THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH THEATRE (1880-1920)
by Sydney Higgins
|(signed postcard, gloss, Rotary Photo, 1794K, c.1907)||(signed postcard, gloss, Rotary Photo, 1794J, c.1909)|
Edith Wynne Matthison was born on 23 November, 1875, in Birmingham (GB) where she subsequently attended the King Edward's School and the Midland Institute for French and German. She began acting and reciting in amateur groups. Years later, in an interview published in The New York Times on Februuary 23, 1908, she recalled her first performance.
I must confess that my adoption of a stage career as not inspired by love of art - a feeling that I had been called to astonish the world with an unusual talent. I went on the stage in order to earn my living, and my first effort was in a musical comedy. It was in The School Girl. Not the Edna May play, but the Minnie Palmer one Some one asked me who discovered America, and it was my duty to answer 'Columbus' the first word I spoke on stage.
This striking, vivacious and sensitive young woman was soon noticed and was invited to join the Ben Greet Players - the last great British stock company that provided an excellent training ground for many aspiring and subsequently successful actors including, a couple of years later, Sybil Thorndike. Soon, Edith Wynne Matthison was taking major roles in the company's productions. In February 1900, for example, she played Rosalind to Ben Greet's Touchstone in his production of As You Like It at the Comedy Theatre
Another young player in the company was Charles Rann Kennedy (1871-1950), the grandson of the famous classical scholar of the same name. Unfortunately, when Kennedy was eleven, his father died, leaving the family in poverty. The boy had to finish his education and start work in a telegraph office when he was thirteen. A few days later, much attracted to the theatre, he was given walk-on parts in Beerbohm Tree's company. He and Wynne Matthison fell in love and, although almost penniless, married.
The young couple were delighted then when, in 1902, Ben Greet announced that, under the management of Charles Frohman, he was going to take to the United States the production of Everyman, first presented the year before by William Poel and the Elizabethan Stage Society of London. The original production had only limited commercial and critical success, but in New York the play was a sensation. This was due mainly to Wynne Matthison who, somewhat unexpectedly, played the lead part of Everyman in the fifteenth-century morality play. (Her husband was the Doctor and the Messenger.) With similar popular and critical success as Rosalind in As You Like It, she became the talk and toast of the town.
On her return to England, Wynne Matthison was invited by Sir Henry Irving to take part in his extended farewell tour, playing Portia to his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. After Irving's unexpected death in 1905, she went on to play the lead roles in Gilbert Murray's translations of the Euripides plays The Trojan Women (1905) and Electra (1906) that were staged by Granville Barker for the Stage Society at the Court Theatre, London. At the same theatre, in April 1907, she played the lead in the controversial suffragette play, Votes for Women, by Elizabeth Robins.
Shortly afterwards, she and her husband left England to return to New York where she first took over the lead role, created by Margaret Anglin, in the long-running play, William Vaughn Moody's The Great Divide, produced by Henry Miller at the Princess Theatre. Once again acclaimed and feted, Wynne Matthison and Charles Rann Kennedy clearly enjoyed being in the United States. After a four-week run, she starred in two plays written by her husband. The first of these, The Servant in the House, produced by Miller, opened at the Savoy Theatre on March 23, 1908. In addition to Wynne Matthison, it also starred Walter Hampden but, being a modern morality play, it did not have popular appeal and ran for only 80 performances. The Winterfeast, Kennedy's second play - a tragedy set in Iceland in the early Twelfth Century - was even less popular. The plays did, however, ensure the actress and her playwright husband received the warmest of welcomes into America's cultural elite.
... Among those younger English actresses who of recent years have visited this country, none has won her way quicker into the favor of our audiences than Edith Wynne Matthison. Her beautiful poetic interpretation of Everyman, in the old morality play, created a profound impression. Her splendid gift of eloquence, her fine intelligence, her personal magnetism, at once brought her into prominence. The critics, weary of mediocrity, hailed with enthusiasm the new star, who had come practically unheralded, even unnamed, for it is a fact that on the occasion of her first appearance in New York as Everyman, when everybody recognized an actress of unusual ability and charm, her name did not appear on the official program of the play.
It was written of Miss Matthison about that time:
'As Everyman she portrays almost all the human emotions, from
light-hearted indifference and a full-blooded enjoyment of life and its
good things, through incredulity, fear, anger, rebelliousness,
supplication, despair, repentance, confession, pain, resignation and
submission to final peace. That one woman should be able to express all
these phases of feeling, and to sustain the part for almost two hours
of uninterrupted effort would be marvel enough; but Miss Matthison is
Everyman for those two hours, and her tears are as genuine at the one
hundredth performance as they were at the first. Therein lies her
power; in her absolute sincerity, and in her absorption in her part. To
talent, nature has added the gift of beauty. She has eloquent eyes, a
mobile mouth, and hands so full of expression and of feeling that they
alone tell the story without need of words.'
Miss Matthison scored success in every one of the many characters she assayed, and became the theme on every tongue. Everywhere you met the query, 'Have you seen Edith Wynne Matthison?'
On returning to England, Miss Matthison had the opportunity of appearing under her own management in a London theatre but, at the same time, the late Sir Henry Irving made her an offer to join his company as leading woman, and act with him during the two seasons in which he intended making an extensive farewell tour, and this engagement she accepted. It was one of the ambitions of her life to play leading parts with the great master of his art. She had now reached the goal strived for.
During this engagement, Miss Matthison won fresh laurels, and an English critic, in writing of Sir Henry's production of The Merchant of Venice, says: 'Miss Wynne Matthison's Portia was in itself a thrilling memory, There were but two figures in the court scene - Shylock, the implacable, and Portia, pleading for mercy. In the Portia at Belmont, Miss Matthison gave us a sweet, feminine character - purely feminine. She gave point to the clever phrases, brightness to the whole surroundings. But the Portia of the court of justice was sheer acting of the highest order. Miss Matthison spoke the praises of mercy as one who felt them.
To the majestic diction of Shakespeare and the dignity of the doctor of laws, she brought the genuine enthusiasm which could belong only to a woman when mercy is spoken of. The intercessional thrilled the audience, and though the words were all known by heart, none could but be thrilled again by Miss Matthison's recitation of them. Not only in this passage did the young actress make an impression on the audience. Throughout the whole of the trial scene she and Sir Henry Irving held the audience as under a spell. Familiar incidents took on a new meaning; more familiar words a stranger and deeper beauty.'
Sir Henry Irving's sudden death was a great and irreparable loss to the whole world of art, but to Miss Matthison this tragedy must have been doubly poignant, for in losing the great artist there departed also the kind friend...
The Theatre Magazine, March 1908
The couple continued to live and work in and around New York. She was invited to join the short-lived New Theatre Company and, among other appearances, played Hermione there in Winthrop Ames's 1910 production of The Winter's Tale. On May 6, that year, she visited Vasser College to give a reading of Gilbert Murray's translation of the Electra of Euripides.
| Charles Balsar as Polixenes,
Edith Wynne Matthison as Hermione,
and Henry Kolker as Leontes
in The Winter's Tale, 1910.
|Click photo to enlarge|
It was an encounter she had, a couple of years later, with a Vasser student that is the main reason why Wynne Matthison is now usually remembered. Edna St. Vincent Millay - who was to become America's best known woman poet - studied at Vasser from the fall of 1913 to the summer of 1917. At some time during this period, she met the British actress (who, being about forty, was twice her age). At the end of their first meeting, Wynne Matthison kissed Millay and invited her to her summer home. They exchanged letters. In one of these, Millay says: 'You wrote me a beautiful letter. I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was. I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love... When you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to You.'
| As Everyman,
| Photo in
The Theatre Magazine,
| Front cover of
|Click photo to enlarge|
In the 1920s, Wynne Matthison and her husband established and taught in the drama department at the School of Liberal Arts and Applied Design (known as the Bennett School). There they annually produced a Greek play that also toured other colleges. For example, on May 14, 1923, they presented and starred in Antigone at Vassar in a benefit for the Lincoln Centre.
Broadway, which reckons its gains only in the coin of the box-office, will find this tale hard to believe. It may even employ a brief and ugly word to my disparagement. But I am 'prepared to prove' that an actor and actress declined a legacy of a quarter of a million dollars. Miss May Bennett, dying, bequeathed an interest in her School of Liberal Arts and Applied design to Edith Wynne Matthison and Charles Rann Kennedy, their share being the equivalent of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Miss Matthison and her actor-author returned the gift to the school. Incredible? So it seems. Unless we remember they are members of the Fabian Society. Miss Matthison smilingly gives the reason: 'We don't believe in owning anything we have not earned.'
Broadway's logic will have it that the pair, by building the school's dramatic department, producing Greek plays annually, and by acting as trustees, had earned the money. But the actress who gave us Everyman and her husband, who wrote The Servant of the House are of another mind. Whatever Broadway's belief, Wellesley College approves Miss Matthison's act. It has named a new dormitory 'Matthison Hall'.
Theatre Magazine, June 1928
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