Last week, I know that I said that I thought Anna Cora Mowatt had used “Harlequin Fairy-land,” a Christmas Pantomime authored by Walter Watts, as the setting for the climactic scene in her novella “Prompter’s Daughter.” Well, dear Reader, this week, I might as well begin by admitting that as has been true when I examined what other people claimed were examples of close bonds between Mowatt and Watts, when I broadened my view and added more context, that tie became weaker, less unique, and more slippery.
Without wasting further words on prefacing, let me get straight to the reasons why I was initially so convinced there was a connection between the novella and the harlequinade. First, Mowatt herself called “Mimic Life” her most autobiographical work. When Epes Sargent encouraged her to change the name of the Trueheart family in “Prompter’s Daughter” to something less baldly metaphorical, she refused on the grounds that the surname was connected to the characters’ real name. (Mowatt sometimes liked to use people’s maiden names or ancestral names as character names.)
The fire in the theater that injures and eventually leads to Tina Trueheart’s death in “Prompter’s Daughter” is based on a horrific incident that happened at a party given to celebrate the end of Walter Watts’ tenure as the manager of the Marylebone Theatre in 1849. This newspaper account recalls the event:
On Monday last, the season at this elegant and popular place of resort closed, and the management is, we understand, about to be transferred to other hands, Mr. Watts, the late highly-respectable and indefatigable lessee, having taken upon himself the reins of government of the New Olympic. To mark, however, his cordial appreciation of the service of his late corps dramatique, most of who are re-engaged to go with him to the Olympic, he invited them all to a ball and supper on Wednesday evening at the Marylebone Theatre. The stage was tastefully fitted up for the occasion, and a large and happy party met with the exhilaration expectation of spending a delightful evening. All went well until 3 o’clock when suddenly appalling shrieks and the cry of “Fire!” resounded through the theatre. The next moment a female was seen rushing frantically about, enveloped in flames. The scene that ensued was an awful contrast to the gaiety of the previous scene. Miss Susan Roberts, a member of the corps de ballet, whilst walking near the footlights, suddenly turned to speak to someone passing her; in the act a portion of her dress swung round and spreading over some of the lamps it instantly caught fire. Every assistance was immediately rendered, but so fierce and rapid was the appalling element in its progress, that before it could be subdued, the poor girl was so severely burnt her life is now despaired of. Mr. Watts, with the kind and compassionate feeling which so strongly marks his character, has ordered no expense to be spared in procuring surgical aid, and a subscription has been set on foot.1
Mowatt, an eyewitness, did not frame her recollection in terms of “assistance being immediately rendered.” She remembered being caught with the rest of the company in a moment of confused horror as flames suddenly blazed up from the gaslights. People ran from the flames or were paralyzed into inaction as the girl’s screams went on and on and on. The young woman might have died as they watched, stupefied, Mowatt reported, if it weren’t for the bravery of Mrs. Renshaw, a wardrobe assistant, who knocked the girl to the floor and smothered the flames with her own clothing sustaining serious burns to her own face and arms in the process.2 Neither of these accounts tell if the girl lived beyond February of 1850.
I can’t verify that Susan Roberts’ career paralleled Tina Trueheart’s because minor parts like hers’ aren’t billed in the newspaper ads for shows. In Mowatt’s autobiography, after the story of Susan Roberts’ accident, she relates the story of a ballet girl named Georgina who, like Tina, was the offspring of members of the theatrical company and played small roles from the time she was a child. Tina Trueheart could easily be an amalgam of Susan and Georgina.
In the other two novellas in Mimic Life, “Stella,” and “The Unknown Tragedian”, the characters’ career paths do closely parallel those of the performers that most critics agree they are based – Anna Cora Mowatt and Gustavus V. Brooke. There is not a precise one-to-one correspondence between roles played, individuals encountered, and incidents experienced, but the similarities are striking enough to be unmistakable. It’s reasonable to assume that Mowatt based Tina Trueheart and her career on a real performer – or performers – as well.
Christmas pantomimes were not and are not a part of traditional holiday celebrations in the U.S. They are part of a more carnivalesque tradition than many of the religious founding fathers would have tolerated. Fairies played an important part in Victorian harlequinades not just because they were charmingly whimsical, but because they provided sex appeal. Fairies on stage were pretty young women in short dresses that revealed more of a female body than most men got to see outside of a bedroom.
Although mild by today’s standards, Victorian harlequinades were not the kiddie shows that today’s Christmas pantos have become. By their standards, their Boxing Day shows were sexy, daring, but still a little corny, political, special effects-packed, thrilling, boozy, laugh-riots that were very much for grown-ups. It was a special theatrical space where the normal order was temporarily turned on its head.
The lack of some of the rough and tumble that characterized the plots of other harlequinades of 1948-1850 season was a big part of what had me convinced that the pantomime in “Prompter’s Daughter” was “Harlequin Fairy-land.” Fairies are integral to Watts’ plot, not just incidental eye-candy characters like they seem to be in offerings from some of the other major theaters. For example, at the Victoria, the show was “Harlequin Wat Tyler.” The plot – if you can picture this – was a burlesque version of the Wat Tyler rebellion (in which starving 12th peasants decimated by the Black Plague marched on London to demand reform and wreaked murder and havoc until they in turn were rounded up and brutally executed) acted out by clowns and fairies.
In “Harlequin Fairy-Land,” the Golden Fairy– which would have been the Tina Trueheart character — makes periodic appearances in a golden chariot accompanied by her court to dispense rulings as Princess Zuela chooses between her suitors. This corresponds nicely to the non-demanding, but showy Fairy Queen role Mowatt describes for Tina’s pantomime performance in “Prompter’s Daughter.”
There are other parallels. The pantomime in “Prompter’s Daughter” runs for a full month as “Harlequin Fairy-land” did. It is preceded by a tragedy like the one in the novella. The melodrama at the Marylebone was called “Clara Charette: A Daughter’s Sacrifice.” Apparently this bit of tear-jerking coincidence was a bit too on the nose even for Mowatt.
However, several shows ran thirty days and it was traditional to precede the pantomime with a tragedy – although not every theatre observed this practice. The run of “Harlequin Fairy-land” was not followed by a production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” like the production in the novella. “Henry VIII” did play at Sadlers Wells in late January of 1850. The Lyceum and Astely’s Theatres both staged pantomimes that had storylines that featured a fairies and the arrival of a fairy queen. Just as Tina Trueheart could have been an amalgam of Susan Roberts, Georgina and other nameless chorus girls Mowatt met during her time in London, the show in “Prompter’s Daughter” was probably a mix of “Harlequin Fairy-land” and other show she saw during her four years in England.
I have taken you on a long journey to get to this conclusion without offering any explanation why it might be significant that Anna Cora Mowatt would choose to kill off a character in setting based on events from her own life rather than something pulled entirely from her imagination, haven’t I?
Well, dear Reader, that means there’s going to be a “Anna Cora Mowatt and Princess Zuela, Part III.”
1. “Accident at the Marylebone Theatre.” Oxford Chronicle and Berks and Bucks Gazette, Saturday, December 22, 1849. Page
2. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years Upon the Stage. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1854, pages 312-313.