Obituary: Margaret Rawlings

What became of the tragediennes who used to enthrall us in the Greeks, Shakespeare or Webster? Margaret Rawlings was probably the last, and somehow one of the loneliest. She made her own translation of Racine's Phedre, and staged it, after disappointing herself in an earlier one. She was apt to erupt as Jocasta in Sophocles or as Helen in The Trojan Women, somewhat in the spirit of that other and even finer tragedienne, Sybil Thorndike - and, as often as not, in the provinces.

The English playgoer likes to keep his tragedies at a distance; Margaret Rawlings liked to come face to face with them. Anyone who saw such confrontations in the 1940s - Lady Macbeth, for example, to Alec Clunes's Macbeth, or Vittoria Corombona in The White Devil to Robert Helpmann's Flamineo, will have had a taste of her quality.

Mind you, she had been other things than tragic. No actress can perpetuate tragedy throughout a stage career as long as hers - 1927-83 - without stooping. Consider her Salome (Gate Theatre, 1931) which set the town alight with its dance of the seven veils. People fainted as she danced.

Has there been anything as erotic since? I speak from reports, of course, of Ninette de Valois' choreography as well as of the performance. It made her name. But Rawlings was not only in the name-making business. She also had dramatic ambition. That was obvious from the word go.

The daughter of a clergyman who ran an English school in Japan, she went to Oxford High School and Lady Margaret Hall, and did her training for the stage with a once-famous company which did nothing but tour the plays of Bernard Shaw.

Rawlings also toured Canada and the United States with Maurice Colbourne's largely Shavian company; and after a success on Broadway in a play abut the Irish leader Parnell she came back to the Gate as its star - Katie O'Shea. It may not have been much of a play, but Rawlings "forced some red blood into the play's white arteries" and a transfer to the West End (New, now Albery, 1936) established her.

Meanwhile, though, she had caught the town's fancy as Charmian in a disastrous West End revival of Antony and Cleopatra. Inadvertently, of course. The Cleopatra was Eugenia Leontovich, the Russo-American star of Tovarich, at dramatic sea as Cleopatra because of her garbled English.

No one joked about Rawlings, however. When Cleopatra at last expired, a palace guard turned to her and said: "Charmian, is this well done?" In a sonorous voice, Rawlings spoke with some authority: "It is well done, and fitting for a princess descended of so many royal kings."

Whereat the long-suffering audience suddenly realised how much more fitting Rawlings would have been as Cleopatra. As James Agate put it: "The cleverest thing about her Charmian was that she refrained from wiping Cleopatra off the stage until she was dead."

Rawlings never played Cleopatra, but she did play Lady Macbeth for the Oxford University Dramatic Society - it was the fashion then for West End actresses to act occasionally for the Ouds - and Helen in Euripides' The Trojan Women (Adelphi, 1937), which Lewis Casson revived for his wife Sybil Thorndike (as Hecuba) and daughter Ann Casson (as Cassandra).

Rawlings was in her element. She was also in love with Charles Morgan, the novelist and chief drama critic of the Times who wrote his first play for her, The Flashing Stream (Lyric, 1939). It was a typically highbrow study of platonic passion between two mathematicians working on a secret new flying torpedo to save England from aerial attack - and work must come before sex.

The play was a success and transferred to Broadway. Rawlings was praised on all sides for her emotional and spiritual integrity. The dramatic point was that the couple were not cold by nature but passionate and sexually experienced (and the point for gossips was that the author and his leading lady were in love and that that year Rawlings and her first husband, the actor Gabriel Toyne, divorced).

Already busy, Rawlings found herself more in demand than ever, if not for tragedy then for comedy (Pygmalion, A House in the Square, Gielgud's revival of Dear Brutus, Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest).

Then came her wartime marriage to Sir Robert Barlow of Metal Box, and several chances to return to tragic vein. Although she seemed strangely ill at ease at Covent Garden as Titania in Purcell's masque The Fairy Queen (1946), her Vittoria Corombona to Robert Helpmann's Flamineo in The White Devil was unforgettable.

In the great trial scene she cut a striking figure on the small stage of the Duchess Theatre - her ivory skin and flowing black hair like ivory starred with jet. The young Kenneth Tynan decided it was the most tragic acting he had seen in a woman - though he had seen Peggy Ashcroft's Duchess of Malfi a few seasons earlier:

She is loud, demonstratively plangent and convincingly voluptuous: a plump, pallid nymphomaniac. And such control! In the great trial scene she eschewed pathos and gave us in its stead anger, mettlesome and impetuous. A stalwart piece of rhetoric and beautifully spoken.

Michael Redgrave used to say that the history of the British stage was the history of first nights when all actors are judged and some (like Redgrave) seldom at their best. It was so with Rawlings.

Three years later Alec Clunes's Macbeth at the Arts Theatre did not create a sensation: but when one critic, Audrey Williamson, saw the production at the end of its three-week run it was different, especially Rawlings as Lady M.

As the enslaved Zabrina in Tyrone Guthrie's 1951 Old Vic staging of Tamburlaine the Great, with Donald Wolfit in the title-role, Rawlings became aware of Wolfit's little upstaging tricks, if he happened not to be in the limelight. Exasperated, she told him: "Donald, if you do that again I shall rattle my chains all through your long speech."

Rawlings kept on acting for another 30 years - in Shakespeare (Gertrude in Hamlet), Shaw (Lysistrata to Noel Coward's King Magnus), Ibsen (John Gabriel Borkman), Chekhov (Uncle Vanya) and Wilde (Lord Arthur Saville's Crime) and in the cinema and on television.

But Racine's Phedre was probably her favourite role. She made a translation of it for herself which I saw on the first night at Oxford Playhouse (1968) with Michael Gough as Theseus. Now I wish I had returned later in the run.

In the 1970s she undertook at the age of 72 the long solo part of Empress Eugenie (Mayfair and Vaudeville, Cologne, Pitlochry, Charleston . . .), a one-woman show about the extravagant wife of Emperor Napoleon III of France, a performance rich in variety of mood, pace, inflexion and salty humour.

Adam Benedick

Margaret Rawlings, actress: born Osaka, Japan 5 June 1906; married 1927 Gabriel Toyne (marriage dissolved 1938), 1942 Robert Barlow (Kt 1943, died 1976; one daughter); died Wendover, Buckinghamshire 19 May 1996.

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