MRS. PAT: The Life of Mrs. Patrick Campbell by Margot Peters

MRS. PAT: The Life of Mrs. Patrick Campbell

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The long career of legendary actress Stella (""Mrs. Pat"") Campbell--minutely detailed, literately written, but with neither the style nor the depth needed to sustain a 550-page biography. Daughter of a buoyant Anglo-Indian speculator and a quiet, blue-blooded Italian girl, Stella Tanner grew up in England in ever-shifting circumstances: her father was occasionally rich, most often broke, usually away. Headstrong, flirtatious, and artistic, Stella began music studies in London, attracted an adoring suitor in weak bank-clerk Pat Campbell, got pregnant, married--and was soon living a dreary, near-penniless suburban life, mother of two. But, while Pat went off to seek fortune in Australia and Africa, restless Stella fell into amateur theatricals, promptly graduated to provincial tours, made a ""startling and immediate"" success in minor London melodramas; then, chosen primarily for her dark, unconventional beauty, she became famous ""overnight"" as Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray in 1893. So, after a co-star period with Forbes-Robertson (including a controversial Juliet), the unmanageable Mrs. Pat became her own manager--seeking new vehicles rather than playing Shakespeare (she ""did not have a classic style and felt oppressed"" by traditions), forever being ""forced to tour"" (the provinces, America), achieving immortality as Shaw's first Eliza Doolittle. Meanwhile, her private-life was less than happy: conflict over her adulterous liaison with Forbes-Robertson; the war-deaths of her husband and son; a jealousy-ridden relationship with her daughter; periodic nervous breakdowns and illnesses (often coming ""when necessity conflicted with inclination""); an affair with Jennie Churchill's young second husband--which led to a miserable, brief marriage. And Stella's later years, as a fat, elderly prima donna, were difficult, often demeaning; she died insolvent. Peters meticulously documents each production, each tour, quoting extensively from reviews. (Most intriguing: the Pelleas and Melisande with Bernhardt.) Likewise, with lavish excerpts from letters, every relationship--especially the famous, familiar one with Shaw--is fully displayed. But again, as in Bernard Shaw and the Actresses, Peters seems to be in love with detail for its own sake: there's little attempt at interpreting or shaping Mrs. Pat's long life; nor is there a strong socio-cultural frame to give her career the weight of context. Sturdy and reliable as a chronicle, then, but without enough drama, dash, or insight to provide steadily absorbing reading--even for most theater-history buffs.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1984
Publisher: Knopf