Dame Peggy Ashcroft, DBE, actress, died yesterday aged 83. She was
born on December 22, 1907.
     Since the death of Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft had held the undisputed
place of first lady of the English stage. Her performances were among
the Shakespearian peaks of the past 60 years, but she is no less
vividly remembered for her work in the modern repertory and for
television and film roles that won her a huge audience during her
final decade. She also had a larger vision of the theatre than can be
conveyed by summarising her acting career.
     From her girlhood reading of Stanislavsky she was, from the start, an
actress in search of a company. She briefly glimpsed her goal during
the 1930s and finally achieved it after the war with the foundation of
the English Stage Company, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the
National Threatre. To each she gave wholehearted support at a crucial
time in its fortunes. What they gained from her was not only the
services of a great classical star but the moral force which was as
visible in her performances as it was in her personal life. She was
seen as an embodiment of British integrity, a factor that was turned
against her by such critics as James Agate and Kenneth Tynan who
persisted in regarding her as a class-bound home counties lady who had
no business to be essaying Cleopatra or the Duchess of Malfi. In fact
these parts were fully within her range and if one point emerges from
the roll-call of her most successful performances it is that there was
no such thing as a typical Ashcroft role.
     What did set apart from actors who simply disappear into whatever they
are playing was the presence of a central moral intelligence
authorising whatever imaginative leap the character demanded. When she
became the first establishment actress to play Brecht, or when she
first hurled a four-letter word at a West End audience, she left a
landmark behind. To recount her life is to tell the story of the
English theatrical renaissance.
     Edith Margaret Emily Ashcroft was born in Croydon, the second child of
a land-agent father and a Danish-German mother - herself an amateur
actress who had taken lessons from the poetic speech pioneer Elsie
Fogerty, at whose Central School of Speech and Drama the 16-year-old
Peggy Ashcroft enrolled on leaving Woodford School. "I learned very
little about acting there," she later declared, being as resistant as
her fellow student Laurence Olivier to the school's stress on the
Voice Beautiful. Her theatrical education began with her reading of
Stanislavsky's "My Life in Art" and her discovery of his emigre
compatriot Theodore Komisarjevsky who was revolutionising the English
stage from his tiny theatre in Barnes. She made her professional debut
in 1926, playing opposite Ralph Richardson in a Birmingham Repertory
revival of Barrie's "Dear Brutus" after which - except for illness or
personal choice - she was seldom out of work.
     In the early years, like any newcomer, she took what was going, though
even then she was more at home in London's adventurous little theatres
than in the commercial machine. Critics of the time were struck by her
freedom from any kind of stage trickery and by the transparent honesty
which remained one of her sovereign qualities. One conspicuous early
event was her 1930 performance of Desdemona to Paul Robeson's Othello,
which also marked her political awakening (a star in the Savoy
Theatre, Robeson was unwelcome upstairs in the hotel). The turning
point came not on the professional stage but in the 1932 OUDS
production of Romeo and Juliet which brought her into contact with the
undergraduate George Devine and his guest director, John Gielgud, her
two closest allies over the next 25 years.
     The alliance was delayed by her marriage to Komisarjevsky and a season
at the Old Vic where she piled up a succession of Shakespearian leads
at breakneck speed under the direction of Harcourt Williams. By then a
member of the unofficial "family" that grew up in the Motley's Studio
(Gielgud's designers), hatching theatrical revolution over endless
cups of tea, she came into her own as Gielgud's leading actress when
he embarked on the untried adventure of setting up a classical company
in the West End. Beginning as Juliet in the legendary 1935 New Theatre
production, she returned for Gielgud's subsequent seasons at the
Queen's and the Haymarket, playing Nina in Komisarjevsky's "The
Seagull", Irina in Michel Saint-Denis's "Three Sisters", and the
Duchess of Malfi (then a controversial novelty) for George Rylands:
productions that left an indelible mark on theatrical memory. True to
her company loyalties, she also joined in Saint-Denis's ill-fated 1938
Phoenix season before the "family" was dispersed by the war.
     Had Gielgud's companies not kept breaking up, she would gladly have
stayed inside them. As it was, she rebuilt her career at the Stratford
Memorial Theatre (under Anthony Quayle) and in the West End. She often
undertook parts with severe misgivings but then turned them to
triumph: as with the alcoholic wife in Robert Morley's "Edward, My
Son", the victim-turned avenger in "The Heiress", and (originally her
prime bete noire) the suicidal Hester Collyer in Rattigan's "The Deep
Blue Sea."
     The pattern of her career underwent its second great change in the
1950s with the dawning of the age of subsidy. First she resumed her
alliance with Devine in the 1954 "Hedda Gabler" and when Devine
launched the English Stage Company two years later, Ashcroft -at the
height of her commercial success in Enid Bagnold's "The Chalk Garden"
- forsook the Haymarket for the wilderness of Sloane Square to double
as Shen Te/Shui Ta in his production of Brecht's "The Good Woman of
Setzuan". The ESC, however, did not maintain a permanent troupe so,
although she subsequently joined Devine in revivals of Chekhov and
Ibsen, her main allegiance went to Peter Hall's newly-formed Royal
Shakespeare Company. She began by reclaiming two shrews Kate and
Paulina in "A War of the Roses" in which (then in her late fifties)
she began as a young girl and aged into a demonic septuagenarian in
"Richard III". This was a woman, Philip Hope-Wallace wrote, "kept
alive by sheer passion of inner hate." With Hall, she also became an
incomparable advocate of Pinter, Albee, and (when Hall moved on to the
National Theatre) Beckett. Just as she had championed the young Peter
Hall at the start of the RSC, so she supported his young successor,
Trevro Nunn, with whom she achieved her crowning stage performance as
the Countess of Rousillon in the 1981 "All's Well That Ends Well", in
which she lent something Chekhovian to Shakespearian comedy.
     Nunn once made the point that actors achieve greatness only in old age
when "life has tested them and they've come through." This was clearly
true of Ashcroft, both on stage and in her final creative breakthrough
on film.
     Three times married, CND supporter, and veteran campaigner against
social injustice (so much so that when she was created DBE in 1956
Hugh Beaumont nicknamed her "the Red Dame"), she was not short of
living experience. In her youth the epitome of the intelligent
ingenue, in middle age a radical actress exploring the desperation of
women of violently contrasted classes and cultures, she finally took
on a quality in which acting became wisdom. Nunn again: "You simply
lose yourself in the largeness of her spirit." In her film and
television work she was able to take the spectator straight to the
heart of the character. One of her most remarkable small screen roles
was Barbie Batchelor in Paul Scott's "The Jewel in the crown" (1984),
where she showed the development of character from robust decency to
ferocious despair with minimal reliance on external effects. This
performance won her a BAFTA award. She had acted in films from "The
Wandering Jew" of 1933 and had a role in Hitchcock's "The Thirty-Nine
Steps" of 1935. But she picked her film parts. She had a success as
the Mother Superior in "The Nun's Story" (1958) and won an Oscar as
the best supporting actress for her portrayal of Mrs Moore in David
Lean's film version of E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" (1984). At
81, in 1989, she shared the best actress award, the Coppa Volpi Prize,
with Geraldine James at the Venice Film Festival for her performance
in Peter Hall's film "She's Been Away". It was a remarkable achievment
for an actress who had made her debut 60 years before. Her most recent
public appearance was at the Olivier Awards in London in April when
she was given a special award to mark her life's service to the
Her work was always hard to describe. She herself called it a process
of arriving at psychological truth by means of tonal accuracy.
Externally it was made up of innumerable small details of gesture and
facial expression; but what she was clearly mattered more than what
she did, with the result that any attempt to express in words was
liable to turn into gush. Colleagues habitually summed her up by
contrasts: "English containment and wild passion", "fearlessness and
vulnerability," "ferocity and tenderness". Anthony Quayle put it more
simply: "She's a crusader, she's Pilgrim's Progress to the end."
     Besides Komisarjevsky, she was married to Sir Rupert Hart-Davis and to
Jeremy Hutchinson (now Lord Hutchinson of Lullington), by whom she
leaves a son and a daughter.