Eva Le Gallienne

Honored by:The Theatre Department
Brick location:PAVER:14  map

Born in London on January 11, 1899, Eva Le Gallienne liked to say that she was one step ahead of the century. A consummate character actor, her art was a combination of the dazzling theatricality of Sarah Bernhardt and the deep inner truth of Eleonora Duse. Le Gallienne’s pioneering contributions and professional credentials are without parallel in the American theater.

She was the only child of Julie Nørregaard, a Danish journalist, and Richard Le Gallienne, an English author. Her parents separated when she was four, after which she was raised by her mother in Paris. As a child, Le Gallienne was taken to see performances by legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt and twice had the opportunity to meet her. These encounters inspired Le Gallienne to dedicate her life to the theater. In 1915, she made her professional debut on the London stage, but despite being hailed as a “brilliant new comedienne,” she decided to set sail for the broader horizons of America.

In her first five years in New York, Le Gallienne played fifteen roles in a variety of plays on Broadway. In 1920, she had her first major hit in Not So Long Ago, followed by starring roles as Julie in Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom in 1921 and, in 1923, Princess Alexandra in Molnar’s The Swan, opposite Basil Rathbone. That year, she met and befriended Italian actress Eleonora Duse, who had achieved international fame for her innovative, modern approach to acting. For the rest of her life, Le Gallienne cited Duse as her primary artistic influence.

Not content with Broadway stardom, in 1926, the same year she became an American citizen, Le Gallienne founded the Civic Repertory Theatre on Fourteenth Street. There, she functioned as leading actor, director, and producer, proving that a subsidized, non-profit theater playing at low prices could flourish downtown and attract a diverse audience. The Civic Rep united a young American theater tradition with a rich European heritage, laying the groundwork for the subsequent Off Broadway and regional theater movements. Le Gallienne introduced American audiences to Chekhov and Ibsen, presented innovative new productions of the classics, and premiered new American plays. She gave critically acclaimed performances in Camille and Romeo and Juliet, and was the first Peter Pan to fly out over the audience. In 1928, President Coolidge selected her as one of the outstanding persons of the year, and at age thirty she appeared on the cover of Time.

In May 1931, a propane hot water heater exploded at Le Gallienne’s home in Weston, Connecticut, and she almost died from her injuries. Severe burns on her hands were treated with skin grafts and reconstructive surgery. After a year off, she reopened the Civic Repertory Theatre and mounted an ambitious new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. But the company’s finances were plagued by Depression-era setbacks, and Le Gallienne was forced to close the Civic Rep in 1934. For the rest of her life, she championed non-profit theater and called the lack of government support for the arts a national scandal.

During a career that spanned more than seven decades, Le Gallienne founded or supported a variety of non-commercial theater companies, including the American Repertory Theatre, the National Repertory Theatre, and the Association of Performing Artists. In the 1950s and 1960s, she directed and acted on Broadway and on tour in a number of starring roles. In 1964, she was presented with a Special Tony Award in recognition of her fifty years as a working actress.

In addition to her prolific work as an actor and director, Le Gallienne had a distinguished literary career. Her translations of twelve of Ibsen’s plays were published by the Modern Library in two volumes, and in 1961, Norway gave her their highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Olav, for her commitment to Ibsen. She also wrote two autobiographies, At 33 (1934) and With a Quiet Heart (1953); Flossie and Bossie, a children’s book; and bestselling translations of Hans Christian Andersen stories. Her biography of Eleonora Duse, The Mystic in the Theatre, drew on her firsthand observations of the legendary actress.

Just as Le Gallienne had the courage to reject the status quo in her professional life, she was equally courageous in her personal life. In a closeted society, she loved and lived openly with a series of women, including Mary Duggett Benson, Mercedes de Acosta, Gladys Calthrop, Josephine Hutchinson, Marion Gunnar Evensen, Margaret Webster, and Anne Kaufman Schneider. While Le Gallienne fully accepted her sexuality, she refused to be defined by it. She was a theater artist, and in the Dionysian world of theater, all categories, divisions, groupings, and titles—including, she believed, those of sexual orientation, gender, class, and race—were antithetical to art.

Despite her advancing age, Le Gallienne continued to work during the 1970s and 1980s. She delighted Broadway and national audiences with her portrayal of theater matriarch Fanny Cavendish in The Royal Family from 1975-77, winning an Emmy Award for her appearance in the televised production of the play. In 1981, she received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film Resurrection. At age eighty-three, she literally flew back onto the Broadway stage as the White Queen in her own production of Alice in Wonderland. Her final professional performance was in 1984, playing a character drawn from her own life on an episode of NBC’s St. Elsewhere. Two years later, she received the National Medal of Arts.

Eva Le Gallienne died of heart failure at her home in Weston, Connecticut on June 3, 1991, at the age of ninety-two.

Helen Sheehy and Barrie Kreinik

Works Cited

Kreinik, Barrie. “Not Only for Amusement: Eva Le Gallienne and the Civic Repertory Theatre.” Theaterhound, https://theaterhound1.medium.com/not-only-for-amusement-eva-le-gallienne-and-the-civic-repertory-theatre-fa8a7e4e331e. Accessed March 1, 2024. Le Gallienne, Eva. Eva Le Gallienne Papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 2016. Sheehy, Helen. Eva Le Gallienne: A Biography. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.