Ibsen’s American Ambassador: Actress Mrs. Fiske
I recently received a Twitter message from the Museum of the City of New York, which intrigued me. It included a photo from their archive of an early production of A Doll’s House, circa 1902. It starred actress Minnie Maddern Fiske. Upon further investigation, I discovered that Fiske was truly Ibsen’s American ambassador.
Minnie Maddern Fiske, whose stage name was Mrs. Fiske, is credited with introducing a wide swath of America to Ibsen, beginning with her starring role as Nora in A Doll’s House in 1902. Although some productions of Ibsen had occurred earlier, they did not get much recognition. Perhaps she had different results because she was considered America’s first actress of realism in the early part of the 1900s, due to her skilled and natural acting ability. Her popularity and love of performing Ibsen led to the American populace’s awareness of the Norwegian giant. Her acting style was also the perfect fit for Ibsen’s strong female characters who beg to be played as believable, rather than affectatious.
Other Ibsen plays she performed in include Hedda Gabler in 1903 and 1904, Rosmersholm in 1907, The Pillars of Society in 1910, and Ghosts in 1927. There are also references of Fiske performing in A Doll’s House earlier, in 1894 and 1896, but they were not as well known.
Born in New Orleans in 1864 or 1865 with her given name as Marie Augusta Dave, Fiske seemed destined to be a star from birth, as her mother was an actress and her father a stage manager. At the tender age of three she began performing in Shakespeare’s brutal Richard III, as the Duke of York. One year later she made her New York debut. She continued touring and performing as an actor and rarely looked back.
By 16, she had became a leading lady. She did take a brief break (about three years) from acting after she married her second husband, Harrison Grey Fiske, in 1890. Upon her return to the stage, she did not limit herself to performing, but instead flexed her theatrical chops by directing and writing plays, including writing the play Fontenelle with her husband. Their marriage seems ideal as evidenced by the fact that her husband became her sole director from the point she returned to the stage till the end of her career.
Mrs. Fiske was also a passionate advocate for actors, putting her efforts behind the fight against the Theatrical Syndicate, a group of managers and booking agents who organized in 1896. On the plus side, this syndicate created a system for bookings across the country, which ended the earlier disorder. On the negative side, it created a monopoly, which Fiske believed was destroying creative freedom. Her husband joined her in this battle and they paid dearly for it; she was shut out of performing in lofty theaters and instead relegated to performing in the more plebeian church basements, opera and vaudeville houses, and burlesque halls, which is where she played Nora in 1894 and 1896 and probably why Ibsen had not been recognized earlier. Luckily, the Fiskes were eventually able to lease the Manhattan Theatre, which allowed her 1902 performance as Nora to reach a much broader audience and give it weight. She shined.
Fiske was also a passionate advocate for animal rights, backing the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She took in strays, protested the killing of animals for their fur and President’s Roosevelt’s trips to Africa for game hunting and bull fighting, and worked to prevent the extinction of egrets.
Fortunately, Fiske’s acting has been preserved in two films, Tess of the d’Ubervilles in 1913 and Vanity Fair in 1915, both of which she had first performed on stage. Unfortunately, her epic Ibsen roles were not put onto celluloid. Although her movies were popular, she didn’t continue in that medium—instead she chose to share her craft on the stage.
In January 1908, this American ambassador of Ibsen shared her thoughts about the Norwegian playwright with The New York Times, saying, “Ibsen is of interest to the actor because properly to understand a role you must study the character from its earliest childhood. Most Ibsen men and women have lived their lives before the curtain rises. Shakespeare has often been pronounced tedious by actors because his characters require a great deal of study. But even Shakespeare seems easy when compared with the thought that must be bestowed upon Ibsen. The beautiful verse, the wonderful character drawing of Shakespeare furnish solutions of perplexing problems, but Ibsen is so elusive. He fascinates by his aloofness. He is the Wagner of the drama. Wagner struggled for understanding just as Ibsen has struggled.”
Brava Mrs. Fiske!
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