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.
Mr 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)