Anna Cora Mowatt, Armand, and the Fast Man

In past entries, I have talked about Mary Warner’s renovation of the Marylebone Theater and how her work was heralded by critics as a triumph because it represented a heroic effort to bring the so-called “legitimate” theater to the audience of this lower class neighborhood. There was, of course, another side to this argument. There were individuals who preferred exactly the kind of melodramas and popular culture fare that had been the regular staples of the playhouse.

The advent Mrs. Warner’s tenure as manager of the Marylebone was marked by the magazine Punch with a satirical column bemoaning the event, titled “The Death of Melodrama.” The writer mournfully proclaimed,

One of the last places in which MELODRAMA took up its abode, was at the Marylebone Theatre, where it picked up a very precarious livelihood; but that place having been required for the accommodation of its elder brother, LEGITIMATE DRAMA – under the able guardianship of MRS. WARNER – the establishment has been purged from all traces of MELODRAMA, and render in every respect fitted for its new tenant.

Poor MELODRAMA has long been threatening to give up the Ghost, who is placed in mourning by the melancholy event. By all but the immediate mourners – the Stage Spectre and the Stage Assassin – the circumstance seems to be hailed as a “happy release.”1

Death of Melodrama, mourned by Stage Spectre and Stage Assasin in Punch
Death of Melodrama, mourned by Stage Spectre and Stage Assassin in Punch

Fans of the legitimate drama (meaning, in this context, plays by authors such as Shakespeare, Johnson, Fletcher and Beaumont, Congreve, Corneille, Racine, and the classical Greek and Roman playwrights) tended to draw the lines of this controversy along the divides of class and education. To hear them tell the story, only lower class, uneducated audiences preferred melodramas. However, after the lifting of the monopoly from the patent theaters in 1843, as more of the minor theaters began to try their hand at legitimate drama, voices of protest emerged. The loudest of these was Punch’s “Fast Man.” His first salvo of disapproval came in 1848,

I consider the stage to have been in its greatest glory when we used to have at the Lane and the Garden such pieces as Gustavus the Third, and the Revolt of the Harem, and good, striking, effective melodramas at the Adelphi and the other minors. It’s all very well to laugh at red and blue fire, and call it clap-trap. It may be very illegitimate; but it took – that’s all I know. Murders, maybe, are revolting: very well; so much the better. Give us atrocious crimes and broad fun. The stock materials of old melodrama – the desperate ruffian, the unjust steward, the simple peasant girl, the comic baker – depend upon it, were the ticket. These performances were suited to the common mind; and that’s the thing to go for. They did occasion, as the playbills used to say, floods of tears and roars of laughter. That was their ‘tendency,’ as you would call it; and it was slap-up. According to you, I suppose, it ought to have been moral or intellectual. Walker! Grand Moral and Intellectual Effect!!! What a notion for a Poster!!2

Another broadside against “the Legitimate” came from the Fast Man in rhyming form in “The Theatrical Times;”

I don’t like Macready, because he seems so stale,
I don’t like Helen Faucit, because she is so pale.
I always go to please myself, and therefore cut the aesthetic,
I don’t like being bored to death, and therefore avoid syncretic.
Albert Smith is just the boy that I like to meet in a saloon,
Because he must be pretty “loud” to go up in a balloon.
Angus Reach writes much better, and cuts up humbugs well,
And “Box and Cox” at the Lyceum, always seems to tell.
Madame Vestris is a thoroughbred, right-down-sort-of-oner,
And Julia Bennet in the Haymarket, is just such another stunner.
Paul Bedford is a perfect Brick, and Wright will at nothing stick,
And Stirling Coyne is the thing, to make you dance and sing,
Oxberry is “berry” funny, and Laws is very rummy,
And Emma Harding is a darling,
And Miss Howard a’nt too forward.
The Haymarket is a theatre too dirty to be seen,
I go to the Lyceum because it is so clean.
The ballet girls are to my taste, because they smile eternally,
And Brooke is not at all because he rants infernally.
Phelps, Bennet, and Macready are bores to the legitimate,
I’d rather see Miss —-, because with her I’m intimate.
The ballet girls an’t like what Mr. Smith doth say,
As I would prove to you Sir, any day.3

The next issue contained a rhyming rebuttal in much the same vein defending the legitimate theatre and its adherents from someone signing themselves “Slowcoach.”

One big problem with Mr. Fast Man and Mr. Slowcoach was that they were not a real people. An item in “The Theatrical Times” reveals that a short comic piece by that name debuted at the Lyceum shortly after his letters were published. The Fast Man character, played by Charles Matthews, was an irreverent medical student named Jack Stunner. The comedy follows the adventures of the young scoundrel and his friend, Mr. Simpson Slowcoach, through various misadventures.4 The Fast Man’s outrageous missives might have just been a publicity stunt, but they did spark real debate for months to come by contributors who would use “Fast Man” as shorthand for referring to a stance opposing the Shakespeare and the classics in favor of melodrama and other popular culture dramatic genres.

Charles Matthews and Madame Vestris in a production in 1843
Charles Matthews and Madame Vestris in a production in 1843

Although Fast Man and his pal, Slowcoach, were caricatures, they provoked laughs at the Lyceum and helped sell copies of Punch because they were based on a class of young men who populated London, frequented the theater, and spouted versions of these very sentiments. Every theater audience in the metropolis contained a sizeable contingent of young men with disposable income and occupations that allowed them enough spare time to attend performances. Students, clerks, and what another writer for the “Theatrical Times” derisively identified as “shop boys” made up an important segment of the patronage of playhouses.

Taken as a group, this demographic tended to enjoy a higher level of education than the “gallery gods.” This increased literary sophistication did not seem to prevent them from relishing the fast-paced plots and intense emotions of melodrama, though. Judging from comments, I would say they disliked pretentiousness and were easily bored. These young men liked a mix of humor and drama. They had a particular relish for well-executed fight scenes. They adored the slap-stick and physical comedy of pantomime, burlesque, and the farces of the era. Theaters that emphasized spectacle were more likely to attract the patronage of this group. However, the top, most often reiterated preference of these young, single, male theater-goers was that whatever they saw on stage needed to feature lots of pretty girls in attractive costumes.

Pantomime patrons in 1857
Pantomime patrons in 1857

Walter Watts, in his capacity as manager of the Marylebone Theater, had to be aware of the tastes of this important segment of his audience. After all, in the less glamorous half of his double life, he was still a member of this demographic. His programming for the theater always showed a sensitivity to their tastes. This stood in contrast to Mary Warner, the previous manager and well-respected tragedienne, whose devotion to “the legitimate” was almost defiant of established audience preferences. For example, when there was a significant budget shortfall at the end of the season, instead of banking on the expected Easter extravaganza to raise funds or switching to a crowd-pleasing melodrama, Warner doubled down on the classics. She brought in William Macready for a production of “Hamlet” and doubled admission prices as if daring them to stay away. Unfortunately, after the first two nights, many of them did.

When Watts took over that summer, he lured audiences back to the Marylebone with splendidly produced, back-to-back tours from England’s top husband and wife comic actors, Robert and Mary Keeley, Irish comedian James Hudson, and light comedy duo, Buckstone and Fitzwilliams. Critics moaned that “the Legitimate” had lost another foothold, but they too were charmed by the quality of the productions. The Marylebone’s books were back in the black.

Watts seemed to hit the sweet spot for critics and audience alike when he brought in American actors E.L. Davenport and Anna Cora Mowatt for a production of “As You Like It” in the fall of 1848. Here we had a production of one of Shakespeare’s (can’t get more “legitimate” than that) comedies that starred a very pretty girl in beautiful costumes on a beautiful set. The result was a lot of general happiness and good box office at the Marylebone.

Davenport and Buckstone in the melodrama "Presented at Court" in 1851
Davenport and Buckstone in the melodrama “Presented at Court” in 1851

This brings me, at last, to “Armand.” To you and me, all Victorian melodramas seem pretty much the same. In much the way a hundred years from now, it will be hard for scholars to make meaningful distinctions between types of 90’s rom-coms, their similarities can make them blur into each other. However, to people from that day who were hip-deep in this genre, little differences meant a lot.

Although I have repeatedly identified “Armand” as a melodrama, writers at the time did not apply that label. It was more typical for them to talk about it using this sort of language:

The play itself is written with lady-like sweetness, and though it never rises beyond the pretty and the graceful, it is not altogether without stage-merit. The plot is feeble, and the characters lack individuality, but there is a pure and elegant spirit throughout, calculated to refine the taste and feelings.5

In opposition to the way the worn phrase is usually applied, I would argue that rather than damning with faint praise, the reviewer here is faintly praising without damning the drama. The significance of the difference here is the “Armand” is squeaking under the wire that separates melodrama from material considered being worthy of rubbing shoulders with “the legitimate.” In other words, the Theatrical Times along with other critics is signaling buyers of the more expensive box-seats that they need not be ashamed to express enjoyment at the play. Mowatt’s use of poetry and noble sentiments makes “Armand” legitimate enough to pass muster with the high-brow or Slowcoach crowd.

For the Fast Man group, the Theatrical Times is quick to promise the “Armand” is a treat for the eyes;

It was superbly mounted at the little Marylebone, several of the scenes being equal to any at the Lyceum, and the dresses were splendid.6

In this single sentence, we have the promise of several items of top importance to the young, single male demographic. The production of “Armand” is favorably compared to productions at the Lyceum, which, as you may remember from Fast Man’s rhyme, because of its well-kept facilities, and tendency to mount lively contemporary dramas and comedies, was a preferred venue for this group. Next there is an implied promise of spectacle, which was a draw. Finally there was a mention of dresses, which not only intensified and specified the sort of the potential visual impact of the production, but carried the additional alluring enticement of beautiful actresses wearing those dresses.

The production of “Armand” at the Marylebone in January of 1849 seemed to check off a whole laundry list of qualities especially designed to please its young male audience. There were several scenes with pretty girls in lovely costumes. In the first half of the play, peasant girls dance at the crowning of the May Queen. In the second half, there are scenes in the grand court of Louis XV with lovely female courtiers in attendance. There is poetry and noble sentiments, but there are also some comic moments, so the play is not too pretentious. Even though “Armand” is comprised of five acts like most “legitimate” style dramas, there are lots of melodrama-style plot-twists, so the play’s not a snooze-fest.

Perhaps the most enticing part of the play for this demographic was at the very heart of “Armand.” Anna Cora Mowatt, who all the reviewers agreed was a very beautiful young woman, played the lead female role, Blanche. This character was a bit of a new twist on the heroine of the Victorian melodrama. Through the course of the plot, she is imperiled, of course, but she deals with her problems assertively. Blanche is more active than passive. She tries to save herself. In the very last act of the play, the title character, Armand must come to her aid to resolve a final confrontation with the lustful Louis XV.

Anna Cora Mowatt as Blanche in "Armand"
Anna Cora Mowatt as Blanche in “Armand”

Since the Victorians weren’t overly concerned with dramas that created role models for female empowerment, rather than this plot resolution being a bit of a let-down, Armand’s brave defense of the plucky Blanche might have allowed young male viewers to vicariously picture themselves coming to her rescue in a satisfactorily heroic manner. The narrative strategy certainly seems to have had this effect on some auditors. Despite the somewhat tepid initial critique of the play, the critic for the Theatrical Times made the unusual (for that publication) choice of attending another performance of the drama and printing an additional and far, far, less equivocal review.

Mrs. Mowatt’s new and successful play of Armand still continues to attract crowded audiences. The success of this beautiful production is now established beyond all doubt. The acting of the fair authoress is beyond all praise, as is also that of Mr. Davenport as the hero, Armand, Mr. James Johnstone, whom, by-the-bye, we regard as one of the best heavy actors on the stage, we most excellent as the Duc de Richelieu…7

The initial concerns the reviewer had about the weakness of the plot and characters are long forgotten and completely forgiven. Now that the critic no longer must concern themselves with determining whether or not the play is great art, they relax into gushing admiration. For me, this confirms that there was an initial concern about how to classify this drama. After the first reviews came out and a general consensus was reached that it was fine for people who supported the legitimate drama to like this play, a lot of tension and skepticism surrounding it was released.

After a well-attended initial run that was extended into February, Watts brought “Armand” back for a bonus week of performances in March and another in October. The show was even used as a sold-out-in-advance benefit performance for Anna Cora Mowatt.

In terms of marketing and demographics, “Armand” makes no sense at all to us today. In 1849, though, Walter Watts knew his audience and what it took to make them buy a ticket to the theater night after night. Surprisingly enough, it turns out that Anna Cora Mowatt’s crazy little play about Duke Richelieu’s feisty illegitimate daughter was just the thing it took to get both Fast Man and Slowcoach up on their feet and cheering.

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of the play, "Armand"
Anna Cora Mowatt and images of the play, “Armand”

1. “The Death of Melodrama.” 1848. Punch.
2. “Our Fast Man on the Decline of the Drama.” Punch. 1848. Page 3
3. “A Fast Man’s Ideas of the Drama.” Theatrical Times, no. 106. Saturday, May 13th, 1848. Page 155.
4. “Lyceum.” Theatrical Times, no. 108. Saturday, May 28, 1848 Page 172
5. “Marylebone.” Theatrical Times, no. 141, Saturday, January 27, 1849. Page 21.
6. Ibid.
7. “Marylebone.” Theatrical Times, no. 142, Saturday, February 3, 1849. Page 30.

2 Replies to “Anna Cora Mowatt, Armand, and the Fast Man”

  1. I love this turn of phrase: “In opposition to the way the worn phrase is usually applied, I would argue that rather than damning with faint praise, the reviewer here is faintly praising without damning the drama.”

    I am sorry that it has taken me so long to engage your website/book. Learning lots!

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