Anna Cora Mowatt, Armand, and the Silver Vase

Inasmuch as Anna Cora Mowatt is known in the U.S. today (and when I say “known” –yes- I do mean by you, me, and a handful of students who have a theatre history quiz next week) it is as being the author of the play, “Fashion.” However, she had a second show, “Armand” , that was actually a bigger hit than her first and achieved international success. Unlike “Fashion,” though, that drama’s popularity slowly fizzled after the antebellum era. I know of no modern revival productions (at least none so far…in case you want to get your powdered wigs out of storage…)

“Armand” was written two years after Mowatt’s debut. She wrote it at the request of Mr. Simpson, owner of the Park Theater in New York, who, based on the popularity of “Fashion” and her fame as an actress, had so much faith in the new play’s success that the he wrote a contract naming the time and date of its’ premiere before a single line of the drama was ever actually put down on paper.

Mowatt often complained about how dull the role of “Gertrude” in “Fashion” was to enact. She wrote the role of “Blanche” in “Armand” to suit her specific strengths as a performer. The title role she tailored for her new acting partner, E.L. Davenport. The critic for The Era would grumble that although lovely to listen to, “Armand’s” dialogue was not at all realistic. Characters in the play often seemed to say things merely to prompt other characters to make wonderful speeches.1 This was probably because the drama was hurriedly composed with specific performers and stage effects in mind.

The plot centers on Blanche and Armand struggling against the machinations of the sinister Duc de Richelieu – not Cardinal Richelieu of “Three Musketeers” fame. We are in the time of Louis XV, not Louis XIII. In 1839, Edward Bulwer-Lytton had written and William Charles Macready had starred in a very popular play about Cardinal Richelieu . “Armand” was capitalizing on the success of that play in a sort of a “Richelieu: The Next Generation” sort of way.

Alexandre Dumas’ first two “Three Musketeer” books had been published in 1844 and 1845. The last book, Le Vicomte Bragelonne, which contains The Man in the Iron Mask as a subplot was coming out in serial form as “Armand” was being written and performed. Plotlines about this particular period in French history were, as you might imagine, quite en vogue.

Even though it is set in 17th century France, “Armand” is an extremely patriotic play. Marius Blesi encapsulated the drama’s primary goal as being to place native worth in opposition to artificial rank.2 Armand seems like a young version of “Fashion’s” Adam Trueman (who Davenport also portrayed) at some points in the play as he heroically descants on the equality of all individuals. The U.S. title of the play was “Armand: Child of the People.” In London, the censors insisted that the subtitle be modified to a less provocative “Armand: the Peer and the Peasant” and that some of the more stridently republican passages be excised. When the drama was played on tour in Ireland in 1851 with G.V. Brooke in the title role, the offending passages were restored, much to the delight of the Irish audiences.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, I’ll just say that the play is action-packed in the way that Victorians seemed to prefer. Every act ends with a cliff-hanging twist. “Armand” is melodrama, but a classy, gentle type of melodrama with self-conscious echoes of Shakespeare and Greek dramas as well as a touch of humor. In other words, it probably wouldn’t play all that well today, but I can see where it would have been a big hit with audiences back then.

“Armand” was popular with theater-goers on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to glowing reviews and extended runs, another piece of evidence we have of this play’s success is that actors and actresses other than Mowatt and Davenport used it for “benefit” performances. On these nights, performers made arrangements with management to receive part of the money from ticket sales. Therefore, as you might imagine, it was imperative to choose a play that was guaranteed to draw as large a crowd as possible. “Armand” was a popular choice in the U.S. through the 1860’s.

Walter Watts made his presentation of the silver vase to Anna Cora Mowatt at a performance of “Armand” held for her benefit. This show was part of the play’s extended run. The original run had gone a very respectable twenty-one nights. I know that today, when there’s a production of “Phantom of the Opera” that has been running at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London since Bill Clinton was president, that doesn’t sound like much, but Victorian theaters did not operate on the same sort of business model that modern Broadway or West End theaters do.

Victorian theaters did not mount a single production and let it run until audiences stopped showing up. These theaters offered a full evenings’ entertainment. The main feature was a three to five act play. In addition, there were usually one or two one-act comedies or tragedies on the bill as well. Capping the evening off, a short farce or outrageous burlesque at the bottom of the bill sent the audience home in a good mood.

Another factor in scheduling was that A-list celebrities like James Hudson, Charlotte Cushman, or G.V. Brooke did not usually sign with one theater for an entire season. They negotiated contracts for a few weeks or a specific show only. A theater’s season had to keep moving to accommodate these “special guest star” appearances.

In addition to these considerations, the pool of potential theater-goers was much smaller then than it is today. Managers did not have the confidence to gamble on long runs of single shows like they do now. A featured, first-run play like “Armand” that was well-received by the audience usually ran for one week. “Armand’s” initial run lasted an impressive three weeks. The play was then brought back for a “bonus run” at the end of the Marylebone’s season for another two weeks.

Since there would probably not be another round of reviews from the major newspapers for this second run of “Armand,” Walter Watts, Anna Cora Mowatt, and the management team of the Marylebone Theater (whoever that included) seem to have come up with two ideas to publicize the production – a published version of the play’s script and the special benefit performance featuring the presentation of the silver vase.

Because Mowatt does not/cannot use Walter Watts’ name in her autobiography, her version of the story of the silver vase is a little hard to decipher, but it sounds as though she was part of the decision-making process on the benefit performance from its early stages:

Armand was reproduced before the close of the season, and I was offered a benefit, the proceeds of which were to be devoted to the purchase of a silver vase in commemoration of the London success of the American production. Every seat was engaged long before the appointed night. The largest amount that the theatre would hold when densely crowded being ascertained, the vase was purchased in advance. The presentation took place on the night of the benefit, and greatly added to the éclat of the occasion.3

Dear Reader, if you are a student and your teacher has ever scolded you for excessive use of passive voice, the above passage is a good illustration of what makes this type of sentence construction so damned annoying. Who is offering her the benefit and ascertaining the crowd size and purchasing the vase? Is it Watts? Is it Watts and someone else? Is James Mowatt, her de facto manger, participating in these negotiations? Give us a hint!

My annoyance at her manner of relating the information aside, according to Mowatt’s version of events, the silver vase does not seem to have been an impulsive or romantic gesture at all on Watts’ part, but a publicity stunt planned and coordinated by all concerned parties well in advance. To forego the usual cash proceeds of her sold-out benefit performance is not an insignificant decision on Mowatt’s part, either. By agreeing to go along with this plan, she is electing to accept a sparkly statue instead of a very substantial amount of money in order to help promote her play and the Marylebone Theater. Being the trooper that she was, she said yes.

By chance, I happened to find a melancholy postscript to the story of the silver vase. A short item in an 1851 edition of the New Orleans Weekly Delta read,

Tenry’s jewelry store exhibits a silver vase, presented by the manager of one of the London theatres to Anna Cora Mowatt, and a very beautiful testimonial it is; but could the entire facts of the case be made public, I fear it would be looked upon in an entirely different light.4

The silver vase, like other elements of her involvement with Watts, despite Mowatt’s sacrifice and hard work, seemed destined to return to forever tarnish memories of her success with faint whispers of scandal.

1. “Theatres, Etc.” The Era, Jan. 29, 1849. Page 12.
2. Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. University of Virginia, 1938. Page 222.
3. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. Boston: Ticknor, Reid, and Fields, 1854. Page 302.
4. New Orleans Weekly Delta, Dec. 1, 1851. Page 7.

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