(Nightingale’s article appeared in Stage, 9/9.)
If the ability to reduce an audience to tears were to be the prime test of a great actress, Sarah Siddons would surely be the greatest of them all. As Isabella in Southerne’s now forgotten but once hugely popular Fatal Marriage – a wife who wrongly thinks her first husband is dead and ends up very badly after she has been forced to take a second – she seems to have left just about everyone in Drury Lane sobbing their hearts out.
Sheridan, who owned the theatre, was seen to weep, as were the critic Hazlitt, the Prince of Wales and even George III, who “vainly endeavoured to conceal his tears behind his eyeglass”.
Indeed, Mrs Siddons seems so thoroughly to have inhabited that and other tragic roles that she herself was said sometimes to have left the stage with a sodden handkerchief and returned home shattered and sick with the misery of having played Isabella or the woebegone Belvidera in Otway’s Venice Preserved.