Mrs. Fiske, 1896

Mrs. Fiske, “Love finds the way”, 1896. Photographer: Zaida Ben-Yusuf. Photographic print. Library of Congress.

Minnie Maddern Fiske (born Marie Augusta Davey, 1865 – 1932), but often billed simply as Mrs. Fiske, was a playwright and one of the leading American actresses of the late 19th and early 20th century. She also spearheaded the fight against the Theatrical Syndicate for the sake of artistic freedom. She was widely considered the most important actress on the American stage in the first quarter of the 20th century. Her performances in several Henrik Ibsen plays helped introduce American audiences to the Norwegian playwright.

Mrs. Fiske starred in everything from farce to tragedy and even appeared in a comedy with puppets. In the mid-1910s, Mrs. Fiske starred in two feature film adaptions of two of her greatest stage triumphs: Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 1913 and Vanity Fair in 1915, both of which were surprisingly successful with moviegoers, although she felt she was not at her best in the medium and declined further film work.

Although she was highly praised as an actor, she died poverty-stricken, having fought against a group of producers that organized the Theatrical Trust or Syndicate. This organization took control of first-class playhouses in the U.S., dictated the plays chosen, and the actors that were cast. She fought for artistic freedom for 12 years, which caused her to perform in third-class theatres, such as churches and skating rinks.

In addition to her battle against the Syndicate, she was also one of the most prominent animal welfare advocates of her era. She took interest in the activities of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other humane leagues. She was twice named one of the twelve greatest living American women because of her fight for animal rights and for her outstanding talent.

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