Famous actors who received their last call before the footlights


This article was originally published in Theatre Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 9. René Wren. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, 1919. p. 166.

WHAT can be more dramatic than an actor dying dramatically? Many a player's devout wish is to die in harness on the stage. To breathe her last while acting has ever been the fervent desire of Sarah Bernhardt.

To act dying and to die acting -- such were the strange sagas of Molière and Edmund Kean. Nature played her part well, for both Kean and Molière died at their posts.

It was while playing Othello to his son's (Charles Kean) Iago at Covent Garden, March 25, 1833, that Kean played his last rôle. Kean's financial condition at that time was as desperate as his physical state, so that he was compelled to once more brave an audience, no matter what the consequences might be. Arriving at the theatre, he immediately sent for his son, Charles, who found him in his dressing-room on the verge of collapse. "I am very ill, Charlie," he said, "I am afraid I shall be unable to act." But with the aid of stimulants and the encouragement of his manager he managed to get dressed for the part, and supported on his son's arms, he went down to the wings. The house was crowded to the doors and a salvo of applause greeted the old favorite, but Kean could only respond by feeble attempts at acting. His voice was weak and movements pitiful. After speaking the line, "Othello's occupation's gone," he sank exhausted into his son's arms and expired soon after.

MolièreMolière was no imaginary invalid at the fourth performance of THE IMAGINARY INVALID. He was pretty well played out, and when he was urged by his wife and Baron, a young actor friend of his, to avoid further risk on the stage and take a much needed rest, he refused.

"What would you have me do?" He asked. "There are fifty workmen here depending on me. They have only their day's wages to support them. Will you tell me what they would do if I did not act?"

Molière struggled through the performance under so great a strain that he was seized with a convulsion while taking the burlesque oath in the final ceremony. This was followed by chills and severe coughing right after the play; and before his wife could reach him one of the world's greatest actors had expired.

Anne Oldfield, the talented and popular English actress, whose versatility equalled that of David Garrick's, was her own Frankenstein. She to whom acting was the joy of living, whose Lady Townleys, Cleopatras, Violantes and Lady Brutes were the admiration of her devoted generation, suddenly discovered one day that acting had become a burden to her -- a dreadful reality to a determined woman who could not save herself from being done to death by her own art.

Her failing health made the burden of acting even harder, but she struggled on heroically and quietly, few of her admirers realizing how much she suffered. Nor did they understand why in the midst of a scene full of gay moments she would suddenly walk to the rear of the stage and with turned back hide her face from the audience because she was afraid that they might see her cheeks moist with the tears of torture.

Finally her days of pain-playing came to an end when she broke down during the performance of THE PROVOKED WIFE, in which she played Lady Brute. And she was driven to her home in Grosvenor Street to play her last rôle on her own death-bed.

No more quixotic death than that of Charles Macklin, one of the most remarkable and striking personalities of the English stage, can be imagined. Such a farcical death rightfully belongs to Charlie Chaplin and hardly to Charles Macklin, one of the greatest of the Shylocks.

On the morning of his birthday, Macklin arose and as usual, bathed himself from head to foot with warm brandy. After making a complete change of clothes -- he always went to bed in his clothes -- he further refreshed himself with a change of clean linen, and seemed to feel as happy as a lark. A bit later he crept back into bed, lay down quietly for about an hour, and suddenly turned to his wife and shouted, "Let me go!" -- and went.

Madly loved by David Garrick, one of the handomest women of her age, the beloved "Peg" Woffington of English and Irish theatre-goers, was driven from the stage with a paralytic stroke, never to appear again on the boards. "Peg" Woffington walked into the shadows of death on the tragic night of May 3, 1757, when she appeared as Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT, at the Covent Garden for the benefit of two players and a dancer. Although ill, she disregarded her feelings to face a brilliant audience and managed to struggle through the performance, feeling worse and worse as the play progressed. Nevertheless, she played delightfully until the fifth act, almost breaking down when she came to the lines in the epilogue:

"If it be true that good wine needs no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue, etc."

The collapse came when she arrived at the familiar passage:

"If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me."

As she struggled with these lines, her voice gave out and she was completely overcome. With the mournful cry of, "Oh God! Oh God!" She staggered to the wings where she fell unconscious.

Here is the queer case of a gentleman of the stage who died most apropos, his actions exactly fitting his words. On the evening of the 20th of June, 1817, during a performance of the tragedy of JANE SHORE, in the Leeds Theatre, Mr. Cummins, a prominent actor of his day, who played the part of Dumont, had just repeated the words:

"Be witness for me, ye celestial hosts,
Such mercy and such pardon as my soul
Accords to thee, and begs of Heaven to show;
May such befall me at my latest hour--"

when he fell down on the stage and instantly expired. This Mr. Cummins, it seems, had been suffering from "ossification of the heart." This malady, coupled with the exertion from the stress of his emotions in the mimic scene, helped precipitate his end.

Another dramatic death of interest caused by too violent playing of the emotions in portraying a character was that of Montfleury, the celebrated French tragedian. His death was brought about while playing Orestes in Racine's ANDROMACHE. So violently did he exert himself in portraying this difficult rôle that he ruptured a blood-vessel while on the stage, and died shortly after in Paris.

"Into Thy Hands, O Lord--into Thy Hands." These were the last words spoken by Henry Irving on the stage. On Friday, October 13, 1905, he had acted Tennyson's play BECKET, and that line, the last spoken by the principal character in the piece, was the last utterance Irving himself made in public. On returning to his hotel after the performance, he had a fainting spell and the distinguished actor died a few minutes later.

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