Tempest, Marie (1864–1942)

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Tempest, Marie (1864–1942)

English actress who was hugely popular in both musical comedy and comic plays. Born Mary Susan Etherington on July 15, 1864, in London, England; died on October 14, 1942; educated at Midhurst and at a convent in Belgium; studied singing at the Royal Academy of Music, London; married Alfred E. Izard (divorced); married Cosmo Gordon-Lennox (an actor and playwright), in 1898 (died 1921); married William Graham Browne (an actor-director), in 1921 (died 1937); no children.

Selected theater:

made London debut as Fiametta in Boccaccio (Comedy Theater, May 1885); appeared as Lady Blanche in The Fay o' Fire (Opéra Comique, 1885), in the title role in Erminie (Comedy Theater, 1885); took over the title role in Dorothy (Prince of Wales Theater, 1887); appeared as Kitty in The Red Hussar (Lyric Theater, 1889); made New York debut in the same role (Palmer's Theater, August 1889); toured U.S. and Canada with the J.C. Duff Opera Co. (1890–91); appeared as Adam in The Tyrolean (CasinoTheater, New York, 1891), O Mimosa San in The Geisha (Daly's Theater, London, 1896), in the title role in San Toy (Daly's Theater, 1899), as Nell Gwynn in English Nell (Prince of Wales Theater, 1900), in the title role in Peg Woffington (Prince of Wales Theater, 1901), as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (Prince of Wales Theater, 1901), as Kitty Silverton in The Marriage of Kitty (London and New York, 1903); toured America, Australia, and elsewhere (1914–22); appeared as Annabelle Leigh in Good Gracious, Annabelle (Duke of York's Theater, 1923), as Judith Bliss in Hay Fever (1925), as Angela Fane in The Cat's Cradle (Criterion Theater, 1926), in the title role in The First Mrs. Fraser (Haymarket Theater, 1929), as Fanny Cavendish in Theater Royal (Lyric Theater, 1934), as Georgia Leigh in Short Story (Queen's Theater, 1935), as Dora Randolph in Dear Octopus (Queen's Theater, 1938).

The celebrated English actress Marie Tempest first graced the stage as a singer in operas and musical comedies before taking up serious acting, at which she was also immensely successful, at age 36. Tempest's phenomenal popularity lay not so much in her creative genius, but in her unique ability to bring much of her own personality and temperament to the characters she portrayed. "She seems to radiate the joy of living," wrote a reviewer for the London Times upon seeing her performance in The Cat's Cradle in April 1926, "to drive it home to us by her mere presence, by the inspiring notes of her voice, and by the depth of worldly experience and indulgence for our human foibles in her glance. Briefly she is a perpetual refreshment and source of pleasure; something for which the theater exists and by which it triumphantly justifies its existence."

Born in London in 1864, Tempest was educated at Midhurst and at a convent in Belgium until age 16, when she took up the study of music, first in Paris and then at London's Royal Academy of Music. While still a student, she made her singing debut at St. James's Hall, and from that time on was hooked on performing. Taking her stage name from her godmother, Lady Susan Vane-Tempest , she began her career singing in the provinces, and made her London debut in May 1885, in the role of Fiametta in the comic opera Boccaccio. Critics unanimously praised her voice but were somewhat divided on the subject of her acting.

In February 1887, after leading roles in The Fay o' Fire, Erminie, and La Béarnaise, Tempest took over the title role in Dorothy from Marion Hood . She played the role for two years, then won great acclaim as Kitty Carroll in The Red Hussar. Tempest made her American debut in that same role, opening at New York's Palmer Theater on August 5, 1889, to the delight of the critics. "It was a success and from the last notes of the song, Marie Tempest was received into the affections of New York theatergoers," wrote one. "After that the opera seemed to be a secondary consideration and the other players were but foils. Tempest only could fill the stage." The actress then toured the United States and Canada with the J.C. Duff Opera Company, taking roles in several well-known operas, including Arline in The Bohemian Girl, the title role in Mignon, and Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance. In October 1891, she returned to New York, where she was in constant demand for the next three years.

Back in London in 1895, Tempest began a five-year engagement at Daly's Theater, then under the management of George Edwardes. Now considered the queen of musical comedy, she was treated like royalty by Edwardes who insisted that she use the royal entrance rather than the stage door, and saw to it that a carriage waited

for her each evening after the show. Tempest also became the first actress to have her clothes designed by couturiers rather than theatrical designers. In 1898, she met and married actor and playwright Cosmo Gordon-Lennox, who also treated her like royalty, indulging her passion for shopping and redecorating. He introduced her to the world of literature and other intellectual pursuits. (Gordon-Lennox was Tempest's second husband; during her Royal Academy days, she had married and divorced Alfred Izard.)

In 1899, Tempest had a falling out with Edwardes over some long trousers he wanted her to wear for the title role in San Toy. She considered them tasteless and cut them into shorts before her first entrance, infuriating Edwardes and destroying their professional relationship. Not only did Tempest walk away from Daly's over the incident, but she turned her back on musical comedy as well. In August 1900, she entered the second phase of her career, opening as Nell Gwynn in English Nell, a play directed by Dion Boucicault, who also helped Tempest make the transition to straight plays. (She was serious about learning her craft, frequently spending an entire morning rehearsing simple stage business, like answering a phone or pouring a cup of tea.) Boucicault also directed Tempest in the title role in Peg Woffington , and as Becky Sharp in an adaptation of Vanity Fair (both 1901). In 1902, also under Boucicault's direction, she played Kitty Silverton in The Marriage of Kitty, which her husband had adapted from the French. The play, a huge success, marked the beginning of Tempest's eight-year relationship with producer Charles Frohman and remained in her repertoire for the next 30 years.

While Tempest was perfecting her acting technique and gaining a new reputation as a talented comedian, her marriage to Gordon-Lennox collapsed. In 1908, she met William Graham Browne, an aristocrat and actor six years her junior; their relationship is described by Eric Johns as the first deep friendship of her life. Their professional and personal association lasted 29 years, until Browne's death in 1937, although they did not marry until after Gordon-Lennox's death in 1921. Browne directed many of Tempest's productions, and encouraged her to further improve her acting. He also served as troubleshooter. "She was far from easy to work with," writes Johns, "and part of Willie's mission in life was to pour oil over troubled waters and keep the troupe together and in a reasonably happy frame of mind."

In September 1913, Tempest began a stint as manager of the Playhouse Theater in London, where she opened in the title role in Mary Goes First. With the outbreak of war in Europe, however, she soon went into debt. To keep afloat, she and Browne set off on a world tour which began in Toronto in October 1914, and over the course of the next eight years took them to New York, Chicago, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, the Straits Settlements, China, Japan, the Philippines, and through the United States. Tempest returned to London's Duke of York's Theater in 1923, playing the role of Annabelle Leigh in Good Gracious, Annabelle, which had been warmly received on tour. The London audience, however, hated the play and hissed and booed their disapproval. "How long I stood there, leaning against the wings I do not know," she told her biographer Hector Bolitho. "Dimly I remember clapping my hands over my ears, trying to shut out that cruel noise. Able to bear it no longer, I rushed to my dressing room and closed the door behind me … after thirty-seven years as a trouper I had been booed for the first time and in London." Tempest also said that something in her died that night and that afterwards she never felt quite the same about her "dear public." To improve her frame of mind, she revived The Marriage of Kitty, and ran nearly a year in it.

It was not until her role as Judith Bliss in Noel Coward's Hay Fever (1925), a role written with her in mind, that Tempest had her next unqualified hit. "The most delightful thing of the evening was to see Miss Marie Tempest coming into her own again with a part which gave every scope for her really distinguished sense of comedy and her admirable technique," wrote the critic for Punch. She "moved the house to a storm of spontaneous applause by the exquisite singing of a little chanson d'amour, and it was in perfect voice—not a note strained or even thin." Hay Fever ran for 337 performances and was followed by The Cat's Cradle (1926), another solid hit for the actress.

Tempest continued to perform throughout the 1930s, celebrating her jubilee on May 28, 1935, with a special benefit performance at the Drury Lane Theater. She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in 1937, which was also the year she lost Willie, a shattering blow from which she never fully recovered. Her last appearance on the London stage was as Dora Randolph in Dodie Smith 's Dear Octopus, a successful venture that ran for 373 performances. Glen Byam Shaw, who directed the 67-year-old actress in the play, was awed by her genius for stage business, particularly in a scene in which she was listening to her daughter's problems while setting the table for dinner. "As she listened she made table napkins into the shape of water lilies, but fitted each deft movement to the text, thus pointing the daughter's lines in the most apposite manner. It won a round of applause every night."

Tempest was rehearsing for another role, under the direction of Henry Kendall, when it became clear that she was unable to learn her lines and had to be let go. She took the news bravely, although her eyes were filled with tears as she awaited the taxi to take her home. She died within six weeks, on October 14, 1942. Noel Coward had once paid fitting tribute to Tempest: "When she steps on to a stage a certain magic occurs, and this magic is in itself unexplainable and belongs only to the very great."


Hartnoll, Phyllis, and Peter Found. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theater. 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, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts