Anna Cora Mowatt, Gulzara, and the Parlor Theatrical

I have never come across any laments from theatre historians bemoaning the fact that so few scripts of the parlor theatricals popular in the U.S. in the 1840s-60s have survived to this day. Frankly, having read a number of these texts, I can understand why. These productions were a popular culture phenomenon. They were not intended to be great art. The texts were written by amateurs for amateurs or by commercial writers for consumption by a mass readership. These scripts were usually intended to be a bit of harmless fun instead of challenging or thought-provoking in any way. However, as any good student of popular culture can tell you, what we do for “mindless fun” can reveal just as much – if not more – about an individual or society’s attitudes and predispositions than the more “serious” artifacts we choose to represent our intellectual side.

As was true of the tableaux vivant I have presented in previous blogs (here and here,) parlor theatricals were presented in Victorian entertainment manuals such as “The Sociable” and “Parlor Charades” in a larger context of games and amusements rather than straightforwardly introducing them as an intrusion of the world of the theatre into the Victorian home. There are charade games parallel to those that I have described for the tableaux that use short acting scenes to provide clues to help participants guess compound words or familiar proverbs. Each of the two aforementioned books, however, does provide readers with scripts that are purely plays — not games. “The Sociable” even offers one piece that we would today classify in the genre of musical comedy. The text is a send-up of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice with lyrics set to the tunes of popular songs of the day.

Illustration from "The Sociable"
Illustration from “The Sociable”

Bearing in mind their readers’ tender sensibilities and possible lingering anti-theatrical prejudices, the authors are quick to tout the educational virtues of theatre in their introduction;

Few amusements will be found more agreeable for small parties than Parlor Theatricals. They have long held a favored place among the more cultivated circles of the old world, and only need to be more widely known to gain equal popularity here.

As an educational agent, the amateur drama can hardly be too highly esteemed; for it teaches the young performer elocution, gesticulation, ease of manner, and a certain knowledge of the emotions and passions of humanity, which can rarely be acquired elsewhere.1

Writing in 1859, the author of “Parlor Charades” was more aggressive in asserting as a given the respectability of the dramatic material she was presenting;

As to the propriety of indulging in this species of recreation, it appears to be generally conceded. School dialogues and charades come under the same category. They are the most innocent and improving form of dramatic entertainment, a species of amusement almost as universal and ancient as language itself.2

By 1859, though, it had been twelve years since Anna Cora Mowatt’s parlor theatrical, “Gulzara,” was printed in “The New World.” Mowatt had gone on to have two hits on Broadway, “Fashion,” and “Armand.” By this date, she had retired from her successful acting career, written her autobiography with its strong defense of the stage, and published several popular novels featuring performers as sympathetic lead characters. Attitudes towards the theatre were slowly changing in the U.S.

Illustration from "The Sociable"
Illustration from “The Sociable”

The author of the above quote that introduces “Parlor Charades and Proverbs” was Sarah Annie Frost-Shields, (1830-1898). Frost-Shields was a prolific writer who served as editor of Godey’s Lady Book. She authored books with such diverse titles as Laws and By-Laws of American Society, The Art of Dressing Well, Almost a Woman, Sunshine for Rainy Days, and Our New Cookbook. She published another book of short scenes for amateurs, Humorous Dialogues for Young People, in 1868, but never seems to have tried her hand at composing a full play for professionals.

Although Frost-Shields’ short dramas were written long after Mowatt’s, I’m going to use one as illustration because it typifies the parlor theatrical genre better than “Gulzara” does in many ways. The short comedy is titled “Misfortune.” The plot of this play (and the one preceding it in “Parlor Charades and Proverbs”) seems to be partially derived from Mowatt’s 1845 “Fashion.” Important secondary characters are the snobbish Mrs. Green and her daughter Seraphina. As in “Fashion,” Seraphina is being secretly courted by a character with an exaggerated European accent posing as a Count who is actually interested in her only for her money. The main character is the poor, uneducated servant girl, Betsy, who suddenly inherits a fortune over the course of the play. She thus becomes the “Miss Fortune” of the title. Betsy’s good fortune results in a type of dubious misfortune for Seraphina when her faux-Count deserts her for Betsy whom he marries before the final curtain.

Illustration from "The Sociable"
Illustration from “The Sociable”

“Misfortune’s” use of references back to plots and characters from “Fashion” was a common technique for authors of parlor theatricals to employ. The scripts included in William F. Gill’s 1868 “Parlor Tableaux and Amateur Theatricals” were undisguised condensed versions of hits such as Edward Bulwer Lytton’s “Money” and John Tobin’s “The Honeymoon” re-written for small casts. Today’s readers are no longer familiar enough with the standard repertoire of Victorian drama to catch allusions to popular favorites such as “The Iron Chest,” “Pauline,” or “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady.” However, nods towards plots and characters from these melodramas would have spoken volumes to those audiences just as references to popular movies and television shows do when writers choose to use them today. Allusion-rich texts allow writers to quickly establish complex situations and telegraph multi-layered messages to audiences. The humor in “The Simpsons” or “The Family Guy” as well as the double-edged meaning of phrases in slam poetry or rap depends on this kind of cross-quotations. However in the case of “Misfortune” and “Fashion,” the copy seems like less pointed social satire than the original.

Compare these two scenes from each comedy in which a lady interacts with a female servant. In the first, Mrs. Tiffany, the social climbing mistress of the household, seeks some advice from her French maid;

MRS. TIFFANY: Millinette, how do you say arm-chair in French?

Millinette: Fauteuil, Madame.

MRS. TIFFANY: Fo-tool! That has a foreign — an out-of-the- wayish sound that is perfectly charming — and so genteel! There is something about our American words decidedly vulgar. Fo-tool! How refined. Fo-tool! Arm-chair! What a difference!

MILLINETTE: Madame have one charmante pronunciation. Fow-tool! (mimicking aside) charmante, Madame!

MRS. TIFFANY: Do you think so, Millinette? Well, l believe I have. But a woman of refinement and of fashion can always accommodate herself to everything foreign! And a week’s study of that invaluable work — “French without a Master,” has made me quite at home in the court language of Europe!3

Even in this brief excerpt, we immediately get a sense of the depth of Mrs. Tiffany’s pretentiousness and the extent to which Mowatt is mocking the American eagerness to ape European fashions without understanding them in an effort to appropriately play the part of a person of power and wealth. We also see how cynically Millinette is exploiting her mistress’ ignorant pomposity. Although the text is over one hundred and seventy-five years old, the satire still has a bite. The scene is still funny.

Here is a similar mistress/servant scene from “Misfortune:”

SERAPHINA: Oh, my patience! The girl will drive me mad. Just in the most exciting part! Now go on, and don’t dare to ask any more of your absurd questions.

BETSY (reading): “Alphonso went as circumstances” – (Wisht I knowed what them was!) – “seemed to direct.” Oh, cricky! What a big word’s acomin’ now! “I-n-s-u-b-o-r-d-i-n-a-t-i-o-n-tion. Insub- insubor—“

SERAPHINA: Insubordination, you dunce. Go on!

BETSY: Yes, miss. Insubordination, you dunce –

SERAPHINA: (snatching book.) It’s enough to set one frantic [Boxes BETSY’S ears with the book.] There! Go about your business, you stupid thing!4

Although Frost-Shields does not hesitate to make jokes at the expense of her uneducated, lower-class heroine Betsy, she shies away from identifying the Greens as anything other than generic, mean, rich people, thus blunting the impact of anything approaching the sort of critique of the pretentions of the nouveau riche contained in Mowatt’s original. Most of the humor the play may have held for the original audience is lost today. In short, “Misfortune” has the form but lacks the substance of “Fashion.”

“Gulzara,” in contrast, although it was also a parlor theatrical, was a far more ambitious project in terms of both length and substance. Whereas “Misfortune” is a one-act comedy divided into three scenes with a runtime of around twenty minutes, “Gulzara” is a full five-act drama written in blank verse that runs well over an hour. The script is footnoted with literary, historical, and cultural cross references. For example, when Princess Zulieka, thinking that Gulzara is guilty of conspiring to kidnap her brother, compares her to the deadly Caraminia in the following speech:

Thou treach’rous thing! impersonation base
Of those bright picturings of fraud that link
A Houri’s face and serpent’s form. Oh! like
The baleful Caraminia,4 which unsheaths
Its sweet buds to the sun, to poison e’en
The fresh‘ning zephyrs that promote its growth,
Thy venom hast thou thrown around her whom
Thy seeming moved to meliorate thy lot.5

Mowatt reminds us in the following footnote of the nature of the plant;

The Caraminia, an eastern flower of great beauty, is so deadly in its nature that it poisons the very air where it grows.6

Lest this note mislead you, the play was not merely a repository of botanical trivia. “Gulzara” is very serious study of the conflicting motivations of honor and revenge. Each of the play’s main characters must deal with a crisis of conscience and actively make a decision about the honorable path forward for them to take. I will deal with this aspect of the play fully in a future blog. For now, suffice it to say, despite having a small cast of young women with no adult male lead, Mowatt’s parlor theatrical had a well-developed and strongly articulated central theme. It had as thoughtful a message as one might expect from a professional playwright. Frost-Shield’s little plays for amateurs in “Parlor Charades and Proverbs” generally have a strong enough central idea to hold them together and make them coherent. However there are usually not any challenging or innovative ideas about her society’s attitudes and values in them.

Anna Cora Mowatt as Gulzara
Anna Cora Mowatt as Gulzara

Although Anna Cora Mowatt boldly led the way as a playwright, she could not single-handedly change long-held negative perceptions of theatre and women writers overnight. Extant scripts of parlor theatricals of Mowatt’s day give evidence that a decade after the publication of “Gulzara,” women like Sarah Annie Frost-Shields were not entirely comfortable following the trail she had blazed.

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of parlor theatricals
Anna Cora Mowatt and images of parlor theatricals

1. The Sociable; or One Thousand and One Home Amusements. (Dick & Fitzgerald: New York, 1858.) Page 9.
2. Frost, S. Annie. Parlor Charades and Proverbs. (J.B. Lippincott & Co.: Philadelphia, 1859.) Page v.
3. Mowatt, Anna Cora. “Fashion; or Life in New York.” (Samuel French: New York, 1849) Page 3-4.
4. Frost, S. Annie. Parlor Charades and Proverbs. (J.B. Lippincott & Co.: Philadelphia, 1859.) Page 33.
5. Mowatt, Anna Cora. “Gulzara.” The New World, Quarto Edition, v. II, no. 17, Whole Number 47, Saturday, April 24, 1841. Page 231, col. 2.
6. Ibid.

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