Excerpt from Pages 94-95Published April 29, 2017
Physically, at least, Singer was well fitted for the stage. His handsome face helped–square jaw, gray eyes, massive brow framed by thick auburn hair–but it was the almost frightening energies radiated by his presence that people remembered most vividly. He was over six feet tall, powerfully built, and forceful in manner. Men either admired his drive or were intimidated by it; women were both fascinated and fearful. In any case, he was not someone one could overlook or forget, and for an actor that was an important advantage. A good actor needs more than looks, however, and the lack of other necessary qualities eventually doomed Singer’s stage career in spite of his extraordinary efforts. The deficiencies are not hard to guess. Singer was not a sensitive man. He could have expressed Richard III’s rage and frustration well enough–“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”–but his hero’s wooing of Lady Anne, with its subtle blend of hypocrisy, self-abasement, and menace, would have been far beyond him. Singer’s acting was once described as “crude and bombastic.” His feelings in real life seem to have occupied the same narrow range; their astonishing power is what catches our attention, not their subtlety. Another weakness was Singer’s inability to get along with people. Always hot-tempered, he soon quarreled with anyone he was associated with, and usually offended them so deeply that the relationship was ended. Whatever other skills he may have, an actor must be able to work with others if he is to have much success.
The abbreviated apprenticeship and the still briefer stint as an actor with Dean were the first unmistakable signs of that terrific restlessness that was to mark Singer’s whole life. He always seemed to be reaching out for whatever would steady him–a job, a woman, a home–but these things were like uprooted plants in the hand of a man carried away by a torrent. In December, 1830, he married Catherine Maria Haley, a fifteen-year-old girl from Palmyra, N.Y. He was then working as a woodturner, and they lived at first with her parents. He seemed to have settled down, but the appearance of stability was an illusion. Before long the Singers moved to nearby Port Gibson, where Isaac worked in a dry goods store. Soon that job was given up for another, and so on. Whenever Singer learned of an opportunity to join up with a drama company–in any capacity, no matter how menial–he instantly left his job, wife, and home, and went off until the inevitable break occurred, then drifted back again. Being so restless in every other way, Isaac was, as one might expect, far from being a faithful husband. According to one newspaper, “his intimacy with the female part of the population was severely commented upon, and much sympathy was expressed for his wife.” If no job and no woman could satisfy him, no version of Isaac Singer pleased him either. He was never happy unless he was King Richard, or Othello, or Macbeth. “Most of his time,” his wife’s brother later recalled, “was spent giving performances.”