Eva Le Gallienne

Honored by:The Theatre Department
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New York Time's critic Walter Kerr called her the epitome of stardom. In 1977, President Gerald Ford hailed her "excellence of achievement" and in 1986, President Ronald Reagan awarded her the National Medal of the Arts. She was selected by nationally known director Lee Strasberg as a "vivid example of what American actors are capable of." Her range of acting was incredible. She went from the classic Trojan Women to the contemporary Exit the King, from the sentimental Liliom to the bare simplicity of Ghosts, from the romanticism of Camille to the realism of Hedda Gabler, from the fantasy of Peter Pan to the operatic bravado of Mary Stuart. No other actress in her time, certainly not Katharine Cornell or Helen Hayes, could possibly boast such a colorful palette.

Soon after she arrived in the United States from her native England in 1915, she became a Broadway star. From 1920 to 1925, her name was in lights and there were larger-than-life photos of her on billboards as she toured around the country. She was the darling of the media, providing interviews about her beauty secrets, advertising products, and modeling the latest fashions. But when she was 27 and at the height of her fame, this daunting and determined maverick turned her back on stardom and dared to challenge the male-dominated Broadway system of long runs high prices and type-casting.

She established our country's first classical repertory theatre (1926-1935). Supported by wealthy patrons and capacity audiences, she initiated a school for apprentices that included Bobby Lewis, Burgess Meredith, Howard da Silva, John Garfield, and J. Edward Bromberg. Her Civic Repertory Theatre enjoyed tributes from leading critics of the day. Alexander Woollcott: The Civic "has recaptured the lost charm the lost pleasure in the theater." Robert Benchley: "One ought to go there about once a month just to recapture the feeling of theatergoing."

Her early popularity took a turn in the mid-30s. With her focus on the classics, especially on the plays of Ibsen, she limited her following. She had been honored from coast to coast for her commitment to non-commercial drama but by 1935 Americans were caught in the Great Depression and were more interested in contemporary social commentary. For the next fifty years, her career was a series of stops and starts, comebacks with smashing reviews followed by long periods of no work when she would turn her energies to translating and writing. In later years, she founded the American Repertory Theatre (1946), inspired the National Repertory Theatre (1961-1966), and either acted in or directed the great plays of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Sheridan, Moliere, Schiller, and Euripides.

During the course of her long career, she earned a Tony award, an Emmy, and an Oscar nomination. And at the age of 82, she received another Tony nomination for her performance in To Grandmother's House We Go.

Behind her public role as a famous actress, director, and producer, Eva Le Gallienne led a private life troubled by her personal struggle with lesbianism. For more than fifty years, she lived in shadows. Like many lesbians of her generation, she viewed herself as a man trapped in a female body. Because she was unwilling to compromise and hide her true self in a convenient marriage or to camouflage her relationships in order to boost her career, her sexuality became a nemesis that defined her great need for privacy.

Burgess Meredith has remarked that in the 1920s Le Gallienne was regarded as a "Young Goddess an inspiration." The high royalty of the American theatre consisted of five people--Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Eva. "To have a role in one of their plays was more than a privilege," he stressed. "It was a kind of knighthood." But since Le Gallienne was contrary to what was allowed in her society and to what was expected of a star, her fame diminished. What prominence she might have realized if circumstances had not forced her to waste so much precious energy on her shame and seclusion. 7/1/96

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Le Gallienne