Fiske, Minnie Maddern


Fiske, Minnie Maddern
(1864-1932)
   Born Marie Augusta Davey in New Orleans, the diminutive redhead was the only child of touring actors Thomas W. and Lizzie (Maddern) Davey. As a toddler, she sang and danced between the acts in her parents' company. At three, she made her legitimate debut when another company playing Little Rock, Arkansas, at the same time as the Daveys borrowed her for the Duke of York in Richard III. She worked steadily as a child performer with occasional bouts of education in convent schools.
   Minnie Maddern made her adult New York debut in 1882 in Fogg's Ferry, which she subsequently toured. In 1884, she opened Caprice in New York, then toured it, and revived it in New York in 1887. Already, in her teens, her uniqueness was recognized: "She has her own way of expressing the emotions, and seems to have learned the principles of dramatic art from no recognized model" (New York Times, 22 June 1887).
   With her marriage to Harrison Grey Fiske in 1890, she retired from acting and devoted herself to writing one-act plays. The success of her performance as Nora in a one-night benefit performance of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House in 1894 impelled her return to the stage as well as her championing of the new realism of Ibsen's plays. She was thereafter referred to as Mrs. Fiske. She scored particular successes in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1897), Becky Sharp (1899), Mary of Magdala (1902), Hedda Gabler (1903), Leah Kle-schna (1904), and The New York Idea (1906), among many others.
   Claude Bragdon concurred with the general view that Minnie Maddern Fiske was "the greatest American actress of my time." Through her, "the New Woman dawned on our astonished gaze in the person of Nora" (1938, 209). Referring to dramatizations from Thomas Hardy and William Thackeray respectively, Bragdon wrote, "The mere memory of her enactment, as Tess, of the scene following the murder of her seducer causes a cold shiver to run down my back, and it was only after seeing Becky Sharp played by another actress that I realized how much of tragedy and humour which were not in the lines Mrs. Fiske had infused into that last act" (1938, 210).
   The Fiskes took a stand against the Theatrical Syndicate, leasing the Manhattan Theatre in order to avoid her playing a Syndicate house, but their struggles took a toll on the marriage and on his newspaper, the New York Dramatic Mirror. She used her celebrity to speak out against the fashion for egret feathers, which threatened to drive the bird to extinction. Among the outstanding work of her late career, one must signal Salvation Nell (1908) and Mrs. Bumpstead-Leigh (1911), both examples of the new playwriting she encouraged.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .