Webster, Margaret, 1905-1972

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Margaret Webster was born in New York City, the daughter of two famous actors, Ben Webster and Dame May Whitty. She was their second child, her older brother died in infancy. Her birth was announced on stage at the theatre her father was performing in during a Shakespeare play. The family travelled extensively during her formative years as her parents moved between the USA and UK with various touring theatre companies. At 13 she became a boarder at Queen Anne's School, Caversham, an independent school in England.

Given her unique parentage, she was allowed time off school to act in performances with her parents. This included being on stage alongside the renowned theatre actress Ellen Terry. Terry and her family including her daughter Edith Craig were good friends with the Websters. Upon graduating in 1923, she turned down the opportunity to attend Cambridge University in order to pursue her acting career. She went on to attend Etlinger Dramatic School, London, England where her mother Dame May Whitty was a manager and acting coach.

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 Shakespeare 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. In 1941-42, she directed Evans and Judith Anderson in a Broadway production of Macbeth. It was while she was directing Hamlet in 1938 that she began her long romantic relationship with actress Eva Le Gallienne.

Webster was also believed to have had a brief off or on relationship with the actress Mady Christians during this same time frame. On Broadway, Christians played Queen Gertrude in Hamlet and Lady Percy in Henry IV, Part I, staged by Webster. Webster and Christians became close friends: according to Webster biographer Milly S. Barranger, it is likely that they also were lovers. Webster was said to be devastated by Christians death from a stroke in 1951. Webster was part of a small but influential group of lesbian producers, directors, and actors in theater (a group that included Eva Le Gallienne and Cheryl Crawford).

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. Webster played Emilia in the production's initial year (she was replaced by Edith King in 1944).

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 personal affair with Le Gallienne ended and she went on tour with her company, the Margaret Webster Shakespeare Company. The tour lasted until 1951, but Webster left in 1950 to become the first woman to direct a production at the Metropolitan Opera. Her debut production of Don Carlo served as opening night of the 1950-51 season and began the tenure of Rudolf Bing as general manager. Her subsequent productions were Aida (1951) and Simon Boccanegra (1959). Around 1953 she met the British author Pamela Frankau with whom she fell in love and by 1957 they were living together at 55 Christchurch Hill in Hampstead, London. In 1964 she directed Leo Genn in 12 Angry Men in London. She also directed Macbeth at the New York City Opera.

Frankau and Webster frequently moved between London and Webster's home in Aquinnah on Martha's Vineyard. They remained together until Frankau's death from breast cancer in 1967. Webster dedicated her first autobiography "The Same, Only Different: Five Generations of a Great Theatre Family" (1969) to Pamela.

In 1968 Webster began a whirlwind romance with a married but separated American woman named Jane Brundred. She moved into Webster's Aquinnah home but within a few short months was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Brundred bequeathed money to Webster in her will despite her family being against their relationship. The money was used for a memorial sculpture in Brundred's memory in a Shakespeare garden at Aquinnah public library. The remainder of the money helped Webster permanently relocate to London after her own cancer diagnosis 2 years after Brundred’s death. The final play she directed was George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs Warren's Profession", where she directed the actress and singer Mary Ellis in 1970. Webster died from colon cancer at St Christopher's Hospice, 51 Lawrie Park Road, Sydenham, England in 1972, aged 67.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Houghton Library printed book provenance file, R-Z and unidentified Houghton Library
referencedIn Portraits of University of California individuals and groups, ca. 1850-[ongoing] The Bancroft Library. University Archives.
referencedIn Aronson, Robert Louis, 1917-. Robert Louis Aronson. Associated Actors and Artistes of America merger study papers, 1924-1960, bulk 1950-1957. Cornell University Library
referencedIn Sir, Michael Redgrave, Archive, 1890-1996 V&A Museum: Department of Theatre and Performance
referencedIn Robert Louis Aronson. Associated Actors and Artistes of America merger study papers, 1924-1960 [bulk 1950-1957]. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library
referencedIn Brooks Atkinson papers, 1904-1980 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
creatorOf Wagner, Frederick,. Frederick Wagner autograph collection, 1917-1961. Houghton Library
creatorOf Dan H. Laurence Collection. Saint Joan / by Bernard Shaw ; directed by Margaret Webster - program for production at the Cort Theatre, New York, Nov., 5, 1951. University of Guelph
referencedIn Roman Bohnen papers, 1918-1976 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn J. B. Matthews Papers, 1862-1986 and undated David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
creatorOf Margaret Webster Papers, 1837-1974, (bulk 1937-1970) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Choate, Edward, 1908-1975. Papers, 1923-1973. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
referencedIn Shumlin, Herman, 1898-. Papers, 1930-1968. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
referencedIn Souvenir programs for theatrical productions, 1906-2005. Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
referencedIn Frederick Wagner autograph collection, 1917-1961. Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
creatorOf Rice, Elmer, 1892-1967,. Elmer Rice letters from various correspondents, 1915-1967. Houghton Library
referencedIn George Balanchine archive, 1924-1989 (inclusive), 1961-1983 (bulk). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
referencedIn Arts Theatre and Unicorn Theatre Archive, 1902-1982 V & A Department of Theatre and Performance
referencedIn British Actors Orphanage Fund. Records, 1940-1946. Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
referencedIn Haggott, John. John Haggott papers on the Margaret Webster-Paul Robeson production of Shakespeare's Othello, 1942-1958 Houghton Library
referencedIn Sage Colleges. Archives. Honorary degree recipient for 1944, Margaret Webster. The Sage Colleges Libraries
creatorOf Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. Correspondence with Wanda Gág, 1944. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
referencedIn G. B. SHAW PAPERS: SERIES I. Vol. LXXXI (ff. 150). Photographs of productions of 'The Devil’s Disciple’, 'The Doctor’s Dilemma’, 'Heartbreak House’, 'Major Barbara’, 'Man and Superman’; 1915-1950.includes:ff. 1-10 George Bernard Shaw, author: 'The..., 1915-1950 British Library
creatorOf Webster, Margaret, 1905-1972. Prompt book for Margaret Webster's production of Antony and Cleopatra performed in the Greek Theater, University of California, Berkeley : ms. S, 1963. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Philip Faversham papers, 1919-1982 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Playwrights' Company. Records, 1938-1960. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
referencedIn Maurice Evans papers, 1934-1970 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Welles mss., 1930-1950, (Bulk 1936-1947) Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington)
creatorOf Adamic, Louis, 1899-1951,. Letters to Alfred Kreymborg [manuscript], 1921-1956. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Margaret Webster Papers, 1837-1974, (bulk 1937-1970) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Finkelstein Memorial Library (Spring Valley, N.Y.). Photograph collection, 1885-1986. Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
creatorOf Evans, Maurice, 1901-1989. Maurice Evans papers, 1934-1970. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Atkinson, Brooks, 1894-1984. Brooks Atkinson papers, 1904-1980. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Robert E. Sherwood papers, 1917-1968 (inclusive), 1934-1955 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn Miscellaneous theatrical papers, 1673-1976. Houghton Library
referencedIn Eva Le Gallienne Papers, 1875-1993, (bulk 1916-1983) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Vera Zorina papers, 1910-2001 (inclusive), 1933-2001 (bulk). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
referencedIn Alexander Woollcott correspondence, ca. 1856-1943 (inclusive), 1920-1943 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn John Mason Brown papers, 1922-1967. Houghton Library
referencedIn Papers, 1912-1970 (inclusive), 1912-1954 (bulk). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
referencedIn Lucille Lortel papers, 1902-2000 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
creatorOf Faversham, Philip. Philip Faversham papers, 1919-1982. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Webster, Margaret, 1905-1972. Margaret ("Peggy") Webster letters : Martha's Vineyard, Mass., to Travis Bogard, Berkeley, Calif., 1971. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Elmer Rice letters from various correspondents, 1915-1967. Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
referencedIn Cheryl Crawford papers, 1920-1986 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
creatorOf Webster, Margaret, 1905-1972. Script, 1969. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
referencedIn March, Fredric, 1897-1975. Papers, 1899-1970. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Actors' Equity Association. corporateBody
associatedWith American Repertory Theater (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith ANTA (Organization) corporateBody
associatedWith Aronson, Robert Louis person
associatedWith Aronson, Robert Louis, 1917- person
associatedWith Arts Theatre corporateBody
associatedWith Atkinson, Brooks, 1894-1984 person
correspondedWith Balanchine, George. person
associatedWith Bogard, Travis. person
associatedWith Bohnen, Roman, 1894-1949 person
correspondedWith Brando, Marlon person
associatedWith British Actors Orphanage Fund. corporateBody
correspondedWith Brown, John Mason, 1900-1969 person
associatedWith Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, 1860-1904. person
associatedWith Chekov, Anton Pavlovich, 1860-1904. person
associatedWith Choate, Edward, 1908-1975. person
correspondedWith Coward, Noel, 1899-1973 person
associatedWith Crawford, Cheryl, 1902-1986. person
associatedWith Dan H. Laurence Collection. corporateBody
associatedWith Evans, Maurice, 1901-1989. person
associatedWith Faversham, Philip. person
associatedWith Ffolkes, David person
associatedWith Finkelstein Memorial Library (Spring Valley, N.Y.) corporateBody
correspondedWith Fontanne, Lynn person
correspondedWith Greene, Graham, 1904-1991 person
associatedWith Haggott, John person
associatedWith Houghton Library. person
associatedWith Ibsen, Henrik, 1828-1906. person
associatedWith Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. corporateBody
correspondedWith Komisarjevsky, Theodore, 1882-1954 person
associatedWith Le Gallienne, Eva, 1899-1991. person
associatedWith Lortel, Lucille person
correspondedWith Lunt, Alfred person
associatedWith March, Fredric, 1897-1975. person
associatedWith Margaret Webster Shakespeare Company. corporateBody
associatedWith Matthews, J. B. (Joseph Brown), 1894-1966 person
associatedWith Odets, Clifford, 1906-1963 person
associatedWith O'Neill, Eugene, 1888-1953. person
associatedWith Playwrights' Company. corporateBody
correspondedWith Redgrave, Michael person
associatedWith Rice, Elmer, 1892-1967, person
associatedWith Robeson, Paul, 1898-1976 person
associatedWith Saddler, Donald person
associatedWith Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. person
associatedWith Shaw, Bernard, 1856-1950. person
correspondedWith Sherwood, Robert E. (Robert Emmet), 1896-1955 person
associatedWith Shumlin, Herman, 1898- person
correspondedWith Slezak, Walter, 1902-1983 person
correspondedWith Thorndike, Sybil, Dame, 1882-1976 person
associatedWith United States. Dept. of State. corporateBody
associatedWith University of California, Berkeley. Greek Theater. corporateBody
associatedWith Wagner, Frederick, person
correspondedWith Wagner, Frederick, collector. person
associatedWith Webster, Benjamin, 1864-1947. person
associatedWith Webster family. family
associatedWith Webster family. family
associatedWith Welles, Orson, 1915-1985 person
associatedWith Whitty family. family
associatedWith Whitty family. family
associatedWith Whitty, May, Dame, 1865-1948. person
associatedWith Wilder, Thornton, 1897-1975. person
associatedWith Williams, Tennessee, 1911-1983. person
associatedWith Wisconsin Players. corporateBody
correspondedWith Woollcott, Alexander, 1887-1943 person
correspondedWith Woollcott, Alexander, 1887-1943 person
correspondedWith Zorina, Vera. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
New York City NY US
Greater London ENG GB
Subject
Theater
Experimental theater
Theater--United States
Theater--South Africa
Theater--Great Britain
Theater--Production and direction
Blacklisting of entertainers
Theater--New York (State)--New York
Apartheid
Occupation
Theatrical producers
Authors
Lecturers
Actresses
Function

Person

Birth 1905-03-15

Death 1972-11-13

Britons

English

Information

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