DAVENPORT, THE ACTOR
Had she not taken on Edward Loomis Davenport as an acting partner in the fall of 1846, the tale of Anna Cora Mowatt’s professional and personal life would have unfolded in an entirely different manner. He not only served as an excellent co-star, but was a loyal friend for the rest of her years. Although E.L. Davenport’s name pops up frequently in these blog entries, I have not, thus far, devoted the time and space to him that he really deserves. I want to do a little to correct that this week and next, looking first at Davenport’s assets as an actor and then sharing a few of the many anecdotes I’ve collected that reveal his personality.
Davenport was the son of an innkeeper. He was slightly older than Mowatt — born in 1816 in Boston. The actor was well-loved by audiences of that city throughout his career. Davenport got his start on the stage in a small company in Providence, RI at the age of twenty-five. Before that, he had some training as a singer. This was an unusual secondary specialty for a tragedian in the 1840s, but a useful one. As I have probably reminded you an annoying number of times now, melodramas were originally a form of musical theatre. This trend had largely died out by mid-century, but there were some old favorites still in circulation (primarily maritime dramas) that incorporated songs. In the early days of their partnership, when Mowatt and Davenport would make a stop at a city in the U.S. that did not have a theater, the two would put together an evening’s program of entertainment consisting of Mowatt giving recitations of poetry and Davenport singing ballads. Later in his career, when he was the manager of his own theater, for special benefit performances or if a bill was running short for some reason, Davenport sometimes sang between shows to the delight of his audiences.
One unusual descriptor that contemporaries used to describe Davenport’s acting style and that you may see in the quotes I present here is the word “soft.” The 1830s and 40s were the heyday of Edwin Forrest and Edwin Booth in the U.S. In England, popular tragedians had developed a highly presentational style that was almost operatic in nature. These performers utilized expansive, showy gestures and a speaking style that strove to incorporate their entire vocal range from basso to falsetto. The impact of these actors could hardly be captured by using terms that were at all gentle. Discussing Davenport’s performance technique in 1868 when such melodramatic flares had gone out of fashion, one critic said;
The merit of Mr. Davenport’s acting is that it is natural. Of the so called natural school there is much nonsense written in this day, and there are many actors professing to belong to it who really outrage nature continually. They suppose that to be natural one must always be quiet and subdued. This is a great mistake. Nature is often violent, passionate, and extravagant. At Wallack’s theatre in New York – and it deserves all its reputation – this school of acting has become a mannerism and it is having a perceptible effect on good theatrical companies everywhere. So far as this influence results in good scenery, careful reading, strict attention to details etc. it is to be commended; but it has another tendency, of which progressive actors should beware. This is to bring down dramatic art to a commonplace level. You must not reduce poetry and passion to the standard of modern society, and this is just what the false natural school is doing. Because Smith, when his wife runs away with Jones, is tranquil and does nothing that might subject him to the penalties of the law is no reason why Othello would not plot Cassio’s death and murder Desdemona. Yet there are actors who fancy that it is unnatural to show furious and unreasoning passion; who are afraid to dare great points lest critics should say they rant; who drag down all great exceptional characters they have to play a Dead Sea level of tameness and commonplace-ness. But a character that is a like a wild cat ought not to be played like a pet kitten….
But though Mr. Davenport’s general habit of acting is quiet, he has not fallen into this increasing error. He has not forgotten the words that Shakespeare has given Hamlet; “Nay, na’ thoul’t mouth; I’ll rant as well as thou.” When the situation requires it, Mr. Davenport can be almost as demonstrative as Forrest or Booth, though he lacks the power of the one and the electrical outbursts of the other. In Sir Edward Mortimer and Sir Giles Overreach he has a stile altogether different from that of his Rover or William. How fine are Sir Giles’ scenes with his daughter, and how true to nature the whole of the last act! Indeed, no one but an artist of very high powers and a close student of character could successfully perform the great variety of parts in which Mr. Davenport appeared last week. Yet almost all were of equal merit in their way. His William was as complete in itself as his Hamlet, and his Rover as natural as his Damon. Now that Murdoch has retired. Mr. Davenport is almost the only great actor we have in whom the opposite powers of tragedy and comedy are united, and who seems to be equally beloved by Thalia and Melpomene. Forrest is funny only in tragedy and Edwin Booth is purely a serious actor, whose only success in comedy is the sardonic humor of such characters as Iago and Ruy Blas. But in all that he does, Davenport is at home; easy, graceful, and unrestrained; giving with equal absence of effort the melancholy of Hamlet and the exuberant gaiety of Rover.1
Working in New York as a young actor in the 1840s in the days before his partnership with Mowatt, Davenport always carried the reputation of being a hard-working professional who was well-liked by his peers. However, he had a difficult time gaining the sort of attention that would allow him to advance to the ranks of stardom. He worked steadily and rarely got bad notices, but, perhaps because his approach to performing was not as flashy as Forrest or Booth, he never seemed to break through to the top ranks of the profession. In a situation that was typical for his career at that time, while Mowatt was playing Pauline in “Lady of Lyons” at the elite Park Theatre in May of 1846, Davenport was playing Claude Melnotte in a production of the same play to a much more downscale audience across town at the Bowery Theatre.
When the two joined forces, some New York critics were dubious of Davenport’s sudden promotion. After viewing “Romeo and Juliet” at the Park, one reviewer haughtily sniffed that the actor was “not as yet qualified to represent the important characters in which his has appeared on the boards of the theatre of the Union.”2 This state of affairs did not last long, though. Mowatt was preparing for a European tour. She was taking private lessons from J.W.S. Hows, an English emigre, a professor of elocution, and the drama critic for The Albion. There is no documentation to verify whether Davenport also studied with Hows, was tutored by Mowatt, or simply adjusted his performance style to a manner compatible with his refined and ladylike partner. However observers marked a rapid improvement in his stage technique and elocution. Within six months, critics went from giving tepid approval of his Romeo to enthusiastically applauding him in the arguably more challenging role of Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.”
When Mowatt and Davenport returned from their tour of the South in 1847, critics in the North began to speak of the actor in the same breath as Forest, Booth, Murdoch, Wallack, and other leading men of the day. Mowatt quickly set about writing a play that she felt would showcase her and her partner’s most winning qualities. An obituary written by an English writer summarizes those assets;
Mr. Davenport was one of the greatest actors of our times. He appeared to us, notwithstanding his age, even as late as a year ago, to be the most perfect tragic actor. A contemporary says: “Nature endowed him with a tall and stately person, a face of much beauty and regularity of feature, and a voice sonorous and varied. He was not an actor of the old school, as some have recently called him, but, on the contrary, emancipated himself almost entirely from its influence. With him there were not tedious sing-song inflections of the voice for the sake of emphasizing the rhythm, no melodramatic starts and snorts – all was quiet, effective, natural, and artistic. He was a great master of elocution, and his pronunciation was absolutely faultless, and utterly free of pedantry. To these artistic qualities, he added a character in private life of high integrity and worth. Dignified, simple, honest, and courteous, he was widely respected and much beloved. His life was an illustration to his profession, and his death is a loss to art and to society.”3
The star vehicle Mowatt created for herself and Davenport was “Armand.” She cast her tall, good-looking partner with his pleasant, melodious voice as a romantic, brave, sincere hero with working-class origins. Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic loved the play and Davenport in the role. The following reminiscence of a loyal patron of Boston’s Howard Athenaeum recorded in 1886 touches on the English reaction to Davenport;
Mrs. Mowatt took Mr. Davenport to Europe just in the right time. The English public saw at once what we had been in danger of forgetting at home, his consummate ability. They praised him more than they did Mrs. Mowatt and they sent him home with a reputation far ahead of what he had here, but not a whit in advance of his deserts. Edward L. Davenport was unlucky or misjudging in all his theatrical career. Instead of spending his time in a second-class stock company, he should have been recognized as a star as promptly as was Forest or Edwin Booth, and he ought to have made as much money as either of them. His talent is even yet not appreciated. He was second to no actor our country has produced in versatility surpassed every actor in any country I ever saw. There seemed to be nothing he could not play, and no man played so many parts that he played more than well. Some hold that his versatility was his bane – that he failed to concentrate himself to a degree that was necessary to success. As it was, every appreciative theatregoer always spoke of him with unstinted praise, but the houses he attracted never began to compare with those of actors immeasurably his inferior. Davenport was the best Hamlet on the stage, yet people would crowd the houses of the romantic Edwin Booth, and leave the other artist neglected. He was nearer the elder Booth in achievement as Sir Giles Overreach than was his son, but the people would not appreciate the fact. As a light comedian, he had no superior. I saw him play Mephistopheles one, and the Devil fairly pranced before me and his Bill Sikes was so real that the house would fairly rise up and threaten him.4
I don’t know if I can agree with the writer that Davenport was actually more popular in London than Mowatt. Edwin Forrest was very much out of favor with the English public in 1847 because of his feud with William Macready. Feelings about Forrest prejudiced many critics and theater-goers view of what an “American” acting style looked like. Davenport and Mowatt were not at all like Forrest in either stage presence or off-stage personality. Both were on good terms with Macready. However, the two performers had to win over the London theatre world and establish that they weren’t like Forrest before they could gain acceptance.
After the Watts Scandal broke in 1850, there was less toxic fallout for Davenport because he was not romantically linked to Walter Watts. Mowatt, newly widowed and the subject of vicious gossip, had little choice but to return to the U.S. and re-start her career. Because of that decision, there would always be the lingering impression for some that her entire stay in London had been marred by failure. In contrast, Davenport was able to remain in England, weather the scandal, return to the stage, and build upon his and Mowatt’s previous successes.
Because Davenport was married to Fanny Vining, he was now connected to of one of England’s acting dynasties. This would have all sorts of benefits for him and later his children. As just one example, respected actor, J.W. Wallack was now his cousin. The two would manage a theater together when they later travelled back to the U.S.
While still in England, Davenport toured with Macready, getting a chance to play Brutus to his Cassius in “Julius Caesar.” He was in some popular stage adaptations of Dickens’ novels. The actor even starred in an extremely popular revival of the maritime melodrama “Black-Eyed Susan.”
It takes a certain type a chutzpah for an American actor to even dream of – let alone fabulously succeed in playing the archetypal British sailor to a London audience.
Because of his offspring, history has given us a gift in regards to E.L. Davenport. Harry Davenport, E.L. and Fanny’s second son, had out-lived most of his siblings and his spouse when he reached age seventy. Harry had retired from his successful career on Broadway and his role as actor/producer of a string of early silent films. He traveled to Hollywood just for a short stay, intending to visit one of his sons. Davenport auditioned for a small part in a film as a favor for an old friend – just for kicks. This launched an eleven year career that included featured roles in classics such as Gone With the Wind, Meet Me In St. Louis, Foreign Correspondent, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
We can only guess from descriptions what the acting of William Macready, Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, and Anna Cora Mowatt looked like. It’s true that there would have been differences between father and son as well as contrasts between film acting and stage performance – but thanks to an odd quirk of fate, we can squint our eyes at footage of Harry Davenport — who learned to act literally at his father’s knee — and catch glimpses of why Victorian audiences fell in love with E.L. Davenport. Like Harry, written records tell us that E.L. was a master of pathos. He could take audiences quickly from laughter to tears. Like the grandfathers from the black and white classics that were his son’s forte, E.L. could play characters who were stern and irascible and yet still loveable. Like Harry, E.L. created characters who exuded a strong sense of personal decency despite the circumstances they might be undergoing in the plot.
E.L. Davenport was, in short, an actor’s actor. Although he is not usually listed by theatre historians as one of the outstanding leading men of the 19th century, he had a rather glorious career. He shared the stage with all the great actors of his day in both the U.S. and England. Macready, Forrest, Booth, Brooke, Wallack, Murdoch, Wheatley, and many others were his co-stars. His talent was acknowledged and valued by them all. He also appeared with many of the most celebrated actresses of his day, such as Mowatt, Charlotte Cushman, and Laura Keene — although his favorite acting partner by far was his wife, Fanny Vining.
Through the Davenport’s offspring, the couple fostered a legacy of excellence in performance and commitment to the profession that stretched from the waning years of melodrama through the halcyon days of Hollywood and Television to the present day. I would not be at all surprised to find that there is a direct Davenport descendant somewhere in the U.S. or the U.K. busily at work on a streaming series or webcast of some sort at this very moment.
E.L. Davenport may have never become the great star that perhaps his talent merited, but he was always a consummate professional and a magnificently gifted performer.
1. “The Theatre.” Sunday Dispatch: Philadelphia. October 25, 1868. Page 2, col. 4.
2. “Theatricals.” New York Atlas. October 4, 1846. Page 2, col. 4.
3. “The Late E.L. Davenport.” The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. October 6, 1877. Page 67, col. 2.
4. Templeton. “Templeton’s Topics: Memories of the Howard Athenaeum.” The Sunday Herald: Boston. April 25, 1886. Page 9, col. 1.