Celebrity for the week ending
Saturday, 21 September 2002

Fay Compton (1894-1978)
English actress

Fay Compton

Fay Compton
(photo: Dorothy Wilding, London, probably 1926)

Fay Compton, sister of the novelist Sir Compton Mackenzie, was born into a famous theatrical family in London on 18 September 1894. Her parents, Edward Compton (1854-1918) and Virginia Bateman (1855-1940), were both distinguished members of the profession, as were her sisters, uncles and aunts. She was also distantly related to the author John Addington Symonds (1840-1893); and, through her second marriage to the actor Lauri de Frece (1880-1921), to the celebrated male impersonator Vesta Tilley (1864-1952).

Miss Compton made her first professional appearances in between 1911 and 1913 with The Follies under the leadership of H.G. Pélissier (1874-1913), who became her first husband. She afterwards lead a very busy and successful career in the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic, later adding films, radio and television to her credits. She also made several gramophone recordings, principally for the His Master’s Voice label.

Fay Compton

Fay Compton aged 18
as she appeared in The Follies
(photo: unknown, London, 1912)

By Reginald Hargreaves.

‘I am almost sure that in Fay Compton we do not possess the most admirably equipped actress of this generation. That we do not always altogether realise this is due, presumably, to her uncanny faculty of presenting only one facet of her stage personality to us at a time.
‘And she has so many of them! ‘There is firstly that of charm, acted charm, that is, as apart from her own private possessions in this line, which is so adroitly assumed and put forward that it takes quite a time to realise that it is no more than an incidental and deliberate manoeuvre in a well thought out strategical scheme. Then there is her ability to convey the spiritual, the uncanny; the fey creature of some half-world of beauty at which only poets dare to guess. Does she, I wonder, in what appear to be her most transcendental moments, permit her subconscious mind to wonder whether or not her nose wants powdering? This is not a speculation begot of mere cynicism. It is that always - even at the moment when her acted emotion attains the extreme altesse of poise and beauty - I am still conscious of a faint, mocking echo, as of a cool, detached, calmly scrutinising intelligence which, standing aloof, looks on, half commiserating, half deriding, at human passion’s futile fret and fume. With her the heart may be quick, but the head always has the last word.
‘It is only in her portrayal of Shakespeare’s heroines that one ceases to be aware of this intellectual reservation. But that is, perhaps, because the Bard preferred to paint Woman as an ideal rather than as an individual. Incidentally, it is a matter of sincere regret to me that we have not had more of Fay Compton’s interpretations of the Poet-Dramatist’s "glorifications" of Womankind. There is still the chance, one hopes, that she may yet give us some of them, though Time, remorselessly creeping on, now denies her the opportunity of one assumption which might well have been classical in its perfection. For I shall forever esteem it a grievous sin of omission that no one, some fifteen years or so ago, troubled to give us a production with this artist as Juliet. No better choice could have been made at the time. For she possessed then a maturity of mind coupled with an adolescence of physique which is the vital combination necessary for the true presentment of this exotic daughter of the Capulets, ripened into premature womanhood by the ardour of her passions. However, if we have lost Juliet there is still hope for what I dare prophecy would prove a very notable Lady Macbeth. For there is about Fay Compton, when she chooses to reveal it, a certain steely strength, a firmness of will and purpose, which is of the very soul of this High Priestess of ruthless ambition. So much for Shakespeare’s idealisations of the sex! When it comes to individuals Fay Compton understands her sex too well to glorify it. With her it can never be a cause of tout comprendre, tout pardoner. With Rhadamanthine courage she strips the glamour from them and dares to demonstrate exactly "how then wheels go round." And when she chooses, how wonderfully she can convey the latent "Succumbus" which exists in every woman’s potentiality. This huntress who pursues by fleeing. This seeming incarnation of sympathy, all guile, calculated sweetness, pre-arranged mood, as deliberately commode to man’s requirements as an old glove. This creature of beguilement, screening cold purpose behind the bedazzlement of sex. This apostle of victimisation making sacrifice appear a thing of seeming privilege! "The world well lost…!" Of course, of course! But to some of us, in the supreme moment of abnegation, comes an illuminating flash of insight, and in that fleeting moment of blinding knowledge how we hate surrender!
‘This grisliness we have been permitted to glimpse before, since Fay Compton has not always troubled to hide the motive behind the smile. But never until This Woman Business [Haymarket, London, 15 April 1926] has she dared to give us the whole truth, naked and unashamed. Woman, fundamental Woman; a Primitive, instinctively screening the scheming unscrupulous, predatory, atavistic mummer that she is behind the mask of enticement, as protean as it is momentarily convincing.
‘That is the clue. ---- Woman, … just different!
‘Impossible of judgement, therefore, by any masculine standard, since she simply regards the formularised male code - with its rigid observance of abstract ethics - as some ridiculous, man-made, toy, to be exploited or swept on one side as convenience dictates. Impossible, too, to follow, forestall, defeat or even understand, since between the two species there can exist no Common Denominator. Ben[n] W. Levy [author of This Woman Business] has penetrated this essential sex difference, the basis of that relentless and unending war between male and female; but it took Fay Compton to interpret it.
‘Women may plead sheer sex bias in extenuation of Mr. Levy’s revelation. They will find it harder to condone the deliberately cynical treachery of Fay Compton’s elaboration of exposure.
‘Or do I flatter her?
‘It is after all as unconscious in the performer as it is in unrecognised by the majority of her own sex in the audience? I shouldn’t be surprised. Women, generally speaking are … well, generally speaking, so that there is little or no time left over for profound thought, even about themselves. Perhaps that is why they always seem to be so much happier than men!’
(Theatre World, London, October, 1926, p.27)

This Woman Business

Fay Compton and Frank Cellier as Crawford and Addleshaw with
Leon Quartermaine as Hodges in a scene from Benn W. Levy’s successful comedy,
This Woman Business, Haymarket, London, 15 April 1926.
(photo: Sasha, London, 1926)


‘A Witty Comedy.
‘The theme of this amusing comedy is woman, and the five characters who occupy the stage for most of the time are, professedly, woman-haters. They spend their time in theorising about woman, in the abstract, and avoiding her, and escaping from her society, individually.
‘In the delightful seclusion of a country house in Cornwall, where four of them are guests of the most extreme misogynist of them all, one Hodges, they air their views about this disturbing creature, woman. The only member of the much-maligned sex who is there to disturb the serenity of the purely masculine atmosphere is Nettlebank, the parlour-maid [played by Evelyn Culver]. But even in Nettlebank, unimportant though she is, feminine appeal is so strong, that Honey, the youngest member of the party, finds himself compelled against his will to kiss her.
‘In the midst of a discussion between these five men as to the manifest defects of this lower order of being, who, yet, has such an unfortunately magnetic effect upon them, a girl appears on the scene. She is a typist, who has run away from her employer’s office, having first stolen some money. She had come to find shelter with her old nurse, whose cottage used to stand on the site of Hodges’ country house.

‘The Story of the Play.
‘How the woman-haters shelter her, in spite of the fact that she is a thief and has but the shadowiest ideal of truthfulness, is the plot of the play. How Crawford, the typist, two-thirds true woman and one-third minx, mothers them all in turn and charms their critical theories into nothingness, is the oldest story in the world, but so wittily and amusingly told, that we seem to be listening to it for the first time.
‘Hodges, not recognising a symptom of the malady that has seized him - extreme exasperation with the object of his devotion - finds, with a shock, that he is in love with Crawford, and, finally, throws his essay on woman at her feet, and she tears it up with a smile of triumph. This is the end of the play.

‘Fine Acting.
‘Fay Compton, as Crawford, is as delightful as ever, although the part does not make a great demand upon her powers.
‘As the Judge, O.B. Clarence adds yet another picture to his gallery of masterpieces. Leon Quartermaine, as Hodges, is successful. Bromley Davenport as Crofts, and Frank Cellier as Addleshaw, are both excellent. Clifford Mollison as Honey, and Sebastian Smith as Brown, give good performances.
‘The characterisation throughout is amazingly good. The dialogue is witty and clever, and the humour is real.
‘Another point upon which one may congratulate the author is that none of the characters are unduly exaggerated. They might so easily have been, specially, perhaps, in the case of Addleshaw, who is accused, though with some unfairness, of having persecuted his typist. But the refreshingly unhypocritical remarks that fall from his lips, and the admission that Crawford herself is not wholly blameless in the matter, bring the whole scene to a common-sense level, very different from the stereotyped treatment of such things to which one is too often accustomed, on the stage.
‘The fundamental truth, round which the whole situation in this amusing comedy is woven, emerges as the play proceeds, and gives the average audience what they so insistently clamour for, like children at a school-treat, "something to take away."’
(A.G., The Theatre World and Illustrated Stage Review, London, June 1926, p.29)

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Fay Compton and son Best, Nares, Compton, Dare

left, Fay Compton with her son, Anthony, at South Munstead Farm, Surrey;
right, Fay Compton on a golf course near Leeds, Yorkshire,
with, left to right, Edna Best, Owen Nares and Zena Dare
(photos: probably taken by Bobbie Andrews, right, 1927, left, 1934)

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© John Culme, 2002