Shattered Applause

Eva Le Gallienne was born in London in 1899, the unconventional daughter of unconventional parents. Her father was a writer and notorious womanizer whose marriage to Le Gallienne’s Norwegian mother was doomed from the start. By 1911, when divorce ended years of adultery and bad debts, the family was living in Paris, where both mother and daughters, long separated from husband and father, were immersed in the artistic and risque world of “La Belle Epoche.”

Le Gallienne’s theatrical career was launched in London in 1914 with one brief appearance followed quickly by two more substantive and critically successful roles. Immediately, Le Gallienne packed her bags for America but found the going rough until 1920, when she began her first long run Broadway play. By 1925, feeling stifled by the male-dominated and profit-oriented New York theater, she had initiated her career as actor-producer, eventually establishing the Civic Repertory Theatre and, some years later, the American Repertory Theatre. Classical theatre was her passion and Ibsen her specialty. She worked to provide affordable, high quality theatre to the American people. While her career seemed to ebb and flow as the decades passed, her magnificent acting technique, luminous stage presence, and driving ambition always kept her a force with which to reckon.

Infinitely more difficult than her public life, however, was Le Gallienne’s private life. Self-absorbed and egocentric, albeit selectively charming and charismatic, Le Gallienne battled alcoholism and a reputation for lesbianism all her life. Her preference for both professional and personal relationships with women clearly influenced her theatrical career. Unfortunately, the author’s excessive preoccupation with Le Gallienne’s purported lesbianism detracts from the true accomplishments of his subject. Although professing to be Le Gallienne’s ardent admirer, Schanke’s book is more a betrayal of her intense desire for privacy than it is a paean to a woman whose long, versatile career is worthy of the greatest respect and admiration.