Sarah Siddons and the Performance of Pregnancy

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Information on how to contribute is available here. Today’s post is contributed by Chelsea Phillips, a PhD candidate in Theatre at Ohio State University.

Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) was the leading actress of her day and specialized in playing tragic wives, mothers, and queens. She was also a mother to seven children and performed throughout each of her pregnancies, usually up to about a month before birth.

In 1785, Drury Lane theatre was facing a major dilemma: Siddons was pregnant and due in December, the middle of the season. With the theatre dependent on Siddons’ powerful and lucrative performances, the managers had to accommodate her needs as a pregnant woman while remaining financially solvent. Fortunately for Siddons and the theatre, it was common for women at the time to remain socially active until shortly before birth, meaning Siddons could perform throughout the fall.

Thomas Gainsborough. Mrs. Sarah Siddons (1785). National Gallery of Art.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Gainsborough. Mrs. Sarah Siddons (1785). National Gallery of Art.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The public was intensely interested in Siddons’ pregnancy. From the time it was announced, well-wishes, speculation on parts she might (or should) play while pregnant, and even guesses at the sex of the baby, made regular appearances in London papers. Drury Lane capitalized on this interest, featuring her in popular parts, providing her with lavish new costumes, and counting down Siddons’ appearances as her lying-in approached. Her repertoire reflected no concern about verisimilitude in regard to her pregnancy; in addition to her usual wives, mothers, and queens, she played the novice nun Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Siddons’ pregnant performances were taken as indicative of her commitment to her profession and to the public. As the pregnancy progressed, however, Siddons’ intense playing style made some fear for her health. After watching Jane Shore one audience member wrote, “our concern for the actress got the better of our feelings for the character she was to perform…The audience seemed more than once frightened for her…”[1] Shortly after this complaint, Siddons “declar’d” she could not “with safety” continue to play in tragedy.[2] In response, the managers cast Siddons in a less demanding comic part for her final few performances.

Siddons’ pregnancy enabled her to strengthen her associations with prominent women. The queen sent her special powders to preserve the actress’ health, and Siddons hired Dr. James Ford, the queen’s most recent accoucheur, to attend her during labor. Both actions suggested that Siddons’ maternal health was a matter of national importance. Furthering Siddons’ associations with aristocratic women, the papers announced the birth with declarations that Siddons was “in the straw,” referencing an aristocratic ritual that involved laying straw around the home of the parturient woman.

On stage, Siddons’ pregnancy caused a variety of responses: audiences could ignore it (as when she played the nun Isabella), they could be distracted by it (as was the case with Jane Shore), or it could be read as part of the fiction, adding to her already powerful performances. The latter happened quite strongly, and quite strangely, with Lady Macbeth.

Siddons was a master at using her offstage status as wife and mother to bolster her celebrity and the verisimilitude of her onstage performances. At her London debut in 1782, she played widow and mother Isabella in The Fatal Marriage with her eight-year-old son Henry playing Isabella’s son. The newspapers wrote, “Mrs. Siddons, of Drury-lane theatre, has a lovely boy about eight years old—Yesterday at the rehearsal of the fatal marriage, the boy observing [his] mother in the agonies of the dying scene, took the fiction for reality, and burst out into a flood of tears…”[3] This anecdote invited the audience, like Henry, to take the fiction for reality, and primed them to read Siddons’ Isabella as a performance of her own maternity.

When Siddons played Lady Macbeth while pregnant, her body underscored her personal interpretation of the character. Siddons described Lady Macbeth as a mother who has “really felt the maternal yearnings of a mother towards her babe.”[4] She believed the character not an inhuman monster, but a tragic heroine who becomes victim to her own ambition. While Siddons’ “Remarks” were written at the end of a long and successful career, the press began to associate Lady Macbeth with Siddons’ pregnancy almost as soon as they were aware of her condition:

…To [Siddons] we will however say, ‘Bring forth male children only!’—For with reference to her great talents—we hope will spring…Some who may act up to her Lady of Macbeth, and return all her excellence with equal force…[5]

Siddons’ pregnancy inspired a reproductive fantasy in which the child she carried came into the world with the sole purpose of allowing Siddons to finally perform Lady Macbeth opposite a worthy Thane; a Thane which can only be her son, the male version of herself.

In 1785, Siddons’ pregnancy fired audience members’ imaginations and advanced her career. Her position as the most important company member at Drury Lane was assured, her status as a woman of quality furthered, and her personal identification with and interpretation of the figure of Lady Macbeth secured.

 

About the author

Chelsea Phillips is a PhD Candidate and Presidential Fellow at Ohio State University in the United States. Her dissertation “Carrying All Before Her:” Pregnancy and Performance on the British State in the Long Eighteenth Century, studies the impact of visible pregnancy on the lives and careers of seven celebrity actresses. Her research has been funded by a Coca-Cola Critical Difference for Women grant and Ohio State’s Alumni Grant for Graduate Research and Scholarship. Her work appears in Shakespeare Expressed: Page, Stage, and Classroom in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Fairleigh Dickinson Press, 2013) and the journal Testi e Linguaggi v.7 (University of Salerno, 2014).

 

___________

[1] Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser. 10 November 1785. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. Access provided by Ohio State University. Gale, 2014.

[2] Mary Tickell to Elizabeth Sheridan. [20 November 1785.] Folger Shakespeare Library Manuscripts. Y.d.35, f.202.

[4] Siddons, Sarah Kemble. “Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth” in Thomas Campbell. Life of Mrs. Siddons. 2 vols. London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1834. 2:18.

[5] Public Advertiser. 19 July 1785. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. Access provided by Ohio State University. Gale, 2014.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Sarah Siddons and the Performance of Pregnancy

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