Eva Le Gallienne

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A leading actress of classical plays, Le Gallienne also founded a repertory company with which she introduced dramas by Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen to American audiences. Hoping to build an audience, she drastically reduced the price of theater tickets, which was an innovation in its day.

Early Life

Eva Le Gallienne was born on January 11, 1899, to an English father of French extraction and a Danish mother. Her father, Richard Le Gallienne, was a successful poet and novelist, the friend of such writers as Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Her mother, Julie Norregaard, was a correspondent for a well-known Danish newspaper, Politiken, and a friend of such distinguished English actors as Constance Collier and William Faversham.

When Eva was about seven, her parents separated and her mother took her to live in Paris, where she studied at the Collège Sévigné. They attended theater and ballet performances, and Eva was privileged to see the fabled French actress Sarah Bernhardt in some of her most popular roles. The experience made a deep impression on her, and she was determined to make the stage her career.

Life was difficult for mother and daughter, since Richard Le Gallienne contributed almost nothing to their support. (The couple’s divorce became final in 1911). When her newspaper efforts did not bring in enough money, Julie Le Gallienne opened a dress shop in Paris, which became moderately successful thanks to her good taste and to the patronage of her eminent acquaintances. Every summer, mother and daughter returned to England to stay with friends. One of them, actress Constance Collier, noticed Eva’s interest in theater and volunteered to give her acting lessons. In 1914, Collier invited Eva to take the role of a page in Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck’s Monna Vanna (1902), and Eva’s career was officially launched at the age of fifteen.

Feeling the need for more formal training, Eva enrolled in Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s Academy for actors. Tree was one of the best-known actor-managers in England, and at his school Eva took classes in dancing, fencing, voice production, and elocution. In 1915, she had a role in playwright George Du Maurier’s Peter Ibbetson (1891), and soon the young actress was besieged with offers to do other plays. Some came from overseas. Eva, worried that the war, which had just broken out, might cause the curtailment of theater in England, decided to accept an offer from Broadway.

When Eva Le Gallienne, accompanied by her mother, arrived in New York, she found that the so-called little theaters—groups committed to producing plays for their artistic merit rather than for their financial rewards—were in full swing. The Neighborhood Playhouse, the Provincetown Players, and the Washington Square Players were offering dramas by such new writers as Eugene O’Neill, as well as the work of Germany’s Georg Kaiser, Hungary’s Ferenc Molnár, and Russia’s Leonid Andreyev. This discovery gave Eva Le Gallienne a taste for the kind of theater she would prefer and would come to champion in later years. From 1915 to 1920, however, she appeared in a number of negligible plays, most of them opening in New York and touring the country as far as San Francisco. Her employment was steady but her roles were unsatisfactory until she was cast as Julie in Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom (1921), when play and player came together to make Le Gallienne a name in the theater.

Life’s Work

The producers of Liliom, whose group had developed from the Washington Square Players into the Theatre Guild, were uneasy about the play, which had failed at its Budapest opening in 1909. (Many years later, it found another life as the successful Broadway musical Carousel.) The script possessed such charm and the acting, notably Eva Le Gallienne’s, was so powerful that both critics and audiences were captivated by it. Eva Le Gallienne’s performance was judged perfect: One critic noted that she was not poetic but was sheer poetry. Her early training at the Academy and her experience had prepared Le Gallienne for this moment; she enriched the role of a waiflike character whose love transcends tragedy with her attention to realistic detail, her imagination, and her perfectionism. Above all, her admiration of French actress Sarah Bernhardt had given way to her worship of Italian actress Eleonora Duse, because Bernhardt projected her own personality on to the part she was playing, while Duse submerged her personality in the role. These are two entirely different approaches to interpretation: One proclaims the star; the other, the actor. As she grew in her understanding, Le Gallienne chose the second, truer way.

After Liliom concluded its successful run, it was sent on tour with the company; again, when she was free to perform, Le Gallienne appeared in a few more mediocre plays, good scripts always being difficult to find. In 1923, however, another Molnár play, The Swan (1914), was offered to her, and she took the leading role of a princess who for a moment falls in love with her brother’s tutor but knows that she may not marry him because she is destined to be a queen. Although it is a slight comedy, the play is full of rueful charm. At the end of the play, the audience gave Le Gallienne a standing ovation (much rarer then than it is now), and the critics all agreed that she had surpassed her performance in Liliom. Le Gallienne gave full credit to the art of Eleonora Duse, saying that it would have been easy to stress the play’s winsome quality, but by bringing a sturdy reality to the part she was able to make the princess not only believable but also sympathetic. The Swan ran for more than a year in New York and then toured for the entire 1924-1925 season.

The next year, Le Gallienne decided to take a new play by Mercedes de Acosta, Jeanne d’Arc, to Paris, her background in French making the occasion a major event. American designer Norman Bel Geddes directed the play, but he so overwhelmed it with spectacle and the play itself was so lacking in power (George Bernard Shaw’s 1923 Saint Joan made every other portrait of the Maid of Orléans seem faded), that the result was a resounding failure. Le Gallienne returned to New York to appear in a play by Viennese dramatist Arthur Schnitzler, Call of Life (1925); this time, the critics believed that the role of a young woman who poisons her father and runs away with her lover was an unsuitable vehicle for Le Gallienne. She was beginning to experience the difficulty that every prominent actor (and every playwright) undergoes: excessive praise followed by damnation that is not always justified but is dependent on the mood of an audience and the atmosphere of the times. Le Gallienne began to think about starting her own theater, where she could pick the scripts...

(The entire section is 2871 words.)