Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Actor, playwright, theater owner, author

Henry Siddons, National Portrait Gallery
Henry Siddons was the oldest son of the celebrated late-18th century/early-19th century British stage actress Sarah Siddons. He was an actor, theater owner, playwright and author.

His mother had wanted him to become a clergyman instead of following her in the theater but she allowed him to act in her plays and to accompany her on tour. In 1782, at the age of eight, Henry appeared with is mother in the popular drama Isabella or The Fatal Marriage, with Sarah in the title role and Henry as The Child.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Henry would pursue a career in theater. In addition to his mother's well-known stage presence, Henry's uncle, John Philip Kemble, was also prominent in British theater. Henry's grandfather ran a theater company and his father, though separated from Sarah while Henry was young, was also an actor.

In 1801, Henry made his adult debut in a play called Integrity at the Covent Garden Theatre. The cast also included a young actress, Harriet Murray. That same month Henry appeared as Hamlet, receiving generally favorable reviews.

Henry and Sarah in Isabella
Henry married Harriet in 1802 and performed with her in numerous productions, many of which he wrote. He also produced a book on acting, Practical Illustration of Rhetorical Gesture and Action which was published in 1807. A copy of the first edition is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. It is based on a similar book by J.J. Engel, the director of the National Theatre in Berlin.

Henry undertook to make the project his own, though some say he lifted liberally from Engle's work in the translation. Henry believed that the images in Engel's original were too small and too German. Many of the images in Henry's own version depict his mother and uncle, and some historians say the project was undertaken largely to promote their acting styles, perhaps with good reason. Sarah and her brother were well-known in Great Britain and the United States. To this day, a Sarah Siddons Award is presented in Chicago to a prominent actress.

In 1809, largely through the influence of his mother and Sir Walter Scott, a family friend, Henry and Harriet obtained the patent to the Edinburgh Theatre. He was said to be a capable and efficient theater manager. He and his wife performed there and three of his plays were introduced in Edinburgh. Henry regularly took his company on tour to Dundee and Perth.

Henry died of tuberculosis in 1815 at the age of 40.

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