Born into a multi-generational English acting family, and the creator of one of the memorable female roles of the 19th-century American stage, the servant girl "Raitch" in Augustin Daily's hit melodrama "Pique" (1875), Sydney Cowell began at age thirteen as a dancing girl in the burlesque "Ixion" in a Liverpool theater. Her London debut occurred in 1870 as Oberon in "Midsummer's Night Dream." Charles Wyndham enticed her to America as soubrette in a touring companying playing "Ours," "School," and "Polly." In 1872, when settled in Hooley's Theater in Chicago, she met and married actor George Giddons.
Small and humorous, an excellent physical comedian, and capable of a kind of eccentric dancing, Cowell made a reputation in San Francisco in 1874 in Tom Taylor's comedy "An Unequal Match," before being called to New York and fame by Daly. Cowell's abilities as a performer in period from 1875 to 1885 verged on genius. She played the fool in "King Lear" with such pathos and ingenuity that critics wept. Her features and physique prevented her from being a tragedienne, but there were persons in the 1880s who believed her ability at comedy rivaled those of Mrs. Scott-Siddons in serious drama. Her career on Broadway lasted until 1909.
NOTES: Sydney Cowell, "A Remarkable Autobiography," New York Mirror (Jun 10, 1879). David S. Shields/ALS