Sarah Siddons was an actress born in Wales and was the most famous tragedienne of the 18th century, most notably for her role as Lady Macbeth, the wife of the play’s protagonist in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
She is also remembered for her fainting at the sight of the Elgin Marbles in London. Every year, in Chicago, the Sarah Siddons Award is given to a prominent actress by the Sarah Siddons Society.
Sarah was born in 1755 in a family of actors, most of them quite famous around the country. Her father, Roger Kemble, was the manager of the Warwickshire Company of Comedians, a touring theater company that included the rest of the family members – John Philip Kemble, Charles Kemble, Stephen Kemble, Ann Hatton and Elizabeth Whitlock.
Sarah was 19-years-old when she attracted the attention of David Garrick, an actor and theater manager while playing Belvidera in Thomas Otway’s “Venice Preserved.” Garrick sent a deputy of his to give his judgment of Siddons’ performance as Calista in Nicholas Rowe’s “Fair Penitent.”
Through this she gained employment at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, however, due to her inexperience and certain circumstances, her involvement with the theater soon ended, with a note from the manager saying that her services would no longer be required.
For the next six years, Sarah worked in companies in the provinces, particularly in York and Bath. Apparently, her performances were getting better, and Sarah appeared at the Theatre Royal, King Street, in Bristol. She gradually built up her reputation so that when Sarah next performed on Drury Lane, in 1782, she was filled with such confidence and didn’t even have to wait for someone to judge her work. She gave a remarkably successful performance in Garrick’s adaptation of “Isabella, or, The Fatal Marriage,” a play by Thomas Southerne.
Sarah was tall, and her figure was striking. Her beauty was breathtaking, with powerfully expressive eyes, and a solemn dignity of demeanor, making her the perfect match for Lady Macbeth. She reached the peak of her acting abilities with this role and won the audience over, her performance becoming legendary. Following on from that, Siddons also played Volumnia, Ophelia, Desdemona, and Rosalind, all of them to great acclaim. Another part that allowed Sarah to show the depth of skill of her acting powers fully, was as Queen Catherine in “Henry VIII,” her favorite role, as she had allegedly told Samuel Johnson because it felt the most natural to her.
Along with Hannah Murphy, Siddons was an established cultural icon of the mid-1780s. While in London, she socialized with the artistic and social elites in the city, and her friends included Hester Thrale Piozzi, William Windham, Edmund Burke, and Samuel Johnson. And yet, she loved acting so much that she continued to perform in the provinces.
Sarah Siddons was a star. A charismatic character that enchanted everybody on and off stage. Unfortunately, her private life wasn’t as bright as her social life and acting career. In 1773, when she was only 18, Sarah married the actor, William Siddons.
They had seven children together, but Sarah outlived five of them, while her marriage ended up in an informal separation. Sarah died in 1831, at the age of 75, and was interred there in Saint Mary’s Cemetery at Paddington Green.