Siddons, Sarah (1755–1831)

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Siddons, Sarah (1755–1831)

Tragic actress who, by the dramatic power of her performances and the moral rectitude of her private life, helped to raise the status of the theater in Britain. Name variations: Sarah Kemble; Mrs. Siddons. Born Sarah Kemble on July 5, 1755, in Brecon, Powys, England; died on June 8, 1831, in London; eldest child of Roger Kemble (an actor-manager) and Sarah "Sally" (Ward) Kemble; sister of actors John Philip Kemble (1757–1823), Stephen Kemble (1758–1822), Charles Kemble (1775–1854), and Eliza Kemble (1761–1836, known as Mrs. Whitlock); aunt of Fanny Kemble (1809–1893); educated by her mother and at Thornloe House, Worcester; married William Siddons, on November 26, 1773 (died March 11, 1808); children: Henry Siddons (b. October 4, 1774); Sarah Martha Siddons, known as Sally (b. November 5, 1775); Maria Siddons (b. July 1, 1779); Frances Emilia Siddons (b. April 1781 and died in infancy); Eliza Ann Siddons (June 2, 1782–1788); George John Siddons (b. December 1785); Cecilia Siddons (b. July 25, 1794).

First extant playbill containing Siddon's name (February 12, 1767); lived at Guy's Cliffe, Warwick (1771–73); gave moving performance of Venice Preserved (1774); endured London debut failure (December 29, 1775); joined the Theater Royal, Bath (1778); began lifelong friendship with Thomas Lawrence (c. 1780); made triumphant return to Drury Lane (October 10, 1783); befriended the Galindos (1802); moved to Covent Garden (1803); gave farewell performance as Lady Macbeth (June 22, 1812).

Theater: some of her most popular roles were Isabella in Isabella by Southerne, Euphrasia in The Grecian Daughter by Murphy, Jane inJane Shore by Rowe, Calista in The Fair Penitent by Rowe, Belvidera in Venice Preserved by Otway, Isabella in Measure for Measure by Shakespeare, Constance in King John by Shakespeare, Zara in The Mourning Bride by Congreve, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth by Shakespeare, Volumnia in Coriolanus by Shakespeare, Mrs. Haller in The Stranger by Kotzebue.

The newspapers on the morning of October 11, 1783, contained rave notices concerning Drury Lane's new tragic actress—Mrs. Siddons. As the eponymous heroine in Thomas Southerne's play Isabella, she had swept London theatergoers off their feet. She had shown herself to be in possession of that ability so prized by audiences in an age dedicated to "sensibility"—namely the ability to make men weep openly and women fall into hysterics or faint clean away with the force of their emotions. Her earliest biographer James Boaden must have thought he was paying her a great compliment when he stated that "literally the greater part of the spectators were too ill to use their hands in her applause." By the end of the season, nine months later, she had given 80 major performances (at least 5 of which had been attended by King George III and Queen Charlotte of Mecklen-burg-Strelitz ) and earned in all about £1,800 at a time when a provincial actress would have considered herself very fortunate to have made £300 in the same period. She was fêted by London society and invited to give private readings at Buckingham House, the London residence of the king and queen. Many years later, she told Boaden, "One could not appear in the presence of the Queen except in a Dress, not elsewhere worn, called a Saque … in which costume I felt not at my ease" yet the queen "expressed herself surprised … that I had conducted myself as if I had been used to a court."

Sarah Siddons belonged to a theatrical family. Her grandfather, John Ward, was the manager of a group of strolling actors who worked an area of Western England which stretched from Lancashire to Gloucestershire. Unlike many bands of players at the time, John Ward's company was renowned for its high moral standards. Ward had come under the influence of the preacher John Wesley, who founded Methodism and insisted on strict rules of conduct both from his family and his work force. He was not pleased when his daughter, Sally (Sarah Ward Kemble ), fell in love with one of his actors as he had hoped that his children would marry outside the profession. But when Sally and Roger Kemble eloped in 1763 he is said to have remarked, "Well, my dear child, you have not disobeyed me; the devil himself could not make an actor of your husband."

Sally's husband had not become an actor until he was about 30 years old. Born in Hereford in 1721, he was raised a Roman Catholic and educated at a local seminary of good reputation. It is possible that for many years he was a barber. His father-in-law's early scruples must have been overcome, for when John Ward retired he left the company to the Kembles. They were an excellent team. Roger was handsome, polite and gentle in his dealings with others. Sally adhered to her father's belief in respectability and was a strict disciplinarian. She must have been a remarkable woman. As well as acting and helping to manage a company constantly on the move, she gave birth to 12 children between 1755 and 1777. Eight of them reached adulthood; six of these took up acting.

Roger and Sally's first child was born on July 5, 1755, almost definitely in Brecon (though Siddons' sister Anne Kemble , who was born nine years later, says it was "Denbigh, not Brecon"). It seems that the rest of the company had already moved on to Llandrindod Wells. The baby was called Sarah after her mother. Not a great deal is known about her early childhood. The Kembles appear to have been reasonably well off so presumably there were servants to help care for the children as the company moved from town to town and both mother and father were engaged in the promotion, rehearsal, and presentation of plays. Certainly whenever they remained long enough in one place some schooling was arranged for them and, as they became older, the boys attended various Catholic boarding schools and colleges. The girls were brought up Protestants like their mother.

In her memoirs, Hester Lynch Piozzi wrote a story which she claimed Siddons, her friend for many years, had told her. As a child, Sarah read many stories about Reynard the Fox. On seeing the animal for the first time, chained in an inn yard, "she immediately went upstairs changed her Ribbons hasted down again,—& her father found her a quarter of an hour afterwards curtsying respectfully before the Kennel door—What's ys for? said he. I am begging Mr Reynard replied Mrs Siddons—to play me no Trick while we remain in the Town."

Thomas Campbell, whose biography of Siddons was published only three years after her death, told another story which he said was related to him by his subject. One night Sarah took her prayer book to bed with her, intending to leave it open at the prayer for fine weather because the next day, as long as it was dry, her mother was taking her to an outdoor party at which she was to wear a particularly becoming new pink dress. On waking at dawn, she found that rain "was pelting at the windows" and that she had inadvertently had the prayer book open at the page containing the prayer for rain. She corrected her mistake, went to sleep again and on reawakening found that "the morning was as pink and beautiful as the dress she was to wear."

It is certain that Siddons first appeared on the stage at a very early age. Thomas Holcroft, an actor with the company, speaks of her being promoted "as a juvenile prodigy" and being encouraged by her mother to "repeat the Fable of the Boys and the Frogs" at a family benefit performance. There is a playbill in existence for February 12, 1767, which shows that the 12-year-old Sarah was appearing in Worcester as the young princess Elizabeth Stuart in a play entitled Charles the First. Her ten-year-old brother John and her eight-year-old sister Fanny were also part of the cast, so it seems reasonable to assume that Sarah was already a seasoned performer.

However, Siddons also spent some of her time in Worcester at school, apparently somewhat to the disconcertion of the other pupils. She attended Thornloe House, a private school for "young ladies." One such young lady, writing home to her mother, described how she had quizzed the newcomer, "as indeed, dear Mama, you have advised me to do, to avoid the possibility of becoming intimate with an unsuitable or ungenteel acquaintance." It is arguably to Siddons' credit that she readily admitted her parentage "without blush or confusion," but the shocked interlocutor "thought it best to make a curtsy and return to the other young ladies."

Sarah's public hauteur resulted both from her being an intensely private person and from an acute consciousness of carrying the burden of her profession.

—Sandra Richards

By the time Sarah was 17, she was in love with a member of the company who had been with them for a number of years. He was more than ten years older. At the same time, she was being courted by a certain Mr. Evans Squire of Pennant. As the possessor of £300 a year, he was a more attractive suitor in the eyes of her parents than an impecunious supporting actor, but Siddons refused him and on November 26, 1773, she married her actor—William Siddons (in his biography of Sarah's brother, John Philip Kemble, Herschel Baker calls him Henry). By now she was 19 and had spent the intervening time at Guy's Cliffe, Warwick, in the household of a rich widow, Lady Mary Greatheed . She seems to have been more of a companion than a servant and to have used to the full the opportunity afforded her of learning how to behave in the company of well-bred society. William had remained with the Kembles' band of strolling players and a month after their marriage "Mrs Siddons" was billed to perform in Wolverhampton.

The following year, the Siddonses struck out on their own and joined another company led by two actors called Crump and Chamberlain. At a performance of Venice Preserved, Sarah's representation of Belvidera so moved the ladies in Lord Bruce's party that, as he told William on meeting him in the street next day, "they had wept so excessively that they were unpresentable in the morning, and were confined to their rooms with headaches." The Honorable Henrietta Boyle , Lord Bruce's stepdaughter, became Sarah's patron and lifelong friend. She immediately set about providing her with a more expensive wardrobe than Sarah could have afforded herself. Lord Bruce recommended her to David Garrick, the manager of the theater in Drury Lane, London.

Then, as now, it was the dream of every English actress to work in London. But Garrick had the reputation of his company to consider. He contacted two or three of his "talent scouts," asking their opinions of Siddons' ability, and it was not until the end of December 1775 that she joined Drury Lane. Garrick had acted just in time—his rivals at Covent Garden had already begun negotiating for her services. By now she had two children. The eldest was just over a year old and the second had been born prematurely, Sarah having gone into labor during a performance in Gloucester.

Siddons made her London debut as Portia in The Merchant of Venice on December 29. Though it was one of her favorite roles, she must have been feeling far from her best. She was still weak from childbirth, with two babies to care for, and had not arrived in London until mid-December. As far as is known, it was her first visit to the capital, and she may have been totally unprepared for the scale both of the city and the theater. Her opening night was a failure. Naturally timid, she was completely overcome by nervousness. Her movements were uncertain, and her voice vacillated between hoarseness and inaudibility. She had a catastrophic season and her contract was not renewed for the following year. Throughout her life, Siddons remained bitter about her experience. She felt that Garrick, while seeming to favor her, had merely been using her to taunt his three established leading ladies who, in time-honored fashion, were temperamental and jealous of the young upstart actress.

For the next six years, Siddons worked the provinces and added three more daughters to her family. By now most major cities had a theater, and the Siddonses, although far from rich, were able to earn a reasonable living. In the autumn of 1778, Sarah was invited to join the theater company at Bath. This was, in its way, promotion. Because of Bath's reputation as a social center, it was considered to have the country's leading provincial theater. The manager, John Palmer, also leased a theater in Bristol, and Siddons was engaged to perform in both places. It was hard work, especially between the middle of March and the end of May 1779. Siddons has described her schedule during those ten weeks, while in the last stages of her third pregnancy: "After the Rehearsal at Bath on a Monday morning, I had to go and act at Bristol in the evening of the same day, and reaching Bath again after a drive of twelve miles, long after midnight, I was obliged to represent some fatigueing part there on the Tuesday evening." Wednesdays and Fridays she was back in Bristol. Thursdays and Saturdays she appeared in Bath. Only a month later, on July 1, her second daughter was born.

It was all worth it, however, for it was during those years that Sarah Siddons built up her

reputation as a tragic actress. Most of Palmer's repertoire was comedy, for that was what the audiences wanted, but Thursday night was "Tragedy Night." This was in the somewhat vain hope of attracting the more seriously minded among the population of Bath, as the rest were all at the weekly Cotillion Ball in the Assembly Rooms. Siddons, by the sheer force of her performances, changed all that and, as Boaden wrote, "The Thursday nights, from a vacuum, soon became a plenum." By July 1780, she was being invited back to Drury Lane (Garrick had retired at the end of Sarah's previous season there), and she was finally persuaded to return in September 1782.

As has already been noted, Sarah's return was a triumph and she was to remain the undeposed Queen of Tragedy until her retirement in 1812. She maintained that if a part were "in nature" then she was sure that she could play it. "In nature" to Siddons meant "possessing credible human emotions." She would then set about heightening these emotions by the force of her dramatic presentation. She brought to her acting an unprecedented dignity of bearing which ennobled the characters she played. Furthermore, she was a conscientious student and never stopped developing a part. Her interpretations of Isabella in Measure for Measure, Volumnia in Coriolanus, and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth are considered to have been particularly fine, and Sarah chose to portray Lady Macbeth in her farewell performance on July 22, 1812.

She was to remain at Drury Lane until 1802 when the money problems which had dogged her for many years finally forced her to leave. Although her own brother, John Philip Kemble, had been actor-manager there since 1788, the finances of the theater were in the hands of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the politician, dramatist, and entrepreneur. He was charming and persuasive in manner but an incompetent and unscrupulous businessman. Tired of fighting for payment, Sarah and John left together, and, a year later, joined the rival company at Covent Garden where John became part owner. Sarah had been in the habit of touring the provinces during the three months' closure of Drury Lane every summer, and she spent the whole of her year away from London on an extended tour, mainly in Ireland.

Garrick had done much to tame the unruly behavior of London audiences, but Siddons still received her share of hostility mixed with all the adulation. At Drury Lane in October 1784, she was subjected to "the degradation of hissing and hooting and all the humiliating circumstances of public scorn," as she herself expressed it, when falsely accused of refusing to perform at a fellow actor's benefit night while in Ireland. She also suffered a whole season of anti-social behavior following the rebuilding of Covent Garden after it had burned down in September 1808. Riots were organized in protest against the higher prices. They became known as the O.P. (Old Price) Riots and were noisy, often violent affairs. Boaden has described "an efficient O.P. Rioter" preparing for a night at the theater with "his watchman's rattle, or dustman's bell, or post-boy's horn, or French-horn, or trombone, with a white night-cap in his pocket—his placards of a dozen feet in length wound about his body, and his bludgeon for close action with the enemy." Passive protestors stood with their backs to the stage; active ones performed the "O.P. dance"—a rhythmic foot-stamping and stick-banging as accompaniment to the roaring of "O.P.! O.P.! O.P.!"

During her career, Siddons had her portrait painted many times. Engravings were sometimes made of these portraits to be sold cheaply, a form of publicity similar to today's posters of celebrities from the pop world. Two of the most famous of these were both produced in the mid-1780s—Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of her as a society lady and The Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The artist with whom she was to be most associated, some say with whom she was in love, was Thomas Lawrence. He was born in 1769 and she may have first met him while staying at his father's inn in Devizes. He was a child prodigy and before the age of 13 he had made several drawings of her. He began to draw and paint her again in the late 1790s. At the same time, he was drawing Sarah's two eldest daughters, Sally and Maria Siddons . His complicated love affair with both girls and its tragic consequences can be read in Oswald G. Knapp's An Artist's Love Story. He never married and Sarah never lost touch with him. Her niece, Fanny Kemble , reports overhearing her say to her brother: "Charles, when I die, I wish to be carried to my grave by you and Lawrence." It was not to be, for Thomas died before her, on January 7, 1830.

Compared with many actresses of the period, Siddons was a model of respectability yet she did not entirely avoid scandal during her lifetime. There were whisperings about the nature of her relationship with Lawrence and more than whisperings about the Galindos. Catherine Galindo at first encouraged her husband's friendship with Sarah in the hope of furthering her own acting career, but later became jealous and in 1809 published an open "Letter to Mrs Siddons" in which she accused the actress of ruining her marriage. Sarah maintained a dignified silence throughout the furor which followed. As she wrote to her nephew, "It would be lowering myself, to enter the lists with persons, the indecency of whose characters is become so notorious." It was her moral integrity in private as much as her dramatic prowess in public which helped to raise the status of the British actress in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Although Sarah was the family's main provider, everything she earned legally belonged to her husband. Biographers' opinions about William and his relationship with Sarah are divided. As Sarah's star rose so William's declined, and he became fully employed in managing her appearances, her finances, and in caring for the children who continued to be born at regular intervals until 1785. In 1788, Siddons suffered a miscarriage; that same year, her daughter Eliza Ann died. Her last child Cecilia Siddons was born in 1794. There are witnesses to suggest that William was greedy for money, driving hard bargains with Sarah's employers and keeping her constantly at work. But there are others to testify that he was a pleasant companion, fond of his family, and making sure that Sarah had a generous allowance from her earnings. There is no reason why a second-rate actor should turn into a brilliant administrator, and he probably did the best he could in a job that was beyond his capabilities and not really to his taste. Gradually the couple seem to have drifted apart, though there was never any formal separation. By 1801, William was in ill health and living permanently in Bath. He died in 1808, four years before Siddons retired from the stage. She wrote a friend: "May those to whom I am dear remember me when I am gone as I now remember him, forgetting and forgiving all my errors, and recollecting only my quietness of spirit and singleness of heart."

Throughout her career, Siddons talked and wrote of the joys of retirement. She envisaged a quiet cottage in the country and frequently maintained that she only worked to support her family and to ensure them all financial security. Yet after she had attained her projected goal—£10,000—in 1876, she continued to act for another 26 years. It would seem, then, that she was tied to the theater by bonds far stronger than those of money. Even when officially retired, she returned occasionally for benefit performances. For example, in the autumn of 1815, she fulfilled a ten-night engagement in Edinburgh on behalf of the family of her son Henry, who had died of tuberculosis at the early age of 40. In succeeding years, she continued to give play readings in her own home and died, according to her sister Fanny, "peaceably and without suffering" at the age of 76.


Baker, Herschel. John Philip Kemble: The Actor in His Theater. NY: Greenwood Press, 1942.

Manvell, Roger. Sarah Siddons: Portrait of an Actress. London: Heinemann, 1970.

Richards, Sandra. The Rise of the English Actress. London: Macmillan, 1993.

suggested reading:

French, Yvonne. Mrs Siddons: Tragic Actress. London: Derek Verschayle, 1954.

Knapp, Oswald G. An Artist's Love Story: Told in the Letters of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Mrs. Siddons and her Daughters. London: George Allen, 1905.

Barbara Evans , Research Associate in Women's Studies, Nene College, Northampton, England