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Pushing Upward and Forward: American Actresses on the RSC Stage

Discover the lives and works of American actresses who performed on the RSC stage with Brooke Tobler, our former intern in the Collections department.

Brooke Tobler
Claire Luce
Claire Luce (1903-1989) (United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division)

Brooke is from Rancho Margarita, California and attends Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She worked with archivist James Ranahan on the RSC production archives.

“Not in this land alone/But be God’s mercies known/From shore to shore/Lord make the nations see/That men should brothers be/And form one family/The wide world over”

These are lyrics from God Save the Queen, England’s National Anthem which dates back to the 18th century. Both the words and the tune are anonymous and several lyrics have been added over the years.

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has welcomed many talented actors and actresses to its stage several years over and a few have come from America’s distant shores, forming, as we see it, one family “the wide world over.” A few examples are Fay Davis (1872-1945), Claire Luce (1903-1989), Ada Rehan (1857-1916), and Irene Worth (1916-2002).

Each of these talented actresses have several things in common: they lived long ago, each had an affinity for Shakespeare, all performed on the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre stage in Stratford-upon-Avon at some point during their career, none of them were British, and they each had incredible gumption.

To reference some very different song lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, Hamilton: “I am not throwing away my shot/Hey yo, I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot.” These women brought that same American dream with them to England. Each of their careers began small and nameless until they grew into some of the largest theatre stars of their age:

Fay Davis (1872-1945). She was a classically trained actress who came to England and found great success on the stage. When she returned to America her success continued on both the stage and the screen and she starred in three feature films.

Claire Luce (1903-1989). As a teenager she ran away from home to New York City where she became a Ziegfeld star. However, she eventually left the musical stage for classical theatre and found great success, as evidenced by the fact that she was the first American actress to play leading roles at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. She was also a friend and contemporary to Fred Astaire, the very talented American actor and dancer.

Ada Rehan (1857-1916). She is known as one of the 19th century’s finest actresses. Her popularity came from her Shakespeare performances and adaptations of European comedy. Her greatest role, which graced the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre stage, was Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. This particular rendition was performed over 120 times across both the United States and the United Kingdom, a real feat for the time.

Ada Rehan as Rosalind
Ada Rehan as Rosalind (1897)

Within the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collections I was able to discover a poster of Ada Rehan. The Trust’s Collections department has been able to preserve this marvellous and fragile piece of history that can still be accessed today. The poster is a single image of Ada. It does not have the title of the play on the poster, but she is dressed in men’s garb in a pastoral setting, so one could assume that it is for As You Like It. Having access to this beautiful and fragile piece of history is such a treasure for us today and I give my deepest thanks and appreciation to the Trust for making its collections available to the public.

Irene Worth (1916-2002). She was truly an amazing actress. Although born American she spent the majority of her life and career in England. In 1962 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in 1975 she was awarded an honorary C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for her services to drama. In addition she won three Tony awards for her stage work and has been inducted into both the New York and London Halls of Fame.

Irene Worth as Lady Macbeth
Irene Worth as Lady Macbeth, by David G. Phillips; commissioned by Waldo Lanchester (© Waldo Lanchester) (STRST : SBT 2017-13/29)

Upon further digging into the Trust’s collections a costume design for Irene Worth as Lady Macbeth from the RSC’s 1962 rendition of Macbeth was also uncovered.

Having documentation of these special archives is such a privilege. Often times we see a play and when we leave that is it, we break with it. But that is not so for everyone who was involved in the production. There are records and sketches and documentation at every step. Having these histories is important because as we proceed forward and have access to documentation from previous shows we are better able to move forward and improve. We need history so that we can better improve our future.

As evidenced by their great success, these women did not throw away their shots but took advantage of the opportunities presented to them which allowed their careers to skyrocket, leaving little in their wake but rave reviews.

I speak of these women, because they did bring that American dream to England; the dream that anything is possible and can be accomplished with some hard work; that the underdog can rise up and vanquish his foes; remembering that we do not need to be defined by our past, if we are ready to let go of it. These women each showed an ability to move upward and forward with great strength, fire, and determination which they brought with them everywhere they went.

It is that kind of passion that opens doors, whether or not you have made a name for yourself yet. It is that kind of passion that eliminates all limitations. And it is that kind of spirit that drives people to the theatre.

Then, as now, the theatre continues to prove that it knows no bounds and that there are no limits. From sea to shining sea, from the Pacific to the Atlantic and beyond, actors from all over the world have come together and made dreams come true every day and night. There have been more than these few American women who have come to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre or now the RSC’s main stage and amazed audiences with their equally talented gumption and scrappiness in roles such as Lady Macbeth and Rosalind. And there will be plenty more yet to come.

Today more than ever, we find ourselves becoming an increasingly worldwide family and the theatre world only makes that family even smaller and more intimate. I would like to thank the RSC who allows for opportunities as special as the coming together of the young and old, British and foreign, to their place of learning through watching adaptations of Shakespeare that remind us all of our humanity.

These actresses, like those before and after them, remind us of ourselves and the roles that we play every day. Those roles know no bound between time or distance or nationality, because they are all intrinsically human both in Shakespeare’s day and today. So what role will you play today and how will you push upward and forward?

Fay Davis
Fay Davis (1872-1945) (Anonymous - Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide, Volume 9)

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