When actress Helen Hayes (1900-1993) received her first star billing on Broadway at age 20 in the comedy Bab, one reviewer called her “a born actress” while another predicted “a future of the kind that does not come to more than one actress in a hundred.” They were right.
In 1927, Hayes began a three-year run on Broadway and on tour as the ill-fated heroine of Coquette, drawing praise as one of the country’s best young players in serious drama as well as comedy. She capitalized on her growing success by launching a radio career in 1928 and a film career in 1931, while continuing to perform nearly every season on stage. Her husband, writer and playwright Charles MacArthur, finalized the script for her talking-picture debut, The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress. The following year she played opposite Gary Cooper in A Farewell to Arms, a much-acclaimed adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel.
She made several more films shortly thereafter, including ones with John Barrymore and Clark Gable, before deciding to focus on her stage career. Although Hayes was, in the opinion of her British biographer Kenneth Barrow, “one of a handful of true originals in the cinema of the thirties,” she was not happy with most of her film roles and never felt at home in Hollywood. As Hayes once noted, she needed contact with an audience “to guide me and tell me where I’m going off the track and how to get back on it.”
In two of her most celebrated roles on Broadway,Hayes portrayed famous monarchs. Despite standing only five feet tall, she convincingly played Mary Stuart, one of history’s tallest queens, in Mary of Scotland (1933). When she portrayed Queen Victoria from youth to old age in Victoria Regina (1935), Hayes revealed the full range of her talents. Victoria Regina ran for several years and nearly 1,000 performances. “When you transcend yourself and really get inside the character,” Hayes later wrote, “it’s like being touched by God.” She felt that in playing Victoria she experienced this rare moment “once or twice.”
Subsequent notable stage performances, in New York and elsewhere, included Happy Birthday (1946), for which Hayes won the inaugural Tony Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress; Time Remembered (1957), for which she won her second Tony Award; and Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet (1958). Altogether, Hayes appeared in more than 100 stage productions during the long span of her career.
In her 1990 autobiography, My Life in Three Acts, Hayes lamented the way modern playwrights focused on the world’s evils. She preferred plays that made people feel hopeful and that celebrated lives lived “quietly and gracefully and decently.” The public admired her for being like someone they felt they knew. As one study of her life put it, “Her convincing honesty made humble characters grand and grand characters human.”
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