Madam Rathbone and the Elocution Lessons

I’ve had this card for most of my life. Say hello to Ethel Marion Foreman, born in 1887 and died in 1976. Marion was an actress and the first wife of actor Basil Rathbone. While performing with Frank Benson’s Shakespeare company, Rathbone met and fell in love with her. He wrote:

“Marion Foreman had been on the stage for some time before I met her at Stratford on Avon in August 1913. She was an excellent actress with a beautiful speaking and singing voice. Both on and off the stage we saw much of each other for many months.”

The couple were married at the church of St. Luke, Battersea, London, on October 3, 1914. The following July their son Rodion was born. The Rathbones divorced in 1926. Marion believed they would come together again, though that was not to be. Much later the Hollywood ‘press’ presented their marriage as an indiscretion of ardent youth, and she’s barely mentioned in Rathbone’s autobiography. Rathbone was reunited with his grown son Rodrion when the young man tried his hand as an actor in Hollywood, and indeed lived for a time with Rathbone and his wife, Ouida. The evident warmth between father, son and stepmother as expressed in the movie magazines was not to last, and the three were estranged after Rodion and his wife felt that their wedding had been hijacked by Ouida as a Hollywood ‘society event’. (Ouida was her husband’s manager, and by all accounts was a very busy networker.) Rathbone’s Hollywood career placed him on a high pedestal of achievement and success, but his staginess was not to everyone’s taste. The renowned stage actor and wit, Mrs Patrick Campbell, described him in her autobiography as “an umbrella taking elocution lessons.”

Around or about 1956 in Newport, Monmouthshire, my mother Dorothy was getting anxious, believing that I should speak with no trace of the accent she was convinced would hold me back in life. I was five when she delivered me to ‘Madam Rathbone’ for elocution lessons. I recall very little of the lessons beyond the room in her house in which they took place, whch was airy though dark with heavy furniture and the glimmer of silver frames containing photographs on many polished surfaces, including the piano. Madam R would have been in her late sixties at the time, which to me seemed incredibly old, and she wore black. What her connections to Newport may have been or why she lived there, I have no idea. Her address has survived and bears the name ‘Rathbone House’ in Serpentine Road, not far from Newport Civic Centre. (My thanks to Stephen Lyons for that information.)

I was an obedient student and a quick learn. I could imitate with skill. By the time Madam Rathbone was through with me my speaking voice had changed forever. What you hear today is how I spoke when I emerged from her tutelage. Later, as a young actor in my early teens, already I sounded like something out of my time, forever cast as toffs.

I look at Marion Foreman in the photograph, in her teens or twenties, from an earlier age of the performing arts that seems almost inconceivable to us in the first quarter of the 21st century. Marion was born a Victorian, and she bequeathed me the speaking voice I have today.

Obituary of Marion Foreman

1887 – 1976

“Miss Marion Foreman, the Shakesperean actress, died at Denville Hall, Northwood, on September 8. She was 89. One of the oldest surviving members of Frank Benson’s company at its meridian, she played in many Stratford upon Avon festivals. Benson held that she was the best Viola in his experience.

Born on June 2, 1887, Ethel Marion Foreman went on the stage when she was 15. At Stratford before the First World War she was in those famous seasons remembered as idyllic and intimate, that were led by a dedicated visionary. With Benson, too, she toured North America during 1930 – 40, acting Jessica, Gertrude and Ann Page for a company that included, beside her husband the young Basil Rathbone, such celebrated classical players as Randle Ayrton, Dorothy Green and Murray Carrington. A ready and endearing actress (in her day applauded as Juliet and Ophelia), she was also an expert fencer.

During the summer of 1919 she and her husband – who would become as well known in the cinema as he was in the theatre – returned to Stratford for the first festival directed by W. Bridges-Adams. Between wars she acted a great deal in the United States. When finally she retired to settle at Newport, she directed, for charity, performances of Macbeth (1939), playing opposite Donald Wolfit at Caerphilly Castle before the Princess Royal. She also directed at two other castles: a Macbeth at Chepstow and Hamlet at Usk. Respected as a teacher, lecturer and adjudicator, she put on many Shakespearian and modern plays among the Welsh miners with whom her association was always understanding and affectionate.

Her marriage to Basil Rathbone (by whom she had a son) was dissolved.”

UPDATE: I am most grateful to Stephen Lyons for the following information about Ethel Marion Foreman:

Ethel Marion Foreman was born in Stepney, London. Her father Edward was a Superintendent of Baths and Gymnastics Director. Sometime between 1891 and 1895 he moved his family to Wales, where he took up a job with Newport Corporation. In 1939 Marion was living at 1 Serpentine road, and was a Drama Lecturer, Producer and Actress. She was also volunteering as an Ambulance Driver.

10 thoughts on “Madam Rathbone and the Elocution Lessons

  1. Wow! How interesting. A rush of memories. So before you arrived at school you were ‘ahead of the game.’
    I remember you telling me I had a “cockney accent”, to which I replied, “I aven’t ave I?”
    Those gloriously elegant, large hatted elocution ladies. I will never forget having my last name misread as “Spinach” and a tinkling voice saying, “You don’t mind being my little spinach do you.” I was never ‘little’ and certainly ‘minded’ but in those days one nodded and smiled while aching inside. Nearly 60 years ago but the feeling is held in the memory, along with happier times including the joys of reciting beautiful poems and prose out loud.
    With love from ‘Theo Thistler’ aka
    Bern (with love)xxx

    • Yes, I remember the HATS! What was our main elocution teacher’s name? I recall us all parading around the rehearsal room – I’m not sure why – with her booming at some unfortunate (probably Patrick Martin), “Don’t MINCE, boy!” (Such interesting and evocative names at the school: Mrs Eldridge in the canteen and Miss Wivel for ballet!)

      But long before I came to Italia Conti, my voice had already been ‘set’ by Madam Rathbone, and given a later polish by Mollie Wanklyn at Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre, another ‘old school’ stage actor, though of a later style than Madam R. At Conti’s, elocution, for me was more about poetry and recitation. I vividly recall you reciting. You gave yourself up to it so beautifully. Here’s Walter de la Mare, and I can never read the verses without hearing your voice.

      I Dream of a Place

      I dream of a place where I long to live always:
      Green hills, shallow sand dunes, and nearing the sea;

      The house is of stone; there are twelve latticed windows,
      And a door with a keyhole – though lost is the key.

      Thick-thatched is the roof; it has low, white-washed chimneys
      Where doves preen their wings, and coo, Please, love:
      love me!

      There martins are flitting: the sun shines; the moon shines;
      Drifts of bright flowers area drone with the bee;

      And a wonderful music of bird-song at daybreak
      Wells up from the bosom of every tree.

      A brook of clear water encircles the garden,
      With kingcups, and cress, and the white fur de lys –

      Moorhens and dabchicks; the wild duck at evening
      Wing away to the sun in the shape of a V;

      And the night shows the stars, shining in at the windows,
      Brings nearer the far-away sigh of the sea.

      Oh, the quiet, the green of the grass, the grey willows,
      The light, and the shine, and the air sweet and free! –

      That dream of a place where I long to live always:
      Low hills, shallow sand dunes – at peace there to be!

      • Dear friend, it was first Mrs Twyman, with furred collars and slender ankles in stilettos and Miss Tisand, wispy and birdlike. Mrs Brierley and choral speaking, ‘ The pairs from the boughs hung golden…’
        The poem was one that Myffy had to recite and I just sat, watching her and loving it so much that I learnt it, still “dreaming of a place..”
        Happy days
        B xx

        • PS. Miss Wivell was tap, Miss Shrimpton ‘Limbering (!) My first ballet teacher was Miss Heyton ..SCARY and let’s not forget Miss Wheeler, Song & Movement and of course George Erskine Jones!
          Loves as ever, careering back in time
          B x

          • Ahhh, yes, your memories are more complete than mine. Mine are all disconnected impressions, whereas you have the vivid and telling details. Mrs Twyman first, and then the bird-like Miss Tisand. But Mrs Brierley – Joan Brierley? – was Headmistress up in the schoolrooms, wasn’t she? She took us to see Gemma Jones in Shaw’s Saint Joan at Wimbledon. I thought I had Miss Wivel (Wivell?) for ballet. But if it wasn’t her, who was it? Acckkkk – it’s all a sea of half-recalled. What was the Matron’s name. Small and white haired. Was she Scottish? Or am I conflating experiences from different times of my life?

            • You’re not conflating, her name was Mrs James and she was as Scottish as Dr. Finlay’s Case Book !
              B x

  2. So, the fact of your writing as you do, while having been a professional dancer, a choreographer and stage designer – and now an painter and illustrator – must be in part at least, be her influence;

    People able to speak well in public are often good writers ( whereas plastic artists in general, have a difficulty with words ).

    Is there anything you are bad at ? Maths, for instance?

    ¡ Qué envidia !
    ¡ Un fuerte abrazo !

    • Maria, as an artist I’ve been at least as influenced by writers as I have by other artist practitioners. Poets have always been my creative companions, a fact that seems to have increasingly taken root as I find myself with more and more commissions to illustrate poets. Right now I’m working on Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf and will shortly be making a cover for Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Marly Youmans’ new novella-length poem, Seren, awaits. Your list of my creative explorations might have ‘Puppeteer’ and ‘Animator’ added. Perhaps when all is said and done, I’m just a Jack-of-all-Trades. To that is usually added and-Master-of-None, which I hope in my case doesn’t apply – though no doubt some will think it true. My maths is rudimentary, though it has to be said that when I worked as Relief Custodian at Tretower Court and Castle – before the electronic cash register arrived – I got VERY fast at mental arithmetic. Everything in life is improved by practice, and if I’ve been good at things, it’s because I never stop working at the problems.

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