Edith Evans (1888-1976) was a distinguished English actress most known for her portrayals of comic character roles.
Edith Evans was born in London in 1888. After finishing her schooling at the age of 15 she worked as a milliner for a number of years. Eventually, and rather haphazardly, she began to attend evening classes in acting. In 1912 she appeared in an amateur program of Shakespeare scenes. William Poel, a director particularly noted for his innovative staging of Shakespeare plays, happened to be in the audience that evening. He immediately recognized Evans' talent and cast her in a minor role in his next production at Cambridge. By the end of that same year Evans had made her London debut—as Cressida in Poel's production of Troilus and Cressida.
Evans then turned professional, acting mainly in contemporary plays at various theaters, although in 1917 and 1918 she toured in Shakespeare scenes with the celebrated senior actress Ellen Terry. In 1921 she created the role of Lady Utterwood in the premiere of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. Two years later she acted in the English premiere of Shaw's Back to Methusaleh, playing the Serpent, the Oracle, and the She-Ancient.
However, it was a 1924 revival of Congreve's Restoration comedy, The Way of the World, that ultimately solidified Evans' reputation as one of the outstanding actresses of her generation. Under Nigel Playfair's direction at the Lyric, Hammersmith, she played the role of Millamant to rave reviews that singled out her intelligence, her polish, and her comic flair. Throughout her career Evans continued to create memorable characterizations in revivals of classic comedies. Some of her most important roles in this genre were Mrs. Sullen in Farquhar's The Beaux Stratagem (1927), Mrs. Fidget in Wycherly's The Country Wife (1936), and Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's The Rivals (1945).
A year after her triumph as Millamant Evans, determined to tackle Shakespeare's challenging repertoire, joined the Old Vic company for the 1925-1926 season. Cast in no less than 13 roles, she played some of Shakespeare's finest heroines that season, including Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, and Portia in both The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar. Her portrayal of Rosalind in As You Like It was her most applauded performance of that season.
During the early 1930s Evans enjoyed success with a number of modern plays, beginning with the role of Florence Nightingale in Reginald Berkeley's The Lady With the Lamp (1929), in which she made her New York debut two years later. Two other important roles of this period were the temperamental prima donna Irela in Evensong by Edward Knoblock and Beverley Nichols (1932) and the Welsh maid Gwenny in The Late Christopher Bean, adapted by Emelyn Williams (1933).
Evans also continued to act in the classical repertoire, performing Emilia in Othello and Viola in Twelfth Night at the Old Vic in 1932. That same year she returned to a character role which she had first played during her busy 1925-1926 Shakespeare season and which was to grow into a definitive Evans characterization—the nurse in Romeo and Juliet. In the 1932 production John Gielgud directed and Peggy Ashcroft played Juliet. Katherine Cornell as Juliet played opposite Evans' nurse in New York in 1934. The following year she took part in the historic New Theatre production in which John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio and Peggy Ashcroft once again played Juliet. Evans appeared as the nurse for the last time in 1961 under Peter Hall's direction for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Rosalind from As You Like It was another character from Evans' initial Old Vic season to which she successfully returned ten years later, playing opposite Michael Redgrave's Orlando in 1936.
Evans first played what is often considered her most famous role, Lady Bracknell in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1939. Evans' beautifully modulated voice was always one of her strongest assets as an actress, and as Bracknell she used her distinctive voice and delivery to extraordinary comic effect. During World War II she appeared in several revues and toured as far as India to entertain troops as Gwenny in The Late Christopher Bean and as Hesione Hushabye in Heartbreak House. In 1948 Evans again appeared in the play that had first brought her serious recognition almost a quarter of a century previously—The Way of the World. Once more Congreve's comedy brought her acting accolades, this time for her performance of the "old peeled wall," Lady Wishfort.
Upon reaching 60, Evans began to appear in a series of new plays that provided her with some of her best roles— the brandy-swigging Lady Pitts in James Bridie's Daphne Laureola (1949), Helen Lancaster in N. C. Hunter's comedy Water of the Moon (1951), and the eccentric Mrs. St. Maugham in Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden (1956).
Early in her career Evans acted in two silent films, but she did not return to the screen until 1948. She committed two of her most remarkable stage performances to film, appearing as Lady Bracknell in Earnest in 1952 and as Mrs. St. Maugham in The Chalk Gardenin 1964. Other memorable character parts in films were Ma Tanner in Look Back in Anger (1959), the intrepid aunt in Tom Jones (1963), and the Spirit of Christmas Past in Scrooge (1970). For her performance as Mrs. Ross in Whisperers (1966) she received a number of international film awards. Evans was awarded the D.B.E. (Dame of the British Empire) in 1946. She gave her last performance in Edith Evans … and Friends in 1974. She died two years later.
An affectionate portrait of Evans by her former secretary and friend is Jean Batters, Edith Evans: A Personal Memoir (1977). The authorized biography of Evans is Bryan Forbes, Med's Girl (1977).
Batters, Jean, Edith Evans: a personal memoir, London: Hart-Davis MacGibbon, 1977.
Forbes, Bryan, Ned's girl: the authorised biography of Dame Edith Evans, San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991.