Sunday, March 17, 2024

Mrs. Fiske on Ibsen the Popular

Alexander Woollcott (1887–1943)
From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner

Minnie Maddern Fiske (Mrs. Fiske) in the title role and George Arliss as Judge Brack in the November 1904 revival of Hedda Gabler at the Manhattan Theatre. Gelatin silver printing-out paper print by American theatrical photographer Joseph Byron (1847–1923). Courtesy Library of Congress.
The first American performance of a play by Henrik Ibsen was an amateur production of A Doll’s House in Milwaukee, featuring in the role of Nora an actress who was apparently unable to remember most of her lines. The following year Helena Modjeska starred in the same role in a professionally staged performance in Louisville; the reactions from both the audience and reviewers convinced her to limit the show to a single night. It was hardly an auspicious start for the playwright who would eventually be regarded by many Americans as the greatest since Shakespeare.

For the remainder of the nineteenth century, attempts to stage Ibsen’s plays in American theaters were often met with hostility, skepticism, or just plain bafflement. Amy Leslie, a drama critic for The Chicago Daily News, launched her decades-long campaign of trashing the playwright in her very first review of an Ibsen play: “The world abounds with festers of many kinds, but the way to remedy them is not to smear their horrible oozings over everything else.” Even more influential were the tirades of the longtime New York Tribune journalist William Winter, perhaps the best-known dramatic critic of his day, who railed against the new modernism: “Mr. Ibsen, as the writer of a number of insipid and sometimes tainted compositions purporting to be plays, could be borne, although even in that aspect he is an offense to taste and a burden upon patience. But Mr. Ibsen obtruded as a sound leader of thought or an artist in drama is a grotesque absurdity.” The reception of each new production, more often than not, was further doomed by abysmal casting; the stars hamming it up in the 1894 premiere of Ghosts were more familiar to audiences for their past roles in comic plays and melodramas.

In the early decades of the new century, however, both critics and audiences warmed to “new” works by the Norwegian playwright. Ibsen’s star kept rising in the years after his death in 1906 and reached a milestone when six productions of his plays ran on Broadway in 1926. Leading the vanguard was the actress Minnie Maddern Fiske, who first tackled an Ibsen play in 1894 when she emerged from her “retirement” (she was all of 28) to stage a one-night-only performance of A Doll’s House to benefit a New York City children’s hospital. Robert A. Schanke explains in Ibsen in America that, to win over the audience, Fiske played the first act with a light touch, “eliminated Nora's references to her stockings, cut Dr. Rank's discussion of his disease to one sentence, and played down the emotional fervor of the tarantella.” One critic marveled, “Ibsen has been cold-shouldered in America for twenty years—yet all his plays needed to make them popular was an actress like Mrs. Fiske.” The performance marked both the reentry of Fiske into the limelight and the beginning of a new career that would permanently associate her with Ibsen in the minds of theatergoers.

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This week’s selection is an interview between Alexander Woollcott and Minnie Fiske, reprinted in The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner with the following headnote by Laurence Senelick:

With her red hair and blue eyes, Minnie Maddern was from childhood one of the most popular ingénues on the postbellum American stage, but she retired in 1890 when she married Harrison Grey Fiske, influential editor of the New York Dramatic Mirror. Three years later she returned as Mrs. Fiske, but in a loftier repertoire, playing Nora in A Doll’s House and Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Her comic talent gave relief to tragic situations, and her personal magnetism, combined with her husband’s managerial skills, help naturalize Ibsen on the American stage. She played Hedda, Rebecca West, and Mrs. Alving; even William Winter, who otherwise had little use for Ibsen, had to grant that her Hedda was “remarkably effective—being mordant with sarcasm, keen with irony, dreadful with suggestion of watchful wickedness, and bright with vicious eccentricity.” Settled in her own playhouse in Manhattan, she successfully battled the theatrical trust and was the first to stage a product of the Harvard playwriting workshop, Edward Sheldon’s Salvation Nell. The last phase of her career saw her in regular revivals of her star vehicle Becky Sharp (an adaptation of Thackeray's Vanity Fair).

Mrs. Fiske was a favorite of Woollcott, whose other pets included Harpo Marx, Katharine Cornell, and Charlie Chaplin; the bouquets he threw to them were matched by the brickbats he hurled at Eugene O’Neill and Marcel Proust. Obese, bespectacled, gossipy, Woollcott was one of New York’s most widely read dramatic critics from 1914 to 1928, writing successively for the Times, the Herald, and the World, and warring with the Shuberts, who tried to bar him from their productions.

He then achieved nationwide notoriety as a columnist at The New Yorker and as a radio personality in The Town Crier at $3,500 a program. Woollcott the critic was shamelessly subjective, with a sentimental streak at odds with his waspish invective (he was one of the habitués of the Algonquin Hotel’s “vicious circle”). His occasional collaborator, George S. Kaufman, immortalized him as the insufferable Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). The part was created on Broadway by Monty Woolley; when Woollcott undertook it on the road, critics found him to be unconvincing.

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The interview that follows—one of a series of conversations with Mrs. Fiske that Woollcott sculpted into an entire book—took place in 1916, when he was a drama critic for The New York Times. Fiske reveals the arc of her post-retirement career, from the early yet ultimately unprofitable attempt to re-stage A Doll’s House in 1902 to her commercially lucrative productions of Hedda Gabler, Rosmersholm, and The Pillars of Society. She also describes in detail how her study of Ibsen led to a pioneering approach to acting: for each role, she imagined and re-created for herself everything that had happened in the character’s life up to the moment the play begins.

Notes: In Dickens’s Great Expectations, Mr. Wopsle, a village church clerk who aspires to the stage, stars in a ludicrously bad production of Hamlet with a cast of actors playing Danish nobles “who seemed to have risen from the people late in life”; Elsinore is Hamlet’s castle in Denmark. The Italian stage actress Eleanora Duse, like Fiske, is remembered in part for her starring roles in Ibsen’s plays. Evangeline (Eva) Booth was the head of the Salvation Army from 1904 to 1934. A succès d'estime is a critical success but a commercial disappointment.

Fiske refers to an unnamed critic who wanted her to have “nothing to do” with Ibsen and instead suggested a trio of traditional and sentimental female leads: the title role of Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé’s Adrienne Lecouvreur (1849), revived in an 1896 production by Sarah Bernhardt and based loosely on the life and mysterious death of the eighteenth-century French actress; Mrs. Haller, a role made famous by Sarah Siddons in August von Kotzebue’s The Stranger (1790); and Pauline, a star turn for Helena Faucit in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s melodrama The Lady of Lyons (1838).

George Arliss was a prominent British actor who successfully made the transition from stage to silent films to talkies. Johnston Forbes-Robertson was a British Shakespearean actor, mostly remembered for his many performances as Hamlet. James Gibbons Huneker was a cultural critic and an early admirer and defender of Ibsen’s plays. Lawrence Barrett was a veteran American actor who first recommended A Doll’s House to Fiske when she was a teenager. English actor and stage manager Henry Irving’s comments on the art of acting can be found in his book The Drama (1881). In a speech delivered in 1885 at Harvard, Irving related the anecdote about the British actor William Charles Macready’s final performance of Hamlet. Broadway actress Emily Stevens was Fiske’s younger cousin, friend, and doppelganger.

At the time of the interview, Fiske was in the middle of a six-month run of Erstwhile Susan, Marian de Forest’s stage adaptation of Helen R. Martin’s 1914 novel Barnabetta.

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We talked of many things, Mrs. Fiske and I, as we sat at tea on a wide veranda one afternoon last Summer. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.