Anna Cora Mowatt and Her Lady Romeos – Part II

Last week, listening to several interviews with Tana Wojczuk, author of a new book on the life of Charlotte Cushman, titled “Lady Romeo; The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity”, inspired me to spend some time thinking about Anna Cora Mowatt’s experiences in productions of “Romeo and Juliet.” Mowatt was a friend and contemporary of the Cushman sisters. Although she never played Romeo herself, Mowatt did enact Juliet for several productions where the role of the young lover was filled by a woman.

Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet
Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet

I left off last week talking about Mowatt and her connection to the Jones family. In 1851, Mowatt played Juliet opposite Melinda Jones, mother of tragedienne, Avonia Jones, at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston. The pair received high praise from the critics. The following response was typical;

Mrs. Mowatt’s Juliet was elegant, chaste, and spirited throughout, and Mrs. Jones, who has but few superiors in the higher walks of the dramatic art, personated the young and ardent Romeo in a manner no less creditable.1

Johanna Wagoner as Romeo in 1856
Johanna Wagoner as Romeo in 1856

Critics compared Jones’ Veronese lover favorably to Charlotte Cushman’s interpretation of the role, although much more emphasis seems to be placed by the following critic on Melinda Jones’ physical traits;

Romeo by Mrs. Jones was very well played. The lady possesses all the physical requisites necessary for a woman when under taking a male part. Her pedestals are beautifully formed; her foot is small and pretty; her ankle is slim and charmingly turned. As a whole she gives a better idea of the author’s Romeo than Miss Cushman, although the last named lady can never be equaled in the “banishment scene” with Friar Lawrence. It is one of those achievements in the histrionic art which stand alone, unapproachable – once seen, never to be forgotten.2

The only real complaints about this performance came from a reviewer who had a few sharp words to say about what he found to be Jones’ sloppy elocution, decrying the pernicious creeping effects of “Macready-ism” in the U.S.3

Miss Nelson as Juliet at the Haymarket in 1878
Miss Nelson as Juliet at the Haymarket in 1878

A few months earlier in New York, at Niblo’s Garden, Fanny Wallack, daughter of tragedian Henry Wallack, had served as Mowatt’s Romeo. This combination, too, was roundly applauded by reviewers.
Juliet had been the very first Shakespearean role Mowatt had attempted after her debut as an actress. Although it was considered at the time to be a challenging part, Juliet played to many of her greatest strengths as an actress as this piece from a Boston newspaper anticipating her performance attests;

We look for an overflowing house. She is admirably calculated to do full and complete justice to the part – one of the most difficult, and one of the most beautiful, in the whole Shakespearean drama. The clear sweetness of her general tones, and her brilliant and various expression, must appear to great advantage in a character so replete with the poetry of the passions and affections.4

Audiences and critics were charmed by the fresh and natural approach she brought to the role, but evinced little enthusiasm for the work of her then acting partner, Mr. William Crisp, who made a rather old Romeo. Crisp also had a drinking problem that irrevocably soured both his professional relationship with Mowatt and frequently tried the patience of audiences.

As she toured with various productions of the play, Mowatt accumulated a wealth of anecdotes about experiences playing this particular character. In addition to several stories of nearly stabbing herself with daggers that turned out not to be dull props, she tells the following:

Juliet was one of the characters in which I seemed fated to be placed in constant peril of life or limb. Several times the balcony, from which the loving lady of Verona makes her midnight confession to Romeo, was dangerously insecure. Once a portion of the railing, over which I was leaning, forgetful of its representative nature, gave way. Had I not dropped suddenly on my knees, Juliet must have been precipitated into Romeo’s arms before he expected her, and very probably would not have visited Friar Lawrence’s cell that night.

One evening, the property man — so the individual who has the charge of potions, amulets, caskets of jewels, purses filled with any quantity of golden coin, and other theatrical treasures, designated as stage properties, is styled — forgot the bottle containing Juliet’s sleeping potion. The omission was only discovered at the moment the vial was needed. Some bottle must be furnished to the Friar, or he cannot utter the solemn charge with which he confides the drug to the perplexed scion of the Capulets. The property man, confused at discovering his own neglect, and fearful of the fine to which it would subject him, caught up the first small bottle at hand, and gave it to the Friar. The vial was the prompter’s, and contained ink. When Juliet snatched the fatal potion from the Friar’s hand, he whispered something in an undertone. I caught the words, “so take care,” but was too absorbed in my part to comprehend the warning. Juliet returns home — meets her parents — retires to her own chamber — dismisses her nurse — and finally drinks the potion. At the words, —

“Romeo ! this do I drink to thee !”

I placed the bottle to my lips, and unsuspiciously swallowed the inky draft! The dark stain upon my hands and lips might have been mistaken for the quick workings of the poison, for the audience remained ignorant of the mishap, which I only half comprehended. When the scene closed, the prompter rushed up to me, exclaiming, “Good gracious! You have been drinking from my bottle of ink!” I could not resist the temptation of quoting the remark of the dying wit under similar circumstances — “Let me swallow a sheet of blotting paper!”

The frightened prompter, however, did not understand the joke.5

Mowatt’s reviews continued to improve as she gained experience, dropped Crisp, and hired E.L. Davenport as her new leading man. Davenport was a much better match for Mowatt in age and temperament. When the two toured England, they were frequently mistaken for brother and sister. The pair had a strong friendship off stage and good chemistry on stage. “Romeo and Juliet” was the very first production that Mowatt and Davenport starred in together after commencing their partnership. They began touring with drama with a series of performances at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston. The show was also among the last they performed together before leaving for England. Davenport played Romeo to Mowatt’s Juliet in New Orleans in 1847 at the St. Charles Theater.

Actor E. L. Davenport, 1851
Actor E. L. Davenport, 1851

In London, the pair became a trio when at the Marylebone Theater, Mowatt and Davenport met Fanny Vining. The actress was the product of a respectable and populous British acting clan. The Vinings might not have produced superstars to rival the Keans and the Kembles, but family members filled the ranks of almost every company in London. Vining quickly became much more than a professional colleague to Mowatt and Davenport. She was friend, confidante, and ally in all things to both for the remainder of their lives. In very short order, Fanny became Mrs. Davenport. She and E. L. would go on to raise their own houseful of seven children, all whom became performers, and found their own acting dynasty in the U.S. There were direct descendants of E.L. and Fanny who were stars of Broadway, Hollywood, and TV until the 1980’s including Fanny Davenport, Edgar L. Davenport, Blanche Davenport, Harry Davenport (Among Harry’s many screen roles were Dr. Meade in Gone With the Wind, Grandpa in Meet Me in St. Louis and Louis XI in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Harry was also one of the co-founders of the Actor’s Equity Association), Dorothy Davenport, May Davenport Seymour Eckert, Anne Seymour and Dirk Wayne Summers.

Fanny Vining
Fanny Vining

Fanny described the beginning of their romance, which was connected to her performance of a different “breeches role,” as follows:

[E.L. Davenport] was then playing with Mrs. Anna Cora Mowatt; ‘the two Americans’ they were called, and it was Mrs. Mowatt who introduced us. I don’t know (continued Mrs. Davenport laughing) whether it was love at first sight or not, but at any rate we quite admired each other, and I remember when introduced he knew we were soon to play together in ‘Love,’ in which my role demanded male attire and he jokingly requested that he be allowed to help ‘make up’ my face by adding the necessary mustache; and the penciling of that mustache completed what the first impressions had begun, and what Mrs. Mowatt helped on all she could – that his to say, we loved and were married before I was 16 years old.”6

Given the popularity of the play, it is not at all surprising that Walter Watts, manager of the Marylebone, decided that it was time to stage a lavish production of “Romeo and Juliet” featuring his two Americans who had done so well with the drama in the U.S. Following as closely as it did on the heels of the Cushman sisters’ runaway success with the drama, it was a bolder move to demote E.L. Davenport to the role of Mercutio and roll the dice with a competing Lady Romeo played by novice actress, Fanny Vining. The production would inevitably draw comparisons. This was, however, exactly the sort of high-risk, publicity-hungry gamble that Watts, as the manager of a small playhouse inconveniently located for many of the London critics, loved to take.
From the sound of the reviews, Watts’ venture seemed to have paid off. Bell’s Weekly Messenger had this praise for the production;

On Monday, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was revived; Miss Fanny Vining being the Romeo, Mrs. Mowatt Juliet, and Davenport Mercutio. Mrs. Mowatt was throughout very effective, and gave a highly intellectual reading of this difficult character. Miss Vining succeeded best in the parts where strong emotion was required, and evinced much merit. Davenport’s Mercutio is the best thing we have seen him do. The play has been very well placed on the stage. The house is well attended.7

Even the sometimes finicky Era was quite complimentary.

On Monday the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was performed, Mrs. Mowatt enacting the love-sick girl, and Miss Fanny Vining, the gentle Romeo. The Juliet of Mrs. Mowatt, if not great as a whole, was, in portions, extremely beautiful. She played the balcony scene remarkably well, and her great scene with the Nurse, also, was natural and effective. She looked the part to the life, her fair and delicate features being admirable suited to the abstract ideas we are accustomed to form of the person of the loving and confiding girl. We cannot too highly commend Miss Fanny Vining’s assumption of Romeo; there was a delightful vigor and freshness in her style of embodying the part and she delivered the language with a true appreciation of its poetic beauties. As a whole, we consider her delineation of Romeo second only to Miss Cushman’s, and in the gentler and more delicate shades of the character, we feel inclined to award the superiority to the former. Mr. Davenport’s Mercutio was an easy and gentlemanly performance. He attempted to do but little with the part, and if he failed in giving a true idea of the difficult character of Mercutio, he did not offend by overacting it. The other characters in the tragedy were most credibly sustained.8

I want to draw attention to the fact that this critic is making a comparison between Cushman and Vining’s interpretation of Romeo on the basis on the emotional qualities each performer brought to specific scenes – not on how each woman looked in the costume. The novelty of Lady Romeos had worn off enough by this point in time so that auditors – at least in London – were focusing on technique rather than being completely distracted by the titillation of seeing a lady’s legs displayed in tights.

Madame St. Clair and Miss Lucan as Romeo and Juliet at the Park Theater, 1878
Madame St. Clair and Miss Lucan as Romeo and Juliet at the Park Theater, 1878

And how did the performers feel about this casting choice? Was it awkward for a trio of Victorian best friends — including by this time two romantic partners — to play a configuration of roles that included a pair of gender-swapped lovers? According to Anna Cora Mowatt, it wasn’t. “Romeo and Juliet” is one of the handful of plays that she chooses to mention as a highlight of her time at the Marylebone theater. Of the production, she says,

But the most eminently successful of all our Shakespearian revivals was Romeo and Juliet, produced in a style of magnificence, as regards scenery and stage appointments, that can seldom have been equaled in any theatre. Miss Fanny Vining gave a fervid impersonation of the impassioned Romeo; nor did her sex destroy the illusion, as might have been supposed. I never knew the tragedy so popular with the public, and never had a Romeo whom I liked so well.9

Mowatt wrote these words in 1856, after having played Juliet opposite several different men and women in many different critically acclaimed productions of the play over the course of a busy decade in the theatre. It is, therefore, with a considerable degree of professional authority — as well as what seems to be a good amount of personal affection — that she picks Fanny Vining as her favorite Romeo.

When scholars talk about productions that involve the playing of “breeches roles,” we frequently attempt to focus on the effect that the performance seemed to have on the audience. In the 1849 production of “Romeo and Juliet” that took place at the Marylebone Theatre in London, we get a rare glimpse backstage at how the performers perceived that event. For this trio of close friends, the experience seems to have been something fun and comfortable that both enhanced the closeness and personal attractions they already felt and echoed the romantic mood they were trying to communicate in the play.

Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet, 1845
Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet, 1845

To get back to the larger point I was making in Part I of this blog, I think that looking at Mowatt’s experiences with productions of this show can help give the reader a clearer picture of the prevalent mood and tastes of the theatrical world of the 1840’s that can allow us to more accurately grasp the impact of Charlotte Cushman’s career. When we lose the original context of her performances, it’s my opinion that we begin to fail to appreciate that what made Cushman stand out in her day was not novelty, but quality. Contrary to what one hyperventilating journalist was trying to claim in an interview I heard, Cushman was not “literally like nothing anyone had ever seen before.” By the end of the 1850’s, theater goers from Birmingham, England to Birmingham, Alabama had fallen in love with Lady Romeos. Charlotte Cushman stood head and shoulders above her peers – not because she was a unique specimen of a fleeting sensational fad – but because her talent made her the best of the best in an established and beloved performance style.

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of productions of "Romeo and Juliet"
Anna Cora Mowatt and images of productions of “Romeo and Juliet”

1. Boston Herald, First Edition. Monday Morning, September 15, 1851. Page 2, col. 5.
2. The Boston Daily Bee, Second Edition. Saturday Morning, September 20, 1851. Page 1, col. 1.
3. Ibid.
4. “Mrs. Mowatt’s Benefit.” The Boston Daily Bee, November 7, 1845, Page 2, col. 3.
5. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Reed, and Fields: Boston, 1856) Page 238.
6. “Actors and Actresses.” Daily Inter Ocean. December 12, 1879. Page 7, col. 1. [Mrs. Davenport seems to be misremembering or misreporting her age in this anecdote. Other records indicate she was 19 in 1848 and had been briefly married and divorced before meeting E.L. Davenport. Some critics were still referring to her as “Mrs. Charles Gill” as late as 1849.]
7. “Marylebone.” Bell’s Weekly Messenger. April 29, 1849. Page 5, col 4.
8. “Marylebone.” The Era. May 6, 1849. Page 11, col. 1.
9. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Reed, and Fields: Boston, 1856) Page 238.

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