Anna Cora Mowatt, Noble Heart, and the London Critics

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

In the winter of 1850, G. H. Lewes was a noted, if controversial, member of London’s intelligentsia. Walter Watts was a bold, young, theatrical manager, spending tons of cash as he tried to break into the big leagues of the city’s theatrical scene after moving his company from the Marylebone to the Olympic. No knew in February that in March Watts would be arrested. No member of the audience who vigorously applauded Lewes as author of “Noble Heart” realized that this would be both the first and last play he would publicly acknowledge as his own work. For that moment in mid-February of 1850, Watts, Lewes, and the stars of “Noble Heart” at the Olympic – G.V. Brooke, E.L. Davenport, and Anna Cora Mowatt – were engaged in an exciting theatrical experiment. Giving the project the attention it was due, the London reviewers trained their critical eyes upon it.

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

Lewes was the Victorian version of the Renaissance Man. He wrote articles on everything from the natural sciences to philosophy. Acting in his capacity as drama critic, his reviews were long and thoughtful. When it was his turn on stage, his fellow reviewers returned the favor and wrote lengthy, considered critiques on “Noble Heart.” Therefore, I am rather frustrated by the abbreviated, sometimes quite misleading quotes that biographers select when reporting reactions to the production. The reviews of the London critics from 1850 can typically be broken down into four basic elements:

1. General evaluation of the production and its reception by the audience
2. Synopsis of the plot
3. Critique of the script and its literary merits
4. Evaluation of the actors’ performance

I will spare you the plot synopses. Discussion of the actors will wait until next week so we can better focus on Anna Cora Mowatt’s performance (This blog is actually about her, you know.) For now, let us look at two elements that I feel that biographers often fail to separate appropriately – their reports of audience reaction and their personal critiques of the literary merit of Lewes’ script.

George Henry Lewes
George Henry Lewes

A primary point that I want to emphasize is that all the reviewers reported that audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The following description from the Daily News is typical:

The reception of the play was most favorable; the applause was constant during the performance, and its close was followed by all the usual marks of approbation.1

Despite the controversial aspects of “Noble Heart,” viewers at the London première accorded Lewes an unusual honor;

At the conclusion, the piece was applauded and the author called for. “The Noble Heart” was decidedly and deservedly successful.2

Although standing ovations for playwrights have become de rigueur in debut performances on Broadway or the West End today, they were still rare in 1850. Along with note of this exceptional mark of approbation, critics praised, as they consistently had done when reviewing productions at the Marylebone, the excellent work done by Walter Watts and his creative team in concocting a gorgeous mise en scene for the drama;

The piece was mounted in the most perfect manner, the scenery was beautiful, and the costumes superb; the bridal procession was gorgeous. The principle artistes were called before the curtain at the conclusion, and there were loud calls for the author, who walked across the stage, and was greeted with loud applause. The house was exceedingly well attended.3

Not only was the initial week of the play successful, the reviewer from The Lady’s Newspaper who returned for a second viewing in the extended run, tells us;

“The Noble Heart,” of which on a former occasion we spoke in high terms, improves upon repetition, and gives both Mr. Brooke and Mr. Davenport great scope for showing off their talents to advantage.4

To summarize, in February of 1850, there was a consensus among the London reviewers that “Noble Heart” was a fascinating, skillfully performed, and beautifully produced drama. Audiences enjoyed it. Period.

The second week of March, all Hell broke loose in the London theatre world when Walter Watts was arrested. The scandal expanded for breathless months as his trials dragged on into the summer. Details of Watts’ financial misdeeds and double life were revealed at a torturously slow pace. Speculation ran rampant to fill in the gaps in information. At one point, several papers floated what proved to be false rumors that Watts might even be the head of an extortion ring shaking down small business owners in the theatre district. Anna Cora Mowatt had suffered what in that day was termed a “brain fever” and resided incommunicado with E.L. Davenport and Fanny Vining. Not even her dying husband was allowed to see her. G.V. Brooke, suddenly without Walter Watts to pay off his mounting debts, found himself in bankruptcy court. He escaped being sent to debtor’s prison only by a judge’s indulgence.

Gustavus V. Brooke, 1851
Gustavus V. Brooke, 1851

Memories of the production of “Noble Heart” soured as the reputations of many involved with it became tarnished by association with the spreading scandal around Watts. Therefore it is possible to find the very same people who declared the play a triumph in February recording it a failure in December. By the 1880s and 90s, theatre folk recalling the episode call the play a disaster, Watts an incompetent, and remember Anna Cora Mowatt as “Miss Muffat.” [Moral: Check the dates on the quotes you collect and take these later accounts with a big grain of salt.]

I, however, am asking you to forget for the moment about that disastrous March and just look at the evidence of February. “Noble Heart” was a hit. Walter Watts paid G.H. Lewes £100 for exclusive performance rights for the show for two years in advance. This down-payment is a good indication that the manager meant to bring the drama back for few more weeks of performance later in the season – perhaps to be featured near the high-attendance Easter weeks as he had done with Anna Cora Mowatt’s successful “Armand.”

The next element of the London reviews are the critics’ evaluations of “Noble Heart’s” literary merit. To readers today, this play might not seem very unique. However, in 1850, it was unusual in a number of ways. In that era when melodrama was king, writers tended to favor the creation of complex plots over in-depth character development. In recent blogs, I have pointed out how Eugene Scribe’s well-made play formula guided Anna Cora Mowatt’s “Gulzara” and how Walter Watts’ “Which is the King?” conformed to traditional commedia del’arte scenarios. Both of these scripts are products of compositional choices typical of the period. Both plays are plot-driven. A synopsis of what happens — even in Watts’ one-act – requires at least a fat paragraph. Lewes’ “Noble Heart,” in contrast, is character-driven. Although it lasts three acts, one can sufficiently summarize the action of plot in one sentence.

G. H. Lewes, with his interest in physiology and philosophy, was writing articles that would prepare the ground for what would eventually become the field of psychology. “Noble Heart” has more in common with the sort of “problem plays” that Ibsen and Shaw would be writing at the end of the 19th century than it does with hits of the 1840s such as Bulwer-Lytton’s “Lady of Lyons” or Planche’s “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady.” Even though Sigmund Freud wouldn’t be born for six more years, at the heart of the play is a classic Freudian struggle between father and son attracted to the same woman. The following issues aren’t directly addressed in any of the reviews of the play, but despite being set in 16th century Spain, the drama deals with issues of sexual attraction that cross boundaries of race and class that reflected realties of 19th century England. Although played by white actress Anna Cora Mowatt, the character of Juanna is a person of color. She is a merchant’s daughter whose motivations are doubted by her noble-blooded lovers at critical junctures because she is not of their caste.

Anna Cora Mowatt as Juanna
Anna Cora Mowatt as Juanna

As typically happens when presented with a genre-buster, critics pondered how to classify this new specimen. The reviewer from John Bull went about this task with the specificity of a collector pinning a newly captured species of butterfly onto a velvet board;

Though denominated a tragedy, it belongs rather to the class of “comedie larmoyante;” for though it is full of sentimental distress, it contains no tragic incidents, and closes with a happy denouement.5

Critics were unaccustomed to plays where characters stood around talking about their feelings rather than being constantly ping-ponged from one hyper-dramatic event from the next to another as if they were in an action/adventure movie or a telenovela. The script felt a little too static. There didn’t seem to be a good balance between thought and action. The Lady’s Newspaper cautioned;

Beautiful language will not carry through a play. Action on the stage is as much, if not more, required than finely-turned passages.6

The reviewer from John Bull seems to think adding more plot twists and having the characters talk less (in other words, being more like other conventional melodramas) would help.

These few incidents, in which there is no novelty, are insufficient to furnish matter for a play of no inconsiderable length. The consequence is, that the quantity of speech is out of all proportion to the quantity of action. The dialogue is loaded with reflections, sentiments, and arguments on general subjects, which have the slightest possible relation to the business of the scene, and which therefore only obstruct the current of the action, and create impatience, because, though often in themselves very good, and sometimes expressed in striking and poetical language, they are felt to be obtrusive and out of place.7

Although Lewes had cut the play from five acts to three for the London production, other critics suggested that given the lack of action, that the play might be better if it were shorter.

The fault of the play is, that the incidents are not sufficient to afford matter for three acts of more than ordinary length and that consequently a great deal of the dialogue consists of reflection and interchange of sentiment. Hence, notwithstanding the elegance of the language throughout, and frequently its great poetical beauty, impatience is produced by the action so often standing still. Considered as a dramatic poem, it would be less liable to this objection, and we have no doubt that it would be even more pleasing in the closet than on the stage.8

The above is a good example of the danger of divorcing a quote from its context. Although the comment reads as rather negative in isolation, it is embedded in a review that has a positive overall tone. “Noble Heart” would have been much more at home on the French stage where works by Racine and Corneille dominated rather than on the English where Shakespeare and Sheridan were preferred. In today’s terms, the reaction of the London critics to “Noble Heart” was somewhat comparable to the response you might receive if you convinced a friend who was fond of superhero movies to watch an art film. “That was really, really good,” they might say. “But the pace dragged in spots, it could have been less boring, and the cg was crap.”

Actor E. L. Davenport, 1851
Actor E. L. Davenport, 1851

I think I’ve made my point, but I have to include one more reaction. The reviewer from The Era – probably E.L. Blanchard, who was himself a prolific playwright and simply adored giving unsolicited (but often very good) advice to other writers – took the opportunity to lecture Lewes about the importance of being concise at great length with a Polonius-like lack of self-consciousness;

Excision is all that is wanted to make this tragedy a very charming and a very attractive production. As a matter of sheer necessity, its exuberance, which sometimes reaches downright verbosity, must be taken away; so what we are about to say in reference to one particular and prevailing fault, will not apply to the piece now. The author is known to be deeply read in French and Spanish plays, and has evidently gathered his materials from the latter school, and fashioned them according to what he apparently deems the beauties of the former – we mean the classic compositions of those whom Voltaire, their countryman, lauded and imitated, and preferred to Shakespeare! – the works of Corneille and Racine, who bowed to the rules of Aristotle and the three unities. Mr. Lewes is, we opine, more a poet than a dramatist. “Let him be answered,” said Dr. Johnson in reply to Voltaire, who termed our immortal Bard vulgar, and wondered that his extravagances should be endured by a nation that had seen Addison’s Cato, “Let him be answered, that Addison speaks the language of poets, and Shakespeare of men.” “But,” says one of our greatest modern critics in one of the numbers of last year’s Edinburgh Review, “this epigram was void of sense and truth,” adding, “The secret of Shakespeare’s success is, that his representations of nature are more vivid and lifelike than those of Addison; and from what does this vividness arise, but from the intensity of poetic power and the brightness of the medium through which it passes? That medium is style. Had Shakespeare spoken the language only of men, as distinguished from that of poets, he would never have delighted thousands upon thousands of all ranks and characters.”
The stage is more for action than for talk, and the error which was condemned in France a hundred years, ago, Mr. Lewes has fallen into now, for he makes his personages preach as though they were in pulpits. Business – stage business is made to stand still, that individuals may deliver fine sentiments; indeed, truth is withheld that a hero may rave in error. “Why don’t he communicate a simple fact?” is a question that rises to the mind of the spectator while he sees characters accusing others falsely, and provokingly retarding the natural progress of the tragedy. And this fine writing which was thus forced upon us, and which was since been lopped away, was not all alike remarkable for its originality of though or expression. Such composition as much of it is might be bought in these days at a penny a line, and to any extent, so Mr. Lewes must not regret the “sacrifice” he has been compelled to make. At the same time we must admit that many rare gems shone conspicuously among the mass of verbiage that tried our patience and endangered the success of the tragedy. There is something more than mere polish in his dialogue, and the hearty bursts of applause that din not prevail in the gallery were tributes to talents of a high order, and acknowledgements of beauties worthy any pen.9

And that, Dear Reader, is how one Victorian tells another, in three hundred words or less, that he needs to move things along.

Actually, the Era’s reviewer’s remarks do reveal that the psychological aim of the play was missing the mark at least at least in the case of that auditor. Rather than seriously listening to the characters struggle with forbidden desires and ignoble impulses, this listener took their internal debates to be a foregone conclusion that only slowed the pace of the play. For him (and probably many audience members) there was only one, obvious, correct, moral choice. If Lewes’ characters were fit protagonists, they would take the path of conventional ethics. Any resistance was just pretense.

We are now starting to stray into discussion of “Noble Heart’s” characters and how they were brought to life by the actors of the Olympic. That’s for next week!

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

1. “The Olympic.” Daily News. February 19, 1850, Page 7, col 3.
2. “The Drama.” The Lady’s Newspaper. February 25, 1850, page 109, col. 1.
3. “Olympic Theatre.” The Sun, February 19, 1850. Page 5, col. 5.
4. “The Drama.” The Lady’s Newspaper. March 3, 1850. Page 121, col. 3.
5. “Theatres and Music.” John Bull. February 25, 1850. Page 123, col. 2.
6. “The Drama.” The Lady’s Newspaper. February 25, 1850, page 109, col. 1.
7. “Theatres and Music.” John Bull. February 25, 1850. Page 123, col. 2.
8. “The Olympic.” Daily News. February 19, 1850. Page 7, col 3.
9. “Olympic.” The Era. February 24, 1850. Page 11, col. 3.

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