'Love me or hate me': the perils of theatrical marriage

05 February 2016

Sometimes it's easy to think that the obsession with glamorous celebrities and their lives behind the scenes is purely a modern phenomenon, aided and abetted by social media and reality TV shows. But as I've been working on material for the upcoming Shakespeare in Performance resource, it's very clear that this phenomenon is timeless.

Shakespearean stage actors Julia Marlowe and Robert Taber were called 'the Romeo and Juliet of their day'. Their romance and subsequent marriage was the talk of the town when it began in 1894. British-born Julia was the beautiful 19-year-old ingénue who'd come to the States with her family as a child and made her name performing Gilbert and Sullivan; Taber was the rising star who fell in love with her as he sat in the audience of one of her performances one night. In 1888, Taber joined the company to which Julia belonged, and over the next few years they acted opposite each other in some of Shakespeare's finest romantic roles. Rumours of an off-stage relationship were rife, and the wedding in Philadelphia in 1894 made the newspapers, despite it being an exceptionally modest affair with only seven guests. Considerably lower-key than the Beckhams and their infamous thrones, or Jordan's Cinderella carriage and horses!

 

A portrait of Julia Marlowe at the height of her fame in 1900, by Irving R. Wiles, with her signature. Â© Folger Shakespeare Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

But as with so many celebrity romances, behind the scenes all was not well. American audiences did not take kindly to Taber's insistence that Julia change her surname in the professional world as well as the private one, and this public criticism soon exposed Taber's longstanding feelings of insecurity and resentment of his wife's popularity. By all accounts, Julia did her best to play down her own successes to spare his feelings, and even attempted to use her influence to win big roles for him - although the decision to change her acting name was one that never sat easily with her and after a few years she apparently made an attempt to revert to her maiden name.

The first public sign that the marriage was in trouble came in 1899 during what would turn out to be their final performance together. Taber insisted upon taking curtain calls that were meant for Julia, and his jealousy was obvious for all to see. They separated soon after, with Julia eventually suing for divorce in 1900 on the grounds of 'intolerable severity and non-support'.

 

Julia Marlowe with her second husband, E.H. Sothern, in the roles of Romeo and Juliet, 1904. © Folger Shakespeare Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

It's interesting to note that the divorce seems to have had little effect on their respective careers. Taber went on to have several successful runs in London, before his untimely death from pleurisy in 1904. Julia continued to be one of America's best-loved actresses for many years. In 1911 she married her regular and equally famous co-star E. H. Sothern, and this relationship, lasting until his death in 1933, appears to have met with general public approval. Evidently popular opinion had, for whatever reason, decided that Sothern was kosher - or at any rate more kosher than Taber had been.

Shakespeare in Performance: Prompt Books from the Folger Shakespeare Library will be available from August. Full access will be restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Harriet Brunsdon Jones

Harriet Brunsdon Jones

I’ve been working at Adam Matthew since March 2013, following several years in magazine and journals publishing. Projects I’ve worked on include Shakespeare in Performance, Popular Medicine in America, Global Commodities, and China, America and the Pacific – all assisted by copious quantities of tea.

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