By Carol A. Stabile
Margaret “Peggy” Webster was born on March 15, 1905, into what the New York Times described as a “150-year-old English theatrical dynasty.”1 Her grandfather, Old Ben Webster, managed London’s Haymarket Theater. His son and Webster’s father, also Ben Webster, was an actor, as was her mother, renowned actress Dame May Whitty.
Webster was born in New York City, while her father was performing on Broadway, and maintained dual citizenship throughout her life. She attended the Etlinger Dramatic School in London as a child, appearing in walk-ons during her mother’s performances. In 1924, she appeared with Dame Sybil Thorndike in The Trojan Women, an appearance that marked the beginning of a long personal and professional relationship with Thorndike.
Webster joined the Old Vic company in 1929 and when given the opportunity to direct soon channeled her energies in that direction. Although Webster claimed she would “rather act than eat,” as her good friend Eva Le Gallienne put it in a tribute to Webster, “it was as a great director that she made her reputation.”2 According to Le Gallienne, Webster’s gift lay in her marked lack of egocentrism. “She did not create a play in her own image,” Le Gallienne recalled, but instead “believed a director should interpret the author, not betray him.”3
Webster became known as one of the foremost directors of Shakespeare of her generation. In 1937, she directed noted Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans in a highly-acclaimed Broadway production of Richard II. In 1938, Webster cast actress Mady Christians—whom she described as “blonde, distinguished, and opulent”—as Queen Gertrude in her production of Hamlet [Barranger, Margaret Webster, 87]—check date. Productions of Henry IV, Part I (1939), Twelfth Night (1940), Macbeth, 1941) followed in quick succession.
In the late 1930s, Webster began discussing a production of Othello starring African American actor Paul Robeson. She was told that it would be a box office disaster. In the end, she financed the production on her own. She produced the play in 1943, with José Ferrer and Uta Hagen cast alongside Robeson. As Webster recalled, “in the teeth of every possible hostility and prediction of doom,” when the curtain fell on the first performance of Othello at the Shubert Theater in Manhattan on October 19, 1943, the standing ovation lasted for a full twenty minutes.1 Webster’s Othello ran for 296 performances, a record for a Shakespeare play on Broadway that stands today.2
Webster co-founded the American Repertory Theater in 1946 with Eva Le Gallienne and producer Cheryl Crawford.
Webster was active in unions in the entertainment industrues. As a member of the Association for Radio Actors (AFRA), she worked on the merger that would transform the union into AFTRA, incorporating television actors as well. Along with her friend Mady Christians and Edith Atwater, Webster was a member of the Television Authority, a group of trade unionists charged with sorting out the various jurisdictional issue surrounding the new medium of television.
Webster died in London on November 14, 1972, at the age of 67.