Anna Cora Mowatt, G.H. Lewes, and The (Silent) Noble Heart

[A full cast recording of George Henry Lewes’ “Noble Heart” is now available here.]

It looks now as if this blog entry will not be posted until mid-March, however I am writing it on the one hundred and seventy first anniversary of the performance of G. H. Lewes’ “The Noble Heart” at the Olympic Theatre in London starring Gustavus V. Brooke, E. L. Davenport, and Anna Cora Mowatt. For over a year now, the production of this melodrama has been occupying a nagging spot at the back of my brain. For me, the puzzle surrounding “Noble Heart” was not in the information I had about the show, but in the gaps where I felt information should be. Like the dog that didn’t bark in the night, the mystery around the production of G. H. Lewes’ play lay in the silence surrounding it.

After one hundred and seventy years, there’s a limited amount of surviving documentation available for any of the productions at the Marylebone or Olympic theaters under Walter Watts’ tenure as manager. Why did I expect “Noble Heart” to be an exception to this norm? First, because the playwright, George Henry Lewes is one of the few figures associated with Watts and the Olympic who has retained enough celebrity into this century to still be researched and written about. “Oh?” I can hear you saying dubiously as you search your memories of freshman English for any mention of a G.H. Lewes and come up blank. “Has he?” Yes, although he was quite accomplished in his own right, he is now known for having been the common-law husband of novelist, George Eliot (Marian Evans.) Yes, he’s that George Lewes. The connection to a world-famous author is sufficient to assure that the bulk of his correspondence was carefully preserved, his life is the subject of multiple biographies, and that all aspects of his astoundingly multi-faceted literary output have received careful critical attention. “The Noble Heart” was simultaneously his first hit as a dramatist and the last of his plays he ever allowed to be produced under his own name. There is no surviving commentary from Lewes explicating this curious departure point. In 1880, he published “On Actors and the Art of Acting.” These essays drew heavily on his experiences as a theatre-goer and drama critic in London of the 1840s. He makes reference to several of his acted/unacted plays throughout the book. However, there is no mention of “Noble Heart” at all. Of all the performers associated with the production, only G. V. Brooke gets a passing comment in half of one sentence.

G.H. Lewes
G.H. Lewes

The other source where I expected to find discussion of this performance is in Anna Cora Mowatt’s autobiography. It’s true that she did not describe each performance of her stay in London in detail. There are many she skips entirely. There are others that get less attention than one might expect. For example, Henry Spicer, who was quite important in London theatrical circles at that time, wrote the role of Cecile Howard in “The Witch-Wife” especially for her. The play was at least a moderate level hit. Despite this, Mowatt gives us only one, bare-bones paragraph on the production. She alludes to, but does not quote the highly complimentary dedication to her that Spicer included in the published copy of script.

It is also true that “Noble Heart” was mounted very near to the time when her play, “Fashion,” had its London debut. Understandably, “Fashion” gets the lion’s share of ink in that chapter. However, she does spend several pages describing her experiences starring in John Oxenford’s “Ariadne” which only ran for four nights. Like Oxenford, Lewes was a drama critic who consistently wrote glowing notices of productions at the Marylebone. Like Oxenford, Lewes was a person of note in London literary circles. Like Oxenford, Lewes had re-written the part of Juanna in his play to better shape the melodrama to be a star vehicle for Mowatt. Additionally, “Noble Heart” was the last full-scale production Watts launched at the Olympic before his arrest. It seems she would have some vivid memories connected with this production.

Anna Cora Mowatt as Juanna
Anna Cora Mowatt as Juanna

Mowatt gives “Noble Heart” one sentence in her autobiography. It reads as follows:

The first new play produced was the Noble Heart, by Mr. Lewes, in which Mr. Davenport, Mr. Brooke, and I sustained the leading characters.1

Reader, you surely can understand why I have been frustrated, disappointed, and a bit suspicious of this lack of first-hand commentary on the production of this perhaps not-otherwise-very-remarkable melodrama in the very eventful winter of 1850. Given the number of dead-ends the story of “Noble Heart” contains, I’ve not pursued it very vigorously before now. My interest is re-kindled at this point in time because I am starting the process of organizing a reading of the play for Librivox. My goal is to eventually build a catalogue of sound recordings of all the plays in which Mowatt appeared that are not otherwise easily accessible. I wish to do this in order to facilitate conversation about Mowatt and other Victorian performers. When I include reviews from the 1840s-50s that dissect how Mowatt played Shakespeare’s Rosalind or Juliet, this commentary is still intelligible because either we’ve all either already seen multiple versions of “As You Like It” and “Romeo and Juliet” and have formed our own ideas about how these roles can be/should be played or we can easily find filmed or recorded versions to review and use as a basis for our impressions. On the other hand, if I offer you commentary on how Mowatt portrayed Pauline in Bulwer-Lytton’s “Lady of Lyons,” it’s difficult for you to develop an equivalent frame of reference for this play that hasn’t been performed outside academic settings for around a hundred years. Silently reading plays is simply not equivalent to seeing or hearing them performed.

Playbill for "Noble Heart" 1850
Playbill for “Noble Heart” 1850

If Lewes is no stranger to you, you will know that most biographers simply dismiss “Noble Heart” as a bad play. They do not attach a great deal of significance to his silence surrounding the production or his decision to not have his name associated with his further products as a playwright. In support of this reading of the incident, writers typically dismiss positive reviews of the play and reports of enthusiastic audience response in favor of reproducing quotes from the most negative commentators. The typical approach of Lewes biographers is to frame “Noble Heart” as an artistic and critical failure that caused Lewes to abandon his ambitions as a playwright out of a sense of embarrassment or defeat. This interpretation of events – correct or not – comes from scholars writing after Lewes’ death. It does not come directly from Lewes.

The fact that “Noble Heart” seems like a bad play to modern readers is not an absolute indicator that a Victorian audience would find nothing to value or enjoy in this drama. Although – amazingly – today’s audiences can draw entertainment and enlightenment from productions of works written by Greek dramatists over two thousand years ago, theatre, like all forms of amusement, is full of fast-fading fads and trends. Time and taste has not been kind to Victorian melodrama. Writing that seemed the apex of wit and skill in the middle of the 19th century metamorphosed into the very definition of bad composition by the middle of the 20th century. Certifiable mega-hits of the 1840s such as “Lady of Lyons,” “The Stranger,” or “Black-Eyed Susan” tend to strike modern readers as being turgid and trite.

In addition to changes in the larger social context and conventions of dramatic composition, as I indicated earlier, most plays are not written to be read silently. Plays are far more skeletal works than novels or short stories. The beauty of the language and emotional dynamics of the situation often only become fully apparent when a dramatic work is voiced by a cast. It’s my hope that our recording of “Noble Heart” will help modern listeners re-discover the qualities that won it the applause of its original audience.

As I prepare for the project of restoring living voice to “Noble Heart,” I have found that I have been engaging in the sort of error in fitting G.H. Lewes’ timeline into the sequence of events in the winter of 1850 that I have occasionally disparaged on this blog in reference to misleading assumptions made about other historical persons and events. I have compressed and confused the dates of certain incidents in his personal life, which, I’ll explain in a moment, is fairly easy to do. Worse than that, I’ve been guilty of assuming that Lewes was regarded in the same light in the middle of the 19th century as he is at the beginning of the 21st. Between these two misinterpretations on my part, I think I may have found at least a partial explanation for the lack of commentary from Mowatt and Lewes on this play.

The crux of my misinterpretation of Lewes’ role in events lies in the very aspect of his life for which he is now known – his relationship with George Eliot. I was under the impression that the two were a couple in 1850. As I said, this is an understandable mistake. Lewes’ personal life is messy. There is a good amount of scholarly debate about exactly when the two transitioned from acquaintances to lovers. The period I’m looking at in which Lewes had a working relationship with Watts and the company of the newly renovated Olympic Theatre (January 7th to March of 1850) is probably too early for a meaningful Lewes/Eliot connection. The general consensus at the time of this writing does not put them together until 1851 with some saying the two could have started encountering each other in meetings and social circles without being introduced as soon as the spring of 1850.

A data point that is easier to verify is that Lewes’ marriage to Agnes Jervis was unravelling in the winter of 1850. Like James Mowatt, Lewes had taken a child bride. Jervis was only eighteen when they married. Lewes’ views on sexuality and relationships were atypical for his times. He was a believer in what was called “free love” and asked his wife for an open marriage. The arrangement seemed to work well enough for them until Agnes began a relationship with Lewes’ friend Thorton Hunt, son of the writer, Leigh Hunt. For some time, the situation still appeared to be cordial between the couple. Lewes accepted the two sons that Hunt fathered with his wife as his own. However, Lewes began to drift out of the relationship. By the winter of 1850, he was no longer living with his family.

Sketch of Lewes, his wife Agnes, and Thorton Hunt drawn by W. M. Thackery
Sketch of Lewes, his wife Agnes, and Thorton Hunt drawn by W. M. Thackery

We don’t know how he felt about this breakup or exactly when and how it occurred because he burned the bulk of his personal correspondence from these years. If you pause to reflect, this decision is understandable. George Eliot became enough of a celebrity during Lewes’ lifetime that he had to have realized that destroying these letters would be a sure way of protecting the privacy of his first family. Even the most amicable of breakups can be excruciatingly painful to those involved and typically entails the airing of long-term relational issues that are really none of the public’s damned business. Had he not burned them, these letters and their contents, no matter how private and painful to he, his first wife, their children, and their father, would become part of the fodder routinely munched through by the George Eliot scholastic industry to this day.

Unfortunately for my curiosity, Lewes’ purge also seems to have wiped out any correspondence he may have had with Walter Watts. The two could have met face-to-face for all their business dealings. Watts’ acceptance of “Noble Heart” did take place rapidly, as Lewes reports in his dedication to the play;

On the 7th of January I took the Play to Mr. Watts, and on the 28th all our arrangements were finally settled. Compare this promptitude with the system that retains a M.S. for twelve months, only to reject it at last!2

However, Lewes revised the play extensively for its London debut, cutting it from five acts to three and re-writing some roles to better suit the Olympic’s company of players. It seems like if this activity didn’t require correspondence with Watts and his creative staff, Lewes might have at least mentioned such intensive work in his letters to others. Lewes’ financial accounts show that Watts paid him promptly and well for his efforts. The playwright received £100 from the manager in February for two years of exclusive rights to productions of the play. This payment was well above the going rate (as was typical of Watts) and was Lewes’ highest earnings of the year.3 That sort of payday seems worth at least worth a mention in a postscript, doesn’t it?

It also seems reasonable that the excitement of a London debut and the opportunity to invite friends and acquaintances to the première would have generated a flurry of letters in late January and early February. There is an existing note in Charles Dickens’ correspondence saying that he could not come. Charlotte Bronte made mention in a letter of her excitement about obtaining a ticket to a performance. Watts probably would have given Lewes a certain number of comps to distribute among his associates. Lewes could have given out these free tickets in person, but it seems likely that he would have sent at least a couple through the post, doesn’t it?

In my opinion, the absence of correspondence from Lewes concerning “Noble Heart” in 1850 raises the following possibilities:

  • 1. There were never any letters that mentioned the production of this play because:
  • a. Lewes and Watts conducted all their business face-to-face
    b. “Noble Heart” production took place so rapidly that Lewes was too busy to write letters
    c. Lewes didn’t see events connected with production of the play worth mentioning in a letter
    d. Lewes was not a habitual or enthusiastic letter-writer during this time

  • 2. Any letters mentioning the production of “Noble Heart were destroyed because:
  • a. Production of the play overlapped with a sensitive period in the dissolution of his relationship with his first wife. Correspondence either brought back bad memories or contained passages regarding his family that he did not wish to become public.
    b. Lewes wished to avoid entanglement in the Watts Scandal.
    c. Lewes specifically feared the Globe Insurance Company might try to seize money he had been paid for “Noble Heart” or have him charged with knowingly being in receipt of stolen funds.

    I think all of these scenarios are plausible. Some are much more likely than others. It is also conceivable that there was a combination of the above explanations at work.

    As far as the lack of a mention in Anna Cora Mowatt’s autobiography goes, I think the unpleasantness in Lewes’ personal life may go far to explain that lacuna as well. It is true that Mowatt was a bit of a name-dropper. Lewes was a notable member of England’s intelligentsia as well as a drama critic and playwright who had been a friend to her. However, he was a controversial figure in the middle of one sex scandal when “Noble Heart” debuted in London in 1850 and had an even bigger one brewing when she published her autobiography. In 1854, George Eliot was still just plain Marian Evans, a journalist who had openly lived with several men –some of whom were married — with whom George Lewes, who could not/did not divorce his wife, Agnes, was regularly seen. She did not start publishing novels until 1858. There was no buffering aura of celebrity to ameliorate the hiss of scandal beginning to froth about the Eliot/Lewes relationship when Mowatt published her account of her years in London.

    George Eliot by Samuel Laurence
    George Eliot by Samuel Laurence

    An oft-repeated phrase that one will find in 19th and early 20th century biographical profiles of Mowatt is that she was never touched by the breath of scandal. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that because of Walter Watts, that assertion wasn’t precisely true. The more I study her autobiography, the more convinced I become that a major part of its hidden agenda was to combat attacks on her reputation rising from speculation about her possible connection to Watts. Given this rhetorical goal, it is easy to see why Mowatt might choose to de-emphasis a link to controversy-embroiled radical Lewes in favor of the safer choice of drawing attention to her ties to The Times’ John Oxenford, a dramatic critic and playwright of arguably greater contemporary celebrity in the early 1850s and far greater conventional respectability.

    In addition to Oxenford’s sterling reputation, Lewes’ “Noble Heart” simply has nothing in it to compare with the scene from “Ariadne” that Mowatt described in the opening of Chapter Nineteen of her autobiography. This rollercoaster of a chapter, which ends in her plunging in to a months-long fit of madness after she hears of Walter Watts’ arrest from which she only emerges when she is informed of his suicide, begins with her description of Ariadne’s death scene. She tells us of how Watts, his director, and his scenic designer came up with a complex, three-stage plan for creating the scene. Mowatt herself played the character at the bottom of the cliff and began Ariadne’s frenzied ascent. A chorus girl who resembled her completed the more dangerous section of the climb. Finally an identically costumed manikin was thrown from the peak by means of hidden springs. The audience, unaccustomed to this kind of special effects engineering, was aghast. Mowatt tells us;

    The illusion was so perfect that, on the first night of the representation, when Ariadne leaped the rock, a man started up in the pit, exclaiming, in a tone of genuine horror, “Good God! She is killed!”4

    Judging from how she chose to compose this chapter, other than her play “Fashion,” Mowatt’s strongest memories from the performances at the Olympic in those last tense weeks before Walter Watts’ arrest were from the short run of “Ariadne.” They are memories of a show that featured betrayal, despair, a clever plan from Watts that featured deception and doubles, and a swift and shocking suicide.

    Perhaps it’s not such a mystery that she forgot about “Noble Heart” after all.

    Anna Cora Mowatt and images of G.H. Lewes' "The Noble Heart"
    Anna Cora Mowatt and images of G.H. Lewes’ “The Noble Heart”

    1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Reed, and Fields: Boston, 1856) Page 321
    2. Lewes, George Henry. The Noble Heart. (London : Chapman and Hall, 1850.) Page iv.
    3. Ashton, Rosemary. G.H. Lewes: An Unconventional Victorian. (Oxford University Press, 1991) Page 100.
    4. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Reed, and Fields: Boston, 1856) Page 335.

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