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Major actors in history

Isabella Andreini | Richard Burbage | La Champmeslé | David Garrick | Edmund Kean |
Sarah Bernhardt | Eleonora Duse | Mei Lanfang | Emil Jannings | Helene Weigel |
Laurence Olivier | Gérard Philipe |

Isabella Andreini (1562-1604)

Isabella Andreini, in a print dated 1588, when the actress was 26 years old.

Isabella Andreini was the most famous actress of the commedia dell'arte. As Isabella Canali, she was the leading lady of the Compagnia dei Gelosi, where she met fellow actor Francesco Andreini, whom she married at the age of sixteen. In 1603 she became the first woman to perform on a French stage, at the court of Henri IV. At the time, in many European countries, women were not allowed to appear on stage. Isabella was also a poet and author of a pastoral play; a book of songs, sonnets, letters, and other verse was published after her death. Isabella Andreini brought a new, fuller dimension to the role of prima donna innamorata (romantic female lead). Her talent and beauty, combined with intelligence and culture, revolutionized the Italian stage, particularly with such plays as La Pazzia d'Isabella, in which she played a woman who spoke several languages. Her death at age 42, while giving birth to her eighth child, prompted her husband's retirement from the stage, and inspired numerous elegies. She was given an honorary funeral in Lyon, and her image appeared on a coin minted in her honour in 1604. 

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Richard Burbage (1568-1619)

Richard Burbage, selfportrait, around 1600.

One of the most famous tragic actors of his time, and a friend and colleague of William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage was the first player of Shakespeare's Othello, Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. Several members of his family were also involved in theatre, as administrators and artists. The son of the actor and theatre manager James Burbage, who supervised the construction of the first Elizabethan theatre, Richard began performing very early in his father's company. By the age of 20 he had attained wide popularity, and he would become the most popular actor of his era. He also played such leads as Ferdinand in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi  (c. 1613), Volpone in Ben Jonson's play of the same name (1606), and Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedie (1587). With his brother Cuthbert, he dismantled a family room for materials used in the construction of London's finest theatre: the Globe. The King's Men performed at this legendary theatre beginning in 1603, and it is here that Burbage had his greatest triumphs. Considered the city's foremost acting troupe, the King's Men was owned by various partners and shareholders, including Shakespeare and Burbage, and was both a financial and artistic success.

On Richard Burbage:

  • Shakespeare and Burbage by Martin Holmes (London: Phillimore, 1978)

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La Champmeslé (1641-1698)

La Champmeslé: this anonymous portrait was done during the actress' lifetime.

Born in Rouen, France, Marie Desmares began her career with a provincial troupe, where her beauty and voice quickly endeared her to audiences. As a young widow, she met the actor Charles Chevillet, known as Monsieur de Champmeslé, whose name she took after their marriage. Stage names were often used at the time, since the church refused burial rites to actors. La Champmeslé owes her fame to her harmonious voice and musical declamation; the recital of dramatic verse was then governed by strict rules, and she excelled at her art. By 1668, both she and her husband were members of the Comédiens du Roi, performing at the Théâtre du Marais in Paris. In 1670 they joined the Hôtel de Bourgogne, where she took on the great heroines of Jean Racine, who became her lover. She triumphed in the title roles of Bérénice (1670), Iphigénie (1674), Phèdre (1677), and as Monime in Mithridate (1673). A contemporary of Molière, la Champmeslé left the Hôtel for the amalgamated Molière-Marais company, which was to form the nucleus of the Comédie-Française, where she performed until her death. Jean de La Fontaine wrote verses for this silver-toned tragedienne, and sung her praises in a story-in-verse entitled “Belphégor.”

On La Champmeslé :

  • A rare book: La Champmeslé by Émile Mas, F. Alcan (1932, in French). 
  • Dedication to “Belphégor,” from the fifth part of Jean de La Fontaine's Tales and Novels in Verse (1682).
  • The poem “Belphégor” on Internet:

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David Garrick (1717-1779)

© Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – Print by Oakheart
Print by Oakheart of David Garrick as Richard III, around 1745.

Celebrated for his truthful and naturalistic acting, the British actor David Garrick also directed one of the most famous theatres in 18th-century London: Drury Lane. Born in Hereford, he arrived in London in 1737; after studying law and working as a wine merchant, he entered the acting profession. In 1741, he triumphed in the title role of Shakespeare's Richard III and subsequently performed at the three great theatres of the era: Dublin's Smock Alley, London's Covent Garden and Drury Lane, which he directed from 1747 to 1776. Garrick influenced theatre not only as an artist but as a manager, for in addition to directing and writing, he was responsible for several significant innovations: he increased the lighting on stage with footlights and sidelights, he refused to admit audience members behind the scenes or on stage (a current practice of the time), and he doubled the number of seats in the hall. Garrick played most of the great Shakespearean roles and produced twenty-four of Shakespeare's plays, greatly enhancing the Bard's status in the 18th century. As an actor, Garrick had an extremely wide range, excelling in both tragedy and comedy. Instead of the pompous recitative and stately attitude imposed by French traditions, his tragic vocabulary was based on the gestures and expressions of his contemporaries. For inspiration, he would frequent the law courts and House of Commons, or even visit the scene of a family tragedy.

On David Garrick:

  • Garrick by Ian McIntyre (London: Penguin, 2000)
  • David Garrick: A Biography by Alan Kendall (London: Harrap, 1995)

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Edmund Kean (1787-1833)

© Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
Edmund Kean as Richard III, around 1820.

One of the emblematic figures of the English Romantic movement, the British actor Edmund Kean excelled in dark and villainous roles: Iago in Shakespeare's Othello, for example, or the title role of Richard III. The bastard son of itinerant actors, he was adopted and educated by a friend of his mother and by his uncle, from whom he received the rudiments of a general education and early stage training. His wilfulness and vagrancy, and years as a waif and stray, contributed to the rebelliousness of his adult years—and to his genius. His first success came as Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, where he outshone the era's leading exponent of the declamatory style, John Philip Kemble. His art stemmed from his own forceful and turbulent personality, and on meticulous transitions of voice and facial expression. Kean was popular with both the nobility, who admired the actor but reproached him for his aversion to stage decorum, and the general public, who applauded his panache and quick-wittedness. He also captivated such writers as Alexandre Dumas, who wrote a play depicting a cynical Kean who kept his actor's mask on off-stage, as well as Byron and Coleridge, who said “to see him act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lighting.” After touring France, Italy and the United States, he died after playing Othello to his son Charles' Iago.

On Edmund Kean:

  • Kean, a play by Alexandre Dumas (Jean-Paul Sartre adapted this same play).
  • Edmund Kean, Fire from Heaven by Raymund Fitzsimons (New York, Dial Press, 1976).

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Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)

© Gallica-BNF
Sarah Bernhardt in the title role of L'Aiglon (The Eaglet) by Edmond Rostand, Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, 1900.

Renowned for her silvery voice, commanding presence, wide emotional range and unconventional behaviour on stage and off, the “divine Sarah” was the greatest French actress of the 19th century, and one of the best-known figures in the history of the stage. At the age of sixteen, Henriette Rosine Bernard entered the Conservatoire de Paris. In 1862 she made her debut at the Comédie-Française but attracted so little notice that she left the company after one year. As Sarah Bernhardt, she won her first success in 1869 at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Francois Coppée's Le Passant. Recalled to the Comédie-Française in 1872, she triumphed in Phèdre by Jean Racine (a role she was to perform frequently up until 1914), in Ruy Blas (1879) by Victor Hugo, and La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. With her characteristic audacity, she performed the title role in Shakespeare's Hamlet (1899) and in Alfred de Musset's Lorenzaccio (1896), a play deemed impossible to stage that she rescued from oblivion. At the age of 56, she won acclaim in L'Aiglon (1900), a play about Napoleon's son written for her by Edmond Rostand. After forming her own travelling company, she soon became an international idol, adulated not only in France, but throughout Europe, Russia, North and South American and Australia. Bernhardt had her leg amputated at the age of 70, but she refused to abandon the stage, playing parts she could act while seated. Even her funeral was high theatre: 600,000 people paid their respects to the five hearses adorned with white camellias that carried her remains to the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

 © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust - London Adelphi theater


By Sarah Bernhardt:

  • My Double Life: The Memoirs of Sarah Bernhardt (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999).
  • The Art of the Theatre (London: G. Bles, 1971).

On Sarah Bernhardt:

  • The Divine Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale (New York: Random House, 1991).

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Eleonora Duse (1858-1924)

Eleonora Duse (left, looking straight) in La Ville morte (The Dead City) by Gabriele D'Annunzio, 1898.

In developing a style all her own, Eleonora Duse achieved celebrity status while preserving an aura of mystery. She was born in Vigevano, Italy into a family of actors who played in the same touring troupe, and her first idol was the actress Sarah Bernhardt. By the age of 14, when she played Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1872), her talents were already being recognized; but it was her performance of the title role in Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1878) that marked the turning point of her career. She subsequently triumphed in the younger Alexandre Dumas' La Dame aux camélias (1882), Goldoni's La Locandiera (1884), Giovanni Verga's Cavalleria Rustticana (1884), and Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1898). In the works of the latter playwright she found an inexhaustible source of self-expression. International tours extended her fame to Egypt, Russia, United States and South America. It is said that after seeing her perform, Stanislavski was inspired to form the Moscow Art Theatre.  In 1886 she formed her own troupe, for which playwright Gabriele d'Annunzio wrote La Giaconda (1899) and Francesca (1902). With her sculptural poses and contained expressiveness, her refusal to wear excessive jewellery or makeup, the Divina Eleonora influenced her era with her natural style, her refusal of all artifice, and her ability to create afresh every role she played.

On Eleonora Duse:

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Mei Lanfang (1894-1961)

Mei Lan-Fang in the traditional play The Drunken Concubine; the actor plays the role of Yang Yuhuan, Emperor Minghuan's favorite concubine who, after being rejected, drowns her sorrows in alcolhol.

Celebrated for his unequalled interpretations of female characters, the Chinese singer-actor-dancer Mei Lanfang almost single-handedly gained international recognition for the Peking Opera. The son and grandson of noted opera singers, Mei began studying at the age of 8, following a tradition that exists to this day. Founded in the 19th century, the Peking Opera presented acrobatic productions featuring men only. In the early 20th century, the master Wang Yaoqing, who trained Mei Lanfang, began to attach greater importance to female roles; the Peking Opera began to stage more and more works with women protagonists. Later on, Mei Lanfang altered the tradition by training woman for these roles. After making his debut onstage at 12 as a weaving girl, he went on to play over one hundred diverse roles: fearsome warrior, royal concubine, peasant girl, fairy, prisoner of the Tartars, emperor's favourite, young widow, heroine army commander who saves China... He toured Japan in 1919 and 1924, the United States in 1930, and the Soviet Union in 1932 and 1935. He was admired by the likes of Stanislavski, Meyerhold and Brecht.  Also a musician, painter and scholar, he created innovative costumes and dances which are still part of the repertoire of the Peking Opera. He was the ambassador of an art he called the “new theatre of old forms,” a genre which made him a legend in China.

On Mei Lanfang:

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Emil Jannings (1884-1950)

Born in Switzerland to an American father and German mother, Theodor Friedrich Emil Janenz won acclaim in both theatre and film under the stage name of Emil Jannings. After a friend who worked in props introduced him to the theatre, he left his family at the age of 18 to join a travelling stock company. He played Karl Moor in Schiller's Die Räuber and the title role in Shakespeare's King Lear. His expressive powers attracted the attention of Max Reinhardt, who invited him to join his Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 1906. A powerfully built man with enormous stage presence, he became the darling of the German public after performing in classics by Wedekind and Goethe. Perhaps his greatest stage success came with the role of Judge Adam in Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Pitcher, 1918) by Heinrich Von Kleist. Showered with honours by the Nazis, he was recruited by the regime for propaganda purposes and thus made few appearances on the stage or screen after 1930. After the Second World War he was blacklisted by Allied authorities, and he spent his final years, lonely and bitter, in Austria.

Featuring Emil Jannings in film:

  • The Blue Angel (1930), Joseph von Sternberg, 99 min.
  • The Way of All Flesh (1927), Victor Fleming, 97 min.
  • The Last Laugh (1924), F.W. Murnau, 74 min.

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Helene Weigel (1900-1971)

Helene Weigel playing the role with which she made her mark in theatre history: Anna Fierling, the main character in Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht. Directed by Brecht with the Berliner Ensemble, 1954.

Title: Mother Courage and Her Children

Playwright: Bertolt Brecht

Production: Berliner Ensemble, 1954.

Helene Weigel was renowned not only for her prowess as an actress, but for her strong political commitment. Born in Austria, she made her acting debut at the Vienna Volksbühne after studies in theatre. In 1922 Max Reinhardt invited her to join the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, where her meeting with Bertolt Brecht—whom she would marry in 1929—led to a refinement of her acting style and a commitment to a counter-culture in solidarity with the working class. During the Second World War, in exile from the Nazi regime, she accompanied her husband to Switzerland, Denmark and the United States, appearing in such productions as Leben des Galilei (The Life of Galileo) and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Woman of Szechwan). Back in Germany, her performance in Brecht's Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children, 1948) made her famous. With her husband, she founded the Berliner Ensemble in 1949; after Brecht's death in 1956, she carried on as the company's director until her death in 1971. Fusing art and critical theory, the theories and practices of the Berliner Ensemble attracted a wide following; while still providing entertainment, theatre became strongly didactic and an instrument of social change. Helene Weigel shone in many of Brecht's plays, including Der Aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, 1957), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948).

© Berliner Ensemble
Berliner Ensemble Theatre, the company founded by Helene Weigel and Bertolt Brecht in 1949.


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Laurence Olivier (1907-1989)

© Shakespeare Birthplace Trust - Angus Mc Bean
Laurence Olivier in the title role of Coriolanus by Shakespeare, Royal Shakespeare Company (England), 1959.

Title: Coriolanus – Playwright: William Shakespeare – Production: Royal Shakespeare Company, 1959 – Director: Peter Hall – Costumes: Riette Sturge Moore.

A brilliant performer of the stage and screen, Laurence Olivier is often regarded as the greatest Shakespearean interpreter of his time. He was also a successful theatre director, manager, film director and producer. Born Laurence Kerr, he studied dramatic art in Oxford at the age of 14, and joined the Birmingham Repertory in 1926. But his early career was fraught with fiascos and disappointments, and it wasn't until the mid-1930s that he was able to display his solid vocal technique and agile physicality, particularly in such Shakespearean roles as Othello, Hamlet and Richard III, not to mention a stunning portrayal of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (1945). He and colleague John Gielgud took turns playing Romeo and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1935). His enormous talent was also demonstrated in contemporary roles, particularly as Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer (1957). He was co-director of the Old Vic from 1944 to 1949, and was the first artistic director of the National Theater (1962-1973). From 1950, he directed and acted under his own management, never shying from theatrical bravura to personalize his roles. Having devoted a good portion of his career to Shakespeare, on stage and screen, Laurence Olivier is perhaps the quintessential British actor, possessing a realistic style and a proud, powerful presence.

By Laurence Olivier :

  • Confessions of an Actor (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982).
  • On Acting (New York : Simon and Schuster, c1986).

On Laurence Olivier :

Featuring Laurence Olivier in film:

  • George de Winter in Rebecca (1940), Alfred Hitchcock, 130 min.
  • Title role in Henry V (1944), Laurence Olivier, 137 min.
  • Title role in Hamlet (1948), Laurence Olivier, 153 min.
  • Title role in Richard III  (1955), Laurence Olivier, 155 min.
  • Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man (1976), John Schlesinger, 125 min.

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Gérard Philipe (1922-1959)

A legendary French actor who symbolized eternal youth, Gérard Philipe starred in some twenty plays and thirty films during his short life. Born in Cannes, he studied philosophy and initially set his sights on a law career. He made his acting debut at the Casino municipal in Nice in André Roussin's Une Grande Fille toute simple (1942). He was then invited to Paris, where he played Angel in Jean Giraudoux's Sodome et Gomorrhe, a performance that made him an overnight sensation. Stardom, however, did not diminish his sense of public duty and political commitment, which few had the courage to emulate during the Second World War. His stage notoriety, which included successes in such plays as Albert Camus' Caligula (1945), led to film-roles that would create an international furor. Beginning in 1951, his collaborations with theatre director Jean Vilar allowed him to build a high-calibre popular theatre and to satisfy his need for artistic renewal. After the enormous success of Corneille's Le Cid (1951) at the Festival d'Avignon, he joined the Théâtre national populaire directed by Vilar, where he created memorable roles in Musset's Lorenzaccio (1953) and Kleist's Le Prince de Hombourg (1951). He was president of the French actors' union at the time of his death in 1958, at the height of his glory.

On Gérard Philipe :

  • Gérard Philipe : biographie by Gérard Bonal, Seuil, collection « Points » (in French).
  • Gérard Philipe : souvenirs et témoignages by Anne Philippe and Claude Roy, Gallimard (in French).
  • Gérard Philipe ou La jeunesse du monde by Maurice Périsset, A. Lefeuvre (in French).
  • Internet site:

Featuring Gérard Philipe on film:

  • Title role in Fanfan la tulipe (1952), Christian Jaque, 102 min.
  • Amadeo Modigliani in Montparnasse 19 (1958), Jacques Becker, 108 min.

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Other eminent actors who deserve a place in this pantheon include:

Roscius, Montfleury, Talma, Tomasso Salvini, Henry Irving, Mounet-Sully, Coquelin, Rachel, Karl Valentin, Margarita Xirgù, Paul Robeson, Maria Casarès, Madeleine Renaud, Bernhard Minetti, Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontane, Vittorio Gassman, Bibi Andersson, Joseph Chaikin and Ryszard Cieslak.