Le Gallienne, Eva (1899–1991)
Le Gallienne, Eva (1899–1991)
English-born actress, director, and producer who formed New York's Civic Repertory Theater, an attempt to establish a repertory tradition in the American theater, and worked nearly continuously throughout her long career. Name variations: E. Le G. Born January 11, 1899, in London, England; died on June 3, 1991, in Weston, Connecticut, of heart failure; daughter of Julie Nørregaard (a Danish journalist) and Richard Le Gallienne (English poet and novelist); never married; no children.
After graduating from London's Academy of Dramatic Arts, made her West End stage debut (1914) and soon crossed the Atlantic to appear to great acclaim on Broadway, where she became one of the most famous leading ladies of her day; turned to directing and formed New York's Civic Repertory Theater (1926), the first of three ultimately unsuccessful attempts to establish a repertory tradition in the American theater; made few film appearances, though nominated for an Oscar for her work in Resurrection (1980); wrote two autobiographies and a novel for children.
The Player King (1955); The Devil's Disciple (1959); Resurrection (1980).
There was a certain irony to Eva Le Gallienne's last appearance on Broadway, a part of the world over which she had hovered, sometimes like a loving mother and sometimes like a scolding muse, for nearly seven decades. In that time, she had tried with sporadic success to coax the theater away from its commercial instincts and onto the path of Truth and Beauty. Now, in 1982, Le Gallienne had agreed to direct a revival of her adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and to take the part of the White Queen. So it was that she found herself on opening night suspended by wires over the stage in a white flounced gown and white, powdery makeup, waving her scepter and issuing her contradictory orders in a high, cackling voice to a bewildered Alice below—a cockeyed parody of her past efforts as leading lady, producer, and director to keep the theater on the straight and narrow. Her secretary later reported that after Le Gallienne had taken the curtain calls demanded by a respectful audience, she returned wearily to her dressing room and sighed, "I don't want to work in the theater anymore. It's not my theater."
Seventy years earlier, she had written to a cousin, "I do wish to become a great actress, you don't know how I wish it!" She was only 15 then, but had been enjoying the theater and hobnobbing with thespians since early childhood under the guidance of her mother, the Danish journalist Julie Nørregaard . Julie had been separated for several months from her husband, the English poet and novelist Richard Le Gallienne, when Eva was born on January 11, 1899. Richard, a public defender of women's rights and freedoms like Nørregaard, was also a chronic womanizer and had been discovered in bed with a paramour by an indignant Julie less than a year after their marriage in February of 1897. Eva knew her father only through the letters her parents exchanged and from recollections of a half-sister, Hesper Le Gallienne , from an earlier marriage of Richard's. Eva did not meet her father until she was a grown woman in America.
Julie began taking Eva to the theater early on; Le Gallienne could recall seeing Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies at London's Drury Lane when she was just three. Eva spent much of her childhood, however, in Paris, where Julie took a newspaper job in 1904. "All around one is harmony of line and a richness of life, and beauty," Le Gallienne later said of growing up in Europe's cultural headquarters of the new century. Not long after they arrived in France, Julie took Eva to see the great Sarah Bernhardt play the Prince in a production of Sleeping Beauty, presented in Bernhardt's own theater on the Place du Chatelet. Le Gallienne was mesmerized as soon as Bernhardt made her entrance as the Prince, "as though he lived more intensely, more joyously, more richly than other people," she wrote years later. In a tribute to Bernhardt, Julie named the millinery shop she opened in 1907 Madame Fédora, after one of Bernhardt's most successful plays. The shop did well enough to enable Le Gallienne to attend the theater several times a week with her mother, to spend summers with Julie's family in Denmark, and to attend a private girls' school. When she entered the Collège Sévigné at seven years of age, Eva was intimately familiar with London, Paris, and Copenhagen; had been reading for two years; and could speak, read and write French, English and Danish.
Among her mother's friends were the Favershams, an English acting and producing couple whose summer home in the English countryside, Chiddingford, had become an annual gathering place for theater notables. Julie and Eva were first invited in 1910. Among the guests were producer Herbert Beerbohm Tree and his leading lady at Tree's His Majesty's Theater, Constance Collier . Collier became the first of Le Gallienne's several adolescent infatuations, and it was to Collier that Le Gallienne initially confided her intention to be an actress. Eva's earliest acting lessons were from Collier, who coached her in Shakespeare and taught her, Le Gallienne later said, to "bring out the music without losing the meaning." Le Gallienne took Collier's tutoring so successfully to heart that Will Faversham was inspired to offer her a small walk-on in an upcoming New York engagement, but Julie insisted that Eva's education came first and enrolled her daughter in a finishing school. Le Gallienne complained that the teachers were dull and boring, and that the school's policy of not allowing the girls to kiss one another was barbaric.
Late in 1913, Le Gallienne met the woman she had admired from a distance since she was a child. Julie, who had now moved back to London, interviewed Sarah Bernhardt for a newspaper article, struck up a friendship, and brought her daughter backstage one evening after a performance of Bernhardt's Jeanne Doré. Eva found herself speechless, but fared better on a second visit in 1914. "She soon put me at my ease," Le Gallienne later wrote of her idol, "asking me many questions, gradually drawing me out. She kept my hand in hers and I looked with wonder at the sensitive, nervous fingers, heavy with rings, the tips painted scarlet to the middle knuckle." The formidable Bernhardt had become such an institution that every aspect of her career and her productions were under her direct control, a professional status admired by Le Gallienne as much as Bernhardt's volcanic acting style. Bernhardt's productions, Le Gallienne later wrote, "had a tidy, organized brilliance that was somehow very French."
After surviving finishing school, Le Gallienne finally began her stage education in earnest at London's Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she studied movement, elocution, and techniques for acting both classical and modern drama. Even better, she appeared professionally on stage for the first time in 1914's Monna Vanna, in which Constance Collier played Maurice Maeterlinck's 15th-century Italian heroine. Le Gallienne was given a non-speaking part as a pageboy. "I wasn't a bit frightened," she boasted in a letter written after opening night, "and I felt quite at home and not a bit self-conscious. I tried to forget everything and live in the play, and I succeeded." Le Gallienne had her first speaking part as a Cockney maid in the comedy The Laughter of Fools the following year. Although she prepared for and played the role entirely seriously, the audience began chuckling from her first entrance and brought her back for a solo curtain call at the end. Her first notice in a London newspaper deemed her "a brilliant new comedienne," but wartime Zeppelin raids over London forced the show's early closing. Many English actors had decided their careers were safer in America, Constance Collier among them, and it was at Collier's suggestion that Julie and Eva sailed for New York in July of 1915.
The theater should be free to the people just as the Public Library is free, just as the museum is free.
—Eva Le Gallienne
Le Gallienne had the good fortune to arrive in New York at a time when theater audiences were seeking relief from the bad news in Europe with light-hearted romantic comedies and sentimental Cinderella tales that had plenty of parts for eager ingenues. One such production was Mrs. Boltay's Daughters, in which Le Gallienne made her American stage debut in the unlikely role of an African-American maid, having quickly learned black dialect as interpreted to her by a white actress playing one of the daughters of the title. Her performance, she later wrote, was "an astonishing portrait of a colored maid with very bright blue eyes shining out of a smeary, chocolate-colored face and speaking grotesquely bewildering dialect: part British, part Cockney, with here and there a dash of Irish." She fared better as another Cockney maid in Bunny, in which The New York Times noted that she "arrives on stage with a flourish, acting … with high spirits and no little skill." The Times was even more laudatory in its review of her work in The Melody of Youth as an Irish lass, and was positively effusive by the time she starred in her first leading role in Mr. Lazarus, in which she played a serving maid in a boarding house who becomes a beautiful socialite through the kindness of a stranger. "Miss Le Gallienne plays with a delicacy of which she has hitherto remained unsuspected," wrote the Times' John Corbin. But Le Gallienne found the role exhausting because, she said, "not being a master of technique and the tricks of my trade, I simply have to throw myself heart and soul into the part … in order to create the illusion." This was to become, in fact, precisely her technique throughout her long career, a complete absorption in the role at hand. "When I play, I am two different people," she wrote to a cousin in Denmark in 1916. "All day long, whatever I may be doing or whoever I may be with, I live with the character … 'til it becomes another self." Indeed, when actress Mariette Hartley studied under Le Gallienne nearly 50 years later, the older woman told her that the aim of an actor is total surrender of the self. Le Gallienne described the first time she had played Juliet, "waking up" later to find her cheeks streaming with Juliet's tears. It was after these moments, Le Gallienne told Hartley, when Bernhardt would murmur "Dieu était là" ("God was there").
But in 1916, her 17-year-old self was very much on her mind. With the intense self-appraisal of that age, Le Gallienne was noticing something else that seemed at odds with her peers. She confided to the same Danish cousin that she seemed to have no romantic interest in boys, describing her male friends as "comrades" but nothing more. "There must be something peculiar with me, for I never give it a thought," she wrote. Nor had she thought much about her infatuations with older women like Constance Collier and her worship of Sarah Bernhardt, whose friendship she renewed when Bernhardt toured America in 1916. She attended every performance of the 76-year-old Bernhardt's Jeanne d'Arc at the Empire Theater and never forgot the moment in the play when Jeanne tells the judges at her trial that she is 18 years old. "Everyone in the audience believed her," recalled Le Gallienne, "and rightly, for at that moment, it was true." Then there was Le Gallienne's friendship with Eleanora Sears , a star athlete who had scandalized society by sitting astride a horse to play polo with men and by baring her arms with rolled-up sleeves on the tennis court; and with Russian émigré actress Alla Nazimova , whose work Le Gallienne much admired. Adding to Eva's collection of strong-willed, independent women was the great Ethel Barrymore , with whom Le Gallienne toured in two plays, playing Barrymore's daughter in both. Eva especially admired Barrymore's skill in drawing laughs with even the most banal line, and for her withering gaze out into the house when latecomers arrived in the audience—a look Le Gallienne quickly added to her own repertoire of expressions. Le Gallienne's affections finally settled on a woman of her own age, Mary Duggat . "Mimsey," as Le Gallienne called Duggat, had been among the company of a short-lived play in which Le Gallienne starred in 1917, and traveled with Le Gallienne during her tour with Ethel Barrymore. The two lovers were inseparable, Le Gallienne spending more time with Mary than at home with Julie, and taking Mary along with her to lunch with Richard Le Gallienne, now officially divorced from Julia and remarried to an American. Neither parent expressed surprise at their daughter's lesbianism. Julie, in fact, left Eva and Mary on their own in New York by returning to England to resuscitate her writing career.
Le Gallienne's reaction to the actors' strike of 1919 gave the first indication of the argument she would have with the theater in years to come. The strike was delaying the opening of Lusmore, in which Le Gallienne was to play a blind girl. She had been excited about the role and felt it was held captive by banal labor disputes, even though she was a member of the fledgling Actors' Equity. It was of little consequence to her that the strike, which finally legitimized Equity as the profession's collective voice, was intended to break the despotic power of producers over actors. "It seems almost incredible," she complained, "that a beautiful, artistic production … should be stopped by carpenters and moving men. Such is democracy!"
Lusmore, when it finally opened, proved unsuccessful and closed in a month, but Le Gallienne quickly returned to work as Elsie Dover in Not So Long Ago, a Victorian romance that opened at the Booth Theater in May of 1920. "Miss Le Gallienne works as an artist in her medium," critic H.T. Parker wrote from Boston, where the show had played before moving to New York. She was, he said, "a youthful actress … who can define, disclose and differentiate character; who has plentiful charm, personality, and high spirits; and who keeps them steadily in service of the play and to the part." The show's producer, Lee Shubert, signed Le Gallienne to a three-year contract before sending it out on tour. Duggat chose not to accompany her, and Le Gallienne was devastated to learn on her return to New York that Mary had unexpectedly married. She took comfort with Nazimova, who had by now forsaken the stage for Hollywood and was living in grand style in her "Garden of Alla" on Sunset Boulevard. Le Gallienne found the glitter and commercialism of the film business disturbing (she would venture into film only three times in her career) and soon returned to New York and the stage role that would permanently establish her as the most respected actress of her day on the legitimate stage.
The play was Ferenc Molnar's melodrama-cum-fantasy Liliom, and the role was as the beatific Julie, a circus worker who redeems her abusive lover. (The play would be the basis for
the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel.) The drama was being staged by the Theater Guild, formed just after World War I by a group of Greenwich Village intellectuals devoted to the theater. By 1922, the Guild had almost singlehandedly saved Broadway from its slide into self-congratulatory provincialism by staging works from outside the dramatic mainstream. Molnar's play, then somewhat controversial for its frank treatment of physical abuse, had been brought to the Guild's attention by Joseph Schildkraut, a European-trained actor and a tremendously popular leading man on the New York stage. Schildkraut insisted on having Le Gallienne play opposite him. There was trouble almost as soon as rehearsals began, for Schildkraut was notorious for seducing his leading ladies. Le Gallienne had to turn increasingly to physical resistance to fend him off, on one occasion biting Schildkraut's hand when it strayed to her breast during a love scene. "It got to the point where Eva, in a rage, decided to leave the theater altogether," remembered Guild president Theresa Helburn . "Never were there two such contrasting personalities as [Schildkraut] and Eva Le Gallienne."
Le Gallienne grew increasingly nervous and began to lose her voice as opening night approached, resorting to sucking on lemons to soothe her throat as the audience began to fill the old Garrick Theater on 37th Street the night of April 20, 1921. But her performance was a triumph and firmly placed her in the company of Ethel Barrymore, Lynn Fontanne , and Katharine Cornell as one of America's most famous leading ladies. "Her acting moved me as can only music," drama critic John Mason Brown told his readers the morning after Liliom's opening. "One was not arrested by detail, it was all spirit—spirit on its way heavenward." Liliom was such a success that it had to be moved to the larger Fulton Theater, where it took up residence for more than a year. Near the end of its lengthy run, Alexander Woollcott wrote in The New York Times: "Miss Le G. is far better than in the first week of the run," but the truth was that Le Gallienne found herself struggling to keep her performances fresh. When not at the theater, she spent almost all of her time in an apartment she'd taken on lower Fifth Avenue, avoiding publicity and "living like a hermit," as she wrote to her mother, although she did not reveal to Julie that alcohol was becoming an increasingly important source of comfort. Throughout her life, in fact, Le Gallienne would be prone to periodic fits of alcoholism at times of stress or depression, and rescued by ex-lovers and friends who nursed her temporarily away from the addiction.
Liliom finally closed early in 1922. Le Gallienne agreed to tour with the show for several months, then traveled to Europe that summer with Mercedes de Acosta , a socialite, sometime author, and Le Gallienne's new paramour. Le Gallienne's relationship with de Acosta would continue for several years, extending into her professional life when the two women raised money to produce de Acosta's play Sandro Botticelli, based on the love affair between the Renaissance painter and Simonetta Vespucci . The production drew an audience only because Le Gallienne disrobed in the play's most famous scene, her breasts discreetly covered by a luxurious wig and everything below by a carefully placed chair. The play was universally panned, although Le Gallienne was much admired for her bravery.
On a second trip to Europe with de Acosta in 1923, Le Gallienne saw Eleonora Duse perform in London and became an ardent fan of the great Italian actress who, like Bernhardt before her, played a wide variety of roles with her own touring repertory company. The two finally met in New York, just after Le Gallienne had agreed to the role of the indecisive Princess Alexandra in her second Molnar play, The Swan. Duse was shocked to hear that Le Gallienne would be required to play the same character eight times a week for as long as the producers chose. "It's barbaric!," Duse exclaimed. "You will kill your soul!" She advised Le Gallienne to refuse the offer and join a Russian troop of actors. "They are the only true ones," she said.
The Swan opened at the Cort Theater in October of 1923 to great acclaim. Le Gallienne was praised for her portrayal of the wayward young princess, a performance "admirable for its artistic restraint," said Woollcott, "its renunciation of all easy and obvious effects, and for the potency of its inward fires." But Duse's warning stuck in Le Gallienne's mind. She told friends she wanted "a wide range of experience embracing to the greatest possible degree the finest dramatic material." She wanted, in short, her own repertory company. Her first experiments were encouraging, critics praising her successful effort to raise money for, produce, and direct Hauptmann's The Assumption of Hannele in 1924 using many of the cast members of The Swan, in which she was still playing. When another actors' strike hit Broadway in the summer of that year, Le Gallienne's production of Ibsen's The Master Builder at a summer theater outside Philadelphia played to full houses. Again, she produced and directed herself, as well as taking the role of Hilda Wangel, the first of several Ibsen heroines she would bring to the stage. The production was such a success that Le Gallienne brought it to Broadway for the 1925–26 season, where the play had not been seen for nearly 20 years, when Nazimova had played Hilda. Halfway through The Master Builder's run, Le Gallienne opened a second Ibsen play, John Gabriel Borkman, playing the domineering Ella Rentheim at the Booth in the afternoon and Hilda at night at the Princess Theater. In the swirl of acclaim, Le Gallienne somehow found
time to gain her American citizenship and buy the home in Weston, Connecticut, that would be her refuge for the rest of her life. She named it Toscairn. It sat on ten acres of rocky New England soil, from part of which Le Gallienne wrested the garden of which she became justly proud.
In May of 1926, Le Gallienne finally announced her plan for the Civic Repertory Theater, "presenting the finest plays … at the lowest possible prices." No seat in the house, she said, would cost more than $1.50 for evening performances and $1.00 at matinees. "I could not see why America should not have its own repertory theater subsidized by private capital in the same way that its opera companies and symphony orchestras are," she wrote. "Why should the drama be the only neglected art?" Her backing for the Civic came from banker Otto Kahn, from John D. Rockefeller, and from publishing heiress Mary Curtis Bok (Mary Zimbalist ), among others, all of whom responded favorably to the woman Le Gallienne picked to act as her principal fund raiser and personal representative, none other than Mary Duggat. Like her relationship to the theater itself, Le Gallienne's loyalty to friends and former lovers was deep and abiding, most of them remaining a part of her extended family throughout her long life.
The Civic's home was to be an aging theater on West 14th Street, the center of New York's entertainment industry for the previous 50 years but now heavily commercialized. Le Gallienne announced an ambitious opening season of six plays, in addition to the two Ibsen works already running uptown. The new productions included a costume drama called Saturday Night, the melodrama Cradle Song, Goldoni's La Locandiera, as well as Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Chekhov's The Three Sisters (which had never been performed in English in the United States), and Susan Glaspell 's sociological study of greed, The Inheritors.
The Civic's opening night, October 15, 1926, was a disaster. Le Gallienne had unwisely chosen to open with Saturday Night, with its 43 speaking parts and a bewildering array of costume and set changes. The curtain did not go up until nine; each scene change, using an inexperienced crew of Italian immigrants, took up to 15 minutes; and Le Gallienne was so flustered by the confusion and audience unrest that she uncharacteristically fumbled her lines. "It was more frightful than anything in the world," wrote Noel Coward, whose own work, The Vortex, was playing uptown. "Eva was terrible, the production awful, and the play lousy." The next night's work, The Three Sisters, went much better; and by April of 1927, Le Gallienne had mounted all six new productions with few problems and had accomplished her goal of working in a wide range of material. During a typical week in December of 1926, for example, she was rehearsing Twelfth Night, playing the earthy mistress of an Italian inn for La Locandiera, Masha in The Three Sisters, Hilda in The Master Builder, and Ella in Borkman. Her nurturing of the Civic soon led everyone to call her "The Abbess of 14th Street." Critics were enthralled. "The Civic has recaptured the … lost charm, the lost pleasure in the theater," burbled the normally acerbic Woollcott, while Robert Benchley advised his New Yorker readers: "One really ought to go there once a week just to recapture the feeling of theatergoing." A few were less fulsome with their praise, although Brooks Atkinson admitted in later years: "Thousands of theatergoers got their theater education in the battered, cheerless, 14th Street Theater that always smelled of disinfectant."
During its ten-year life, the Civic presented 37 productions, including four premieres. Among the new material was Le Gallienne's version of Alice in Wonderland, which she staged using moveable sets mounted on trolleys to retain the fluid craziness of Carroll's book. Among the cast was Schildkraut, playing the Queen of Hearts, and two students of Le Gallienne's at the time—Burgess Meredith as the Dormouse and Julie Harris as the White Rabbit. Of the Civic's 37 works, Le Gallienne directed 33 and acted in all but six, all the while refining her already considerable acting and directing skills. In rehearsal, she conducted numerous read-throughs of the work at hand until she was sure the entire company had arrived at what she called "a unified conception" of the play, after which she seldom intruded into whatever methods each actor used to remain faithful to that conception. "She seldom, if ever, spoke to an actor from the auditorium during rehearsal," company member Paul Ballentyne later recalled. When it did become necessary, Ballentyne said, "she would climb up the steps, cross the orchestra pit, take the actor by the arm, walk slowly upstage, talking to him or her."
The Civic's audiences, as Atkinson noted, were not the smart set that swooped into the big Broadway houses in tuxedos and gowns, but solidly middle-class secretaries, truck drivers, bakers and sales clerks who could afford the theater's modest admission. But the low prices meant that the Civic was losing money even when the house was full. Le Gallienne found, too, that playwrights were often reluctant to sandwich their new works into the Civic's repertory, since more money could be made with a long run in a Broadway house; as well, keeping actors on staff for more than a few months was a constant problem. Broadway itself changed during the Civic's existence, presenting by the early 1930s the kind of new, socially pointed works by authors like Clifford Odets and Maxwell Anderson that had once been the Civic's specialty. By 1935, running at $94,000 in the red and with the Depression bringing smaller and smaller houses, Le Gallienne was forced to close the Civic after appeals for government funding or support from Actors' Equity failed.
Le Gallienne did not appear on a New York stage again for seven years, clinging to her beloved repertory by performing in summer stock. She returned to Broadway in the 1942 murder mystery Uncle Harry, once again playing opposite Schildkraut, with whom she revived her production of The Cherry Orchard two years later. In 1946, she announced her second acting company, the American Repertory Theater (ART). Admitting that another of the Civic's problems had been its dependence on a single personality, she joined forces with former Guild president Cheryl Crawford and with Margaret Webster , a fellow English émigré whom she had known from her childhood days with the Favershams in England. The press announcement was pure Le Gallienne, pointing out that ART would "be for the drama what a library is for literature or a symphony orchestra for music."
The company had sold some $290,000 worth of stock to 142 investors and listed 5,000 subscribers by the time it mounted its first production, Henry VIII, in November of 1946. But once again Le Gallienne's high hopes for The Drama were flummoxed by rank commercialism, mainly high union costs when ART agreed to demands that the number of union workers remain constant, no matter the size of the show, and to a 50% pay raise demanded by the musicians. Critical reception of the other shows in ART's repertory, J.M. Barrie's What Every Woman Knows and Le Gallienne's revival of John Gabriel Borkman, was cool. Cheryl Crawford resigned after the first season, leaving Le Gallienne and Peggy Webster to struggle on into a second with Hedda Gabler and a new production of Alice in Wonderland. Critic George Jean Nathan, never as admiring of Le Gallienne as some of his peers, found the plays disappointing and without passion, calling the 1947–48 season "ice-time of 1948." With debts amounting to $340,000, ART shut down.
Denied her vision of the theater for a second time, Le Gallienne refused to appear on Broadway for ten years, turning again to summer stock, to recording the classics for America's phonographs, and to teaching at Lucille Lortel 's White Barn Theater, not far from her home in Connecticut. She also turned to the new medium of television, appearing in eight much-praised specials between 1955 and 1962. She disliked working in the two films she accepted, as Gertrude opposite Richard Burton's Hamlet in 1955's The Prince of Players and in G.B. Shaw's The Devil's Disciple in 1959. "There's no opportunity to play a whole scene," she complained. "It's done in scraps and bits. It's nothing but technical." She was finally enticed back to Broadway in 1958 for a play that closed after one performance when a plagiarism suit was filed against its author, while the next year's The Southwest Corner closed after only 36 performances.
It was work off-Broadway that led to Le Gallienne's third attempt at a national repertory. She had accepted the role of Queen Elizabeth I in Schiller's Mary Stuart for the Phoenix Theater Company in Greenwich Village, playing opposite Irene Worth in the title role. Directed by Tyrone Guthrie, it was her greatest success since the Civic Repertory days. After winning the Outer Critics Circle award for the touring production of the show, Le Gallienne led the effort to form a permanent touring enterprise called the National Repertory Company and launched its first season in 1959 by playing Elizabeth both in the Schiller play and in Maxwell Anderson's Elizabeth the Queen. Although she was honorary president of NRT, she was happy this time to leave the administration and finances of the company to others while the company traveled 40,000 miles in its first, 26-week season and played to an estimated quarter million people in 58 cities. Le Gallienne's work was said to be her finest in years; but still, the NRT finished that first season $150,000 in debt, struggling on for three more years before it was finally disbanded. Le Gallienne promptly rejoined Ellis Rabb's Phoenix Theater for another season until it, too, collapsed under financial strains. Retiring to the beloved sanctuary in Connecticut, Le Gallienne spent her time collecting her memoirs of Eleonora Duse into The Mystic in the Theater (1965) and began work on her second autobiography, With a Quiet Heart. (Her first, At 33, had been published in the 1930s.) But the theater held one more role in store to reward Le Gallienne for her years of devotion.
In 1975, she accepted an offer from the Kennedy Center to appear in its Bicentennial revival of The Royal Family, the Edna Ferber -George Kaufmann play loosely based on the Barrymores. Her stunning performance as the imposing family matriarch Fanny Cavendish helped carry the production to Broadway in 1976, then on to a 23-week tour and a television adaptation for which Le Gallienne won an Emmy. Audiences were especially moved by Le Gallienne's inventive reworking of Fanny's death scene at the close of the play. As originally written, Fanny expires peacefully while sitting in a chair; Le Gallienne's Fanny, however, paced the room rehearsing a new part and collapsed while still in service to the stage.
Fanny Cavendish was the first of three memorable elderly women Le Gallienne brought to life. The second was Ellen Burstyn 's Grandmother Pearl, a flinty Kansas farm woman in the 1980 film Resurrection. "She went straight to the woman," wrote film critic Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic. "The result is a lovely paradox, a fresh and strong performance of a tired and failing old lady." Le Gallienne was nominated for an Oscar for her work in the film. The third role was as Grandie in the 1981 Broadway production of Joanna Glass ' To Grandmother's House We Go, in which she was, as Frank Rich wrote in the Times, "as lyrical as Juliet." The play's director, Clifford Williams, marveled at the Le Gallienne style, noting: "Every little thing is planned … a touch, a smile—yet nothing ever looked planned. Nothing is an accident."
But by the time of the ill-fated 1982 revival of Alice in Wonderland, Le Gallienne seemed to be losing interest in her beloved theater. Her secretary said that Eva, directing the production, seemed distant, remaining uncharacteristically silent as major revisions were made in her adaptation of 50 years before. The production had a short run and was the last time Le Gallienne would appear on a stage. By the time she traveled to California in 1984 to act in an episode of the popular dramatic series St. Elsewhere, it was apparent that 85-year-old Le Gallienne's health was failing and that her memory had become impaired. She had trouble remembering her lines and the names of her fellow players and was exhausted by the end of shooting.
Le Gallienne's final years in Connecticut were often difficult ones. At first she was able to tend to simple gardening tasks and to enjoy her vast collection of theatrical books ranged around the famous study where she had entertained so many friends and students. But her health declined precipitously in the late 1980s. With little short-term memory, she was sometimes unable to recognize the doctor who attended her nearly every day, but lucidly recalled her memories of Bernhardt and Duse for Ellen Burstyn, who videotaped them for posterity, and happily welcomed Mariette Hartley with open arms and a gleeful shout of, "I remember you!" She survived three operations for a troublesome hernia and was plagued by a host of other ailments as her body began to fail her. On the evening of June 3, 1991, the theater world learned that Eva Le Gallienne had died peacefully at home that afternoon, three months short of her 92nd birthday.
Le Gallienne's passionate love of the theater was that of a faithful suitor whose affections are not always returned. She never won a Tony, for example, until late in life, when she was given a special lifetime achievement award. But in her quest for a pure theater untainted by commercial concerns, she offered to her beloved, as Brooks Atkinson once noted, "a plausible, enlightened idea that it has never been able to forget." Her most precious gift, however, was kindling that love in others, especially the hundreds of young actors she taught over the years. "Many years ago," she told one student, "Duse took my hand. And now, I've taken your hand; and now, you are taking the hand of others."
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Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York