The supreme ‘Tragic Muse,’ Sarah Siddons, was born at the Shoulder of Mutton Inn in Brecon, Wales, on 5 July 1755. She was the first of the twelve children of the provincial actor-managers Roger Kemble and his wife Sarah (née Ward), many of whom enjoyed estimable stage careers, including her brothers John Philip, Charles and Stephen and her sisters Frances and Elizabeth. Like her siblings, Sarah went on in children’s parts, and her first recorded performance was as Princess Elizabeth in a family production of “Charles the First” at the King’s Head, Worcester, on 12 February 1767. When a young woman she made a reputation playing at Cheltenham and Gloucester, and was engaged by Garrick, who brought her on at Drury Lane as Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” on 29 December 1775. Her debut was a failure. She had little more success in her other roles that season, and when she appeared as the original Julia in Bates’s opera “The Blackamoor Wash’d White” the play was hissed. Singing and comedy were not to be her forte. When she acted Lady Anne to Garrick’s Richard III on 27 May 1776, during his last round of farewell performance, she was intimidated and ‘lamentable.’ So back to the provinces she went, for more seasoning. After playing at Liverpool and Manchester, she showed the promise of her great powers during several seasons at Bath and Bristol. Richard B. Sheridan, the new manager at Drury Lane, brought her back to London, where on 10 October 1782 she acted the lead in “Isabella, or, The Fatal Marriage” (G0749). All had changed. The house was drenched in tears – a phenomenon that was to occur often during the rest of her career. Sarah achieved a triumph and her portrayal of the pathetic Isabella was called ‘infinite.’ Other acclaimed performances followed: Euphrasia in “The Grecian Daughter”, Calista in “The Fair Penitent”, Zara in “The Mourning Bride”, Lady Randolph in “Douglas” – all roles in which she would be unequalled. She remained in the Drury Lane company through 1801-2, except for some summers away in the provinces.
Her first performance in London of Lady Macbeth occurred on 2 February 1785 (G0742, G0743, G0748). She set such a magnificent standard in that role that some say it has never been approached. Lamb wrote some years later, ‘We speak of Lady Macbeth, while in reality we are thinking of Mrs S.’ Her performance of Lady Macbeth was followed a month later with a portrayal of Desdemona to her brother John’s Othello. On 7 February 1792 she was Queen Elizabeth to his Richard III. Among her other great roles were Queen Katharine in “Henry VIII” (G0750), Mrs Beverley in “The Gamester”, Constance in “King John” and Mrs Haller in “The Stranger”.
When John Philip Kemble assumed the management at Covent Garden Theatre in 1803 Mrs Siddons went with him, remaining there through 1811-12. She made her farewell with a round of her famous characters, culminating with Lady Macbeth on 29 June 1812, before a house packed with emotional spectators. After the sleepwalking scene – according to one newspaper reporter, ‘the greatest act that in our memory adorned the stage’ – the audience applauded for five minutes, and the curtain was then dropped, causing the performance to be concluded at that point. Then she spoke an eight-minute farewell speech. The audience wept and so did brother John. Subsequently, Sarah gave some private readings at Windsor Castle, appeared at Drury Lane on 25 May 1813 to act Mrs Beverley for the benefit of the Theatrical Fund, and she returned to Covent Garden for one night, on 11 June 1813, to act Lady Macbeth for the benefit of her brother Charles Kemble. In November 1815 she acted at Edinburgh for the benefit of the children of her deceased son Henry Siddons, playing Lady Macbeth, Lady Randolph, Constance and other favourite characters.
Though she gave a few more performances over the next several years for various charities, essentially she retired to her residence, Westbourne Farm, in Paddington, recei