A Star Returns to Center Stage

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Madonna! O.J.! Diana! Monica! No sooner does one star begin to fade than another emerges at the center of yet another media frenzy. Drawn from the arts, entertainment, sports and the halls of world power, the cast of characters goes on and on, perpetually pushing the limits of what's fit to print or televise and raising questions about boundaries between public and private life.

The fame and fallout of intense public scrutiny might seem to be a late 20th century phenomenon--but only to those who don't know the story of Sarah Siddons. A wildly popular 18th century English actress whose portrayals of grand victims epitomized sublime suffering, Siddons thrilled London audiences for 30 years, from a triumphal performance at Drury Lane in 1782 until her official retirement in 1812. Sparking riots among eager fans as well as the malady known as "Siddons fever," she skillfully managed her image as a model of dignified womanhood while turning herself into a marketable commodity and bringing new respectability to women who worked in the theater.

Nonetheless, fame is fleeting and, as American actor Joseph Jefferson reportedly remarked, "There's nothing as dead as a dead actor." Siddons seems to prove the point.

Despite maintaining an extraordinary level of celebrity throughout her long career and winning a place in history as England's greatest tragic actress, Siddons is mainly remembered in theatrical circles, in art museums that display her image and by fans of "All About Eve," writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 movie, in which Anne Baxter plays a conniving ingenue who wins the Sarah Siddons Award for her achievement as an actress--after betraying those who had helped her.

Mankiewicz dreamed up the award while making the film, his widow, Rosemary Mankiewicz, said. "Joe had studied the history of theater, and he was fascinated by the 18th century English actresses. He had made an in-depth study of Mrs. Siddons' life and work, so he had the prop department of 20th Century Fox make a statuette based on Joshua Reynolds' portrait of her. The statuette is presented to Anne Baxter in the opening scene."

The film itself inspired the formation of the Sarah Siddons Society in Chicago to recognize outstanding stage actresses. In another instance of life imitating art, Bette Davis, who had a leading role in "All About Eve," portrayed Siddons in a tableau vivant re-creating Reynolds' painting at the 1957 Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach.

But Siddons' star is about to rise again in an unusual collaborative venture in Southern California--which is not only the capital of the film industry but home of Reynolds' masterpiece. "Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse" is among the most treasured paintings at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

The project encompasses two art exhibitions, a play and a scholarly symposium. The J. Paul Getty Museum will present "A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists," featuring 10 paintings--with the Huntington's portrait as the centerpiece--along with the results of recent scientific analysis that illuminates the evolution of Reynolds' work.

At the Huntington, "Cultivating Celebrity: Portraits as Publicity in the Career of Sarah Siddons" will explore the actress' mystique in an eclectic assemblage of early portraits, prints illustrating her cult status, satirical caricatures and posthumous tributes, including the statuette from "All About Eve." Both shows will open Tuesday and run through Sept. 19.

The theatrical component is "The Affliction of Glory: A Comedy About Tragedy," a new play written by Frank Dwyer and produced in association with the Center Theatre Group / Mark Taper Forum, to be presented at the Getty on Aug. 19-Sept. 5. The conference, "Performing Arts: Alliances of Studio and Stage in Britain, 1776-1812," will engage an international group of scholars at the Huntington on Sept. 10-11.

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Four years in the making, the collaborative project will revive a fascinating character who lived from 1755 to 1831. The daughter of strolling theatrical players, Siddons made her first documented stage appearance at the age of 11, was married at 19 and gave birth to the first of eight children the following year, but soon distinguished herself in various touring companies. Following a performance in Bath in 1782, when the 27-year-old actress was eight months pregnant with her fifth child, she announced that she must move to London to provide for her family. A few months later she took London by storm, playing the title role of the tragedy "Isabella" at Drury Lane.

Captivating as it is, the story of her life is only one of several reasons the Getty, Huntington and Taper have been stricken with "Siddons Fever." Hoping the new strain of the disease will be contagious, leaders of the project plan to explore how portraiture became a publicity vehicle (for artists as well as their subjects), examine the process of creating portraits and probe relationships between the theater and art.

The collaboration began in 1995 with conversations between Mark Leonard, the Getty's paintings conservator, and Giles Waterfield, then director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Getty conservators often restore works from other museums, some of which are then displayed for a few months at the Getty, so Leonard was considering a project with the London collection.

"Walking through the Dulwich galleries, I came across their version of 'Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse,' which was painted in 1789, five years after the Huntington portrait," Leonard said. The painting had yellowed and clearly needed help, but it caught Leonard's eye mainly because he saw an opportunity to compare it to the Huntington's portrait.

"The Dulwich picture had always been called a Reynolds," Leonard said. "But Reynolds had an enormous studio, and scholars had always wondered how much of a hand he really had in the production of this picture."

Upon his return to Los Angeles, Leonard contacted Shelley Bennett, curator of British and European art at the Huntington. Building on a professional relationship that began with a 1994-95 Getty grant for technical analysis of the Huntington's British pictures, they began talking about an exhibition of the two Reynolds portraits at the Getty Museum.

Even if that is all that had evolved, it would have been noteworthy, marking the first time the Huntington had loaned a major work from its collection and the first reunion of the two portraits since they left Reynolds' studio 200 years ago. But Bennett had a bigger idea, so she enlisted the help of Robyn Asleson, a Huntington research associate then based in London, where she was unearthing a huge body of information for a catalog of the museum's British paintings.

"I had already done quite a lot of archival work on Siddons, going through her diaries and letters, which are quite juicy," Asleson said. "So when Shelley sat me down and laid all this out, we brainstormed about doing an exhibition at the Getty with Mark's conservation analysis of the Reynolds portraits as a core section.

"We decided it would be interesting to see how different artists looked at one subject, especially when that subject had already had a portrait made of her. Reynolds made his portrait within the first year or so of her arrival in London, and her career went on for about 30 years after that. We were interested in how other artists responded to his work. The last word had already been said in the first word, so they really had to stretch themselves to come up with other interpretations."

The Getty show evolved with the addition of works by Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney and Thomas Lawrence, among others. The Dulwich picture arrived last summer at the museum's conservation lab, where Leonard studied it with Bennett and Getty conservation scientists and removed discolored varnish.

"Once we had the pictures here and spent a lot of time with them, we concluded that the Huntington picture is entirely by Reynolds' own hand, which is unusual for him because he had assistants who did drapery, landscapes and other secondary parts," Leonard said. "But this is a picture that he didn't let anybody else touch."

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In sharp contrast, the Dulwich picture "is entirely by a studio assistant," Leonard said. "The things that begin to jump out at you in the Huntington painting are the quality of the face and the refinement of details. There's a coarser feel in the Dulwich picture; the features are broader and the underlying bone structure is less clear." Among other telltale signs are a pearl necklace that twists gracefully in the Huntington painting but lies unnaturally flat in the Dulwich version.

With the Getty show shaping up, Bennett decided the Huntington should have a companion piece. She also asked Asleson to organize both exhibitions and edit an accompanying book. Then the problem was what kind of show the Huntington might present.

"The Getty's exhibition was really meant to be made up of masterpieces, major statements that were trying to rival Reynolds, and to focus on ways that the artists and the actress worked together to reinvent her image and sustain her popularity over a long period," Asleson said. "At the Huntington, we decided to show that before there was television and photography, portraiture was the way celebrities' images were created and disseminated to a wide audience. Portraiture was very much a public relations tool as well as a fine art."

With her excitement about the project growing, Bennett said she was determined to produce a special publication that would appeal to both the public and scholars and include extensive technical information about Leonard's findings, so she and Edward J. Nygren, director of the Huntington Art Collections, persuaded the Getty to publish a book about Siddons.

"Concurrently, we planned to do a symposium to reach the scholarly audience that is critical to the Huntington and the Getty," Bennett said. "The Paul Mellon Center in London is co-sponsoring that, and they are interested in publishing the papers as a book."

Meanwhile, Leonard broached the subject of a play with Corey Madden, associate artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum. She had helped the Getty to produce classical theater in a museum setting, and immediately agreed to direct a new play about Siddons.

"As I began to find out about who Siddons was, it seemed to me that of the people I knew in Los Angeles who could get involved in the material, Frank was ideal," Madden said of Dwyer, a playwright and literary manager of the Taper. "He loves the period and is very well-tutored in it. I knew he would bring a kind of passion not only to Siddons but to the cultural phenomenon that was the 18th century."

Dwyer reacted with mixed feelings. "I was glad to have a commission to write a play, and sorry that Sarah Siddons wasn't Nell Gwynn," he said, referring to the 17th century actress who became the mistress of Charles II and bore him two sons. "You've got such wonderful characters with Nell Gwynn--Charles II and the Earl of Rochester and Mrs. Barry. When I first looked at Sarah, I thought she had a sort of unexceptional life, stayed away from scandal and was as noble domestically as she was on stage. And yet, the more I discovered about her the more her voice spoke to me," Dwyer said.

"The six or seven now-unreadable tragedies that she played for 30 years had such a strong effect on her audience that men wept and women had hysterics, went into convulsions and had to be helped crying and screaming from the theater.

"Why? Once you try to recover any historical person, so many agendas are at play. How you find the truth, the relative truth, became very interesting to me," he said.

"One thing I realized was that Sarah elevated her art in an extraordinary way. The idea of a woman on stage to be looked at and admired as a woman of substance and stature--and respect even, and veneration even--was almost unimaginable. It makes her a kind of feminist icon even though that would surprise her.

"She was an 18th century wife," Dwyer said. "She didn't control the money she earned. She was given an allowance by her husband. She couldn't vote. She couldn't own property. She couldn't sign a contract on her own. Her husband had absolute authority over the children by law. Yet she was the wage earner. Sarah ratified the values of her time. But at the same time, she pops so completely out of that frame that the world can never be quite the same again."

Dwyer said he tries to "get at her voice" in several different ways during the course of the play, and he has a few secrets he won't divulge. But far from having written a downer about a victim, he has created a comedy that deals with Siddons' frustration about being typecast as a tragic actress and prevented from playing comic roles. He also speculates that Reynolds, who was extremely disciplined, envied Gainsborough's free style. "I posit that Sarah and Sir Joshua are both sad because they are not funny, and that's part of why I call the play 'The Affliction of Glory: A Comedy About Tragedy.' "

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Staging the play at the Getty's ultra-modern auditorium presented challenges, Madden said. "One of the things that I think is a real virtue of this piece is that it's so much about the time and Siddons' place in it. We had a great opportunity to look not just at the world of painting, but also the world of the theater and how both of those worlds created the 18th century, which you could say created us.

"We are going to view Siddons from our perspective in a Richard Meier building, and that's something I want the audience to feel," she said. "But we can use slides and sound to create a pure fantasy of what a Siddons' performance might have been like and what's still reverberating about her. We can be transported to the 18th century briefly through what theater people do best, emotional fantasy. In a very deep way, we conjure truth, but poetic truth."

Now that all the pieces have fallen into place, Bennett said she is "just thrilled" because the project "is doing everything that one would hope--reinventing the idea of local institutions collaborating to create something that is interdisciplinary, multi-event and is hitting a wide range of audience."

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"A Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists," J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Tue.-Sept. 19. Hours: Tue.-Wed., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thur.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is free; parking costs $5. Parking reservations required: (310) 440-7300.

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"Cultivating Celebrity: Portraiture as Publicity in the Career of Sarah Siddons," Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, Tue.-Sept. 19. Hours: Tue.-Sun., 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. through Sept. 5; noon-4:30 p.m. thereafter. Admission: adults $8.50, seniors $7, students $5, children under 12 free. (626) 405-21441.

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"The Affliction of Glory: A Comedy About Tragedy," Harold M. Williams Auditorium, Getty Center. Evening performances, Aug. 19-21, 26-28 and Sept. 2-4, 8 p.m.; weekend matinees, Aug. 21-22, 28-29 and Sept. 4-5, 2:30 p.m.; previews Aug. 14, 8 p.m. and Aug. 15, 2:30 p.m.. Tickets: $28, students and seniors $22, previews $12. Tickets include parking reservations, for up to three hours before the performance. Reservations: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.Taper/Ahmanson.com.

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