Robson, Flora (1902–1984)

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Robson, Flora (1902–1984)

British actress who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Saratoga Trunk. Name variations: Dame Flora Robson. Born on March 28, 1902, in South Shields, County Durham, England; died in July 1984; graduated from Palmer's Green High School; bronze medal graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; never married; no children.

Selected theater:

made stage debut as the ghost of Queen Margaret in Will Shakespeare (Shaftesbury Theatre, November 1921); performed in repertory with Ben Greet's Pastoral Players (1922–23); performed in repertory with J.B. Fagan's company at the Oxford Playhouse (1923–24); appeared as Annie in Fata Morgana (Ambassadors' Theatre, September 1924), the stepdaughter in Six Characters in Search of an Author (Cambridge Festival Theatre, around 1929), Abbie Putman in Desire Under the Elms (Gate Theatre, 1931), Mary Paterson in The Anatomist (Westminster Theatre, 1931), Olwen Peel in Dangerous Corner (Lyric Theatre, May 1932), Eva in For Services Rendered (Globe Theatre, November 1932), Varya in The Cherry Orchard, Queen Katharine in Henry VIII, Isabella in Measure for Measure, Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, Mrs. Foresight in Love for Love, Ceres in The Tempest and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (all with Old Vic-Sadler's Wells, 1933–34); appeared in title role in Mary Read (His Majesty's Theatre, November 1934), title role in Mary Tudor (Playhouse Theatre, December 1935), as Anna Christopherson in Anna Christie (Westminster Theatre, April 1937); made New York debut as Ellen Creed in Ladies in Retirement (Henry Miller Theater, New York, March 1940); appeared as the Duchess of Marlborough in Anne of England (St. James Theater, New York, October 1941); toured as Elizabeth in Elizabeth the Queen (1942); appeared as Thérèse Raquin in Guilty (Lyric, Hammersmith Theatre, London, April 1944); toured provinces in title role in Ethel Fry and as Agnes Isit in A Man About the House (1945); appeared as Margaret Hayden in A Message for Margaret (Westminster Theatre, August 1946), Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (National Theater, New York, March 1948), Lady Cicely Waynflete in Captain Brassbound's Conversion (Theatre Royal, Windsor, March 1948), the mother in Black Chiffon (Westminster Theatre, May 1949, and 48th St. Theater, New York, 1950), Paulina in The Winter's Tale (Phoenix Theater, June 1951), the governess in The Innocents (Her Majesty's Theatre, 1952), Mrs. Alving in Ghosts (Old Vic, November 1958, and Prince's Theatre, April 1959), Miss Tina in The Aspern Papers (Queen's Theatre, August 1959), Gunhild Borkman in John Gabriel Borkman (Duchess Theatre, December 1963), Miss Prism in revival of The Importance of Being Earnest (Haymarket, February 1968), the mother in Ring Round the Moon (Haymarket, October 1968), Agatha Payne in The Old Ladies (Westminster, November 1969).

Selected filmography in UK, unless otherwise noted:

A Gentleman of Paris (1931); Dance Pretty Lady (1931); One Precious Year (1933); Catherine the Great (1934); Fire Over England (1937); Farewell Again (Troopship, 1937); I Claudius (unfinished, 1937); Wuthering Heights (US, 1939); Poison Pen (1939); The Lion Has Wings (1939); We Are Not Alone (US, 1939); Invisible Stripes (US, 1939); The Sea Hawk (US, 1940); Bahama Passage (US, 1943); 2,000 Women (1944); Great Day (1945); Caesar and Cleopatra (1945); Saratoga Trunk (US, 1946); The Years Between (1946); Black Narcissus (1947); Frieda (1947); Holiday Camp (1947); Good Time Girl (1948); Saraband for Dead Lovers (Saraband, 1948); The Tall Headlines (The Frightened Bride, 1952); Malta Story (1953); Giulietta e Romeo (Romeo and Juliet, It.-UK, 1954); High Tide at Noon (1957); No Time for Tears (1957); The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958); Innocent Sinners (1958); 55 Days at Peking (US, 1963); Murder at the Gallop (1963); Guns at Batasi (1964); Young Cassidy (UK-US, 1965); Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965); Seven Women (US, 1966); The Shuttered Room (1967); Eye of the Devil (1967); Cry in the Wind (Gr.-UK, 1967); Fragment of Fear (1970); The Beast in the Cellar (1971); La Grande Scrofa nera (It., 1972); Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972); Dominique (1978); Clash of the Titans (1981).

Born on March 28, 1902, Flora Robson was just six years old when her father, a marine engineer, entered her in a recitation competition near their home in South Shields, England. Following Flora's performance of "Little Orphan Annie," which already displayed the beautiful musical voice for which she would become known, he stood and proudly pronounced his daughter "our next Ellen Terry ." With her father's encouragement, Flora continued to enter and win contests in and around London, where the family moved when she was still quite small. At 17, after graduating from Palmer's Green High School, she entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was there that she realized she was not as pretty as the other girls and that her plainness might seriously undermine her career in the theater. Although she graduated from the academy with a bronze medal, she was totally lacking in self-confidence. Even after she became a successful actress, she never lost her fear or her desire to be beautiful.

Fresh out of drama school, Robson somehow managed to land a one-line role as the ghost of Queen Margaret in a Cambridge production of Will Shakespeare, which ran for 62 performances and gave her a chance to rub shoulders with more experienced actors. From there, she joined Ben Greet's Pastoral Players to gain more experience in Shakespeare. After a year, she moved on to J.B. Fagan's repertory company at Oxford Playhouse, where she expanded her skills, prompting, understudying, and playing an occasional small part, including the unwanted woman in The Return of the Prodigal, her best role thus far. At the end of her second season, however, her contract was not renewed, leaving Robson once again unsure of her future. Unable to find immediate work, she returned home, taking a job as a personnel-public relations officer at the Shredded Wheat Company at Welwyn Garden City, where she also directed the amateur theater group. She stayed there four years, almost abandoning her dreams of a professional theater career.

It was Tyrone Guthrie who got the young actress back on track. The director, whom Robson had first met at the Oxford Playhouse, was in Welwyn Garden City to judge an amateur drama festival when he looked up Robson and encouraged her to join him at the Cambridge Festival Theatre, where he was going to direct.

She took him up on the suggestion and spent 18 months in Cambridge, playing leads one week and maids the next in a wide repertory of plays. She won the respect of her colleagues and for the first time gained some well-deserved outside recognition, boosting her self-esteem.

Director Peter Godfrey gave Robson her next opportunity, casting her as Abbie in Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms. Six months later, she played Mary Paterson, a drunken Scots harlot, in The Anatomist, her breakthrough role. "Here is an actress," wrote St. John Ervine, one of the most influential critics of the day. "If you are not moved by this girl's performance, then you are immovable and have no right to be on this earth. Hell is your place."

Having finally established herself, Robson moved on to more steady employment, including roles in Othello, Dangerous Corner, and For Services Rendered. In 1933, she was invited to join the Old Vic-Sadler's Wells company headed by Charles Laughton. She spent a season with the company, appearing in six productions directed by her mentor Tyrone Guthrie. Her roles included Varya in The Cherry Orchard, Katherine in Henry VIII, Isabella in Measure for Measure, and Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, which provided Robson a welcome opportunity to play comedy. In 1934, she appeared in the title role of Mary Read , a play by James Bride that was commissioned by Alexander Korda, who at the time also signed her to her first film contract. He dropped her four years later because he thought she was suitable only for playing queens. Robson, however, continued throughout her career to portray memorable characters in numerous British films and some Hollywood productions, including the classic screen version of Emily Brontë 's Wuthering Heights (1939) and an adaptation of Edna Ferber 's Saratoga Trunk (1946), for which Robson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

In 1940, Robson made her New York stage debut at the Henry Miller Theater in the role of Ellen Creed in Ladies in Retirement. She stayed in the United States for several years, playing in Anne of England and touring summer theaters as Elizabeth I in Elizabeth the Queen. The actress made a return visit to New York in September 1948 to play Lady Macbeth (Gruoch ) opposite Michael Redgrave.

Robson was particularly masterful in highly charged roles, as was evident in her 1944 portrayal of Thérèse Raquin in Guilty, a stage adaptation of the Zola novel. "This was emotional acting of rare power," reported critic Audrey Williamson , "in which face, voice and gesture mirrored the sickening agony and fear of a character not strong enough to face the consequences of murder. Obliged to play against her physical type, she nevertheless painted a nervously vital portrait of the sensuous and passion-fevered Thérèse." Robson was also memorable as a disturbed mother who turns shoplifter in Black Chiffon in 1949. "Miss Robson is magnificent in this part," wrote T.C. Worsley. "Is there any other actress playing today who can suggest so much feeling with so little fuss? … So real is her behaviour, so totally convincing the illusion she creates, that we hardly notice during the play the improbabilities or the skirtings which the play tails off into." Harold Hobson also praised the actress for her restraint. "Flora Robson is true and unexaggerated, as she always is in the presentation of emotional distress," he wrote.

Robson seemed only to improve with age, winning the Evening Standard Award as Best Actress in 1960 for her performance in The Aspern Papers. "Flora Robson, as Miss Tina, gives a performance that must surely rank as the greatest in her career," proclaimed Peter Roberts. "Watch her, for instance, in the second act when she appears in an unfamiliar best dress with an unfamiliar coiffure. She is in a state of agitated expectancy yet has spoken no line that hints of a new dress, coiffure, or, indeed, of agitation. But she conveys all these things, and much more, in a few seconds." In 1969, when Robson appeared as Agatha Payne in The Old Ladies, her last West End appearance, age still had not dulled her cutting edge. "Flora Robson played the villainous Mrs. Payne with a gleeful sense of black humour," wrote Hugh Leonard. "Self-preservation was the keynote, whether Dame Flora was popping a slice of cake into her reticule or negotiating the stairs with the concentration of a bomb-disposal expert."

The actress, who never married, lived alone with her dog in an old house in Brighton that was filled with prints and treasures her father brought home from his visits to Japan. Her social life included visits to concerts and the theater, as well as numerous social obligations connected with her status as a Dame Commander of the British Empire (conferred in 1960). She had many close friends and admirers among her colleagues, although her closest confidant was apparently a 5-year-old boy named Lee, her next-door neighbor. "Lee has his own television stool in Flora's sitting room and a little coffee-table of his own on which he places his tipple-limejuice, which is kept with the grown-ups' alcoholic drinks in the sideboard," wrote Eric Johns, detailing Robson's great affection and respect for children. "He is made thoroughly at home and never fussed over like a child. Flora has taught him to write and to speak grammatically, so he is streets ahead of the other boys in his class at school."

Although she left the stage in 1969, Robson came out of retirement in 1974 to narrate Peter and the Wolf at the Brighton Festival. She continued to make films as late as 1981, when she appeared as one of three eyeless witches in Clash of the Titans. Robson died in 1984.


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

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

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

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1995.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts