The first important "realistic" actress in the United States, Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865-1932) became known primarily for her portrayals of the heroines of the Norwegian playwright Ibsen.
Minnie Maddern Fiske was born Mary Augusta Davey in New Orleans on December 19, 1865. Her father was the theatrical manager Thomas Davey, and her mother, Lizzie Maddern, was an actress whose surname the young "Minnie" adopted for her own stage name.
A true child of the theater, Minnie was brought upon the boards as an infant and continued to perform as soon as she could speak. As a child actress she drew attention as early as the age of four, when she made her first New York appearance. She ran the gamut of the so-called "infant prodigy" roles, which included that of Prince Arthur in King John, then gracefully graduated to those of the young ingenue by the age of 15. She starred in Featherbrain, In Spite of All (with Richard Mansfield), and Fogg's Ferry. She was happy to be pronounced a "new Lotta" by one critic for her work in the latter production, as Lotta Crabtree had been her idol.
In 1882 Fiske fell in love with and married Legrand White, a vaudeville musician. Their quarrels over the financing of Caprice initiated the break-up of their brief union. It was in this production that Fiske sang "In the Gloaming," popularizing the tune, and created another theatrical innovation by staying "in the setting"—that is, remaining seated by the hearth for the song rather than going to the edge of the stage, as was the custom.
At the age of 25 Fiske married Harrison Grey Fiske (1861-1942), four years her junior and the editor of the New York Dramatic Mirror. Harrison Fiske provided life-long support of all of his wife's theatrical ventures, serving in a variety of capacities: business manager, director, producer, dramaturg, critic. He remained her devoted "righthand man" until her death.
Upon her marriage, Fiske declared that she would give up the stage. However, she was drawn back to it four years later, after writing some of her own plays (several of which were produced) and studying a number of the socalled "new" dramas—in particular those of Ibsen, whose work was to have a profound effect upon her subsequent production and acting style. Fiske first played Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House in 1894 and followed this success with the critically acclaimed Tess of the D'Ubervilles in 1897. The latter was performed at the only theater in New York City which was not controlled by the Syndicate, which acquired a virtual monopoly of the professional theatrical circuit both in New York and nation-wide. The Fiskes fought the Syndicate, even though it meant playing in opera and vaudeville houses and in the cruder accommodations that were afforded in burlesque halls and the basements of churches.
Finally, in 1901, the Fiskes were able to lease the Manhattan Theatre, and popular productions during their tenacy included Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (with Minnie in the title role), as well as his Pillars of Society and Rosmersholm. Later they produced Langdon Mitchell's The New York Idea, a sophisticated comedy about divorce; then Edward Sheldon's Salvation Nell, which included real-life slum residents in its cast and a famous ten-minute silent stare of Minnie, who portrayed the heroine.
By 1911 Fiske had sold his interest in the Mirror (which had been forbidden reading material for any actor who signed on with the Syndicate) and turned to producing fulltime. Fiske joined her husband in the role of producer, and they proved to be a compatible team. She also made a few adjustments of her artistic concerns and focussed the remainder of her career on classic and light contemporary comedy. Only occasionally would she return to serious roles, as she did in 1926 with a performance as Mrs. Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts. Stand-outs among her characterizations in her later years were as the title character in Harry James Smith's Mrs. Bumstead-Leigh, Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and another popular revival, Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's The Rivals.
Fiske's sensitivity was evident both on and off the stage. The intensity of her performances was such that she was easily distracted by any noise in the house and thus found it necessary to forbid the presence of babies and the eating of peanuts in her audiences. Outside of the theater she was well known for her support of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and she often cared for stray animals herself. She was devoted to a number of humane causes throughout her life, and she was a protester against the killing of animals solely for their fur, against bull-fighting, and against President Theodore Roosevelt's hunting expedition to Africa. She also helped to save the egret from extinction.
Fiske has been considered to be the first important realistic actress in the United States, as she was the first major performer in the roles of Ibsen's female protagonists and implemented naturalistic detail and innovation in her interpretations of the contemporary problem play. A pioneer in "psychological realism" years before the work of Stanislavski was evident in America, Fiske was known for a naturalness and simplicity in her acting and production style which countered the stage tricks and artificiality still prevalent on the early 20th-century stage. For each role she assumed she undertook an extremely detailed character study in order to appear unstudied and simple in performance. Her skillful employment of suggestion rather than overt display taught much to the new generation of actors who worked with her and watched her perform. Her subtleties were perhaps better suited for the emerging medium of film; however, that possibility was never explored as movies with sound did not appear until Minnie Fiske's dark beauty was beginning to fade.
She remained as contrary to the so-called "star system" as she had been to the powerful Syndicate, and she emphasized the importance of ensemble work in each production. Quietly and virtually single-handedly, she ushered in a new era of theater in America. Hers was a style different from that which was popular at the time, and much of the acknowledgment of her work by other actors and many critics did not come until the end of her career. A seemingly indefatigable performer, Fiske never really retired, working right up until several months before her death on Valentine's Day, 1932.
For additional information on Fiske see Archie Binns, Mrs. Fiske and the American Theatre (1955).