Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865-1932) began her stage career at the age of three, appearing in Richard III as the Duke of York in a production by her grandmother’s theatre troupe, the Maddern Family Band. She acted steadily until her marriage to Harrison Fiske in 1890, when she took a five-year hiatus from acting and wrote several plays.
In 1895, she returned to the stage in Hester Crewe, a play by her husband. It was a failure. She had played the lead role, as Mary M. Turner says, “along standard lines” for the times, when “actors literally and figuratively chewed the scenery and actresses sometimes threw themselves on the stage floor and rolled about in an excess of passion.” Turner speculates that the failure of Hester Crewe “freed her” to try a new approach to acting.
Years earlier, actor Lawrence Barrett had sent young Minnie Maddern a copy of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, “the great, strange play everyone was talking about.” At the time, she didn’t care for it. But after the failure of Hester Crewe in 1895, when invited to play a benefit performance, she chose to play Nora in A Doll’s House, and to play her in a new, more restrained style, in which even the smallest gesture meant something, and silences, as well as words, were given weight.
Audiences loved it, and the Fiskes went on to great success with their touring productions of Ibsen’s plays. As Mrs. Fiske described it, “I like to recall a certain final matinee of ‘Rosmersholm’ at the huge Grand Opera House in Chicago, when the audience crowded the theater from pit to dome, when the stairways were literally packed with people standing, and when every space in the aisles was filled with chairs, for at that time chairs were allowed in the aisles. And I like to remember the quality of that great audience. It was the sort of audience one would find at a symphony concert, an audience silent and absorbed, an overwhelming rebuke to the flippant scoffers who are ignorant of the ever-increasing power of the great theater iconoclast.”
In addition to her artistic importance as an interpreter of Ibsen, Minnie Fiske helped to break the monopoly of the Theatrical Trust, which controlled access to first-class theatre spaces nationwide. She also fought for animal rights, helping to save the snowy egret from extinction by criticizing those who used its feathers to decorate their hats.
Theatre Unbound included Minnie Fiske in our historical spectacular Women! Live On Stage!
- Turner, Mary M. Forgotten Leading Ladies of the American Theatre. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. 1990).
- Woollcott, Alexander. Mrs. Fiske: Her views on actors, acting and the problems of production. (New York: The Century Co., 1917).