Anna Cora Mowatt and the Trouble with the Dressing Room – Part I

All the writers who mention Anna Cora Mowatt’s dressing room in connection with the Walter Watts scandal agrees that the brouhaha began when Mowatt complained about how horrible dressing rooms were at the Marylebone Theater. This is not a unique category of complaint for an actor. Indeed, it is probable that Thespis only agreed to step forward from the chorus on the occasion of that first historic dithyramb on the firm understanding that the choregoi was going to do something about the intolerable state of the changing rooms behind the skene.

To this very day, if you go into the most luxurious modern theaters that seem to be equipped with every type of cutting edge tech imaginable, you will probably find that the owners have lavished an equal level of care, planning, and sometimes maintenance on the dressing rooms for their performers that they expend on their broom closets. Changing rooms are temporary quarters that can languish unoccupied for long periods of time. They tend to be cramped, cold, dark, and frequently smelly spaces.

Because dressing rooms are typically temporary workspaces used for an ever-changing cast of performers whose interiors are seldom seen by the ticket-buying public, theater owners have tended to find few reasons to sink money into making them anything other than starkly utilitarian spaces despite hundreds of years of grumbling from actors. Walter Watts was a very, very, very, very, very rare exception to this rule.

Mowatt describes her new dressing room at the Marylebone in this manner:

The apartment to which I was conducted on reaching the theatre had undergone a transformation worthy of Aladdin’s lamp. The carpet was of roses on a bed of moss – the paper on the walls represented panels of the loveliest bouquets – a wreath of flowers to match surrounded the ceiling – the gaslights streamed through ornaments shaped like lilies – a most lifelike group of water lilies, executed by Valentine Bartholomew, flower painter to her majesty, hung upon the wall – and four mirrors reflected the furniture of pale-blue satin and gold. 1

Mowatt says the incident had started in a series of joking conversations in which she teased Watts about asking his actors to dress as kings and queens onstage then sending them to dressing rooms that were more comparable to dungeon cells. The manager had responded by saying that she should just wait until they got to the newly re-furbished Olympic theater. He’d show her a “star” dressing room like no one had ever seen before. She had brushed him off by scoffing that he was only going to swipe some furniture from the prop room and try to fool the actors like he loved to trick the audience. Instead, Watts apparently dipped into his secret stash of funds from the Globe Insurance Company, went all out, and furnished her dressing room as if the interior was really a lady’s boudoir in one of the finest addresses in London.

“Now, what,” you may be asking yourself, “could possibly be the problem with having a really nice dressing room?”

Anna Cora Mowatt’s ghost and I are both shaking our heads sadly. It turns out there was a veritable cornucopia stuffed to the brim with problems for this particularly splendid dressing room. I will let Mrs. Mowatt begin the explanation in her own words:

I stood for a while gazing in dazzled astonishment. I had wished for comfort, not splendor, and was not ungrateful enough to doubt that they had been, in this instance, united. The suspicion proved correct. The boudoir dressing room became sort of a show room, which crowds of visitors nightly begged the privilege of inspecting. The furniture was too costly for any but the most careful use. My meek maid (the same I mentioned in a previous chapter) used to say, with a sigh, “I don’t like a fairyland where there’s real work going on. I don’t dare to move any more than if I were in a glass house. Everything looks as brittle as if it would break by looking at it!”
King Midas found it inconvenient to eat gold instead of bread. I was punished in a somewhat similar fashion; discovering the comfortlessness of inappropriate magnificence.2

Going ridiculously overboard with the redecoration Mowatt’s dressing room essentially ruined the space’s functionality as the sort of a private work area it needed to be. Like many Watts’ other conspicuous gestures of generosity for Mowatt, this favor was also very much designed to be a publicity stunt to promote the Marylebone Theater. In payment for this “favor,” the actress was obligated to keep her private workspace ready to be toured by parade of invited guests, such as journalists and elite members of London society who might be persuaded to invest in the Marylebone, the Olympic… or perhaps one of Watts’ other pet projects.

As an extra, nasty little twist of the knife, the manager could legitimately claim that all this extra chaos had been introduced into the actress’s workspace by her own adamant request.
Gentle Reader, even if one momentarily leaves aside the fact that he would later be exposed as being one of the most infamous embezzlers of his generation, one is strongly persuaded to come to the inevitable conclusion that Mr. Walter Watts was just not good boyfriend material.

Next Week – More on how the Dressing Room Fed the Fires of Scandal!

Actress' Dressing Room

1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. page 308
2. Ibid. pp. 308-309

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