Anna Cora Mowatt essay by Sara Shaunfield

Anna Cora Mowatt and the Performance of Mesmerism

A mid-nineteenth century public reader, actress, playwright, and author, Anna Cora Mowatt, has been deemed the first “lady elocutionist” because she established a career as a public reader without having previously been an actress. Anna Cora Mowatt ended her public career as a public reader due to a deliberating respiratory disease. In her search for comfort and cure, Anna began a treatment regimen called “mesmerism.” Mowatt provided a detailed description of her experience with mesmerism in her autobiography. Within Anna’s description of her experience of mesmerism, she claims to have unwittingly portrayed an alternate persona which called herself “the Gypsy.” According to Taylor (2009) who authored The Lady Actress, Anna’s Gypsy character served as a way in which she could break the Victorian social constraints and strict rules that smothered women. When Anna would undergo mesmerism, she could break away from the repressive behavioral norms imposed upon upper-class American women without gaining the negative social stigma that would normally be placed upon a person who behaved they way she did. Of course, only a few of Anna’s closest friends were privileged enough to observe her private performance in which “The Gypsy” wrote poems, told fantastic stories, and who regularly engaged in debates concerning philosophy and religion, which would have been extremely unacceptable for a woman in the Victorian era.

Mesmerism in the 1900’s would be a similar phenomena to modern day hypnosis. Hypnosis has been regarded as a social phenomenon in which the participant undergoes an altered state of consciousness, similar to sleep. Hypnosis often involves an audience and performers wherein the hypnotist is seemingly endowed with the ability to alter individual levels of consciousness. The participant then performs for the audience and breaks social norms which they reportedly do not remember. When a person underwent a mesmerized state they reportedly transcended into an altered consciousness to a state of heightened spirituality. Anna performed for a small private audience of close friends similar to the more public performances of modern day hypnotism in both cases the participant breaks social norms.

Reprinted with permission

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