Margaret Webster was born in New York City, the daughter of two famous actors, Ben Webster and Dame May Whitty. She spent the early part of her career in England, where she became well known in the theatre. She worked for several established theatrical companies, including from 1929-1930 at the Old Vic.
She returned to the US in 1937 and began an impressive run directing the play, Richard II with Maurice Evans in the title role. They formed a partnership that lasted until 1942, with Webster directing Evans in Broadway productions of Hamlet, Twelfth Night and Henry IV, Part I. It was while she was directing Hamlet in 1938 that she began her long romantic relationship with actress Eva Le Gallienne. (Picture: Eva Le Gallienne)
When Evans joined the army, Webster continued to have success directing classical plays on Broadway, notably The Cherry Orchard (1944) starring Le Gallienne, and her greatest triumph, Othello (1943), starring Paul Robeson in the title role and Jose Ferrer as Iago, which ran for 296 performances, by far the longest run of a Shakespearean production on Broadway, a record that has not been remotely approached since. She also played the role of Emilia in the production.
In 1945, she staged the longest-running performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest ever to play Broadway, with Arnold Moss as Prospero, Canada Lee as Caliban, and ballerina Vera Zorina as Ariel. This production was only the second US staging of a Shakespeare play to feature an African-American actor in a prominent role among an otherwise all-white cast. The production played for 100 performances, then took a short break and returned to Broadway for 24 more performances.
In 1946, Webster and Le Gallienne co-founded the American Repertory Theater with producer Cheryl Crawford, with Webster's staging of Shakespeare's Henry VIII as its premiere production, starring Le Gallienne as Katherine, Walter Hampden as Cardinal Wolsey and Victor Jory in the title role. The theater operated until 1948, staging such plays as John Gabriel Borkman, Ghosts, and a legendary production of Alice in Wonderland in which Webster played the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen.
In 1948, her affair with Le Gallienne ended, and she went on tour with her company, the Margaret Webster Shakespeare Company. The tour lasted until 1951, but she left in 1950 to become the first woman to direct at the New York Metropolitan Opera. In 1964 she directed Leo Genn in 12 Angry Men in London. She also directed Macbeth at the New York City Opera. Her remaining years were spent in various aspects of the theatre and opera, until her death from cancer in 1972, aged 67. Margaret Webster died at St Christopher's Hospice, 51 Lawrie Park Road, Sydenham, England.
Margaret Webster: A Life in the Theater (Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theater/Drama/Performance) by Milly S. Barranger
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: University of Michigan Press; First edition. edition (April 7, 2004)
Amazon: Margaret Webster: A Life in the Theater
Margaret Webster: A Life in the Theater is an engrossing backstage account of the life of pioneering director Margaret Webster (1905-72).
This is the first book-length biography of Webster, a groundbreaking stage and opera director whose career challenged not only stage tradition but also mainstream attitudes toward professional women.
Often credited with first having brought Shakespeare to Broadway, and renowned for her bold casting of an African American (Paul Robeson) in the role of Othello, Webster was a creative force in modern American and British theater.
Her story reveals the independent-minded artist undeterred by stage tradition and unmindful of rules about a woman's place in the professional theater. In addition to providing fascinating glimpses into Webster's personal and family life, Margaret Webster: A Life in the Theater also offers a who's-who list of the biggest names in New York and London theater of the time, as well as Hollywood: John Gielgud, Noël Coward, George Bernard Shaw, Uta Hagen, Sybil Thorndike, Eva LeGallienne, and John Barrymore, among others, all of whom crossed paths with Webster. Capping Webster's amazing story is her investigation by Senator Joseph McCarthy and HUAC, which left her unable to work for a year, and from which she never fully recovered.
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