Anna Cora Mowatt and the Tragic Fate of Stella

I have just finished recording an audiobook of “Mimic Life” for Librivox.org and have been reflecting once again on the way Mowatt chose to structure the story “Stella.” This discussion will incorporate significant plot spoilers, so if you haven’t read or listened to this story – and you really should – you may wish to bookmark this blog and come back to it later.

If you are a student and have stumbled upon this blog while in search for a topic idea for a Theatre History or Victorian Literature class – Welcome! And congratulations, you’ve found germs of an excellent paper here. However, don’t copy what I’ve written. First, because – write your own stuff, kid. Second, this isn’t developed nicely enough for a paper. Pick one or two of these ideas and then really flesh them out. For instance, you could take one idea I throw out and compare it to a similar thing Charles Dickens does with the quasi-autobiographical title character in “David Copperfield” and come up with a fine, perfectly original, not that hard to write or research paper.

You’re welcome.

All that out of the way – the purpose of this blog is to spend a little more time discussing why Mowatt makes the rather disturbing choice of killing off the character of Stella. The choice is jarring first because the character is overtly autobiographical. Stella’s career path closely parallels Mowatt’s. Her physical description is a mirror of the actress. There are several statements from Mowatt attesting to the fact that “Mimic Life” is intended to be autobiographical. Therefore we, the readers, are witnessing a kind of literary suicide.

Next, Stella’s demise is disturbing because the direction of the story seems to be adamantly heading elsewhere for the first seven chapters. Mowatt is no Ambrose Bierce. She usually telegraphs her endings from far away. There are a few dark shadows cast here and there in Chapter One, but we’re given larger signposts that things are going to work out happily for Stella. She has a grief-stricken, recluse mother who is dependent on her, as well as Perdita and Floy, two impoverished young employees of the theater who she befriends. Stella seems to be fulfilling the over-arching themes of the book by overcoming anti-theatrical prejudice and combating all the nay-sayers who doubted that she could become an actress. In addition, a romance is developing between Stella and the playwright Percy so that she seems to have a narrative “escape hatch” built in from the negative aspects of theatrical life. It would have been possible for Mowatt to allow Stella to do accomplish all her goals – a successful career, rejuvenate her mother’s interest in living, aid Perdita and Floy – then marry Percy and exit the theatrical life before she became “poisoned” by the ill-influences there such as Miss Doran’s jealousy, Mr. Tennent’s condescension, and Fisk’s callousness. However, instead, things go suddenly and horribly wrong for Stella.

Reading through the story aloud made me notice several details that convinced me that Mowatt may have changed her mind about the direction of the story before she reached the final two chapters. I think she may have originally been planning for Stella to have merely have contracted a serious infection from the nails planted in a plaster statue by her rival Miss Doran. Stella doesn’t complain about the wounds she receives from these nails. The narrative mentions the wounds festering and Stella growing feverish, along with increasing notes of erratic behavior on her part. I think it is possible that like Elma Ruthven of “The Unknown Tragedian,” Stella may at one point might have in Mowatt’s imagination been destined to have her hidden affliction discovered, cured, and been headed out of the theater for a happy ending with Edgar Percy. So, what happened? In my opinion, a happy ending became impossible for Stella for a combination of the following reasons:

1. Accumulated Biographical Angst – As I have discussed in previous blogs, the last fourteen months Mowatt spent in England were filled with extremely difficult events including the illness and death of her husband, the discovery of Walter Watts’ fraud and his subsequent suicide, another personal bankruptcy, and a mental breakdown. The story “Stella” is set in the United States. As long as events of the plot remain close to her early career, the narrative is cheerful and humorous. However when Mowatt begins to draw upon roles she played in London in 1849-50, the plot takes a sudden, dark dive. In particular, the comic role of Beatrice in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” becomes the stuff of nightmares for Stella and signals her descent into madness. Beatrice was one of the last roles played by Mowatt at Walter Watts’ Royal Olympic Theatre before his arrest.
Given the number of extremely disturbing and tragic incidents that she experienced during that fourteen month period, I think it is entirely possible that whatever her initial plans for the story of Stella might have been, her own memories of her time in England might have persuaded her that the story, in order to be truly autobiographical, needed to end in madness and death as had happened in her own life.

2. Romantic Guilt – Anna Cora Mowatt made a number of remarks that confirmed that her characters were usually based at least in part on people she knew. Part of the fun of Mowatt scholarship is once one gets familiar with her characters and circle of friends; one can start to fairly easily match up who is who.
Although “Stella” clearly has a character who is a doppelganger for Mowatt and is set during a time when she was married to James Mowatt, the love interest is not based on Mr. Mowatt. If anything, the character of Stella’s mother comes closest to sharing characteristics with her first husband. (Boy, Freud would just take that ball and run with it, now wouldn’t he?) Instead, Stella falls for young Edgar Percy, who is closer to her in age and temperment. Stella’s beloved is quite definitely not James Mowatt, her husband at the time the story was supposed to have taken place, nor was he William Foushee Ritchie, her husband at the time she was writing the story. I think it’s more likely Edgar Percy could have been based on someone like Henry T. Spicer, who wrote the play “Witch Wife” especially as a vehicle for her. Perhaps Mowatt realized she was about to happily-ever-after her not-all-that-well-disguised fictional self with someone who was neither her dead nor current husband and decided it would be more discrete for Stella to exit heavenwards.

3. Religious Beliefs about the Afterlife – Speaking of Heaven, reading “Mimic Life” aloud also reminded me of how religious Mowatt was at this period of her life. I doubt you will ever read another book about the theater that talks so much about the religious life of actors. This was in part was because she felt demonstrating a moral tone in the personal lives of performers was an effective weapon in combating still prevalent anti-theatrical prejudices in the general populace that that regarded the theatre as depraved and – with few exceptions – culturally worthless. The emphasis on religion also reflected the depth and vehemence of her personal beliefs. Mowatt was a follower of Emmanuel Swedenborg. They believed that Heaven is absolutely perfect and divinely pleasant. Death is only tragic for those who are left behind. As readers, we need to remember that although Mowatt lets her characters die, she is careful to let us know that their souls are properly prepared. They go to an idyllic Swedenborgian paradise. They are released from all struggle and pain. Therefore, looking at the death of characters like Stella, Tina Trueheart and her mother from a Swedenborgian perspective, the end Mowatt gives them is not ultimately tragic; her heroines ascend to a greater, heavenly reward.

4. Tragedy Is Consistent With a Theme of Toil and Suffering – As I mentioned, in the preface, Mowatt states that her primary goal in writing the book is to combat anti-theatrical prejudice. Yes, Victorians did love to go to the theater. Yes, they did love certain actors such as Edwin Forrest and William Macready enough to beat each other’s brains out in the streets in events like the Astor_Place_Riot. However, Victorians still also believed that the theater was a den of sin and vice and performers, particularly women, who were not “stars”, were probably of low moral character. Actresses were generally assumed to double as prostitutes. Because the theatre was assumed to be glamorous and “fun” work that didn’t merit a living wage, some actresses found that they had to double as prostitutes to make ends meet… and so the vicious cycle continued. To combat harmful negative perception about the average theatrical wage-earner, Mowatt attempted to open up the world backstage to the theater-going audience and present it not as a site of magic and glamor, but simply as a workplace. Particularly in the first two stories, Mowatt goes into detail presenting the work-a-day routines and often punishing demands of the theater. In all three stories, she consistently shows the theater as the site of toil and suffering. “Mimic Life” is both a defense of the work ethic and moral qualities of the denizens of the theater and a cautionary tale for those who might aspire to enter its doors. Stella’s tragic end can be seen as strongly reinforcing both of these messages.

5. Pity for the Real Miss Doran – As I said above, Mowatt’s characters were usually based on real people. I assume that the prank that Miss Doran commits – embedding nails in a statue that Stella must embrace onstage – is changed significantly from whatever actually happened, but I think there was an actual antecedent. Although I can’t pin a name to either of them, this character and her father have a degree of detail that are usually associated with portraits that Mowatt drew from life. Miss Doran’s poisonous jealousy of Stella seems to fit into a dynamic tension between love and envy Mowatt is setting up in all three stories. The clearest example of this tension is in the last story. Gerald Mortimer is caught in a love triangle with Elma and Edmonton. Dramatic tension is caused by his envy, but is resolved by Mortimer’s self-sacrifice. In “Prompter’s Daughter” the love and happiness shared by the Truehearts is threatened at several points by the greed and envy of Mr. Higgins and Mr. Tuttle, the stage-manager, but resolved by the self-sacrifice of Robin, Susan, and little Tina. In Stella’s story, we have the beginning of this pattern with Miss Doran’s jealousy and purposive sabotage, but we don’t get the payoff with the triumph of love via some sort of self-sacrifice on the part of our heroine. Perhaps Mowatt changed the course of the story because Miss Doran was going to do something that was going to paint her as uncomfortably too vivid a villainess – such as being accidentally responsible for the death of Perdita and Floy’s father, perhaps?

Well, dear, hypothetical Theatre History or Performance Studies Student, as I warned you, this is just the germ of an idea for a paper, not a paper itself. As you can see, I left out elements you’re going to need. No quotes from the book. I didn’t tie anything to the theories of Judith Butler, Walter Benjamin, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, or Mikhail Baktin. I call anything carnivalesque, heteronormative, or prattle on about discursive performativity, or whatever the cool words du jour are whenever you are reading this. That’s all you, sweetheart.

I’m not leaving you hanging out to dry, though, baby. Biographical information on Mowatt will take up the first few pages. My website will get you started there. Next, you’ll need to lay some groundwork about the historical and cultural significance of “Mimic Life” as a literary work. Go to Chapter Four of my book, The Lady Actress and the previous blog entry I referenced above to get going on that sort of thing.

So, you’re not going away empty-handed. I’m giving you a flexible framework and some neat things to stuff it with. Just don’t try to fool yourself that it’s a paper yet. Particularly don’t copy the parts where I’m talking about how its insufficiency. That’s a dead giveaway.

Worst of all, I don’t seem to have so far developed a conclusion for this blog entry yet. That’s essential. As a person who graded these things for years, trust me when I say that you can’t just throw out a bunch of intriguing ideas and then not tie them together at all… even when you’re writing a blog… Okay, let me say this much – and you can quote me… as a matter of fact, you must quote me, or you’ll be plagiarizing, dear… As much as the reader is charmed by the engaging characters, historical detail, and humor in the first three quarters of the story “Stella,” the sudden, un-signaled shift to tragedy in the last two chapters shocks the auditor into a mode of horrified fascination that makes this story more memorable than the more predictable “The Prompter’s Daughter” or “The Unknown Tragedian.” Whether the memories of personal traumas, unacknowledged societal pressures, religious beliefs, or a desire to maintain certain thematic unities throughout all three stories motivated Mowatt to end the life of the fictional Stella, for me, it comes as more of an unpleasant surprise than the many stereotypically doomed, virtuous, suffering maidens of Victorian literature because she is not presented to the reader as doomed and suffering, but as a survivor and a fighter. In the end, unless new documents in Mowatt’s hand come to light that make it clear why she choose to commit a sort of literary suicide by killing off this seemingly indomitable, brilliant, beautiful, talented, generous, plucky fictional clone of herself, we may never know for certain what personal, professional, and/or societal pressures caused her to make this dramatically tragic choice. One thing I think we can readily conclude, though, whatever was at work, it wasn’t anything good.

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