Actors say, “I never read reviews.” This declaration is almost never literally true. What they actually mean is that they try not to let their emotional reactions – negative or positive – to critique of their work cloud their focus on their tradecraft. Avoiding all knowledge of professional critical reaction is as futile as it is foolish in the long run. As discouraging or overly encouraging as this feedback may be, it is a primary indicator of career advancement or lack thereof. For theatre historians, these contemporary reviews become even more critical relics of performance. Because we have no recordings, these records become our only way of judging how successful or poor a production was. However, we must remember that the theater critics were not acting as historians. They were not trying to create a lasting, unbiased record of what they saw for future generations. Drama reviewers, such as those working for the London newspapers in the mid-1800’s, were individuals with personal and financial ties to playhouses and players that could powerfully influence their thinking about the quality of what they were watching. In fact, some actors complained that reviews were frequently written before a drama was viewed. Some claimed that there were critiques that were composed without the benefit of seeing the play at all.
I want to talk a bit today about the writhing snake pit of conflicting loyalties and clashing agendas that Anna Cora Mowatt faced when she dealt with the London press from 1847-50. By this, I don’t mean to say that she was always treated unfairly. She had her champions in the press. I do want to caution the researcher, though, about the choppy waters you will encounter when you try to navigate the primary research material available from this period. If you pick only one newspaper and use its anonymous reviews to chart the success or failure of her London stage career without finding out who that reviewer was and what his (I can’t think of a single female drama critic) relationship to Mowatt and/or the Marylebone Theater was, odds are you will get an overly positive or negative impression without understanding the motivations behind the rhetoric of the critiques.
In its inaugural issue, the journal, Actors by Daylight, printed the following editorial on this topic of bias in dramatic criticism. It’s a little long, but I’m going to reprint it in full because I think it makes the point more delightfully in the language of the day than I could;
As Dramatic Criticism is the main object of our publication, we trust a word or two upon the subject, by way of preface, will not be deemed irrelevant in our first number. Error, mis-statement, and often palpable falsehood, stain our daily press, and are fast rendering criticism a nonentity, and the name of a critic an object of ridicule, derision, and contempt. The thing is self-evident, when one paper says, that The Mysterious Cook-Maid was pre-eminently and deservedly successful—another, in letters of vitriol, declares it was a most unequivocal and merited damn, while the astonished reader sits or stands, a twin likeness to Liston or Harley in Dominie Sampson, with astonishment. And where lies the truth of the matter —freezing to death down in a well; where, finding it by the aid of our Asmodean lanthorn, we present it to the reader:—The manager has a share in the panegyrist’s paper, and has stopped the free admission of the detractor; neither speaks fairly, because either is biased by mercenary argument—the impartial critic would have seen both the defects and merits of the mysterious affair, and pointed it out to you. Gentle reader, the true man is out of place, humbug has usurped his stool, libel and flattery sit at the tribunal of letters—these are truths so naked that scarcely any one is found to doubt them. Again, those newspapers which are in a degree less culpable, are often of such a flimsy material that we are scarcely less annoyed by their weakness than disgusted by the scurrility or fulsomeness of the first named. For instance, a morning paper known by the sweet name of the Witler’s Journal, descants thus on the Drury Lane revival of Sheridan’s Duenna: —“In witnessing the performance of the Duenna, at Drury Lane, on Saturday night, we felt rather as enjoying a family representation at a friend’s fireside, than as participating in a public entertainment; the recollection of its wit at one time provoking to merriment,” — why, what the devil else should it provoke to? – “and that of its music at another stealing over and soothing us to a delicious repose.”—Now, the idea of Johnny Anderson being lulled into a snooze, up in the third tier of boxes, by Arne’s music! -Allons— “Scarcely less favourite and familiar with us are the performers who sustained its principal characters on Saturday night; who is there accustomed to visit our theatres that can see Miss Romer, Miss Fanny Healy, Mrs. C. Jones, or Miss Poole, Mr. H. Phillips, or Mr. Templeton, Mr. Dowton, or Mr. Buckstone, without feeling grateful for many pleasurable sensations?” (!!)—Very good, Mr. Merryman, but what follows –“Miss Poole did Donna Louisa very creditably, but this lady appears to have contracted a mannerism from the parts she was accustomed to play in her childhood” — a Tom Thumb, or Jack the-Giant-Killer-ism— “that militates very much against the acting of her maturer years. Templeton resembled an automaton flute-player, emitting sounds as through some mechanical contrivance; and Mr. Buckstone made the ridiculous part of Isaac Mendoza more ridiculous by his acting.” Again it says—“if we were to say that our admiration of the Duenna was scarcely less excited by the construction of its plot and the sentiment and beauty of its language than by the richness, harmony, and pathos of its melodies, we might be supposed to reflect upon operas of the modern school and their libretti.” -Amiable delicacy, which, however, is soon dropped, for presently it says, most unceremoniously, “Better discard language altogether, than present it in such a miserable state of deficiency as it appears in most of our modern operas.” —Wide Monday’s Advertiser.
Between these two “specimens”—as in the animal kingdom—there are many varieties, partaking of the qualities in a greater or lesser degree of the goodnatured maudlinism of the one and the warlike partisan-ship of the other. Some borrow an article from a “respected contemporary,” discovering next day that they have mistaken its date—that of a fortnight old. Others, having informed us that The Fatal Screwdriver was played last evening to an enraptured auditory, verifying their pre-expressed opinion that it was the best piece of the season, find out on the morrow that that play was not played, but that, in consequence of the illness of Miss Snugby, Macbeth was substituted. Some, being bosom friends to a certain lst Robber of a particular theatre, lavish their observations and encomiums on the favoured house, while others never mention the place once in a year—because their friend is somewhere else. One critic beslabbers a favourite (of his) for weeks, but discontinues to notice him on a sudden, and why, think you, reader? —because the favourite has discontinued or omitted the usual “cold without,” or “hot with.”
Now, our dear public, none of these are imagined instances; we know and could give to each a local habitation and a name—the gentlemen (?) know it—let them look out—we warn them to behave themselves, or we shall “up, boys, and at ’em.”1
The author of this editorial is attacking a problem that might be quite familiar in the age of social media – attempting to demystify and dis-empower critics writing anonymously by exposing their inconsistencies and personal entanglements in their subject matter. Writing a year later and taking a darker tone, Rosina Bulwer-Lytton addresses this same problem in her novel, Cheverly; a Man of Honor, not just as the incompetency of bumbling reviewers who arrogantly assume that the public won’t figure out that they aren’t doing their job correctly, but an actual premeditated plot to push certain actors and playhouses forward to advance their own selfish interests and those of people to whom they were financially and socially obligated;
He had lately been much disgusted, at a series of snake-in-the-grass critiques upon Charles Kean, that had appeared in the Investigator! and an anonymous back-stabber, that disgraced a new periodical, another vehicle of the Fuzboz and Fonnoir clique, of which Fuzboz was the writer. But Cheverly’s surprise would have ceased, had he known, what others knew, viz, that Fuzboz had formerly been under many obligations to Charles Kean ; and it was an approved and successfully practiced custom, among the great men with whom Fuzboz was now accustomed to live, and for whom he had the honour to do dirty work, to blot out all obligations, with injuries, unless those of money, and dinners figuring in the present tense.2
The character of “Fuzboz” who appears here is generally identified by literary scholars as being based on Charles Dickens’ friend, John Forster, who wrote for the Examiner. His nickname was “Fuz.” He was intensely loyal to tragedian, William Macready, writing “puffs” or highly positive reviews of Macready projects while panning those of rival companies. Chief among the tragedian’s rivals in the late 1830’s was Charles Kean.
I would be remiss not to mention that Charles Dickens’ nickname was “Boz.” He, too, was a Macready partisan and served for a few years as a drama critic for the Morning Chronicle. “Fuzboz” therefore, may be a composite portrait of Forster and Dickens. Rosina Bulwer-Lytton knew Dickens from his career as a parliamentary reporter and may have formed a very different opinion of him based on that experience than we are usually presented with for the supposedly idealistic young Dickens. Most popular biographies skip over that part of his life entirely and introduce us to him as the crusading fledgling novelist.
In Cheverly, Lady Lytton decries the perfidy of the press;
Oh! what an odious monster is an unprincipled press-gang — writing, telling, and propagating lies, from morning till night. Smiling in the face, and stabbing in the back! Of all reptiles, scribbling underlings are the vilest. Who from parasitical maggots, gloating on the meats of the rich man’s table, turn into literary panders to the rich man’s vices, whether printed or acted; who spit their anonymous venom with impunity at the weak or the injured; and, while, serpent-like, they entangle their victim in their slimy coils, feel safe themselves from attack, from the conviction, that none care to encounter the pestilence of their breath. Cheverly felt this, not indeed in his own person, for he was rich, and great, and consequently beyond either their malice, or their meanness, their falsehood, or their fawning; but like all generous natures he could resent, and feel indignant at, injuries that were not his own; and was often roused, at seeing others suffer under
“The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The insolence of office, and the spurns, That patient merit of the unworthy takes.”3
As I said at the beginning of the blog, although the London press was not the impartial umpire of dramatic merit they might pretend to be, they were not universally lined up against Anna Cora Mowatt. She had quite a few friends in their ranks. Here is a story from her autobiography about part of the way one of those alliances came into being:
Our engagement of six weeks came to a close. On the morning after my benefit our last night the portentous silence of the Daily Times was unexpectedly broken. It suddenly discovered that two American performers were actually fulfilling a successful engage ment at the Princesses Theatre, and condescendingly honored them with a laudatory notice. Henceforth our performances were regularly chronicled in its columns. The mysterious waking up for a time remained as in comprehensible to us as the long slumber.
At a dinner party given by Mr. Macready, we became acquainted with Mr. Oxenford, the theatrical critic of this influential journal. A species of half-friendship sprang out of the introduction, and lasted several years. Mr. Oxenford said to me one day, “Would you like to know how the Daily Times chanced to notice you after giving you the go-by through your first engagement?”
I replied, that there were few subjects upon which my curiosity had been so much excited; consequently, the information would be particularly interesting.
“You are indebted to a friend,” he answered.
“To what friend?”
“To the Earl of Carlisle.”
Mr. Oxenford then told me that he had always lacked faith in America’s ability to produce theatrical genius of high order making Miss Cushman an exception to this sweeping skepticism. When he heard of the new American artists in England, he thought it “too great a bore“ to go and see them. A note from the Earl of Carlisle induced him to visit the theatre on my benefit night. The contents of this note he did not repeat, but I presume it requested for us an impartial criticism. Henry Clay’s letter to the Earl of Carlisle, with one of my own, were, I believe, enclosed in the earl’s missive to the editor of the Times. It was, then, to our own beloved and distinguished countryman not wholly to a foreign nobleman that we owed our indebtedness for this important service.4
As impressive as this anecdote is, incorporating, as it does, earls and famous U.S. senators, it still does not uncover the entire truth. John Oxenford, drama critic, was also a playwright. He adapted a version of Corneille’s “Ariadne” especially for Mowatt to be performed at the Royal Olympic Theater in 1850. He even reviewed it. Apparently “conflict of interest” hadn’t been invented at that time.
G.H. Lewes was another drama critic who was under contract with Walter Watts to have a play starring Mowatt produced at the Olympic. Having a working relationship with a playhouse was not a guarantee of good notices, but apparently the combination of Mowatt’s sparkling personality and the champagne suppers Watts threw were quite beguiling. Playwright/critics who worked with them tended to be very kind in their critiques.
Mowatt also had admirers like Unitarian minister and Member of Parliament, William Johnson Fox in her corner. I assume that Fox was a contact made through her network of friends who had an interest in spiritualism and the New Church. Fox was one of the critics who had advance copies the scripts of each of her original plays prior to production and may have started his reviews prior to seeing the actual shows.
All of this preceding information is to help you decipher the following story from Eric Barnes biography of Mowatt as he takes you through the critical reaction to the London production of “Fashion.” (Barnes has the somewhat annoying habit of referring to Mowatt by her nickname of “Lily.”)
Lily may have had her doubts about the warmth with which Fashion would be received; but she did not expect the critics to break into open warfare over it. Yet this is exactly what happened—though most of the firing was over Anna Cora’s own head. In the divided opinions of the press some of the critics’ pet grievances against each other were brought into the open, and the sniping became fast and furious. This was especially so in the case of The Morning Post versus Punch. The Post attacked the play savagely as a piece of childish nonsense, prefacing its criticism with the remark that the occasion was not one in which gallantry should yield to integrity. “Genius”, said Mr. Jenkins, the oracle of The Post, “is of no sex”; and informed his readers that he would discuss Mrs. Mowatt’s work on a strictly impersonal basis. But this was exactly what Jenkins did not do. His remarks reached a climax of indignation not at the quality of the play but at the fact that the authoress when acclaimed at the final curtain had appeared on the stage “ready dressed for the occasion”.
At this Punch rushed to Mrs. Mowatt’s defense:
Why could you not have moderated the rancor of your pen a little, Jenkins? Why attack the lady and stranger personally? Is it your individual self, or your order,—Jenkins or flunkeydom,—that Mrs. Mowatt has offended? Jenkins, you say that “genius is of no sex.” Neither is criticism, as personified by you. At any rate it is not manly.
The Times gave the play a long and careful analysis, taking pains to point out that while the types represented by Mrs. Mowatt were not English, they ought not to be absolutely condemned for that reason. In fact “the American tone given to all the characters endows the work with a freshness that distinguishes it from the many comedies produced on our stage.”
The Examiner took a distinctly different view of the play but generously prefaced its notice by quoting one of The Times’ encomiums:
We are happy to give the lady authoress all the advantage desirable from this good-natured criticism of a deservedly high authority, but we are bound to add we do not in the least agree with it. The piece seems to us to have no merit whatever, negative or positive. For the most part it was nonsense, nor was it nonsense void of offense. . . . For what has here drawn praise and glory to Mrs. Mowatt, Mrs. Trollope would have been denounced to the tar barrel. . . .
The Sun bestowed on Fashion the highest tribute in its power:
America is worthily repaying the dramatic debt she owes us. The seeds of the dramatic art, which have been scattered by all our best dramatic artistes broadcast on the American soil, have fructified, and are now bearing fruit. . . . Rough and ranting melodramas have formed the staple of what America hitherto has sent us; but last night this reproach was wiped out, and there was represented at the Olympic Theatre with the most deserved success, an original five-act comedy, the scene of which is laid in New York, and which delineates American manners after the same fashion as our Garrick, Colman, and Sheridan were accustomed to delineate English manners, and which, as regards plot, construction, character, or dialogue, is worthy to take its place by the side of the best of English comedies.
The Literary Gazette also championed the play. The critic of this journal was G. H. Lewes, who in addition to being the husband of George Eliot, was a distinguished writer for the theatre. In his review of Fashion he brought home to the English a rather unpalatable but undeniable truth:
In the barrenness of home authorship, in the spirit of humiliation which attaches to our dependence upon the French for a mongrel dramatic literature, the public will greet with satisfaction the quasi-English production of an American author; and to this author even a qualified approval, tendered in spite of English self-love, must be gratifying. . . .
The controversy was prolonged by the weeklies and was finally brought to an end by an anonymous reader of The Theatrical Times. Someone had written a letter to The Daily Times denouncing Fashion as immoral because the forgery detected by Adam Trueman was covered up, and the forger was not turned over to the police. The correspondent of The Theatrical Times cautioned:
Good Christian folks, this lesson heed in time,
That Forgery’s a very shocking crime,
And governesses well this warning mark,—
Don’t go with foreign counts in the dark! 5
So what was all the ruckus about? Was the London production of “Fashion” successful or unsuccessful? How could critics see the same show and come away with such different opinions? What metric should we use to judge the production’s success or failure? Was the production’s success or failure recorded honestly by chroniclers of the time?
“Fashion” carried the burden of being a drama by a female U.S. playwright that expressed overtly pro-U.S. sentiments just after the Astor Place Riot of 1849. I think that theater manager Walter Watts was deliberately courting controversy for the publicity it might stir. “Fashion” was discussed more vehemently and at more length in the press than was usual for an Olympic production. The Astor Place Riot had been an insult to William Macready. At least two of the critics who spoke out against “Fashion” for its pro-U.S. sentiments were Forster of the Examiner and Blanchard of the Era, both reliable Macready loyalists. There were other critics for whom the very fact of a woman writing comedy was going to be a hot-button issue. You will note that G.H. Lewes and John Oxenford both had Mowatt’s back in this fight, praising the play and rebutting attacks from other critics throughout the play’s run. I think that Walter Watts anticipated and perhaps even hoped that “Fashion” would draw a firestorm of comment and thus lure the curious to the Olympic.
The real measure of success or failure would be box office records which are no longer available. Unfortunately some writers have drawn conclusions from the Examiner’s or Era’s summary of events and deemed the play a flop. I don’t think this accurate. Because of the controversy surrounding the play, it is somewhat difficult to be completely certain, but, judging from the length of the run and reported estimates of audience sizes, I think it is safe to say that the play was moderately successful. Mowatt’s other original drama, “Armand,” was a definite hit in London. It enjoyed an extended run at its debut and then was brought back for another week of bonus performances at the end of the season. “Fashion” played from January 9-29, 1850 along with the Christmas pantomime.
This was, for the time, a very respectable run for a show during a holiday season when theater attendance was usually high. Contemporary reports do not report packed houses for the show after the debut week, but Watts had sufficient cause not to withdraw it for the nearly month-long run.
So, Dear Reader, the moral of this longer-than-I-intended-it-to-be story is that no matter how high-minded they may sound, do not mistake Victorian drama reviews for pure disinterested discussions of Art. They were frequently high-stakes proxy battles with plenty of in-fighting and elbow-throwing. Hopes were dashed, hearts were broken, and sometimes triumphs were metamorphosed into tragedies to make sure that the right horses won each race.
Be wary of anonymous critics and the bias hidden in their critiques, my dear.
1. Actors by Daylight, Saturday, March 3, 1838. Page 2.
2. Bulwer-Lytton, Rosina, Lady Lytton. Cheverly; or The Man of Honor. (Edward Bull, London: 1839.) Vol. 3 page 162.
3. Ibid. page 161-162.
4. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 285-86.
5. Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion. (Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1954) Pages 223-24.