Anna Cora Mowatt, Juanna, and the London Critics

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

Last week I began a survey of reviews of G.H. Lewes “Noble Heart” in its London première at the Olympic theater in February of 1850. The production starred Gustavus V. Brooke, E.L. Davenport and Anna Cora Mowatt. In the last blog, I gave the critics’ reports on audience’s reactions to the show as a whole and their discussion on the literary merit of the play. This week, I want to talk about their evaluations of the individual performances of the actors.

As I said in last week’s blog, the reviews of drama critics of this era tended to follow a four-part formula. A farce, pantomime, or one-act wouldn’t necessarily merit this full treatment, but a new play by a significant playwright typically received a review that included a) a full synopsis of the plot (spoilers be damned) b) evaluation of performances by the lead actors c) critique of the literary merits of the script and d) report of audience response (this usually included an estimate of attendance.) The critic might tick through these elements rapidly in two paragraphs, or string them out — as we saw The Era’s E.L. Blanchard do last time –into two or three columns.

G.H. Lewes
G.H. Lewes

The synopsis, an element which seems a little facile and even annoying today, was not there to give away the ending of every play to potential viewers. This rundown of events usually preceded the critique which primarily consisted of an evaluation of the narrative structure of the drama. Since “Noble Heart” had a very simple plot, most of the London critics pointed the lack of twists and subplots as a structural weakness. Preferences of the day and the way these reviewers constructed critiques guided them to believe that there needed to be a careful balance between the amount of dialogue and the amount of action. Despite the fact that audiences had loved the show, when they examined the structure, reviewers determined Lewes’ play was too dialogue-heavy. Or as the reviewer from Bell’s put it;

The great merit of Mr. Lewes’ tragedy consists in the clearness of his plan, and the sharpness with which he has defined his character and their mutual relations. The fault of the piece is an over-predilection for controversial dialogue. The personages often stand still to discuss when the audience wants them to act, and in one place there is a regular debate on the comparative merits of the world and the cloister, which becomes somewhat fatiguing.1

I argue that today, we would immediately recognize that a playwright who streamlined action in favor of character development was signaling a genre-switch and that critics would respond to by discussing the message the play was trying to address. Lewes temporarily halts the forward motion of the second act to have a debate between Don Gomez and Herman, the monk, because he wants to talk about faith’s impact on morality. He has a father and son compete for the same woman because he wants the viewers to contemplate the complexities of human sexual desire. He sets the play in Spain during the wars with the Moors because he wanted to intensify the economic and social divisions between his characters with further tensions and distrusts springing from racial and cultural biases. He gives his upper-class male protagonists painful agency over the middle class heroine who is the object of their desire in a way that is damaging to them all to because he wants his audience to think about the implications of a similar social hierarchy in their own country.

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

In my opinion, Lewes wanted to create situations in this play where his characters would have to make difficult choices in a manner designed to cause his audiences to reflect on philosophical questions and socio-cultural issues. I think he wanted listeners to engage with the characters’ debate for an honorable solution to crisis points in the plot rather than simply be entertained by their suffering in the typical manner of melodrama.

[Let me briefly halt the forward motion of this blog to say the following:
THEATRE STUDENTS – Here are four paper topics for you: Sex, Faith, Race, and Class in G.H. Lewes “Noble Heart.” Don’t be greedy. Pick one. One is more than enough for a twenty-page paper, I assure you. I know you. I have been you. Although I have covered the information briefly in a previous blog, once your dramatic little self reads the facts of Lewes’ life and works on your own, you’re going to fill up at least the first four to six pages just hyperventilating about his bio.
MASTERS STUDENTS LOOKING FOR A PRODUCTION THESIS – “Noble Heart” is public domain. It hasn’t been put on stage in Lord knows how long plus fifteen years. Take it with all its weird, Victorian-Gothic language and potentially problematic moments and just frolic. Lewes was a Freudian from before Freud was born who believed in free love and was besties with Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackery, and George Sand (Yes. George Sand AND George Eliot. Both the Georges.) Imagine what the playwright might have done with no censor standing over his shoulder. Go wild. Lewes will be smiling at you.]

The London critics were very resistant to discussing the issues Lewes’ script attempts to address. The only hints we get of the extent to which audiences may have been moved by the playwrights’ arguments occur, I believe, in descriptions of the actors’ performances such as the Sun’s description of G.V. Brooke’s Don Gomez;

The Gomez of Mr. G.V. Brooke is one of the most powerful pieces of acting ever seen. The whole of the last scene was sublime. Never has the agony of wounded pride, of outraged affection, and of disappointed love more vividly, more heartrendingly depicted, than by Mr. G.V. Brooke in the scene immediately following the discovery of his wife’s supposed in fidelity, and never has the hurricane of rage, the madness of concentrated fury been more powerfully delineated than by Mr. G. V. Brooke in the scene which immediately follows with Don Leon. It is only equaled by Edmund Kean’s last scene in Sir Giles Overreach. The contrast between the torrent of passion in these scenes and the touching pathos and tenderness of the closing scene which immediately follows was appreciated by Mr. G.V. Brooke with the taste of a scholar and rendered with the genius of a poet.2

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

On the other hand, this critic’s description may indicate that Lewes’ eloquent rhetoric was seized upon by the tragedian as an opportunity to showcase his histrionic skills. The actor was quite a showman with a magnificent voice and a commanding stage presence. The reviewer from The Era described Brooke’s performance as if the tragedian were movingly speaking classic verse;

Mr. Brooke had evidently studied with great care the character he represented, for that he perfectly understood, and even felt, it was transparent. We were gratified to find that this extraordinary actor has made great progress towards the recovery of his voice – a splendid organ in its natural state. He is the best elocutionist the stage possesses, and of this we feel confident. He spoke the well-written and pointed passages of the text with great precision and effect. There was a loftiness of style and a dignity of delivery observed by him peculiarly in keeping with the part – and when he spoke in the wildness of love, or anger, or despair, or disgust – for he had all these sentiments, and more than these to depict – he was equally true to his author. Some of his more delicate touches, too, were remarkably effective – such as his struggle between his pride and love, and afterwards his efforts to subdue his pique, when his affection for his son, whom he admired so much, checked his resentment upon finding that he would not meet his newly made mother-in-law, an objection and a disobedience which he attributed to pride of his own cultivating. His doubts, upon suing for Juanna’s hand – his manly regard and his princely gallantry – his description of himself, and his consciousness of the dissimilarity of years between them – all these were represented with the skill of an artist of first-rate talent, and the genius we hope to see ripen into that perfection which our Stage lacks, and obtaining that commendation which is flung in heaps upon impostors and quacks, because, forsooth, the best, whatever they be, must have support.3

In 1850, all three of the lead players in the Olympic production would read as possessing a certain degree of cultural Other-ness to their English audience. Brooke was Irish. Davenport and Mowatt were Americans. Although the differences may have been slight and despite the fact that Brooke and Mowatt came from privileged backgrounds, each would probably have had physical and vocal mannerisms that marked them as colonials. This, along, with the exotic, foreign setting of the play, may have been enough to give the production a certain leeway in expressing extreme emotions and sensuality more freely. One critic said;

The language throughout is powerful, and, when need requires, passionate, an occasional appearance of bombast being by no means inconsistent with the Spanish atmosphere in which the action takes place.4

A Victorian wouldn’t have dreamed of saying Anna Cora Mowatt was “sexy” in her role as Juanna, but several emphasized that she was very “feminine” in her portrayal.

…Mrs. Mowatt was; as usual, feminine and full of feeling.5

This quote also contains the word that appears with the second greatest frequency when the critics were describing Mowatt’s performance. Many mentioned that she playing the role with a notable degree of “feeling” as in the following;

Mrs. Mowatt played the part of Juanna with great sweetness and feeling.6

I think it may be safe to assume that the compliments on Mowatt’s depth of “feeling” have to do with the emotional intensity she was able to achieve in the role. It is somewhat less readily apparent to what the “poetry” themed comments like the following may refer;

…the dreamy sorrow of the lady were beautifully and poetically rendered by Mrs. Mowatt…7

Or this;

…Mrs. Mowatt’s Juanna was full of tenderness and beauty – it was an embodied poem.8

Fortunately, our voluble friend from The Era decided to be a little more specific about what the reviewers liked so much about her performance.

Mrs. Mowatt’s part was one of many difficulties, all of which she mastered with becoming ease. She had to depict the strife between love and duty – the passion which will not be conquered and the virtue which will not be betrayed – and she acquitted herself admirably, delivering many striking passages so as to obtain spontaneous plaudits.9

In other words, he is saying that the most compelling thing about her performance was that she was able to win the audience’s sympathy in highly emotionally charged scenes of a passionate young woman caught up in the complexities of a situation where she’s forced to choose between love and honor. She won their hearts. As Don Gomez and Don Leon do in the narrative, the audience became caught up in her dilemma and fell a little in love with her.

Anna Cora Mowatt as Juanna
Anna Cora Mowatt as Juanna

As I examine roles that English playwrights wrote or re-wrote for Anna Cora Mowatt, I find that they typically preferred to cast her as a spirited ingénue who followed the commands of her heart over the strictures of conventional society. Perhaps because she was an American, perhaps because of her own personal charisma, and perhaps because of a combination of both factors, they found her convincing as a slightly naïve, charming, stubborn rebel with a sweet, innocent sensuality. I think this quality was the source of what we would today call her sex appeal.

Victorians, of course, did not overtly discuss performers’ sex appeal. They would consider the topic unspeakably vulgar. However, I think it’s clear that the critics’ mention of Mowatt’s “femininity” in the role of Juanna is a coded manner of praising her sexual attractiveness. The critics’ use of the word “passion” serves to draw attention to the sensuality with which she imbues a character who is the object of sexual desire of the two main male protagonists.

The portrayal of Juanna’s sensuality is critical to the communication of “Noble Heart’s” rhetorical message, I think, because if the character of Juanna is not believably desirable, the tension in the play falls flat. It seems clear from the reviews that the audience believed that the characters of Don Gomez and Don Leon were torn in the agonies of love for Juanna as she was portrayed by Anna Cora Mowatt. These critiques can also lead one to suspect that a few of these reviewers were a little smitten with the actress themselves.

Anna Cora Mowatt as Juanna
Anna Cora Mowatt as Juanna

All right, reader, let me level with you. After two blog entries where I have provided you with many astounding facts of G.H. Lewes’ life and a record number of quotes from primary sources – some of them mind-boggling in their length – let me present you with my grand theory on why we have such a seeming contradiction in the opinions expressed by the London critics. Why, after having scolded him about the flimsiness of his plot and rolling their eyes about his propensity to lecture them about religion and class and set up uncomfortable father/son dynamics, did they give G.H. Lewes’ play standing ovations, beg him to walk across the stage to take a bow, then come back every night for two weeks to see the damn thing over and over?

I believe G.H. Lewes wanted to create a provocative, thoughtful play in the style of Corneille, Racine and the French theatre he so admired. The critics persisted in thinking that the script needed to be like the bulk of English melodramas with stock characters moving through a fast-paced plot. However, Lewes’ talky script gave the performers more material to help make the three main characters more real for the audience. Listeners had time to fully engage with the agonized love triangle at the heart of the drama. Brooke, Mowatt, and Davenport used the slower pace and Lewes’ sensual language to make the aging, tortured Don Gomez, the passionate, honorable Juana, and the impulsive, proud Don Leon, vivid and present for the audience in a way that the fast moving and sometimes chaotically unpredictable plots of melodrama didn’t usually allow.

In short, I think folks liked 1850’s “Noble Heart” because the show was pretty darn sexy.

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of G.H. Lewes' "Noble Heart" 1850
Anna Cora Mowatt and images of G.H. Lewes’ “Noble Heart” 1850

1. “The Drama.” Bell’s Life in London, Saturday February 24, 1850. Page 8, col. 3.
2. The Sun, February 19, 1850. Page 5, col. 5.
3. “Olympic.” The Era. February 24, 1850. Page 11, col. 3.
4. “The Drama.” Bell’s Life in London, Saturday February 24, 1850. Page 8, col. 3.
5. The Lady’s Newspaper, February 25, 1850, page 109, col. 1
6. “Theatres and Music.” John Bull. February 25, 1850. Page 123, col. 2.
7. “The Drama.” Bell’s Life in London, Saturday February 24, 1850. Page 8, col. 3.
8. The Sun, February 19, 1850. Page 5, col. 5.

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