The Legacy of Eva Le Gallienne


28 Dec 1998

Born on January 11, 1899, Eva Le Gallienne would have been 100 years old this year. The daughter of an English poet and a Danish feminist, Le Gallienne liked to say that she was a "step ahead of the century." And she was. A huge Broadway star before she was 21, Le Gallienne turned her back on the commercial theatre in the 1920s. "Too much cake," she declared, "not enough bread."



Born on January 11, 1899, Eva Le Gallienne would have been 100 years old this year. The daughter of an English poet and a Danish feminist, Le Gallienne liked to say that she was a "step ahead of the century." And she was. A huge Broadway star before she was 21, Le Gallienne turned her back on the commercial theatre in the 1920s. "Too much cake," she declared, "not enough bread."

In 1926 she poured her savings into the Civic Repertory Theatre, where she performed the almost unbelievable feat of functioning as leading actor, director and producer. She introduced American audiences to Chekhov and Ibsen; was the Camille, Juliet, Masha and Hedda of her generation; and the first Peter Pan to fly out over the audience. With the Civic, Le Gallienne laid the groundwork for Off-Broadway and the regional theatre movement and proved that a subsidized, nonprofit repertory theatre playing at low prices could flourish.

In a career that spanned the century, she founded and supported noncommercial theatre companies, yet she maintained her status as a Broadway star. She delighted Broadway and national audiences with her portrayal of theatre matriarch Fanny Cavendish in The Royal Family, and at 83 she flew back onto the Broadway stage as the White Queen in her own production of Alice in Wonderland. In 1986 she received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan.

Inspired and encouraged by Eleonora Duse, the first modern actor, Le Gallienne discovered and helped many actors, but "you can’t teach acting," she often said to them, except by "hand to hand. Many years ago, Duse took my hand. And now I’ve taken your hand and now you are taking the hand of others." Le Gallienne handed on her legacy to many theatre artists, including Burgess Meredith, Uta Hagen, Earle Hyman, Eli Wallach, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Peter Falk, Mariette Hartley, Ellis Rabb, Rosemary Harris, Joseph Maher, Mary Louise Wilson, Roberta Maxwell, Jane Alexander, Maria Tucci and Ellen Burstyn.

Le Gallienne, who died on June 3, 1991, called acting "writing on water," but her indelible legacy remains. Her pioneering work helped shape the 20th century American theatre. It’s tempting to wonder who, born in 1999, might do the same for the 21st century.

-- Helen Sheehy