Anna Cora Mowatt and the Irate Couturier

Mowatt was not the only star of the Victorian stage to be affected by the rising and falling fortunes of Mr. Walter Watts.

[As always, if this is your first time joining this blog, more background information is available on Anna Cora Mowatt in my book, The Lady Actress, and the Watts Scandal at this fine website.]

This past Saturday, January 11th, marked the 154th anniversary of the death of Irish tragedian Gustavus V. Brooke. In 1848, Brooke had hit big playing Othello at the Olympic Theatre while it was still under Mrs. Warner’s management. The Irishman was a heavy drinker and terrible at managing his finances, though. Brooke got into deep trouble when he ran up huge debt with a London costuming shop called Mr. Nathan’s.

In those days, actors were expected to bear the expense of providing their own costumes. In her autobiography and fictional works set in the theater, Anna Cora Mowatt describes how members of the chorus would frantically be occupied knitting lace in spare moments to sell to the company’s star players in order supplement their meager incomes. She also vividly sketches real and fictional wardrobe mistresses whose job it was not to design and construct costumes but to supervise and coordinate the cast’s choices of dress and supplement with additional small items like shawls, veils, and draperies where necessary. The wardrobe mistress also helped and advised on hair and makeup.

Many dramas were performed in contemporary dress. Therefore a fashionable performer’s best outfits could possibly do double duty as stage-wear. However, for performers who specialized in Shakespeare and other roles that called upon them to play historical royalty, furnishing these elaborate costumes could pose a heavy financial challenge. After the death of Queen Adelaide in 1849, Anna Cora Mowatt attended the estate sale where some of her garments were auctioned. “I purchased several of her regal robes,” Mowatt says in her autobiography. “The garments of the actual queen have decked the mimic representative of royalty upon the English as well as American boards.”1

Instead of dealing with deceased royalty, Gustavus Brooke engaged the services of the firm of the very alive Messers. Nathan, Theatrical Costumiers for his triumphant turn as Shakespeare’s Moor at the Olympic in 1848. After returning to London from an engagement in the provinces in 1849, he promptly found himself arrested for an outstanding debt of £123 which he had allowed to go into default. (To give some idea of the scale of this debt, Walter Watts’ real yearly salary as an assistant clerk working at the headquarters of an international insurance company was £200. Brooke owed his costumer more money than most people in London in 1848 with good jobs could make in a year.) Watts, who had signed the tragedian to a contract at the Olympic, bailed out the Irishman and paid off the outstanding debt. Messers. Nathan, though, were not done with Mr. Brooke and sued him for immediate payment of an additional £109. This amount was fee for costumes they had constructed for his upcoming 1850 performances at the Olympic. Apparently, though the folks at Mr. Nathan’s had decided Brooke was a deadbeat who belonged in jail, the firm had not been adverse to the idea of making a few more fancy robes and breeches for the tragedian. Perhaps it was Mr. Watts’ deep pockets that inspired them to give Mr. Brookes a second chance? Unfortunately, ill winds were blowing in the direction of the manager of the Olympic Theater and a second rescue from the clutches of Mr. Nathan was not in the offing from that direction. Brookes bowed to the inevitable and was able to come to a compromise that will have a familiar ring to modern ears – He would pay off the debt in five not-so-easy £20 monthly payments. (Again, to get some perspective on the size of this debt, £25 would be a year’s rent on a London flat in 1844 according to this website.)2

Brooke managed to make the first payment, but the Ides of March fell heavily on Walter Watts that year. The Marylebone and Olympic were closed for several months after his arrest. Gustavus Brooke, despite being at the height of his popularity, was out of work and almost ended up in jail again. In bankruptcy court, Brooke and his lawyers desperately offered the costumers a choice between one-eighth of his yearly receipts or one-fourth of his net receipts. Messers. Nathan decided to take a gamble on settling for one eighth of Brooke’s receipts for 1851.3

Finally, here is where Anna Cora Mowatt enters our story. The two performers, greatly bruised in both spirit and purse, set off together for a tour of the theaters of Ireland. They were welcomed with open arms by both Irish audiences and critics – in some cases, almost literally. Mowatt reported of the Irish audiences, “The pit and galleries are in the habit of constantly addressing the actors upon the stage, expressing gratification or displeasure in very decided terms. “Bless your swate face!” or “The Lord love ye!” is not an unusual salutation to a favorite female performer; and similar expressions of affectionate delight are called forth by the action of the play in which she is concerned.”4 She goes on to say that when she was offstage “They grasped my hands as I passed, seized my dress, crying out, “God bless you, mee lady!” “The Lord give you prosperity!”5

Brooke too basked in the wild enthusiasm of audiences of his native country. Benefit nights held for him in major Irish cities were playing to houses packed pit to dome. Critics declared his Othello “nearly unrivalled” in the annals of theatre history. 6

This 1851 Irish tour seemed to be just what doctor ordered for both the performers after their misfortunes of 1850. After this and similarly remunerative tours of the provinces, Brooke was able to escape the silken clutches of Messers. Nathan and pull himself out of bankruptcy. He went on to greater triumphs on the London stage.
Anna Cora Mowatt, though, would face another tragedy in 1851. Her gravely-ill husband, James, who had insisted that she book this Irish engagement, died while she was away. However the tour had, as he had perhaps known it would, done much to repair her shattered self-confidence. It also stabilized their finances to the point that she could afford to give him a proper burial, buy a ticket home to the United States, and start putting the most unpleasant parts of what that had happened in England behind her.

1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. Page 323
2. Skipper, James and Landlow, George P. “Wages and Cost of Living in Victorian England.” The Victorian Web
3. The Spectator, Saturday, May 4, 1850, page 414.
4. Mowatt.Autobiography. 358
5. Ibid, 361.
6. Lawrence, William J. The Life of Gustavus V. Brooke, Tragedian. Belfast: W.G. Baird: 1892. Page 114