined about her art and demanded the same from others. "The actor must give his best performance and the public value for their money," she contended. According to Jerrold, she ruled her company with an iron hand, instructing young women to part their hair in the middle, wash daily without fail, and avoid even a hint of flirtation in the workplace. Kendal could hardly be faulted for taking the moral high ground, for in her day women of the theater came under close scrutiny. Kendal also set the standard for respectable "stage business." An actor never touched an actress above the elbow. "Never let an actor take you by the upper arm," she advised a young actress. "It looks so ugly." The Kendals had their own special technique for playing love scenes. She would stand with her arms crossed and he would lean against her, giving the feeling of intimacy without breaching the code of conduct. In light of today's unrestrained acting, it is hard to imagine that intimate "lean," but the Kendals maintained a particularly high degree of respectability; many who went to see them wouldn't think of going to see any other actors. Mrs. Kendal's reputation, in fact, was called into question only once, during her American tour in The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. One critic called her portrayal of Paula "crude, noisy, and vulgar," and another queried, "Why should she pain her admirers, and risk her popularity after all these good years, by devoting her talents to the exemplification of how an abandoned woman would behave under certain distasteful circumstances?" The very mention of impropriety, of course, drew Americans to the theater in record numbers.

The Kendals continued to play in London and tour the provinces, consistently playing to full houses. "I am always called a lucky woman," Mrs. Kendal wrote later in her career, "but I don't think it's all luck. I am vain enough to think that some of it is hard work—very hard work—constant and everlasting work. You must never cease to study. As you get older, you must fill up the wrinkles with intelligence." The Kendals retired in 1908 with little fanfare. Their last performance was in The House of Clay at the Coronet Theater in London in October of that year. "Like the Arab," said Mrs. Kendal, "we folded our tents and stole away."

The lack of fuss attending the Kendals' retirement was not surprising, as their stage popularity did not spill over into their private life. By some accounts, they were insufferable snobs and had few friends. Even the couple's four children, two of whom went on the stage, were alienated from them. Madge Kendal attributed her husband's death in 1917 to a broken heart caused by the loss of his children's affection. In retirement, she grew formidable in appearance and denunciatory in her statements to the press. Eric John, author of Dames of the Theatre, describes his first sighting of Kendal at the lounge at Claridges, when she was well into her 80s. "Dressed in funereal black from head to foot, she might have been a despotic dowager Empress in Exile. With a forbidding and hostile expression on her face she looked, as Queen Victoria so often did, as if she had never laughed in her life." Kendal became harsh in her opinions of the young, criticizing them for their lack of morals and manners. She denounced the increasing use of makeup, on and off-stage, and what she referred to as "curtailed clothing." She decried the ingratitude of young actors. "I have taught many actors and actresses the early part of their business—what is called the ground work—but I have never been thanked by anyone except Seymour Hicks." She also dismissed critics as simply criticizing what they could not do themselves. "I maintain that a man must have some practical and not merely a theoretical knowledge of an art before he can write understandingly of it and its technique," she said.

Given her immense talent and her contribution to the theater, Kendal can probably be forgiven the crankiness of her later years. Perhaps she simply felt bereft, having lost the profession that had been her life for over 50 years and the man who had shared most of it with her. Most who saw her perform describe her as simply the best of her time. Marie Lohr , who worked with the Kendal company for two years as a teenager, called the actress "the greatest of them all. No other artist, not even Duse, could so firmly hold an audience in the hollow of her hand. She could break your heart in her tragic roles, not with a display of flamboyant histrionics, but by the sheer depth and sincerity of her acting." Dame Madge, who was awarded the DBE in 1926 and the Grand Cross of the Order the following year, died on September 14, 1935, at the age of 87.


Hartnoll, Phyllis, and Peter Found, eds. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theater. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

John, Eric. Dames of the Theatre. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974.

Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars. London: Angus & Robertson, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts