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)