Mrs Kendal on The Drama

Madge Kendal
Madge Kendal – NPG

Margaret, or Madge, Robertson married fellow actor, William Kendal, in 1869, she was 21 years old. Madge was from a large theatrical family that had been treading the boards since Garrick’s time, a century before.

Her father, William Robertson, was a popular actor-manager primarily operating in and around Lincoln, where Madge was born and the family lived.

William Robertson was not just a hard working professional, he was something of a thinker and philosopher. At some point in his career he wrote  an essay, which was only published after his death as part of his daughter’s biography. In ‘The Actor’s Social Position’ Robertson writes:

'The most painful penalty of an actor's social position results in its isolation from every community of interest with others, that forms and cements the elements of mutual protection. He stands alone in the world, a solitary abstraction, an undefined, unrecognised, disregarded alien, amidst a world of worldly minded sects, classes and combinations that, knowing the advantage of union, are linked fortified and impregnable in the iron-clad armour of self love. All social hypocrites in modern society make him their target' 

We immediately form a picture of the ostracised actor, kept at arms-length from every part of society and yet there for society’s entertainment and enjoyment. He goes on to say:

'In my early days a company of actors never entered a town but there appeared posted on every wall large placards denouncing our pursuit, and the pulpits of every creed poured forth their anathemas against us.' 

The church had long opposed acting as a profession and regularly preached against attendance at theatres for fear of being morally corrupted from the stage. Robertson goes on to describe an incident witnessed early in his career:

'I well remember some thirty years ago how five clergymen at Devonport, near Plymouth, petitioned the magistrates not to grant a license to the theatre, one of the arguments they advanced to justify refusal being that if an actor constantly represented a villainous character he must become imbued with the sentiments he repeatedly expressed, and that as a matter of consequence his own nature must become identical with the parts he was in the habit of embodying.'

Robertson wouldn’t be the first or last to express frustration at the lack of understanding for his profession. It would be during his daughter’s era that acting would finally be acknowledged as one of the ‘arts’ and receive the respect it deserved.

Madge Kendal The DramaMr and Mrs Kendal enjoyed distinguished and full careers as actors and in 1879, at the height of their fame, joined with the comedian John Hare to take over the management of the St James theatre in London, where the husband and wife team often played the lead roles.

Such was their popularity that in 1884 Madge Kendal was asked if she would speak at the annual Social Science Congress, which was to be held in Birmingham. Fortunately the Kendal’s were touring the same week as the Congress and she accepted. Following in her father’s footsteps her speech was on ‘The Drama’ and compared aspects of the stage from the past and present to demonstrate the improvements and what they have meant for audiences, the profession and society. 

'In the old days the utmost disorder was allowed to exist in the half lights auditorium. Eating and drinking were freely indulged in; smoking was permitted; wine spirits and tobacco were hawked about; card playing was resorted to between the acts; the more distinguished among the audience were allowed to walk and sit on the stage and converse with the performers. It was no disgrace in those days for gentlemen of good social position to be seen tipsy at the play, and of course drunken brawls and disgraceful quarrels were a frequent occurrence.'

Echoing her father’s remarks she told the audience:

'The theatrical profession was considered outside, if not beneath, all others and was regarded with something like contempt. It was a wrong, a cruel an absurd state of things, for even then the theatre was popular and was doing good work.'

However, feelings about the profession had started to change for the better:

'The Theatrical Profession is acknowledged to be a high and important one and the society of the cultivated and intelligent actor is eagerly sought after.'

Kendal didn’t just focus on the actor but also described improvements that had enhanced the experience for the audience. She detailed the advances in lighting, seating in the auditorium, and the increased attention to detail of sets and costumes. Like many others who were leaders in her profession, she believed strongly that theatre could educate not just entertain:

'Another advance that may be claimed for the Drama in these days of its improvement is its influence as a teacher - for a teacher it has always been, and ever will be.'

Kendal provided a balanced lecture and she was the first to admit that one of the less desirable aspects of the profession was ‘ego’. 

'No lover of Dramatic Art can look with satisfaction on the many ways it is now advertised. Neither the painter or the poet considers it advisable to fill the columns of daily papers with the monotonous repetition of what this or that critic has said of his work, or to keep his name constantly, and with wearisome persistency, before the public. The extent to which some carry out this system, and the pains taken over it is simply beyond all description. An insatiable thirst for newspaper paragraphs is always tormenting them, and in every action of their lives, the thought of "How will that advertise me?" Or "How can I use this as an advertisement?" Is predominant."
'This absurd mania seems to be in great measure, I am sorry to say, peculiar to members of the Theatrical Profession and it assuredly does not add to their dignity. It is done in manifold ways in what are known as "receptions" at theatres, in railway station "demonstrations", by photography, and by speech making, and one and all are degrading to the Drama.'

The paper was a success and Mrs Kendal received sincere congratulations from the organisers. The press were also enthusiastic

Her paper on The Drama was read before an appreciative audience, and it deserved the appreciation it received, the paper was the success of the Congress.’ ‘

The interest felt beforehand in Mrs Kendal’s lecture was quite justified by what she actually said.’

‘Mrs Kendal treated her theme as might have been expected, with the cleverness of clever woman, endowed like most other clever women with an intelligence of the acute rather then the reflective order and, in consequence, far better wroth listening to..’

Madge Kendal was made a Dame in 1926 and died in 1935 aged 87.



Kendal, M. The Drama, David Bogue, London (1884)

Pemberton, T. E. The Kendals: A Biography, New York, (1900)

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Henry Irving – journey to fame

Henry Irving - journey to fameIt is often stated that Henry Irving became an overnight success with his performance in November 1871 as the mentally tortured murderer, Mathias, in The Bells. Whilst this is true there were three other significant performances with which Irving made his name and earned a worthy reputation. Henry Irving – journey to fame

From 1856 until 1866 Irving spent the majority of his time working as part of the theatre ‘company of actors’ in places like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool. He also spent time at other theatres around the country and returned briefly to London in 1859 only to leave again when he realised that the roles he was hoping for were not being offered.

It would be fair to say that until 1865 Irving was just another competent actor who pleased audiences and critics but primarily played supporting roles to the leading actor in whatever company he was working. Then he did something that made him stand out, not just as actor but as a performer who could hold the attention of an audience on his own, and an intelligence that demonstrated he completely understood how theatre worked.

The Davenport Brothers

Henry Irving
The Davenport Bros

The Davenport Brothers were Americans, who along with an American pastor, conned audiences into believing that the brothers had paranormal powers – a trait that ran in the family apparently. Their ‘Public Cabinet Séance’ evenings saw the two brothers have their hands tied behind their backs and sat down in a cabinet. When the door closed audiences would gasp as they heard musical instruments being played, objects thrown from the cabinet and evening hands waving. When the doors were opened the brothers were still seated and tied up. This was being sold as theatre and Irving, who thought that it lowered the tone of what theatre should be (moral and educative) set out to demonstrate that the Davenport Brothers were fraudsters.

davenport 2By studying their show Irving was able to work out exactly how they were able to demonstrate paranormal powers and along with two friends, Irving rewrote the show as a parody.

On Saturday February 25th 1865, in the Library Hall of the Athenaeum Manchester, an audience of invited guests gathered for what was billed as a ‘Private séance a la Davenport’. In reality the audience were treated to a satirical exposé that demonstrated that three competent actors could replicate the entire Davenport act with no pretentions of unexplained phenomena or spiritual intervention. The Davenport Brothers were furious, their international reputation was in tatters and Irving made national headlines as the actor who exposed them for what they were. Irving was now a name and to those theatre managers who already knew him, his potential had suddenly increased.

Hunted Down

Dion Boucicault
Dion Boucicault

In 1866 while Irving was working in Liverpool he received a letter from Dion Boucicault. Boucicault was an Irish actor and playwright but known mainly for his writing, particularly the very popular Corsican Brothers, London Assurance, and Colleen Bawn. Two years earlier Irving had played the character of Hardress Cregan in Colleen Bawn, which was also the play that changed the industry when Boucicault demanded a royalty for each performance rather than just a one-off fee. By the time Boucicault wrote to Irving he was an important playwright and extremely rich. Incidentally, Boucicault had met the Davenport Brothers the year before.

The letter asked Irving if he would come to Manchester to appear in a new play that Boucicault had written, which would eventually be called Hunted Down but for now was called The Two lives of Mary Leigh. Irving quickly realised the significance of the offer and understood that Boucicault was testing the new play before taking it to London. With that in mind Irving accepted the part of Rawdon Scudamore on the basis that he should retain the part if the play moved to London. Boucicault had no objections.

The drama of the play is summed by the character Mary Leigh ‘I was married, ten years ago, when barely sixteen years of age, to a gentleman named Rawdon Scudamore. He was on the turf. Having won a large sum from my poor father, I offered my fortune-a few thousand pounds inherited from my mother-to discharge the debt; but the money being settled on me was only accessible to a husband. On the day of our marriage, even in the vestry, when I had signed the register, the man deserted me.’ Mary, assuming that Scudamore was dead, remarries as a widow and now has two children.

Irving played Scudamore, who hunted down his wife after spending a number of years on the run for his crimes and had recently returned from France ‘I ask no better than to leave you alone; but the fact is, on arriving to England three months ago I found myself broke; then I thought of you; not that I expected to get anything out of you; so at first I took little interest in the pursuit, but as I was baffled or recovering the scent it became quite an exciting chase; you were never in sight, but I felt like a hound on your track. I persevered, and here we are.’

Scudamore blackmails his wife for money and she is tormented by the humiliation she has brought upon her family – an illegal marriage and illegitimate children. Scudamore threatens to invoke his power as her husband, which would include claiming her children as his. Just when it seems as if Mary will kill herself to end the persecution, there’s a twist – Scudamore is shot by another woman who admits that she was his wife before he illegally married Mary Leigh, thus restoring dignity to Mary and her family.

Two Roses

The play transferred to the St James theatre in London with Irving in the same role. Thomas H. S. Escott recalled G. S. Lewis and George Eliot watching Irving at the St James. Lewis ventured “In twenty years he will be at the head of the English stage.” Eliot replied “He is there already I think.”

Irving was now finally working in London, the home of theatre and great acting. He remained at the St James under contract until 1867 and spent the next three years going between various London theatres, performing with Ellen Terry for the first time, getting married to Florence O’Callaghan, enjoying the birth of his first child and performing in front of Charles Dickens who declared “if that young man does not come out one day as a great actor, I know nothing of art.”.

Henry Irving
Irving as Digby Grant

It was June 1870 when Irving’s next significant opportunity arose. Henry James Montague, Thomas Thorne and David James opened the Vaudeville Theatre in April 1870 with a comedy For Love or Money, Irving played the part of Alfred Skimmington, receiving positive reviews for his portrayal, although the play overall was deemed unsuccessful. By June the managers had found a new play written by James Albery, called Two Roses. It was another comedy about fortunes won and lost, status and dignity. The ‘two roses’ of the title were the daughters of Digby Grant, a man born into a social position that his finances couldn’t afford but his pride couldn’t let go of. Critics and audiences loved it and Irving stood out, ‘Rarely has Mr H. Irving been more successfully fitted than with the part of the pompous old humbug Digby Grant. The artistic finish of the actor was displayed in every tone and gesture, and the impersonation must be pronounced complete.’ reported The Era magazine.

Irving played Digby in London and on tour nearly 300 times and the following year Hezekiah Bateman offered him a three year contract to join the Lyceum, where he started in September 1871. Two months later he would be a household name.

For more about Henry Irving and his views on The Art of  Acting click here

Henry Irving – journey to fame Henry Irving – journey to fame

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