note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Carl A. Rossi
Introduction … Frederick Clifton Packard, Jr. (recording)
Narrator … Margaret Webster
from ROMEO AND JULIET:
Balcony Scene … Julia Marlowe
Balcony Scene … Eva Le Gallienne
Balcony Scene … Claire Danes
Potion Scene … Ellen Terry
from THE TAMING OF THE SHREW:
Katharine’s Final Speech … Julia Marlowe
Katharine’s Final Speech … Mary Pickford
Katharine’s Final Speech … Elizabeth Taylor
Letter Scene … Margaret Webster
Letter Scene … Sybil Thorndike
Sleepwalking Scene … Eva La Gallienne
Hamlet’s Soliloquy (in French) … Sarah Bernhardt
Hamlet’s Soliloquy … Margaret Webster
Ophelia’s Mad Scene … Ellen Terry
For three evenings and one afternoon at the Zero Arrow Theatre in Cambridge, a willowy actress in a bottle-green gown, breeches hidden, underneath, performed her recital SHAKESPEARE’S ACTRESSES IN AMERICA, the most entrancing Bard encounter I’ve seen in ages. The actress, Rebekah Maggor --- remember her name --- worked her magic not by what she said but in how she said it, performing Shakespeare as celebrated actresses have done in the past, based upon detailed research, a gift for mimicry and, of course, her own superb instrument. What reads like a gimmick on paper became an illuminating lesson on changing fashions in declamation ranging from Julia Marlowe’s sing-song to Ellen Terry’s bleats and Sarah Bernhardt’s rattle, from Dame Sybil Thorndike tolling like a brass bell and Mary Pickford pouting a la Shirley Temple to Elizabeth Taylor’s clipped haughtiness and Claire Danes’ flatness geared for younger audiences, with Eva La Gallienne and narrator Margaret Webster as satisfying compromises. Ms. Maggor did not settle for stock impersonations but captured each woman’s unique style and three-dimensional actresses stepped forward once again to channel their beloved Bard; as Ms. Maggor comments through Ms. Webster, Shakespeare's players, not his scholars, are his best interpreters.
But Shakespeare should be seen as well as heard and thanks to Dan Cozzens’ subtle tempering and Anna Weiss’ period movement, Ms. Maggor offered indelible images such as Sarah Bernhardt entering with arms raised high, shamelessly inviting universal worship, or the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth groping her way through nightmare, or the pleasure alone of a beautiful woman crossing the stage like a ship in full sail, her train flowing in line behind her. Lady Macbeth benefited from Ms. Maggor’s demonstration that the character’s steely resolve must be balanced by womanliness and vulnerability for full tragic impact (after all, the good lady must first have something to unsex, no?) and I had never found Ophelia’s Mad Scene affecting, onstage, up until now. Voices aside, other Ophelias had cropped hair and modern-day clothing; Ms. Maggor unpinned her tresses, donned another flowing garment (white, this time) and slipped into mad iconography --- in other words, Ms. Maggor let down her hair and then let down her hair. Perfect sense, and a great scene, after all.
Should Ms. Maggor and her ladies choose to tour, may they find audiences as warmly responsive as those at the two performances that I attended. The time could not have been better spent, nor the Bard better served.