'If I am only a vulgar and ordinary woman . . .'

Note: Two centuries before Lynn Fontanne (see above), a celebrated actress of the British stage was known for a sense of elegance and for touching even wicked characters with grace. She was Sarah Siddons, who was said to carry her stately stage manner into private life, as if aware of what a classic French actress, Clairon, had remarked:

''If I am only a vulgar and ordinary woman during twenty hours of the day, I shall continue to be a vulgar and ordinary woman, whatever efforts I may make, in Agrippina or Semiramis, during the other four.''

Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted Mrs. Siddons's portrait as ''The Tragic Muse'' (shown here) often honored her, as she said, with his presence at the theater. ''He approved very much of my costumes, and of my hair without powder, which at that time was used in great profusion, with a reddish brown tint, and a great quantity of pomatum, which, well kneaded together, modelled the fair ladies' tresses into large curls like demi-cannon. My locks were generally braided into a small compass so as to ascertain the size and shape of my head, which to a painter's eye was, of course, an agreeable departure from the mode. . . . He always sat in the orchestra; and in that place were to be seen, O glorious constellation, Burke, Gibbon, Sheridan, Windham . . .''

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Mrs. Siddons saw in Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth - one of her most lauded roles - not only ''all the subjugating powers of intellect'' but ''all the charms and graces of personal beauty.'' In the midst of murder and suspense this Lady Macbeth ''recollects her habitual humanity'' at least for a moment.

Charles Lamb in ''Last Essays of Elia'' wrote that ''we speak of Lady Macbethm while we are in reality thinking of Mrs. S.'' He sought to express in poetry the way that an actress can evoke tenderness in the midst of horror: As when a child on some long winter's night, Affrighted, clinging to its gran- dame's knees, With eager wondering and perturb'd delight Listens strange tales of fearful dark decrees . . . Anon the tear More gentle starts, to hear the beldame tell Of pretty babes that lov'd each other dear, Murder'd by cruel Uncle's man- date fell: Ev'n such the shiv'ring joys thytones impart, Ev'n so thou, Siddons, meltest my sad heart.

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