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About Dame Edith Evans, DBE
Dame Edith Evans, DBE
<Guardian October 15, 1976>
"The greatest actress of her times" died yesterday. An appreciation by Michael Billington.
DAME EDITH EVANS, who died yesterday at the age of 88, was a great actress. She had a voice that could swoop and curl with extraordinary effect. She could convey beauty without being conventionally beautiful. And she had the imaginative sympathy to enter the spirit of characters outside her own temperament. I remember hearing her once recall at a Stratfrod lecture how Glen Byam Shaw had asked her to play Volumnia in Coriolanus. Never having read the play, she had inquired of Shaw: "Isn't she a bloodthirsty old harridan? I can never play her." But in the end of course Dame Edith created a character who combined patrician resolve and maternal love in equal proportions.
Although she was always associated with aristocratic ladies, she was of middle class origin. She was born in Westminster in 1888 of a civil servant father, became a milliner's apprentice at the age of 15 and made her stage debut in 1912 with the Streatham Shakespeare Players. Her biographer J.C. Trewin, has related how the producer, William Poel, saw her in scenes from "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Streatham Hall.
Coming round afterwards to meet her elocution teacher, Poel said: "I want to talk to your Beatrice. She is the best I have seen." And in December of that year he cast her as Cressida in a revival of "Troilus and Cressida" by the Elizabethan Stage Society. As Trewin wrote, the novelist George Moore left the theatre remembering the young Cressida, "tall, with pennon-fluttering voice, a quick turn of the head and hands and even then could be eloquent without verbosity." On that day millinery lost a hatter and the stage acquired a supreme actress.
For the time she did distinguished work in the West End. She also played the Serpent, the Oracle and the She-Ancient in Shaw's "Back to Methuselah" at Birmingham Rep. But it was not until 1924, as Millicent in "The Way Of The World" at The Lyric, Hammersmith, that she graduated from being a critic's actress to a hugely popular one. Arnold Bennett wrote in his journals that she gave the finest comedy performance he had ever seen. And, Agate writing of her delivery of Congreve's glittering prose, said: "This face, at such moments, is like a city in illumination and when it is withdrawn leaves a glow behind." Even now, listening to her performances on record, one can sense the teasing, mercurial wit in the pounce on the key verb as she tells Mirabell that she may "by degrees, dwindle into a wife."
The following year (1925) she had a triumphant season at the Old Vic playing Portia, Kate in The Shrew, Cleopatra, Rosalind, Beatrice and the Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet" (one of her most famous roles). "It was altogether a momentous season for me," she said. "I lost 17lb in weight and on the only free day from rehearsal ran off and got married."
Thereafter she ventured into management (none too happily), returned to Restoration Comedy in Playfair's production of "The Beaux Stratagem", renewed her links with Shaw as Orinthia in "The Applecart" and Lady Utterword in "Heartbreak House" at the 1929 Malvern Festival.
It's impossible to list all her successes but in the 1930s she returned to the Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet" ("as earthy as a potato, as slow as a cart horse and as cunning as a badger," said W.A. Darlington) in the Olivier-Gielgud version; played Madame Arkadina in "The Seagull" ("like a drawing of Sarah by Toulouse Lautrec," wrote Agate); and in 1939 for the first time played Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" as the ultimate in patrician disdain and, incidentally, doing more for the word "handbag" than anyone since its inventor.
Occasionally there were failures. Of her Cleopatra to Tearle's Antony at the Piccadilly in 1944, Tynan said: "Lady Bracknell had been involved in a low Alexandrian scandal and soon, I cried, all our firmest standards will flex and fall." But she was now established as a great comic actress and tragedienne of power and as someone capable of playing a woman of simple heart, like the Welsh maidservant in Emlyn William's "The Late Christopher Bean", with unaffected truth.
This is a point worth stressing. Whatever the character's income or social standing, she had the rare capacity to convey the woman's essential humanity. It might be as Queen Katharine in Henry VIII rendering the trial speech with submissive humility and unforced pathos. It might be in a tiny cinematic role like Ma Tanner in "Look Back In Anger" where her eyes revealed a life of hardship and deprivation that brought me to tears. Or it might be as the Countess in All's Well That Ends Well (at Stratford in 1959) where she conveyed an infinite and gracious benevolence. This gift obviously had a lot to do with sheer acting technique. But it also had, I suspect, even more to do with her understanding of the human heart.
She also had (and I remember using the phrase when I first heard her lecture) a life-enhancing quality. And it came across very strongly in the show that she did at the Haymarket in 1974. One might have expected something autumnal and elegiac when an 86-year old actress returned to the stage. In fact what came across was her bubbling good humour, impish wit and sensitivity to every nuance of the English language. Seh defused any trace of celebratory pomp through her own irreverance ("I don't like Orinthia very much, but Shaw wanted it said like this and I had to say it").
She switched easily from Shakespeare to Fry to those nonsense rhymes of Lear and Carroll. And she showed what Gielgud once called the great actor's capacity for cutting away the dead wood.
There were, of course, many other aspects of her work. She was marvellous in films (particularly Bryan Forbes's "The Whisperers" and Thorold Dickinson's "The Queen of Spades"). She was a spritely conversationalist on television chat shows. And she was, privately, a lady of sharp wit with a capacity for putting young directors in their place (somewhere, she thought, round about row Z).
But she was, above all, the greatest stage actress of her times. And one whom one will remember in a variety of roles: as Coward's Judith Bliss demanding: "I would like someone to play something very beautiful to me on the piano"; as Shakespeare's Nurse flooding the stage with warmth as she chuckled over memories of the young Juliet; and in her one woman show, joyously rendering a line from a Richard Church poem about "The summoning touch of death, our neighbour". That last vignette sums up the irrepressible gaity and humanity of this great actress and remarkable woman.