Mrs Kendal (1849-1931)

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Mrs Kendal (1849-1931)

Margaret (Madge) Kendal was born Margaret Shafto Robertson in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, on 15th March, 1849. She was the twenty-second, and last, child of her parents, William Robertson and his Danish wife Margaretta (née Marinus). Her parents were both in the theatrical profession, as were her elder siblings Fanny Robertson and Thomas William Shafto Robertson, the famous dramatist.

Inevitably, Madge was connected with the stage from an early age and made her first dramatic appearance with her parents as the child Marie in "The Struggle for Gold" and "The Orphan of the Frozen Sea" at the Marylebone Theatre on 20th February, 1854. Even at the tender age of five she was an immediate success and a succession of other child roles followed at the same theatre and later at the Theatre Royal Bristol and Theatre Royal Bath. She was present at the opening of the latter theatre, playing 'second singing fairy' in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on 4th March, 1863, in which Ellen Terry appeared as 'Titania'.

After two more years at Bristol mainly in musical and comedy roles, she made a successful transition to Shakespeare and in 1865 reappeared in London at the Haymarket as 'Ophelia' in "Hamlet", 'Blanche' in "King John", 'Desdemona' in "Othello" and 'Jessica' in "The Merchant of Venice", all with Walter Montgomery's company.

After a short Northern tour with Montgomery, she returned to London and made a name for herself as Madge Robertson as both a comedy actress and a singer, appearing in a wide variety of roles at the major London theatres. In October, 1867, she rejoined the Haymarket company to play 'Georgina' in "Our American Cousin" alongside William Hunter Kendal (real name Grimston) who had joined the company the previous year. In 1869, Madge became Mrs. Kendal and from that time onwards her career ran parallel with that of her husband.

The Kendals remained with the Haymarket company until 1874, playing mostly in comedies. That was followed by a few seasons under the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales Theatre until William Kendal entered into partnership with John Hare in management of the St. James's Theatre in late 1879. The theatre had, of late developed a rather tarnished reputation, and had fallen out of favour with the higher ranks of theatre-goers. Hare and the Kendals lavishly redecorated the premises prior to a grand re-opening for the comedietta "Monsieur le Duc" on October 4th, 1879, and that, and the quality of the plays they put on in a highly successful nine-year period of tenure, did much to restore the theatre's standing as one of the West End's premier establishments.

At the end of their term of management, the September 1888 issue of "The Theatre" noted:
The severance of the partnership that had existed between Messrs. Hare and Kendal since 1879 at the St. James's Theatre, and the close of their joint lesseeship on July 21, 1888, was an occasion that will be memorable in dramatic annals. During the whole of the term they have done their utmost to provide plays that would not only amuse but would elevate the public taste, and their efforts have been so far successful that they have experienced but few failures, and those works that have been adapted from the French stage have invariably been made pure and wholesome.

Another testament to their success was that on 1st February, 1887, the Kendals had been called upon to stage a command performance of "Uncle's Will" and "Sweethearts" before Queen Victoria at Osborne.

Throughout her married life, Mrs. Kendal never tired of referring to her domestic happiness, despite the fact that her husband never allowed her her own latchkey until she was sixty-eight years old then constantly annoyed her by asking whether she had lost it!

The Kendals then toured America and Canada for the first time from October in 1889, under the management of Daniel Frohman, and met with phenomenal success, repeating the tour the following year - almost with tragic results. In December 1890, in Philadelphia, Madge was gripped by severe stomach cramps and a burning in her throat at the start of her performance but, despite being in severe discomfort, she carried on until she could exit the stage in the normal course of her performance. A doctor was summoned and arrived almost immediately, prescribing her brandy and emetics. Although her condition continued to worsen, Madge returned to the stage and saw through her performance. Subsequent investigation revealed that her maid, who routinely prepared a pre-performance tonic for her, had accidentally picked up the wrong bottle and instead of mineral water had mixed her drink with a quantity of Platts Chloride, a tasteless and odourless corrosive poison used as a disinfectant. Luckily, Madge had only taken one mouthful of the 'tonic', most of which she spat out realising something was wrong, but had then rushed on stage to begin her performance. Had she drunk the full draught, she would certainly have died.

Between those two tours, a famous rift had developed between Madge and Ellen Terry when, before a large audience in Birmingham, Madge addressed the audience and in a diatribe against actresses morals vehemently declared that she was the only virtuous actress on the English stage - which Miss Terry (whose own off-stage morals, by the standards of the period, were less than pure) took as a personal insult. For years afterwards the two women never spoke and it took the intervention of Beerbohm Tree to end the enmity between them in coaxing them to play Misses Ford and Page in his production of "Merry Wives of Windsor" in June 1902.

Mr. and Mrs. Kendal continued to be very active in popular plays on both sides of the Atlantic almost without interruption until 1908 when they both retired to their rural home in Filey in Yorkshire and later at Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. Madge's only subsequent appearances being in a gala performance of "The Merry of Wives of Windsor" at His Majesty's Theatre in 1911 (playing Mistress Ford) and in a special private performance of a scene from "Daniel Druce" (a Cromwellian Play) for retired actors arranged by E.J. Odell at the Savage Club in December 1926.

Despite an extremely active career, the Kendals had also found time to raise five children, four of whom, Dorrington, Harold, Margaret and Dorothy, pursued theatrical careers in drama or music. Throughout their marriage, Madge and William Kendal had always been held up as the very model of partnership, both on and off the stage. Madge had always outshone her husband in histrionic talent, although he too was undoubtedly a fine actor and also a good businessman.

William died on November 7th, 1917, after which Madge kept herself busy as a speaker and philanthropic worker. She was created a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in 1926 and the following year awarded the Order of the Grand Cross (GBE). Madge died peacefully at home after a long illness aged on September 14th, 1935.


"Acting is like photography. One single person has spontaneously to photograph the same impression upon the minds of hundreds. It is the duty of an actor to make the audience see the part from his point of view. If the audience is discussing whether the actor is right, the actor has not got hold of them. When I am acting I must make the people feel that they see it from my point of view."
Dame Madge Kendal


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