Constance Cummings

Hollywood actress turned West End star

Constance Cummings, actress: born Seattle, Washington 15 May 1910; CBE 1974; married 1933 Benn W. Levy (died 1973; one son, one daughter); died 23 November 2005.

When the lights went up on the 1996 Chichester Festival's Uncle Vanya, one of the characters - Vanya's mother - sat apart, reading intently. Gradually the audience recognised the distinguished cheekbones and timeless grace of Constance Cummings. With an acting career spanning nearly 70 years since her first New York appearance in 1928 in the chorus of the Gershwins' Treasure Girl on Broadway, in the small but crucial role as the formidable bluestocking Maman, she gave a characteristically incisive performance. It was her final stage appearance.

Born in Seattle in 1910 and educated there, Cummings made an early professional début - as a prostitute - for a San Diego stock company in Seventh Heaven (1926). Moving to New York, she quickly found work in the chorus of Treasure Girl, starring Gertrude Lawrence, and in The Little Show, at the Music Box in 1929. She also took over the role of the ditzy showgirl Miss Rixey in the Tin Pan Alley comedy June Moon on its post-Broadway tour (1930).

Not surprisingly, her beauty brought her to Hollywood's attention and she worked exclusively in films between 1931 and 1934. Most of her roles required little more than plucky devotion as lovestruck sweethearts, but she had great fun working with Harold Lloyd, particularly on Movie Crazy (1932). Her later films included the somewhat stage-bound David Lean version of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit (1945) and a fizzingly energetic business management expert opposite Peter Sellers in Battle of the Sexes (1960).

Cummings made her first London appearance in 1934 in a sharp but short-lived social comedy, Sour Grapes, at the Apollo, returning to New York and a big personal success in Samuel Raphaelson's hit comedy Accent on Youth (Plymouth, 1934), playing the clever young secretary to an older, successful dramatist.

Most of her subsequent career was based in England; she had fallen in love with the playwright (and subsequently Labour MP) Benn W. Levy and for nearly 40 years juggled a crowded career with a memorably happy marriage and family. She was soon an established West End star, scoring a big success as the schoolmaster's staunch wife in Goodbye, Mr Chips (Shaftesbury, 1938).

Cummings joined the Old Vic just before the Second World War in 1939, tackling Juliet and Shaw's Joan (in less than inspired productions) with mixed success; she had better luck with Goldsmith's Good Natur'd Man, in which she shone. During the war she had several splendid parts, including the neglected wife Lydia in another Raphaelson play, Skylark (Duchess, 1942) and the touching Gabby in Robert Sherwood's The Petrified Forest (Globe, 1943).

Her husband's Clutterbuck (Wyndham's, 1946), set on board a Caribbean cruise ship, gave her an excellent vehicle for her comedic gifts. Shortly afterwards she revealed her range and versatility with a superb performance of controlled hysteria as the highly strung Laura in Rodney Ackland's Before the Party (St Martin's, 1949).

In the 1950s Cummings had mixed fortunes, as really good parts proved more elusive. She was often cast in Broadway hits which worked less happily in London, such as Joseph Kramm's The Strike (Prince's, 1953). Much more challenging was her spirited leadership of the discontented women in an Oxford Playhouse revival of Aristophanes' Lysistrata (1957) and her Antiope in Levy's version of myth in The Rape of the Belt (Piccadilly, 1957 and Martin Beck, New York, 1960).

The earnestly portentous poetic drama of Archibald Macleish's J.B. (Phoenix, 1961), a version of the Job story, saw her do her best in the underwritten role of Sarah, but with better material she showed her true mettle as Inez in Jean-Paul Sartre's Huis Clos (Oxford, 1962) and, especially striking, as Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Piccadilly, 1964), replacing Uta Hagen. Opposite Ray McNally's George, her whiplash command and lacerating, alcohol-fuelled wit surprised many who regarded her mainly as a light comedienne.

A run of strong classic roles began with Gertrude in a Tony Richardson-directed Hamlet (Round House and Lunt-Fontanne, New York, 1969), but the production was mediocre. Also something of a disappointment was Cummings's time with the National Theatre company, which she joined in 1971, a period mainly of good performance in poor productions.

She had a tough time as Volumnia in Bertolt Brecht's reworking of Coriolanus (1971, with Anthony Hopkins in the lead) in which the actors were forced into a dull carbon-copy of the Berliner Ensemble production. Laurence Olivier's tepid treatment of the Jean Giraudoux/ S.N. Behrman Amphitryon 38 (1971), in which Cummings played Alkmena's confidante Leda, was hamstrung by a hideous design, while Euripides' The Bacchae (1973), in an overheated and often unintentionally hilarious production, gave her no chance as the grieving Agave.

However, Cummings's National service did also provide her with perhaps her best opportunity. Michael Blakemore's production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (1971) was a scrupulous reappraisal of a masterpiece superbly designed, lit and acted. As the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone, playing opposite Olivier in towering form, Cummings was heartbreaking in her nervous, fluttering early scenes, progressing through the evening into the night of a drug-induced private world, reaching an achingly desolating close. The performance was a popular Evening Standard Best Actress Award winner.

Her range continued to impress. As a recently widowed Wasp matriarch in A.R. Gurney's subtle and touching Children (Mermaid, 1974), Cummings gave a warm, passionate portrayal of maternal strength (she herself had just lost her beloved husband). And she had a Tony Award-winning triumph on returning to Broadway in Arthur Kopit's Wings (Lyceum, 1979), a haunting, fragmented memory-play in which she played an aviatrix recovering from a stroke. She repeated it in John Madden's fine production at the National Theatre in London later that year.

She made a final New York appearance in an off-Broadway revival of Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden (Roundabout, 1982), with Irene Worth as the enigmatic governess. As the imperious Mrs St Maugham, she had a wonderfully casual aplomb, spraying the drawing-room with aphorisms like a duchess distributing alms. She played the part again - gamely tackling the tiny King's Head Theatre, communal dressing-room and all, for the first time, in her eighties - in London in 1994. Even in her nineties, she was still active, giving a particularly incisive performance in a radio dramatisation of Henry James's Daisy Miller.

Cummings remained vibrant to the end; she was even driving through London - somewhat in the manner of Evelyn Waugh's Mrs Stitch - until comparatively recently. She always loved the company of younger people and the parties she gave occasionally in her beautiful Walter Gropius apartment in Chelsea cheerfully mixed theatrical luminaries, politicians and journalists with friends of her children and young writers or actors she had come across.

These were lively - often uproarious - occasions, infused by her passion for life and laughter, and for friends.

Alan Strachan

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