Anna Cora Mowatt, Armand, and the Museum Crowd

Last week, I talked about the triumph of Anna Cora Mowatt’s “other play” in London. This week, I want to examine how it fared in the U.S. Although “Armand” failed to match “Fashion’s” phenomenal longevity, the drama equaled the comedy’s initial success.

As I asserted last week, I believe that the primary appeal of “Armand” for English audiences was in terms of its incorporation of spectacle and successful integration of elements of the then-popular genre of melodrama. Reviews for the show in the U.S. indicate that the drama’s cultural and literary qualities were top selling points with audiences here.

Poster for "Armand"
Poster for “Armand”

Part of this more seemingly sober reaction of state-side audiences is probably due to the fact that in the U.S. the theatre world was still combating powerful, lingering anti-theatrical prejudice. The U.S. was founded by religious conservatives and people rebelling against oppression by decadent, wasteful, irreligious, and self-indulgent upper classes. Theatre was an example of conspicuous indulgence of those aristocrats. A monarch like England’s Charles II was a textbook specimen of a patron of the theatre who would have been perfectly odious to the early settlers of the U.S.

Charles II Meets Nell Gywn by Peter Jackson
Charles II Meets Nell Gywn by Peter Jackson

In the early 1800s, there were still harsh laws on the books in many states equating actors with vagrants. Theatre was regularly denounced from pulpits and was presented in popular culture as a gateway to vice and ruin. There was some basis for this bad impression in fact. Even New York’s Park Theater, which had the highest critical reputation for the quality of its productions, was regularly subject to raids by the police because it was a known site for prostitutes to meet their clients. Chorus girls and seamstresses received very low wages. Sometimes when a show did poorly, unscrupulous theater managers either cut the salaries of these low-end wage earners or failed to pay them entirely. Some individuals turned to sex-work to make up the gap in earnings thus reinforcing existing negative stereotypes of theatrical professionals. Financing a Broadway show was a high-risk gamble that required a large up-front capital outlay. This hazardous investment opportunity frequently attracted members of New York’s seamy underworld.

Niblo's Garden, 1852
Niblo’s Garden, 1852

Given these ties to the demi-monde, it is easy to see why reputation-conscious members of the upper or middle-class might think twice about darkening the doors of a theater. However, there were a couple ways that drama enthusiasts got around Broadway’s potentially character-besmirching potential. First, the early Victorian theatre world in the U.S. was not limited to a few venues in New York. Successful actors like Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, the Booth brothers, and Laura Kean toured extensively. Management companies such as Smith and Ludlow and later the Redpath Bureau aggressively went after the lucrative middle-class market in cities like Charleston, New Orleans, Boston, Cincinnati, Mobile, Buffalo, and Louisville. They took steps to maintain squeaky clean public images for their stars and to promote a high moral tone for their productions as well as touting the educational and cultural value of theatre. Personable, yet scandal-free leads like Anna Cora Mowatt and E.L. Davenport were tailor-made for this sort of public relations approach.

Mowatt as Blanche in court costume
Mowatt as Blanche in court costume

Another, sneaky and unique to the U.S. tactic from this period was that alongside theatres in conservative cities like Boston were establishments called “museums” that were in practice theaters. One can often see playbills from this time period that advertise productions in a city’s theater paired with those of an associated museum. In Mowatt’s novel “Twin Roses” she has a character explain these venues to English visitors in this manner;

Museum was only another name given to a theatre by means of which a certain narrow prejudice was “whipped round the post” of conscience. That the same plays were represented in one as in the other – the same actors were in the personators. The audiences of the Museum were high-toned and appreciative. They were chiefly composed of the religious portion of the community who eschew theatres. Even Quakers flock to the museums.1

The museums emphasized the literary and educational qualities of the dramatic material they presented and the cleanliness of their facilities – which included strictly observed prohibitions against everything from patrons spitting tobacco on the floors to prostitutes soliciting clients in the galleries. These venues often conspicuously doubled as lecture halls for academic and religious speakers, reinforcing their uplifting pedagogical, spiritual, and civic goals for the communities they served.

Poster for 1858 production of "Armand"
Poster for 1858 production of “Armand”

One thing that distances the modern reader from “Armand” is the poetic passages. In fact, even by the end of the 19th century, theatrical tastes had soured on that type of effusion. In 1878, when a re-vamped version of “Armand” was produced and renamed “Blanche,” one critic harshly proclaimed,

“Blanche; or, Peer and Peasant,” which was brought out at the Academy of Music last evening, is a queer old drama of the turgid and inflated style, which was the accepted type of dramatic literature about a quarter of a century ago. It is illogical and unnatural and is full of sham characters who do sham actions and indulge in sham sentiment… It possesses, however, a certain merit of construction and there are a few good situations but these are insufficient to redeem it from the dreariness to which the remainder of the play inevitably consigns it. When first presented, under the title of “Armand,” at the Park Theatre, New York, in 1847, with Anna Cora Mowatt, the author, and the late E.L. Davenport, as “Blanche” and “Armand” respectively, it won great applause, but times have changed and public taste improved since that period and now we reject such unsubstantial husks for more nourishing dramatic food.2

I do not have a script for the 1878 “Blanche” and cannot judge how much it may have been re-written or to which extent bad acting or directing might have jaundiced this critic’s view of the play. However, in 1847, “Armand’s” poetry was music to the ears of the type of people in the U.S. who might go to theaters that called themselves “museums.” This type of audience did not simply want to be entertained. They wanted to feel like they could say they were enriching themselves by soaking in culture and literature when they went to a play. These audience members were hungry for substantive literary output from native dramatists that would compare to European authors. The United States was only seventy-one years old at this time. The nation was still struggling to find its voice.

Side by side ads for shows at  Boston theaters and "museums"
Side by side ads for shows at Boston theaters and “museums”

Considering what we now think of as authentic and unique Americana, high-flown poetic dialogue might seem a bit of a ridiculous format on which to hang our country’s hopes for achievements in cultural expression. However, this was early days. The country was trying to compete with established European norms. “Armand’s” sweet verses were a delight to its auditors. Several newspapers, such as the New Bedford Mercury, enthusiastically printed monologues from the play as standalone pieces of poetry.3 Even The Albion, one of Mowatt’s sternest critical taskmasters, before going on to quote passages from the play at length, had to concede;

It would be an invidious task to point out defects in a piece that has so many beauties to recommend it. The language is frequently highly poetical…4

The sky-high hopes and expectations for this drama are articulated clearly in this piece from the New York Herald written not as a review, but to prepare its readers to go view the play on the eve of its premiere;

Mrs. Mowatt’s muse has here roamed abroad in a wider field, and taken a higher range than before; it is an intellectual aim and effort of no common kind. Minds of the highest order have failed in this most difficult species of composition, and few productions have attained any rank or permanence on the stage. It will be the greater tribute to her genius and her powers, should she succeed. The aspirants of this path of fame have been few in this country, and mostly unsuccessful; and the improvement in dramatic literature is far behind the advance which our country has made in other walks of polite letters. But why is this? There is a wild, bold, and original genius among us – the mind, under our free institutions, is unfettered in its conceptions and utterance of feeling – we are a people of energy and warm passions, and keenly alive to the scenes that truthfully and vividly portray them. The diversity of climate, interests, education, and origin, necessarily give birth to a great variety of character; and nature, wild, majestic, and sublime, or crowned with all that is picturesque and lovely beneath the sun, is opened to the poet’s eyes and views, wakes his inspiration at every turn – and these are the elements of dramatic works. Yet it cannot be said that there is one standard production among us – one classical work – one that will hold possession of the stage, and that will form an addition to the permanent stock of our national literature. We have the elements of inspiration and success – we have the genius to embody what we feel, and to clothe the impulses of the soul with the grandeur, with power, and with the coloring of truth and beauty; yet the stimulant is wanting to develop these faculties, and lead them on from progress to perfection. There is a wonderful and lamentable apathy prevailing in this country as to this branch of literature: a prejudice too, as fatal to its growth, as it is founded in injustice. It tends to undervalue the talent of native writers, and to decry every production that does not bear the stamp of a foreign pen, and a London audience; as if poetry and feeling, and the power of observing and describing the phases of human character, were bounded by one nation and one clime, and ‘twere the fate of America to be degraded and proscribed. Americans, let a new era dawn on us, let taste and discrimination exert their sway, let the powers of genius be fostered and called forth, let native talent be stimulated and rewarded, let apathy be banished, and merit at home meet the reward of praise. Genius will then arise to exert her claim, classical plays will be produced, a higher order of minds will be called to the task, the standard of excellence will be raised and the moral being be guided and exalted, so as to act powerfully on the manners, tastes, and morals of our day.5

As you can tell, The Herald is asking a lot of this little melodrama which Mowatt had composed very quickly over the course of the previous three months as a primarily commercial venture. Popular culture texts can sometimes powerfully express the voice of the nation at certain junctures in time. However, one is usually setting oneself up for disappointment when one sits down in the theater to see a debut with the expectation of “America, let a new era dawn on us!”

“Armand” didn’t capture lightening in a bottle the way “Fashion” had managed. Theatre History textbooks don’t record the play as an encapsulation of the spirit of the age alongside later classics of U.S. drama such as “The Little Foxes,” “All My Sons,” and “Streetcar Named Desire.” Not even the children of fans of the original version could get what the excitement had been about when they grew old enough to put on productions of their own. Expectations for “Armand” were unrealistically high. Despite the fact that it did not fill every one of that long list of hopes and dreams listed by The New York Herald, this blank verse melodrama – even though it was a little silly and a little pretentious – was exactly the sort of sophisticated, charming, European-style entertainment that upper and middle-class theater goers in the U.S. in the 1840’s-60’s wanted to be able to say that their dramatists could produce just as well as anyone else in the world. With “Armand,” Mrs. Mowatt was delivering the required literary goods in style.

Next week, I want to talk about the second – and most surprising – part of “Armand’s” recipe for success – its politics.

1. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. Twin Roses. (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1857), page 162.
2. “Amusements.” The Plain Dealer, September 14, 1878. Page 4.
3. New Bedford Mercury, November 5, 1847. Page 4.
4. “New Works.” The Albion; or British Colonial and Foreign Weekly, Oct. 2, 1847. Page 480, col. 2
5. “Theatrical and Musical” The New York Herald. Monday, September 27, 1847. Page 3, col.2.

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