Parlor theatricals were a popular culture phenomenon of the Victorian era. As such they have received a certain amount of attention from academics for the insights they reveal about societal attitudes and anxieties. The scripts for these “home dramas” have gotten less serious attention. These dramatic texts tended to either be written by amateurs for amateurs or by commercial writers for a mass market readership. Generally, the extant samples of scripts for parlor theatricals that survive to this day are light-weight, derivative texts that copy trends set by popular hits on the New York and London stage without adding anything of note in the way of writing technique or social commentary.
Anna Cora Mowatt’s “Gulzara” is a far more interesting and innovative work than the general run of parlor theatrical scripts — although this benchmark is a low bar to clear. At some time in the future, I would like to come back to this play and talk about the way Mowatt manages to transfer traditional positions of male agency in Victorian melodrama to female characters in this script. Her choice of setting also intrigues me. Of course, “Gulzara” is an artifact of its era and contains aspects that are problematic today. In many ways, however, it is a surprisingly sensitive view of an Eastern culture for its time and I am intrigued by the self-contained “female kingdom” world of the harem that Mowatt creates as setting for this play. However, for this entry, I wish to spend some time focusing on “Gulzara’s” very carefully structured plot.
“Gulzara” is a classic example of the genre called “well-made plays” that gained overwhelming popularity with writers, critics and audiences during the 19th century. This classification may not be a surprise since Mowatt studied drama at a school run by sisters of the actress Rachel of the Comedie Francais. Eugene Scribe was the premier playwright for that company at that time. The well-made play, drawing on neo-classical traditions, was his invention. I have previously talked about Scribe in connection to Mowatt’s novel “Fairy Fingers” which seems to be an adaptation of his play “Les Doigts de Fee.” I have not yet uncovered any record or correspondence that clarifies the relationship between Scribe and Mowatt – if there was one – but it does seem at the very least that she admired his work. It seems logical to extrapolate that she learned Scribe’s style of composition at the classes she took in Paris.
The well-made play format hearkens back to Aristotle’s classical outline for the generic plot of the ideal tragedy. Audience interest in a well-made play is stirred initially by discovery. In the early acts, some critical events have taken place before the beginning of the play. The audience learns, along with the characters, of these plot twists which generate sympathy for the protagonist. Mistaken identity or sudden reveals of hidden identities are characteristic of this format. Inciting events build towards a climactic reversal of fortune in which the protagonist finally triumphs. Any dangling threads of the plot are dealt with in the denouement.
In “Gulzara,” the audience gradually discovers more and more information about central male character who never appears – Sultan Suleiman. Even though Suleiman the Magnificent was a historical figure whose love for his wife Roxelana was legendary, Mowatt came up with a clever way to extend his story with this narrative about Gulzara, a fictional wife he took after Roxelana’s death. Gulzara initially hates Suleiman (who she has not yet seen in person,) because he has separated her from Hafed, a hunter with whom she has fallen in love. Amurath, Suleiman’s son, reminds Gulzara of someone, she just can’t quite figure out who…?? In proper well-made play fashion, it isn’t revealed that Suleiman is actually Hafed until the last moment.
Interwoven with the Gulzara/Suleiman romance plot is the kidnapping of Amurath. As Amurath tries to persuade Aeysha to release him, the audience learns of her motivations. These revelations also expose a less flattering side of Suleiman’s character making the romance plot seem less inevitable than it looks when described above. At the palace, suspicion falls on Gulzara as misleading clues are revealed.
Re-reading the above two paragraphs, I find I have told the storyline out of order making it sound like a tangled mess, when in actuality, like any competently constructed well-made play, “Gulzara’s” plot actually flows like a lovely, steampunk-style, Rube Goldberg device. Each revelation smoothly triggers the next, as we watch it pop, drop, and roll through its rollercoaster course of neatly planned twists and turns to its denouement.
A complaint about the well-made play format was that it could be used to generate dramas that were watchable and coherent, but required no thoughtful moral decision-making on the part of any of the characters for the plot to reach a resolution. Scribe himself advocated using his format to create plays for entertainment only. He did not believe that drama needed to be didactic.
The well-made play format is wonderfully suited to creating farces. Oscar Wilde’s “Importance of Being Earnest” with its ridiculously absurd coincidences and sudden reveals of unexpected identities piling one atop the other until the last moment of the play is a lovely application of Scribe’s seemingly formal and dry formula.
Of course, a writer could choose to use Scribe’s format to create works full of moral choices. Despite Scribe’s preferences, his contemporary Alexandre Dumas fils, almost immediately co-opted the writing technique as a method for producing dramas that spoke out on a variety of social issues.
Anna Cora Mowatt’s “Gulzara” is not an overt polemic on any specific political agenda, however, she is not content to let her characters to take a joyride from status quo back to status quo. Her plot presents her protagonists — and her antagonist — with moral challenges that they must meet. Each has a moment of darkness and doubt in which they contemplate the consequences of failure. They grow as a result as of meeting their moral challenges and exit the drama changed by their experiences.
Gulzara, the title character, follows the path most typical of that usually trod by the protagonist of a well-made play plot. In my opinion, she experiences the least degree of moral growth. In the tradition of discovery, rather than changing and growing as she faces challenges and makes choices, her true character is revealed to the other characters.
Although at the beginning of the play, Princess Zuleika protests that her authority in the harem is limited, functionally she is a placeholder for her father, the Sultan. The choices she makes and lessons she learns are therefore about how a ruler should behave. Zuleika goes through darkness and despair when she shoulders the responsibility of losing her brother and faces the inevitability of informing her father that Amurath is gone. Zuleika begins to grow in fitness to rule when she chooses to trust her instincts and believes Gulzara’s protestations of innocence despite the evidence to the contrary. She is faced with a final, more difficult test when after Amurath escapes and returns to the palace, his kidnapper, Aeysha also comes to confess her crime and take her punishment. Zuleika’s brother and her advisors beg the princess to show mercy, which she, at first is not inclined to do so.
Zul. Bid me reflect upon
The deed itself — my father’s agony —
My brother’s pain – I have no mercy left!
Aye. ‘Tis a fearful thing to die!
Zul. Is’t not more fearful to deserve to die?
Aye. Had even the noblest of frail mortals his
Deserts, oh, who would then escape rebuke?
Gentle Sultanna, pity my affliction.
Zul. No more, you would unpoised the righteous scales
Of Justice, I command you, peace!1
Finally, though, Gulzara persuades her with the following plea;
Gul. [advancing.] List, then
To mine! She to the dungeon you condemned –
Incarcerated for another’s crime –
Thrust ‘fore whose eyes anticipated death,
Beseeches you to let her suff’rings pass
As this repentant one’s, and pardon her.
Remember – Power, when robed in leniency,
Not strength, wears loveliest semblance when display’d
To pardon penitence, not punish guilt;
Bespeaks true nobleness of majesty!
And Justice finds her thongs oft powerless
To chasten hearts the smile of goodness wins
To imitate herself; then emulate,
In clemency to this your slave, the sway
Of pitying Heav’n, whose high prerogative
Most needed, most employed; is’t not to pardon?2
Zuleika proves herself an honorable ruler when she chooses to exercise mercy instead of exacting strict justice on Aeysha despite her own personal desires for revenge for Amurath’s kidnapping.
Even little Amurath grows and changes over the course of the play. He begins as a spoiled and impulsive young boy. Although charming and beloved, whenever someone opposes his will, Amurath runs, shouts, and does whatever he wanted to in the first place. When he is kidnapped by Aeysha, his first impulse is to yell variations on, “Stop kidnapping me, woman!” as in the following exchange;
Amu. Woman! what mean you by this frantic jest?
Let loose your hold!
Aye. You must with me!
Amu. With you!
And wherefore? Know you who I am? Woman!
It is the Sultan’s son you dare profane
By such rude grasp.3
When this approach proves singularly ineffective, he is forced to think. Instead of making demands, he decides to ask questions and learns Aeysha’s story. Amurath experiences many moments of despair, but keeps switching tactics until he escapes. He emerges from the experience more confident, but also more empathetic. The knowledge he has gained enables him to serve as advocate for Aeysha.
Amu. Yet freely from my heart
I do forgive her. If you sorrow’d much
In wanting me, then what her agony
When her loved son was rudely snatched away?4
Amurath’s exercise of empathy and forgiveness in turn aids his sister Zuleika on her journey to becoming a more fit and able ruler. The children of Suleiman jointly prove the worthiness of their line.
Fatima’s journey is not as dramatic, but she does have a change of heart over the course of the play. She is one of the Sultan’s wives. However, her real function in the play is that she speaks as a philosopher and serves as an advisor to Zuleika. Fatima seems to be a pragmatist with a cynical outlook. She casts doubt on Gulzara in the case of Amurath’s kidnapping because she cannot believe that Gulzara is motivated by anything other than a desire to be Suleiman’s top wife.
Even when Fatima encourages Zuleika to be hopeful, as she does in my favorite speech of the play, she does so with a fatalistic recognition that all hope is, at best, illusory.
Cherish that sun of a chaotic world.
When the dark future frights our weeping eyes,
Were’t not, kind Hope! for thy fictitious light,
That ‘lumines half its Memphian gloom, we’d long
For present death, to ‘scape the ills to come,
Which, energized by Hope, to bravely meet
Is to disarm.5
Although Mowatt nearly buries it in Victorian verbiage, is there a bleaker way to describe hope than to call it the sun of a chaotic world? A fictitious light in a Memphian gloom that energizes us to meet ills that might make us long for present death instead? Fatima’s practicality extends so far that she recommends relying on illusion when reality becomes too unpleasant to bear. Her outlook brightens when Amurath returns. She realizes that her perspective was in error and offers to atone by advocating for Aeysha. However, Zuleika refuses to listen to her. Fatima has no more long speeches for the rest of the play. This could indicate that Zuleika, the play’s representative of authority, has reached a point where she can no longer rely on theories and philosophies, but must take action. We don’t get a complete picture of how much Fatima’s perspective has evolved because the author has decided other characters’ stories are more important at this point.
The only character who does not fit into this pattern of change and growth is Katinka, the servant, who doesn’t have much to say other than to announce the other characters’ entrances and exits. Given the point in U.S. history in which the writing of this play occurred, Katinka’s lack of agency and character development is probably worth further exploration.
Perhaps the most dramatic transformation occurs in the play’s antagonist, Aeysha, the kidnapper. The stereotypical villain of a melodrama is a black-mustachioed baddie who does horrible things simply for the joy of being evil. Not so Aeysha. She is what we would today call a domestic terrorist. We learn that she is committing the evil act of kidnapping not for hope of gain or sheer sadism, but because she feels like she has been driven to it by the evil done by her ruler. She hates the dishonor of what she is doing and wants to turn back, but is caught up in the machinery of revenge as she explains in this monologue that occurs late in the play;
You cannot loath me as I hate myself,
Hate what I am, but mourn what I have been.
[Rising.] Princess! Six changeful moons ago, I would
Have started, horror-struck as thou, at thought
Of what hath so debased me now – but time
And despot circumstance work woeful change!6
She is in darkness and experiences despair when Amurath escapes. She begins a redemptive cycle when she chooses to take responsibility for her choices and turn herself in to Zuleika, although rationally she reasons there is no hope for her forgiveness.
Zuleika’s unexpectedly magnanimous act of clemency allows Aeysha to essentially be reborn. She returns not to a status identical to that she held at the beginning of the play, but rather she is restored to her state before the events of the play and yet still retains knowledge of her fall from grace. She has been redeemed in a near Christ-like act of un-earned mercy by Zuleika acting as an ideal ruler.
Aeysha struggled in darkness and despair as she sought revenge. When she admitted her error and acted honorably by taking responsibility for her actions, she was forgiven and redeemed.
As my increasing use of language tinged with religious overtones may have already alerted you, I feel that Mowatt was deploying the format of the well-made play to relay a message about morality. The rhetoric of the drama seems to warn strongly against the spiritually corrosive effect of vengeance on both the individual and the state. Moments of darkness and despair are the result of characters indulging their desire to exact harsh justice for a wrong committed against them or their inability to forgive. The romance plot that rewards all the characters with a happy ending can only be possible if both of the individuals exerting the most agency in the storyline — the antagonist and the ruler — act with extraordinary virtue and forswear their desire for revenge.
Anna Cora Mowatt’s “Gulzara” was by no means a perfect play. Both “Fashion” and “Armand” are much more polished creations. All of her works suffer in modern eyes from being one hundred and seventy some years out of context. However, this obscure melodrama, with its careful, jewel-like arrangement of intricately balanced facets of characters and events, deserves critical attention. Not only was the staging and publication of this parlor theatrical absolutely pivotal to Mowatt’s later career, the text itself is an intriguing specimen early Victorian compositional technique.
The vast majority of parlor theatricals did not launch successful playwriting and acting careers. “Gulzara” might be odd and old-fashioned by our standards, but it was a truly stunning creation for its day.
1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. “Gulzara.” The New World, Quarto Edition, v. II, no. 17, Whole Number 47, Saturday, April 24, 1841. Page 263, col. 2.
2. Ibid, page 260, col. 3.
3. Ibid, page 263, col. 2.
5. Ibid, page 262, col. 3.
6. Ibid, page 263, col. 2.