There is perhaps no more perfect encapsulation of the ambiguity of the Victorian stance towards the propriety of women playing men on stage than the fact that although one of the only publicity photos we have of Anna Cora Mowatt presents her in the doublet and hose of Ganymede standing in the forest of Arden, it is not difficult to find quotes written after her death asserting that she never played a breeches role or could have had any success as Shakespeare’s Rosalind. Although by the 1800s, the practice of women enacting such parts was a well-established theatrical tradition, the borderlines of what general society considered appropriate shifted during the century. The story of Mowatt’s experiences with playing the role of Rosalind in “As You Like It” and how that performance was received and remembered — and forgotten – can, I think, help us understand the complex and changing standards upon which the playing of “breeches roles” were evaluated.
This entry is a continuation of my look at Mowatt’s involvement in productions that called for women to dress as male characters. My interest in this topic was rekindled by the recent release of Tana Wojczuk’s book on the life of Charlotte Cushman, titled “Lady Romeo; The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity”. Changing attitudes on the propriety of gender-swapped roles had a much more dramatic impact on Cushman’s legacy than on Mowatt’s. However, as I’ve said before, I think the experiences of Mowatt, a conventionally attractive, young, married woman, can serve as useful measure by which to contextualize our understanding of Cushman’s more norm-breaking path. I hope this discussion helps answer the perennial question of why Cushman, an internationally acclaimed performer whose time in the spotlight of American popular culture spanned decades, now teeters on the edge of historical invisibility and must be periodically rescued by writers like Wojczuk from the obscurity where she has been left to languish.
Mowatt added Rosalind to her repertoire in the summer of 1847. She had just engaged E.L. Davenport as her new acting partner, replacing William Crisp, whose drinking had created irreconcilable differences with the Mowatts. The team was touring under the auspices of the Smith and Ludlow company. Mowatt and Davenport also debuted their interpretation of “Much Ado About Nothing” at this time, starring as Beatrice and Benedict. In “As You Like It,” they selected the roles of Rosalind and Jacques for themselves. This choice gave them the collegial option of offering substantial roles such as Orlando and Celia to the leading ladies and gentlemen of whatever theatre company was serving as their host. (Mowatt had already experienced some difficulties and embarrassment because Crisp had insisted on enforcing the letter of his contract and denied local actors opportunities at taking starring roles with their touring company while they were in residence.) Mowatt also seems to have been fond of this play. In an essay on the importance of female friendship, she cites the Rosalind/Celia relationship as an ideal example of such connections accurately portrayed in literature. After quoting from the play, she exclaims,
Shakespeare against the world! for who knew the world one half so well ?
Not only are we impressed by the conviction that his glowing portraitures of woman-friendship are life-drawn; not only have we perfect faith in the possibility of a thoroughly unselfish, all-absorbing attachment between two women, but we entertain the belief that there are certain female minds so constituted that a tender friendship with one of the same sex is positively indispensable to happiness.1
Mowatt was garnering both financial success and critical praise for her acting at this time. She and her husband seemed to have a great deal of control over the career choices she was making. I say this to emphasize that I don’t see any outside sources that could have been putting undue pressure on her to play Rosalind if she did not want to or felt that appearing in male garb as the plot requires would be embarrassing or damaging to her reputation. The choice to add “As You Like It” to the roster of plays she and Davenport performed seems to have either originated with her or had her explicit approval. Mowatt, who was the granddaughter of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the daughter of a family still considered in New York’s “upper ten,” was very careful of the persona she presented to the public. She had suffered what we today might call a nervous breakdown and had become dangerously ill after relatives and friends had snubbed her for turning to the stage. It would have been extremely stressful for her to have contemplated making an artistic choice that would have been considered too far out of the bounds of accepted propriety for the day. She talks very little about playing this role in her autobiography. It does not seem to have been a source of great tension for her.
Another very significant aspect of Mowatt’s performance as Rosalind over which she probably had a high degree of control was her costume. Actors at this time were expected by the management of playhouses to provide their own costumes at their own expense. Victorian theaters had no costumer as the job is defined in theaters today. Most companies had someone functioning as Wardrobe Mistress or Costume Supervisor who would aid performers in dressing, supervise necessary repairs to garments, and enforce a certain level of conformity among the items of clothing brought in by the cast. The house might provide small items such as sashes or colored ribbons to maintain a uniform look for certain productions, however it was primarily the actor’s responsibility to see that they were properly attired for their role.
Since Mowatt and Davenport were attached to no specific theater at this time, it is highly probable that they commissioned costumes to be built for them. It is also very likely that the outfit Mowatt acquired in the summer of 1847 is the same one she wears in the engraving of her in “As You Like It” that was published in Tallis’ Library Edition of Shakespeare in 1851. Elaborate, hand-tailored garments trimmed with lace and embroideries such as are featured on Mowatt’s Ganymede costume were quite costly. When G.V. Brooke’s costumer sued him in 1850, papers submitted to the court revealed that Brooke was spending as much as £1000 to £2000 for a single, special-order theatrical outfit. To give you some idea of the scale of that expense for the time – £1000 was around the amount of money that a middle-class person with a good job in London might make in three years. If you examine engravings made of William Macready in character as Hamlet, you will see that from around 1845 until the time of his retirement in 1852, he wears the same costume when playing this character wherever he performs. Costumes traveled with actors and were reused for years.
All this is to emphasize the point that it is highly probable that Mowatt was actively involved in selecting the design of the Ganymede costume in which we see her pictured. This was not an outfit she was simply ordered to wear by a costume designer or a director.
Looking at the engraving, you can see that it reveals her legs from mid-thigh to her ankles. When compared to costumes pictured on male performers in Shakespearian roles from the same period, Mowatt’s outfit – other than the superabundance of lace trim – is in many ways fairly consistent with the length and design of early Victorian notions of Elizabethan fashions for men. Her Ganymede doublet is very similar to the one Macready wore to play Hamlet.
Comparing Mowatt’s doublet to the one Charlotte Cushman wore to play Romeo, the Ganymede costume seems to be a few inches shorter. Cushman’s hem hits just above her knees. In addition to the profusion of lace, Mowatt’s outfit also includes full, belled sleeves that echo feminine fashions of the 1840’s. In contrast, Cushman’s costume is a more exact translation of a costume that could have been worn by a man. The fitted sleeves of her tunic topped with a section of puffs and slashes at the upper arm and caps at the shoulders would have served to draw the eye upwards and focus attention to the breadth of her shoulders, thus giving her a more masculine silhouette. The way bodice of Mowatt’s costume is fitted to her waist and then bells outward from her hips in full gathers is again consistent with the shape of fashionable women’s dresses of the day rather than being completely true to a male Elizabethan ideal. That tailoring along with the way her belt hangs all combine to pull the eye downwards to her shapely legs enclosed in form-fitting hose.
In everyday fashions designed to be worn in public, adult women of the 1840’s never exposed that much leg. I have found no indications that within the context of a theatrical performance such a costume was considered improper or indecent. However because those parts of female bodies were usually concealed, seeing a woman’s legs so displayed would be, at the very least, attention-getting. It was probably also very titillating. The situation is, I think, analogous to the costume of a modern ballet dancer. Inside the theater immersed in the context of a performance, we can view dancers clad only in body-hugging tights with a few bits of gauze draped about them without embarrassment or social anxiety. If we encountered someone in the grocery aisle dressed in a unitard, though, our reaction would probably considerably less sanguine.
Like fashion in general, the standard for what was the appropriate amount of leg to reveal and how masculine costumes for women playing men shifted over the course of the century. I have found a picture of Mrs. Barry, a contemporary of David Garrick, playing Rosalind a generation before Anna Cora Mowatt debuted. Barry’s Ganymede is dressed in a version of male formal fashions from the late 1700’s. A loose-fitting waistcoat conceals most of the feminine outlines of her form. Her tunic even appears to be padded over the belly to erase her waistline. From her powdered wig to her knee-breeches and buckled shoes, each detail of her costume mimics male dress. Indeed, if wasn’t for the caption, it would be hard to tell that the picture was not of a young man.
By contrast, when one looks at pictures of scenes of productions of “As You Like It” from the 1890’s, it is easy to pick out the young woman playing a young man without any labeling. The hemline for male performers – at least the young men – has been raised considerably. Actors playing roles such as Orlando, Touchstone, or Jacques wear doublets that round up on the sides to expose most of their leg to the hipbone. Ganymedes are clothed in tunics that look like short dresses that reached just above the actress’ knees. Whereas male performers continued to wear tights as they had in Mowatt’s day, Rosalinds are pictured wearing knee pants and knee-boots leaving only their kneecaps exposed to public view. Unlike the looser, more blousy bodices of the previous generations, the Ganymedes of the 1890’s tended to wear tunics tailored to follow the curves of their bosoms that followed the tailored women’s fashions of the day, leading more than one critic to speculate on the acuity of the eyesight of many an Orlando.
Although Mowatt’s costume is of great interest to me for what it reveals about the degree to which audiences and performers of the 1840’s were willing to tolerate visual ambiguity in this gender-swapping role, it excited little comment from critics of the day. The only mention I could find was in this review from The Sun on October 19, 1849 in reference to the performance of “As You Like It” at the Marylebone Theater;
That delightful actress, Mrs. Mowatt, appeared here last evening in her favorite character of Rosalind and acted it with that mixture of archness, simplicity, gentleness, and grace, which is the peculiar characteristic of her impersonation of this one of the most lovely creations of Shakespeare. She dresses the character admirably, and the velvet cap and tunic trimmed with fur, should be from this time forward the costume of every future Rosalind.2
Although Mowatt played Rosalind in several U.S. cities before leaving for England and then starred in productions at the Princess, Olympic, and Marylebone theaters once she arrived, we have relatively few reviews of her performance in this role. This is probably due to the fact that while she and Davenport were touring, they ran through their entire catalogue of shows fairly quickly sometimes performing both a five act and one act drama on a single night. “As You Like It” often got an approving note in passing, but was not singled out for extended comment. However, in addition to these brief nods from the critics, we can deduce that the show was popular with audiences from looking at the number of times that Mowatt selected it as a benefit performance. Actors shared profits from these performances and therefore chose titles that they calculated would draw the largest houses.
The bulk of the commentary we have on her performance in this role comes from the production that was mounted at the Marylebone in the fall of 1849 under Walter Watts’ management. At the Marylebone, Davenport and Mowatt’s “As You Like It” was a featured performance, given an extended run, not merely a one-night offering. This staging had a strong supporting cast. Reviews also mention the lavish and beautiful mise en scene Watts and his technical staff created for the show. The London critics liked Mowatt in light, romantic comedies. “As You Like It” was no exception. The Morning Advertiser enthused;
The theatre was filled with a fashionable audience, drawn by the attraction of these popular comedians, as well as by the excellent manner in which the entertainments of this house are brought forward. Mrs. Mowatt was an admirable representation of Rosalind, particularly in those scenes in which she personates the young gallant in her flight from her uncle’s house. In the scene in which she induces Orlando to make love to her, as if she were really the veritable Rosalind, she was arch and piquant, blended with a sufficient display of sentiment to give interest to the courtship.3
The “saucy” or “piquant” quality noted in Mowatt’s performance by several reviewers might best be explained by this critic from The Tablet, who informs us;
Equivocal words, which in the days of Shakespeare were heard with indifference, but which modern refinement has banished beyond reach of the ears polite, were avoided with a fastidiousness proverbially American, and many an innocent phrase was softened down in a way with which few would find fault; but we were much surprised – this delicacy duly regarded – to perceive a significance given to other words and phrases warmer perhaps than the words themselves would bear.4
From this comment, it is clear that Mowatt, a very religious person and very protective of her reputation, although a devoted student of the bard, was no Shakespeare purist. Her “As You Like It” utilized a text with all potentially risqué content censored or softened. However, it seems her line readings added innuendo to some passages where The Tablet’s reviewer had not perceived it existing before. For the observers of her day, then, it would seem that Mowatt’s performance was not too masculine, but was, for at least one critic, on the border of being a little too sexy.
Just as style choices for the Ganymede costume became more conservative about the amount of leg they revealed and less ambiguous in providing markers of the gender of the performer, prevailing tastes changed on the acceptability of women in breeches roles towards the end of the century. Judging from comments in reviews and articles on drama, it looks like the female Romeos were the first to fall from grace. An article in 1893 lauding Charlotte Cushman as a pathbreaker in her efforts with gender-swapped roles begins by stipulating a bit uncomfortably;
While there is something innately offensive to sensitive temperaments in a man in feminine attire, there is something attractive to the big world in seeing a woman assume male attire, even though the artistic sense may revolt in it.5
The article was prompted by the staging of a production featuring a female Romeo. Although the writer praises Cushman’s portrayal and has positive things to say about several others, they situate the practice as a fad of the past that it is necessary to explain to their readers. The author also singles out one pairing I have previously mentioned as being beyond the pale.
Mrs. Jones, who was Miss Topping, married the actor who in his later years was known as “Count Joannes.” Like Charlotte Cushman, she was of rather a masculine build. Her daughter Avonia, with whom she played Romeo during many an engagement when they starred together, married Gustavus Brooke…. It is something in evidence of how impossible it is for an audience to take female Romeos in good faith and all seriousness that Mrs. Jones and her daughter were tolerated in their relation of lovers in such a play.6
Only three years later, on rumors that Julia Marlowe-Taber was contemplating a turn as Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, a different writer was even less generous when composing a similar list to refresh readers’ memories on the history of women who had chosen to play male characters,
Among the many female Romeos, however, it can scarcely be said that more than one was adequate – that of Charlotte Cushman.7
By 1906, the tide had turned completely. An article responding to the news that Maude Adams and Sarah Bernhardt were planning to star as the star-crossed lovers was forbiddingly titled, “Cannot Be Pleasing.” Instead of recounting the long history of Romeos as the previous authors had done, the writer baldly asserted,
A love scene between two women can never be a great success on the stage. An effeminate Hamlet might be tolerated, but a feminine Romeo never. No trick of stage makeup could overcome the obstacle. Mme. Bernhardt’s voice would be enough to dispel all illusion and make the love motive seem flat and unprofitable.8
The author does mention Cushman’s famous portrayal, but decides that it must have passed muster with audiences because they were so deceived by the illusion of masculinity she created that they lost all awareness that they were seeing two women in the lead roles. The scores of actresses who played more girlish Romeos to cheering crowds are left unnoted and unexplained by this author.
These excerpts are just a brief sampling of the type of opinion being publicly expressed towards the end of the century. Actresses who wished experiment with gender-swapped roles were meeting more resistance from critics. Roles like Romeo that involved love scenes between female performers were becoming unacceptable to some segments of the public. The decision of an actress to play a character like Hamlet who was originally created for a male performer needed to be justified in the eyes of some critics. Even roles like Rosalind that were written to include scenes where women played men began to seem a little uncomfortable to some.
In an article titled “Rosalind’s Many Types” printed in The St. Paul Daily Globe in 1887, a writer who was old enough to have viewed both, places Mowatt’s Rosalind side-by-side with Cushman’s for comparison.
Anna Cora Mowatt played the part well – for her. She was a pretty and a graceful woman, with a good deal of that sort of passion which, in default of a better term, may be called earnest. She was dainty in her mode of speech, and as a love-sick maiden was decidedly better than as an assumed lad of mettle. She showed the soft and effeminate characteristics of the part almost too frequently, and the whole assumption had a mere prettiness about it which was agreeable, but was seldom correct…
Many charming Rosalinds have appeared in this country possessing more grasp and depth than Mrs. Mowatt, but too many have been merely “lady-like” in assumption. No effect is obtained by this means. There needs just sufficient assertion of self to carry the masculine masquerading out in its completeness with the winning delicacy of the purely womanish character in scenes. The lady who puts on the doublet, trunk and hose for Rosalind must not be conscious of her mannish dress; and she must put a bold face upon the situation when she encounters Orlando. In these and like scenes, she will then be admirable.
Charlotte Cushman was a really fine Rosalind, although truth compels me to say she was not beautiful. Yet all she did was touched with true dramatic genius. Her first scene with Orlando dwells strongly in my memory. The sudden growth of passion for him, coupled with the desire to hide it from herself, blended admirably with the awe she seemed to feel at trusting herself near the magic of his presence, and was exquisitely feminine, yet free from weakness.9
This author feels that a “correct” portrayal of Rosalind must contain no hint of gender fluidity. In the scenes where the actress is playing a female character, she must conform to popular notions of femininity. In her Ganymede scenes, she must trick the audience into thinking – just as she supposedly deceives Orlando – that she is a man. The writer goes on to lay down the following laws for all prospective Rosalinds;
Withal there must be no prudery in the rendition and not a trace of it in the costume. No scraps of lace, no woman’s frippery, and, above all, no ankle-deep skirts must be placed on Rosalind. She must walk the woods conscious that her purpose, although not guileless, is free from aught that savors of immodesty. Any actress who does not like to don a man’s attire and wear it like a man cannot play Rosalind without drawing down upon her the censure of intelligent people.10
Despite the fact that it had delighted audiences of the late 1840’s, Mowatt’s lace-draped girl/boy Ganymede was now clearly in the “incorrect” column for this writer. The author is not clear about what would make an interpretation that creates an ambiguously gendered youth for Orlando to meet in the woods so immodest that it would bring down censure on the performer. However it is clear that actresses playing Rosalind are running the risk of creating an interpretation the author might deem morally reprehensible.
Perniciously, in those days before film, writers were beginning to subtly re-shape the now-fading memories of past performances. One former fan of Mowatt’s completely reasons away her turn as Rosalind in this article;
Some thirty years ago Anna Cora Mowatt won a great reputation in our Northern cities in a certain class of stage characters – those in which refined sentiment and the softer passion required delineation. I heard her in New York in her most celebrated character, that of Pauline, in Bulwer’s play of the “Lady of Lyons.” The conflict between love and pride through which the heroine passes, the numerous love scenes in which she participated, exactly suited the style of acting of Mrs. Mowatt and were admirably portrayed by her. The bold and somewhat masculine characters in which one of her great dramatic contemporaries, Charlotte S. Cushman, excelled would not have suited her. She was best adapted to such characters as Juliet and Pauline and would have failed as a Rosalind or Meg Merrilles.11
In that media-poor day, it was entirely possible for the writer to have been unaware of the multiple productions of “As You Like It” in which Mowatt starred. He did not have the option of googling her IMDb profile before writing his article. To a theatre-lover in 1891 with the understanding that was current at that time of how the role should be played, it did not seem possible that Mowatt would have attempted to play Rosalind or that audiences and critics could have enjoyed her efforts. This erasure is not an isolated incident. I have seen multiple articles from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries that mention in passing when recalling the stars of yore that Anna Cora Mowatt never played breeches roles. The most emphatic of these denials comes from Eric Wollencott Barnes, author of The Lady of Fashion, the only published book-length biography of Mowatt to date. Writing in 1954, Barnes insisted,
She did not presume for a moment to think that, because Miss Cushman had won the reluctant approval of British playgoers, she could do the same. She had none of Miss Cushman’s powerful physical equipment, and certainly none of “Captain Charlotte’s” blunt manner and awe-inspiring determination which enabled her to roll over obstacles as though they did not exist. If [Anna Cora] were to make any impression on the British it would be for different reasons. She could never (would never) play “breeches” parts. Miss Cushman had acted Romeo with a virility which charmed by its novelty: the critics had proclaimed her performance more convincing than Charles Kean’s. But [Anna Cora] was all woman. Whatever gifts she had were emphasized by her essential femininity. She hoped this would be recognized.12
Barnes makes this assertion despite the fact that the engraving of Mowatt in her Ganymede gear both serves as the frontispiece for his text and is featured on both the cover and spine of the dust jacket for the book. I thought at first that this error might be due to a tendency to define a “breeches” part as one where the actress makes an active decision to take on the role of a male character. Rosalind, in that case, might not count since the gender-swap is “built-in” to Shakespeare’s script. However, Mowatt played the title role in Thomas Noon’s Talford’s “Ion” in the spring of 1852. Ion is written as a male character and was originally played by a male performer. Talford’s Ion cannot escape being defined as anything other than a breeches role. Unlike the writer of the first article, it’s unlikely that Barnes did not know that Mowatt had played this part. In preparing to write The Lady of Fashion, he assembled an impressively thorough collection of archival material related to Mowatt’s life and career – more than I or any present-day researcher may ever see, since there are a wealth of items and interviewees that he consulted that are no longer available. It is improbable that Barnes did not know that Mowatt had played Ion. He absolutely knew that she played Ganymede. These roles were simply not consistent with his vision of Mowatt in the light of tastes and attitudes prevalent in the 1950’s.
As the century closed and attitudes changed about the acceptability of women playing men, people’s perceptions of what was appropriate and consistent overrode their memories of what was. When individuals who had seen and enjoyed productions featuring dainty Romeos and girlish Ganymedes were faced with the necessity of reconciling their past delight with their present moral stance, they simply permitted themselves to forget about those cognitive dissonance inducing moments of fleeting theatrical pleasure. First Melinda and Avonia Jones as mother/daughter Romeo and Juliet, then Anna Cora Mowatt’s lacy Ganymede, and then, finally, all of Charlotte Cushman’s gender-bending brilliance were allowed to fade quietly from the collective popular culture memory to avoid confronting the fact that at one time U.S. audiences cheered for the very type of performances that now as “intelligent people” they told themselves they were obligated to censure.
Next week to round out this discussion, I will be looking at the two breeches roles that Mowatt created for her plays.
1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. The Clergyman’s Wife. (G.W. Carleton & Co.: New York, 1864) Page 312.
2. “Marylebone Theatre.” The Sun: London. October 19, 1849. Page 3, col. 2. [I’m not sure why the writer calls the tunic fur-trimmed. The engraving we have of Mowatt in costume was created in London at this time. It clearly shows a costume trimmed in lace instead of fur.]
3. “Marylebone Theatre.” The Morning Advertiser. October 19, 1849. Page 3, col. 5.
4. “Exhibitions and Amusements.” The Tablet. October 7, 1848. Page 654, col. 4.
5. “Charlotte Cushman Paved the Way For Many.” Boston Herald, April, 30, 1893. Page 46, col. 1.
6. Ibid, col. 2.
7. “The Ex-Editor in New York.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. March 16, 1896. Page 7.
8. “Cannot Be Pleasing.” The Indianapolis Journal. June 15, 1901. Page 9, col. 5.
9. “Rosalind’s Many Types.” St. Paul Daily Globe. September 18, 1887. Page 14, col 1.
10. Ibid, col. 2.
11. “Some Celebrated Actors.” The Times: Richmond, VA, August 23, 1891. Page 9, col. 1.
12. Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. Page 189.