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The most famous member of one of the greatest theatrical families in history (whose members included John Phillip Kemble and Fanny Kemble) Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) was one of the most popular and highly paid stars of her era. She was also, arguably, the greatest tragic actress who ever lived, providing remarkably original interpretations of Portia, Lady Anne in Richard III, Katherine in Henry VIII, Ophelia, Cordelia, Desdemona, as well as being the first well-known actress to take on (successfully) the role of Hamlet; all invested with an intelligence and spontaneity that owed nothing to contemporary conceptions of the roles. Her most celebrated performance by far was Lady Macbeth, which she first played (unsuccessfully) in 1775, and made her own when she returned to the role ten years at Drury Lane later opposite the unequal Macbeth of William Siddons. Prior to Siddons' appearance, Lady Macbeth was always interpreted as a monstrous "fiend-like queen," but Siddons reimagined her as a fully-rounded human being whose vaunting ambition was wholly justifiable and even aroused sympathy from her audience. She continued playing Lady Macbeth until her retirement in 1812, regrettably never finding a Macbeth who could match her in power (even when she played the part opposite her brother, the great John Phillip Kemble). So great was her identification with the role that upon her retirement, the British Theatrical Gallery lamented "But Lady Macbeth, that dark and dreadful subliminity of evil, has perished forever from the stage with Mrs. Siddons: without one dissentient voice, it was admitted to the grandest effort of histrionic genius."

Siddons was paid tribute in Joseph L. Mankiewicz' classic 1950 film All About Eve with a presentation of the fictional Sarah Siddons Awards, described by George Sanders in the guise of urbane drama critic Addison DeWitt as "highest honor our theater knows." Chicago theatre patrons took a cue from the film and inaugurated the Sarah Siddons Society in 1953, presenting the first Sarah Siddons Award for outstanding performance in the Chicago Theatre to Helen Hayes in Mrs. McThing. Subsequent winners have included Deborah Kerr in Tea & Sympathy, Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth, Colleen Dewhurst in A Moon for the Misbegotten and Lynn Redgrave in Shakespeare for My Father, although no actress has yet been awarded for playing any of the roles Siddons herself triumphed in.

Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) had triumphed in amost all of the Shakespearean tragical roles he played but didn't attempt Othello until he was almost 60 because he felt that his voice was the wrong timbre for the part. When the Royal National Theatre announced that he would finally be tackling the final Himalayan challenge that he had been avoiding in order to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in 1964, Olivier typically met the challenge head-on, undergoing a demanding physical regimen and working to lower his voice into the velvety basso profundo that a performance of the jealous Moor demands. The hard work paid off, as Olivier's performance of Othello (supported by Frank Finlay as Iago, Maggie Smith as Desdemona, Joyce Redman as Emilia, Derek Jacobi as Cassio and Robert Lang as Roderigo) proved to be the outstanding triumph of the National Theatre's first decade. Harold Hobson wrote "The power, the passion, verisimilitude and pathos of Sir Laurence's performance are things which will be spoken of with wonder for a long time to come." It was later taken to Moscow, and was awarded a thirty-five minute standing ovation on its opening night.

The production was immortalized in a 1965 film directed by Stuart Burge that received Academy Award nominations for Olivier, Smith, Redman and Finlay (in the Best Supporting Actor category, an odd classification considering that Iago is the largest role in the play) which was nevertheless regarded with some controversy because of its stagebound presentation and the perception that Olivier failed to tone down his remarkably theatrical performance for the motion picture screen. Modern audiences can still admire Olivier's genius in his striking performance (although his blackface makeup - commonplace for actors playing the role until the 1980s - now seems tasteless and uncomfortable) but those that saw both the film and theatre presentations generally felt that the movie version was a mere shadow of the stage original, and some contemporary reviewers were derisive of Olivier's Moor. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote "He does not look like a Negro (if that's what he's aiming to make the Moor)—not even a West Indian chieftain, which some of the London critics likened him to. He looks like a Rastus or an end man in an American minstrel show. You almost wait for him to whip a banjo out from his flowing, white garments or start banging a tambourine." And Robert Tanitch wrote in the book Olivier "As a film, Othello is dreary; and as a record, it may, in the long run, do a disservice to Olivier's reputation. Certainly it does not do justice to his original performance."

Peggy Ashcroft (1907-1991) did not become well known to general audiences until she was in her 70s, with her performance in the television miniseries The Jewel in the Crown and her Academy Award-winning turn in A Passage to India. But she was the greatest Shakespearean actress of the twentieth century, giving landmark performances in more Shakespearean roles than almost any performer in history. She first came to prominence in Jew Süss (1929), which led to her being cast in her first professional Shakespearean part, Desdemona opposite Paul Robeson's Othello the following year. But the part she really coveted was Juliet, so she was delighted to be offered the role at the Oxford University Dramatic Society in 1932. Male roles were played by students but the female parts were played by professional actresses enlisted by the director, who in this case was the most promising actor of the British theatre. John Gielgud had risen to the top ranks of the acting profession through his performances at the Old Vic Theatre from 1929 through 1931, and was making his directing debut with this OUDS production. He was so impressed with Ashcroft's Desdemona that he wanted her for his production, so in an age when middle-aged divas usually played Juliet, the 25 year old Ashcroft made her debut in the role. The undergraduates in the class included future director George Devine as a critically acclaimed Mercutio and future playwright Terrence Rattigan played an attendant (although his performance was so awful that his speaking lines were assigned to others), with Edith Evans being engaged to play the Nurse. "This OUDS Romeo," wrote critic Michael Billington, "was in every sense a momentous production: one that forged vital links between a group of people whose professional lives were to be inter-connected over the next three decades. If there was a sense of family in the upper echelons of British theater, it had its origins in this production."

Ashcroft was such a success as Juliet that she was invited to become the leading lady of the Old Vic in 1932/33, playing Rosalind in As You Like It, Imogen in Cymbeline, Perdita in The Winter's Tale, Miranda in The Tempest, and (again under Gielgud's direction) Portia in The Merchant of Venice. She also reprised her Juliet, this time opposite the Romeo of 20 year old Marius Goring and featuring Roger Livesey and Anthony Quayle. Her second Juliet, this time with a fully professional cast and under the direction of Old Vic artistic director Harcourt Williams, was judged an even greater accomplishment than the first. "She has the magic," wrote Ivor Brown in The Observer. "She has also the experience and can establish that transition from piping innocence to the full-throated cry of the tragedienne which has always made Juliet's part so sharp a test of dramatic scope and range."

But these productions were just precursors to the one that catapulted Ashcroft to the status of superstar. Gielgud had decided to mount a West End production of the play but, having played Romeo twice before, thought that it would be more interesting to alternate the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with another actor. The fact that the actor he finally decided to share the roles with was Laurence Olivier resulted in the staging attaining the status of myth, so it is easy to overlook the fact that it had more to offer than the gimmick of Olivier and Gielgud sharing the stage for the only time. The cast included veterans from Gielgud's OUDS staging, Evans giving her definitive performance as the Nurse and Ashcroft creating a sensation in her third attempt as Juliet. The reviews were universal raves, although Olivier was preferred by critics for his performance as Mercutio over Romeo and Gielgud was thought to be superior in both roles. Ashcroft disagreed, feeling that Gielgud defined the role of Mercutio but that Olivier was the better Romeo (although his 1940 Broadway performance of the part was the greatest fiasco of his career). But everyone agreed that Ashcroft was perfection as Juliet regardless of who she was playing opposite. The Evening Standard wrote "I cannot imagine a sweeter, sincerer or more melting Juliet. Each word and movement had a kind of sacred rapture. She was every young girl enchanted in the bitter-sweet wisdom of love." And The Daily Mail gushed "Playgoers who fervently applauded last night will never forget the Juliet of Miss Peggy Ashcroft. It was a flawless miracle."

As she grew older, Ashcroft was thought to be blessed with the gift of perpetual youth, able to convincingly play Rosalind at the age of 50 and Katharina in Taming of the Shrew opposite a Petruchio (in the form of Peter O'Toole) who was 25 years her junior. But she wisely never returned to Juliet, having already achieved perfection in the role.

Ian McKellen created a phenomenon with his Richard III which transported the play to a 1930s fascist state reminiscent of Nazi Germany. The production, directed by Richard Eyre, opened at the National Theatre in 1989 in repertoire with King Lear (in which McKellen played the Duke of Kent) and later toured the world, finally being filmed triumphantly in 1996. The theatre production contained anachronisms like the 1930s soldiers wearing armor in the battle scenes and Richard being offered the crown in Act III overwhelmed by an enormous mechanical crane - which got its own bio in the production program - that served as the balcony on which the ceremony took place. But despite these distractions, McKellen was magnificent and won the Laurence Olivier Award and Society of West End Theatres Award for the stage production. Frank Rich in the New York Times wrote "Without relinquishing any of the evil in the part, the actor finds some of the malicious humor in Richard that Brecht and Chaplin once found in Hitler. Neither a crookback nor sexually overheated, Mr. McKellen's king is a stunning antiheroic alternative to the archetypal Olivier image. He is something to see."

McKellen immortalized his performance in the brilliant 1996 film, also contributing the screenplay with director Richard Loncraine. Surrounded by a magnificent cast that included Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne, Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas, the film maintains the 1930s setting of fascist Europe but discarded the anachronisms, being far more cohesive than the stage production. Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine, "From the opening titles, which explode in a blast of artillery, to the closing image of Richard laughing on his way to a fiery hell, this is not just Shakespeare played on film. It is all movie—fully as cinematic as its clear antecedents in the killer-comedy genre, Kind Hearts and Coronets and Dr. Strangelove." McKellen received a BAFTA and Golden Globe nomination for his performance.

Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was more closely identified with Hamlet than any other actor of his generation. He had successes in other Shakespearean parts - his Iago, Benedick, and especially King Lear were widely admired - but he was so universally identified as Hamlet (surpassing even the great Henry Irving) that his image as the dark, gaunt, tortured Melancholy Dane as been absorbed into the collective consciousness as the definitive Hamlet continues to this day, recent efforts by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh to present him as a Nordic blond notwithstanding. Booth was also the first great American-born interpreter of Hamlet, first performing the role in 1857 when his career was a checkered affair because of his profligate drinking. But when his wife fell ill and he drunkenly ignored a telegram a telegram about her dire condition, causing him not to be present at her death, he gave gave up alcohol completely and proceeded to turn his life around. He took over the management of the Winter Garden Theatre and turned it into a great temple of the actor's art until Irving's Lyceum supplanted it fifteen years later. Booth put on his historic Hamlet there in early 1865 to universal acclaim and ultimately running in the part for a record 100 nights, a Broadway record that would stand for 65 years. William Winter wrote "Edwin Booth's Hamlet was the simple, absolute realization of Shakespeare's haunted Prince... It was dark, mysterious, afflicted melancholy."

When his brother John Wilkes Booth murdered Lincoln, Booth went into a brief retirement after the tragedy but dared a comeback on January 3, 1866 as Hamlet. Fearing the audience would boo him, he sat on a chair on the stage in the first scene so that they could react to him immediately. He received a rapturous standing ovation that moved him to tears. He opened the Booth's Theatre in 1869 that was managed by his brother Junius for a time, and there he staged some of the most elaborate and expensive productions in history. The theatre ultimately broke him financially, and he was forced to tour widely across the United States in order to recoup his losses. He went to England in 1880 (where he had first toured unsuccessfully in 1861), and again did not attract audiences (his Hamlet was regarded as too cold and classical by London critics) until he alternated the roles of Iago and Othello with Henry Irving, which turned the fortunes of the tour around. And when he went on to Germany, he received a rapturous reception and his Hamlet as acclaimed as the definitive interpretation. Booth continued to play the role into his 60s, making his farewell appearance as Hamlet in 1891 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

When Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) was preparing to play Henry V for the first time at the Old Vic Theatre in 1937, he had trouble in finding the underlying human being in Shakespeare's patriotic icon. Ralph Richardson advised him "I know he's a boring old schoolmaster on the face of it, but being Shakespeare he's the exaltation of all schoolmasters. He's the cold bath king, and you have to glory in it." Even so, he had problems with the character in rehearsals. "The ending to the Crispin speech was a case in point," Olivier wrote in his autobiography. "I took it gravely and quietly at rehearsals until (director) Tony Guthrie could hear it no longer. 'It's too important to your audience. You're taking the thrill out of the play, and for heaven's sake, that's all it's got!' Somebody told me that when Lewis Waller did 'Once more unto the breach' he had a side-drum roll right through it. I thought I might try that. I did, and it gave me the artificial support I needed. Alec Guinness, then only twenty-three, put on a masterly makeup and character performance as my 'Uncle of Exeter,' and the love scene at the end with Jessica Tandy (pictured) was a delight." Olivier's laborious preparations resulted in one of his most popular performances of his first Old Vic tenure, and the most important staging of the play since Charles Kean's landmark production of 1859.

But of course Olivier's Henry V is best remembered for his remarkable 1944 film version, arguably the greatest film ever to be made of a Shakespearean play. Made as World War II drew to a close, Olivier now found himself highly sympathetic to the play's patriotic themes. He first approached his Wuthering Heights director William Wyler to make it, but Wyler declined the invitation and advised Olivier to "do it yourself." Olivier took the advice and, making his first film as a director and producer, created one of the most imaginative films ever made that took the narrative from the play's premiere production in a remarkably reconstructed Globe Theatre and evolves into a a stylized cinematic rendition of the play, with sets reminiscent of a medieval Book of Hours. Eschewing the Hollywood trend of All Star Casts for Shakespearean films, Olivier cast the film brilliantly with Felix Aylmer (who would play Polonius in his 1948 film of Hamlet), Robert Helpmann, Ernest Thesiger, Robert Newton, Renée Asherson, Harcourt Williams, and Leslie Banks as the Chorus (after declining his arch-rival John Gielgud's request to play the role). The highlight of the film is Olivier's exciting performance of the "Saint Crispin's Day" speech, which is frequently used as one of the models for great classical acting.

The film was a worldwide phenomenon, winning Olivier the New York Film Critics and National Board of Review Awards for Best Actor as well as Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor and a special Oscar for "outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen" (although Olivier was said to have considered this award only a political maneuver of the Academy to take his British-made film out of competition with Hollywood product). James Agee wrote "Almost continually, it invests the art of Shakespeare--and the art of cinema as well--with a new spaciousness, a new mobility, a new radiance. Sometimes, by courageous (but never revolutionary) cuts, rearrangements and interpolations, it improves on the original. Yet its brilliance is graceful, never self assertive. It simply subserves, extends, illuminates and liberates Shakespeare’s poem."

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an All-American football player and Columbia law school graduate when he went to acting because he discovered that it was the only way a person of his race could make a decent living. Rising to stardom in shows like All Gods Chillun Got Wings (1924), The Emperor Jones (1925), Black Boy (1926), Porgy (1927), and as Joe is Show Boat (London 1928, Broadway 1932) in which his legendary performance of "Ol' Man River" became his life-long anthem, Robeson was invited to make his Shakespearean debut as Othello at the Savoy Theatre in London. Featuring a cast that included Maurice Brown as Iago, Ralph Richardson as Roderigo, Sybil Thorndyke as Emilia, and Peggy Ashcroft (making her Shakespearean debut) as Desdemona, the production was a triumph and Robeson was immediately crowned as the greatest Othello since Ira Aldridge and Tomasso Salvini in the mid nineteenth century. There was talk of taking the production to America, but Robeson demurred. "They certainly wouldn't stand in America for the kissing and the scene in which I use Miss Ashcroft roughly. I wouldn't care to play those scenes in some parts of the United States. The audience would get rough; in fact, they might become very dangerous."

Amazingly, Robeson became a film star over the next decade, appearing in The Emperor Jones (1933), Show Boat (1936) and King Solomon's Mines (1937). The time seemed right in 1943 to take his Moor to America, and directed by Margaret Webster (who had recently staged successful Broadway productions of Richard II, Hamlet, Twelfth Night and Macbeth) and featuring a distinguished cast that included José Ferrer as Iago, Uta Hagen as Desdemona and Webster as Emilia, Robeson was the toast of Broadway with his passionate interpretation of the Moor. He received ten curtain calls on opening night, and the production ran for a staggering 296 performances, a Broadway Shakespearean record that not only still stands but has never been approached. Robeson won the nascent Donaldson Award for Best Actor (a precursor to the Tonys) and no longer lived in the shadow of Ira Aldridge or Tomasso Salvini; it was his Othello that was now considered the touchstone by which all other actors playing the role had to be compared.

Robeson made few acting appearances following his Broadway triumph as Othello, largely because his left-wing political ties and devotion to civil rights causes made him virtually unemployable in the United States (although he continued to be a successful concert performer) - and after the United States government revoked his passport during the McCarthy witch-hunts he was unable to find work outside of the US. But his passport was restored in 1958, and he was able to make one final appearance as Othello at Stratford in 1959 (opposite the Iago of Sam Wanamaker [pictured], who credited the experience as starting a lifelong devotion to Shakespeare that ultimately resulted in his spearheading the rebuilding of the Globe Theatre in London), but by that time ill-health had diminished Robeson's performance to a fraction of its former greatness. But his final Moor did have its admirers: W.A. Darlington of the Daily Telegraph wrote "This represents a great advance by Mr. Robeson since he played the part in London 29 years ago, for I did not then find I could praise him wholeheartedly… he lacked that air of confident authority which a Negroid general would have to have in order to make a successful commander of European troups. He has that authority now. He is completely in control of his followers, of Cyprus and of himself. Only Iago can shake him."

Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) is frequently named, along with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, as being among the triumvirate of great Shakespearean actors of the twentieth century. A close examination of Richardson's credits indicates that this is something of an exaggeration, for while he gave triumphant performances as Bottom, Toby Belch, Enobarbus, Caliban, and Shylock, he often floundered in Shakespearean roles such as Prospero, Timon of Athens, Othello, and a particularly disastrous Macbeth. And he never achieved the remarkable Shakespearean heights that Gielgud (Hamlet, Richard II, Prospero, Lear, Benedick) or Olivier (Richard III, Macbeth, Othello, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus) reached on a regular basis, or for that matter Paul Scofield, Peggy Ashcroft or Ian McKellen, whose careers were more consistently devoted to Shakespeare than Richardson's.

Richardson was among the greatest actors of his generation though, achieving classical heights in non-Shakespearean roles like Cyrano de Bergerac, Peer Gynt, John Gabriel Borkman, Bluntschli in Arms and the Man, Sir Peter Teazle in School for Scandal, and Face in The Alchemist and consistent success in contemporary plays (far greater than Gielgud or Olivier) like The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, Johnson Over Jordan, The Heiress, Flowering Cherry, The Waltz of the Toreadors, Home, Lloyd George Knew My Father, and No Man's Land.

But Richardson's greatest success was in a Shakespearean role. In 1944 he joined with Olivier and John Burrell to act as co-directors of the newly formed Old Vic company, where he and Olivier competed with each other for giving the most immortal performance of the post-war era (Richardson's Peer Gynt to Olivier's Richard III, Richardson's Cyrano to Olivier's King Lear). Richardson's answer to Olivier's famous double act as Oedipus and Mr. Puff in The Critic was to give his own double act as Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts I and II. Given outstanding support by Olivier as Hotspur and Justice Shallow (pictured), Richardson's Falstaff was immediately regarded as the definitive interpretation of the role, obliterating the memory of Samuel Phelps and Herbert Beerbohm Tree and providing an Everest for later Falstaffs like Anthony Quayle, Orson Welles and Kevin Kline to falter at before reaching the summit. James Agate wrote of Richardson's work in Part I "He had everything the part wants - the exuberance, the mischief, the gusto…" and in Part II "Wisely, Mr. Richardson is content in this second part not to do but to be … Here is something better than virtuosity in character acting - the spirit of the part shining through the actor." After opening at the Vic in the role in 1945, Richardson toured with the Old Vic company in the two productions (in repertoire with Oedipus and The Critic) in North America throughout 1946, then giving up the role forever (despite numerous appeals to return to it) to lesser mortals who were never able to live up to his sublime artistry.

Johnston Forbes-Robertson (1853-1937) was a talented painter and designer as well as an actor, best known for playing second leads to Henry Irving (notably as Sir Lancelot in King Arthur) and as Romeo opposite Mrs. Patrick Campbell before he first played Hamlet in 1897 at the age of 44. That he finally debuted as the Melancholy Dane at Irving's Lyceum Theatre was symbolic, for Forbes-Robertson supplanted his employer's image as the definitive Hamlet of his generation in the public's eye. His poetic interpretation was immediately recognized as the century's definitive performance. "The dignity, grace of movement, and integrity of the man," wrote Ernest Short, "together with the significance and charm of his elocution made his far and away the best Hamlet of his generation. Here was beauty in full measure, coupled with an understanding of the text which alone made this Prince of Denmark perfect of its kind." When Irving saw it, he vowed never to play the part again and told Forbes-Robertson to show it to the world.

Forbes-Robertson took Irving at his word, playing Hamlet until 1916 across Europe and North America, including a surviving silent film (pictured) which indicates his greatness in the role. He claimed to never have enjoyed acting and would have been content to have spent his life as a painter, but those sentiments were not apparent to George Bernard Shaw (who would later write Caesar and Cleopatra for the actor). "Mr. Forbes-Robertson's performance," wrote Shaw in The Saturday Review, "has a continuous charm, interest, and variety which are the result not only of his well-known grace and accomplishment as an actor, but of a genuine delight - the rarest thing on our stage - in Shakespear's (sic) art, and a natural familiarity with the plane of his imagination. He does not superstitiously worship William: he enjoys him and understands his methods of expression."

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