Idealism and Acting: Maude Adams and the Personality School
by JACK B. WINGET
Volume VIII, Number 1
Maude Kiskadden Adams, born in Salt Lake City in 1872, began her theatrical career at the age of nine months when she was carried onstage on a platter during a performance of a farce entitled The Lost Child. Surveying an appreciative audience, she sat up, smiled, and acknowledged the obvious delight of the audience, perhaps expressing a portent of the future.1
Maude Adams, according to William Winter, dean of the nineteenth century American drama critics, was "an actress of amiable personality and respected talent. Her professional career has been a triumph of mediocrity."2 The statement is certainly not a rousing approval for the subject of an article. Before dismissing our subject in such a cavalier fashion, however, perhaps we should reexamine Miss Adams's achievements so that we can better evaluate her place in the early twentieth century theatrical milieu.
Maude Adams can best be described as a proponent of the personality school of acting, which requires good actors to infuse attempted roles with portions of their own personality. This gives each role its individuality, its nuance. In defining the nature of a personality actress, Garff Wilson suggests that
. . . there is a substitution of the performer's personality for the dramatic character, or the portrayal of dramatic characters which fit the performers' personality so exactly that performer and character are practically identical.3
For Maude, this extension of one's personality had its limitations. She avoided roles that portrayed the seamy side of life, including characters who displayed the base emotions of hate, lust, or greed, nor did she ever compromise herself or a character by sexual inferences or innuendo. She has a strong sense of values in a positive fashion. Wilson again reflects upon the personality school and upon the actresses Adams, Julia Marlowe, and Viola Allen who best represented this school in America.
Audiences were attracted by the individual virtues of these ladies and by their reputations as moral leaders. With their appearance, the venerable Puritan prejudice against plays and players was reversed.4
While her work with producer Charles Frohman would establish Miss Adams as a performer with star quality, her association with James M. Barrie, the English novelist/playwright, would assure her position as one of America's dominant early twentieth century actresses. Maude acted in seven of Barrie's plays during her career. The two plays that captivated her audiences and endure as her finest accomplishments were The Little Minister and Peter Pan. Today, the latter still serves as a reference point for readers of American theatre history.5
Contemporary critics and historians agree that Miss Adams created the prototype role of Peter in Barrie's play. It was her greatest triumph; J. M. Barrie told Maude ". . . that the character came to my mind through you. And he told Charles Frohman that 'whether or not Miss Adams is to play Peter Pan, it was she who inspired it'."6 This last statement refers to Maude's feeling that she would be better suited for the role of Wendy. Frohman had other ideas and again showed the stage sense for which he was so famous.
At first, audiences misunderstood the play. Noted English actor Sir Beerbohm Tree thought Barrie was mad and told Frohman as much. Fearing that the play failed to carry its own message, Frohman inserted a flyer in the program "explaining" the play's five acts. Contemporary critics seemed confused and hardly knew how to take Barrie's play. Acton Davis, however, writing for Redbook in 1906, suggests:
The audiences, during the first fortnight in New York, were large, but then they always are when Miss Adams presents a new bill. There was nothing in the size of them or in the way they accepted the play which was going to keep playgoers tumbling into a theatre for a whole season . . . But it was the children who finally set both their minds at rest and gave Peter Pan its hall-mark of great and lasting popularity.7
Unfortunately the successful association of Adams, Barrie, and Frohman that had become so popular was destroyed by German torpedoes in 1915 when the Lusitania, carrying Charles Frohman, was sunk. Although Maude continued to perform until 1934, she never again matched the Peter Pan success. The dependency of playwright, actress and producer became apparent with the absence of Frohman. Theatre historians mark the decline of Miss Adams's popularity at this point and, indeed, by all accounts, Maude seems to have lost direction and interest in performance.
At her peak, Maude Adams reflected an age that felt strongly about values and held morality in high esteem. Her credo for young actors reflected her own sense of purpose in the theatre. She said, "No actor wants to teach people to laugh at those things that should not be laughed at, to interest them in things that should not be seen on the stage, or to deride the values that he himself holds dear."8
She exemplified the transition between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Theatre "buffs" will remember her Peter Pan long after Winter's indictment of her acting talent has faded from memory. She was an honest and representative reflection of her time and a well-loved performer.