Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Siddons of Bath

The Irish actress Sarah Smith was supposed to be the next big thing in the early nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the most promising bright new stars sometimes disappoint.

Not a lot is known about Smith's early years. She was probably born in Liverpool around 1783. As a child, she appeared onstage in Elizabeth Inchbald's comedy Every One has his Fault at a theatre in Salisbury.

At 16, Smith played Joanna in a regional production of The Deserted Daughter by Thomas Holcroft. After that, she went to Edinburgh, where she worked for Stephen Kemble. Smith apparently tried to leave the stage, but ended up working the circuit in the North of England for a while, before moving on to Birmingham and then Bath.

It was in Bath that Sarah Siddons had found an audience, and with that great tragedienne in mind, some people started referring to Smith at the "Siddons of Bath" given her star turns in tragedies. Thomas Harris saw her there and invited her to come perform at his theatre in Covent Garden in London. On October 2, 1805, she made her London debut in John Vanbrugh's play The Provoked Husband. As was the case with Siddons's first debut in London, though, it seemed the city was not quite ready for her yet.

In 1808, Smith went to Ireland, where audiences embraced her acting. London audiences began to warm to her eventually, and in 1811 she joined the rival company to Covent Garden at Drury Lane. The theatre at Drury Lane had burned down in 1809, so for a while the company had to perform elsewhere, but in 1812 their new theatre opened with a production of Hamlet. This is the same theatre there today, so if you go to London you can see the very building in which Smith performed. After a successful reopening, the company turned to a new play by an established writer, and at the beginning of 1813 they premiered Remorse by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I've blogged about Remorse before, so I'll just say that everyone was expecting Smith to be the star, but she sadly did not shine. The following year she married the actor George Bartley, and her marriage seems to have been a happy one. The couple travelled to America in 1818 and made quite a bit of money touring.

Here's a picture of Smith playing Imogen in Cymbeline. It was never her most famous role, but I still would like to have seen her in it.