Webster, Margaret (1905–1972)

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Webster, Margaret (1905–1972)

American actress and director who devoted her career to bringing theater, particularly Shakespeare, to the greater public. Name variations: Peggy Webster. Born on March 15, 1905, in New York City; died on November 13, 1972, in London, England; only child of Benjamin Webster III (an actor) and Mary Louisa (Whitty) Webster, known as May Whitty (1865–1948); graduated from Queen Anne's School, Caversham, England, in 1923; attended Etlinger Dramatic School, London, England; never married; no children.

Once called "America's foremost Shakespearean director," Margaret Webster was to the theater born. The only child of renowned actors Benjamin Webster III and Dame May Whitty , Margaret spent her early childhood living variously in New York and London, frequently in the care of relatives while her parents toured. She made her own theatrical debut at the age of eight, performing the prologue to the York Nativity Play, directed by Ellen Terry . "My parents objected to a stage career with the usual insincerity of theatrical parents," Webster once said, adding that her mother frequently let her watch from the wings while she performed and sometimes allowed her to "walk on" in a mob scene. It was also her mother who read Shakespeare to her from the age of three.

In 1924, after completing a private school education, Webster enrolled in the Etlinger Dramatic School. She made her professional debut that same year in the chorus of a London production of Euripides' The Trojan Women. She spent the next years honing her craft as the member of various stock companies, including the Macadona Players, the Oxford Players, and Ben Greet's Shakespeare Company. With the latter group, Webster toured England playing in outdoor Shakespeare productions in a variety of conditions. "You had to learn to play Lady Macbeth up and down on a fire escape," she wrote in Shakespeare Without Tears, "and convince an audience of irreverent children that you were really sleepwalking at the same time."

In 1929, she joined the Old Vic, playing second leads during her first season, but returning three years later as Lady Macbeth during the 1932–33 season. Between 1934–36, Webster

acted in 14 plays, among them Queen of Scots, Viceroy Sarah, Parnell, and Girl Unknown, which she also adapted from a play by Ferenc Molnar. During this time, Webster had her first directorial experience, staging an outdoor pageant-production of Henry VIII, under the auspices of the Women's Institute, throughout the county of Kent. "The principal parts were played by the same actors throughout, but each of the different crowd scenes was allocated to a separate village or locality," she explained in her family memoir The Same Only Different. "The Baptism Scene at the end was to bring together the entire cast of more than eight hundred people."

In 1935 and 1936, while pursuing her acting career, Webster also directed nine productions, most of them new tryout plays, with the exception of a revival of Ibsen's Lady from the Sea. In 1937, she was invited by Maurice Evans to direct his New York production of Richard II, the first Broadway presentation of the play since 1878, and Webster's first experience with New York actors. "I soon discovered certain fundamental differences between American and English actors, especially when confronting Shakespeare," she wrote. "The Americans worked harder, were more concentrated and more direct. They were also more self-conscious. The English actor would toss a Shakespearean part lightly over his left shoulder, as something all in the day's work; but the American treated it as something very special and rather awesome."

Winning unanimous critical acclaim for her direction (the play ran an unprecedented 171 performances), Webster continued to work with Evans on productions of Hamlet (1938), Henry IV, Part I (1939), Twelfth Night (1940), and Macbeth (1941). In 1939, she also staged abbreviated versions of four of Shakespeare's comedies for the Globe Theater at the New York World's Fair. Amid her directing duties, Webster also made her American acting debut on March 28, 1938, playing Masha in a Theatre Guild production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, which starred Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne . Critic Brooks Atkinson praised her as "the only member of the cast who plays with perception of the evanescent life that is hovering under and around the written skeleton of the drama."

In 1942, Webster created a stir when she cast black actor Paul Robeson as the Moor in a production of Othello, which also starred Uta Hagen and José Ferrer. Although it was predicted that the production would fail because of the casting, it ran for a record 295 performances. Webster chanced a second bit of daring casting in a subsequent production of The Tempest (1945), choosing the ballerina Vera Zorina as Ariel and the black ex-boxer Canada Lee as Caliban. It too was a box-office smash, establishing Webster, in the words of George Jean Nathan, as "the best director of the plays of Shakespeare that we have."

Webster's projects were by no means limited to Shakespeare. She also directed Euripides' The Trojan Women (1941), Tennessee Williams' Battle of Angels (1941), Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (1942), and Thomas Job's Thérèse (1945), adapted from the Emile Zola novel Thérèse Raquin. (Webster's mother Dame May Whitty had roles in both The Trojan Women and Thérèse.)

In 1945, Webster joined with Eva Le Gallienne and Cheryl Crawford to found the American Repertory Theater, which they hoped would serve to keep the dramatic classics of the past in production along with new plays of merit. The venture lasted only a single season, after which Webster used the equipment from the failed company to begin a new initiative. Wanting to bring the theater to those who had previously had little or no experience with live production, she formed the Margaret Webster Shakespeare Company, a troupe that toured the United States and Canada, performing in schools, colleges, and public halls. The company toured for two years, covering over 36 states and three Canadian provinces. Webster thought the company was her greatest contribution to the American theater.

In 1950, Webster directed a production of Verdi's Don Carlos at New York's Metropolitan Opera, becoming the first woman ever to direct for the Met. It was such a success that she continued to direct opera throughout the 1950s, putting her creative stamp on productions of Aïda (1951) and Simon Boccanegra (1960), both at the Met, as well as Troilus and Cressida (1955), Macbetto (1957), The Taming of the Shrew and The Silent Woman (both 1958) for the New York City Opera.

Webster's career suffered a severe blow in 1951, when José Ferrer, under pressure, named her before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Although she was eventually cleared of all charges labeling her a Communist sympathizer, she was blacklisted and had difficulty finding work in the United States. She returned to England, directing at Stratford-upon-Avon and at the Old Vic. She regained her former status in the United States in 1961, when the State Department invited her to travel to South Africa as a member of its American Specialists Program. During the tour, she lectured, performed concert readings of Shakespeare, and directed a production of Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet. Her later work during the 1960s included a series of visiting lecturer positions at various American universities where she taught, directed, and performed her one-woman shows on Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.

Webster, who never married, eventually retired to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where she wrote a family memoir, The Same Only Different (1969), and her autobiography, Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage (1972). Her death, in London in 1972, not only ended a brilliant career but brought an end to a 150-year-old English theatrical dynasty.


Current Biography 1950. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1950.

Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Vol. 22. NY and Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Webster, Margaret. The Same Only Different. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller, eds. Cambridge Guide to American Theater. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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