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Margaret Webster (March 15, 1905 – November 13, 1972) was an American-British theater actress, producer and director. Critic George Jean Nathan described her as "the best director of the plays of Shakespeare that we have".
Margaret Webster was born in New York City, the daughter of two famous actors, Ben Webster and Dame May Whitty. Webster's childhood and adolescent years as an "only" child were spent with her parents' professional friends and in the company of three strong-willed, accomplished women, May Whitty, Sybil Thorndike, and Edith Craig.
Webster 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.
In the 1940s Webster played opposite Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne in The Sea Gull, and directed Tennessee Williams' first full-length play, Battle of Angels.
While Mady Christians was playing Hesione Hushabye in Heartbreak House in 1938, Margaret Webster was searching for an actress to play the Queen in Hamlet opposite to Maurice Evans in the title role. Webster found Queen Gertrude in the regal, five-foot-seven Christians and also found a friend and companion in the actress, who was by then a refugee from Hitler’s Germany. Christians was taken into Webster’s circle of friends, which included the actresses Eva Le Gallienne and Marion Evensen. In the early 1940s, Christians lived at 42 West 58th Street in New York. Webster and Christians vacationed together on Martha’s Vineyard and shared their passion for working in theater. Hamlet was followed in 1939 by Henry IV, Part 1, with Christians playing Lady Percy. Then Christians accepted a part in The Lady Who Came to Stay, directed by Guthrie McClintic. Their separate careers were not keeping Christians and Webster apart as much as the intervention of Eva Le Gallienne, who asserted her influence on Webster’s life and career in the early 1940s. While Christians was in Hollywood in 1943-44, Webster remained in New York City and began planning with Le Gallienne and Cheryl Crawford the American Repertory Theatre.
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, Le Gallienne and Cheryl Crawford co-founded the American Repertory Theater, 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 at the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Sometime in 1955, Webster met British novelist Pamela Frankau, and they formed a relationship that would last until the novelist's death in 1967.
In 1964 she directed Leo Genn in 12 Angry Men in London. She also directed Macbeth at the New York City Opera.
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.
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