DAVENPORT – THE STORIES – Part I
Although I have studied thousands of pages of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and correspondence written by Anna Cora Mowatt as opposed to the perhaps dozen or so letters penned by E. L. Davenport I have seen, sometimes I feel I have a better grasp of his character. Mowatt had a complex, often contradictory personality. Because of the circumstances of her life, there is much about her private self that I think she did not reveal even to those closest to her. Davenport, by contrast, was gregarious and easy-going. After his death, numerous theatrical veterans were eager to share stories of their beloved pal or respected mentor, “Ned” Davenport. We also have affectionate accounts of his life from his acting and life partner for nearly a half century, Fanny Vining. Vining and Davenport had a large family who all became performers and doted on their dad.
I love stories. If you are a regular reader of this blog, it will come as no surprise to you that anecdotes about performers comprise my favorite genre of narrative. Last week, I indicated that I would spend this entry presenting stories I had collected about E.L. Davenport. When I began writing, I found myself faced with a lovely difficulty — I have too many to fit into one entry. Since several of these anecdotes are ones in which Anna Cora Mowatt either is not mentioned at all or is connected only tangentially, I have determined that they are therefore unlikely to appear in future blogs. This is their moment to shine. For this reason, I have decided to break the topic of stories about E.L. Davenport into two segments… well, at least I’m planning to try to stick to that…
Anna Cora Mowatt is in the first story. Although 1854 was a highly charged moment in U.S. civic history, Mowatt scrupulously avoided any mention of politics in her writing. The closest she comes is in her autobiography is when she mentions an enjoyable social encounter with Senator Henry Clay. Today, we remember Clay for his part in the Compromise of 1850 that we now know would disastrously lead to the Civil War a decade later. In 1854, the Civil War had not happened yet. Clay had died in 1852 and was being mourned by the country as a heroic statesman. He had been an unsuccessful presidential candidate of the soon-to-be defunct Whig Party. Clay was defeated by Andrew Jackson. The Whig Party was – very, very, very broadly speaking – a sort of an indirect forerunner to today’s Democratic Party in the U.S.
In 1847, Mowatt and Davenport, by chance, ended up on the same steamboat as Senator Clay while traveling to one of their tour destinations. In today’s terms, it would be as if they ended up on a plane in the first class section next to Hilary Clinton. Unlike air travel, which is relatively rapid, but uncomfortable and usually involves plugging in earphones and trying to block out the presence of our fellow travelers, travel by steamboat was slow and encouraged a lot of mixing and mingling among the passengers. Politicians and other sort of celebrities were not usually accompanied by phalanxes of security dedicated to shielding them from contact with the general public.
After some time on the boat in the company of the famous statesman, Davenport decided to have a bit of fun with the senator from Kentucky. Mowatt tells the tale in her autobiography as follows;
Many of the passengers exerted themselves to entertain a fellow-traveler whom everyone seemed to treat as his own particular and honored guest; but none contributed so largely to his amusement as Mr. Davenport. He sang comic, patriotic, and sentimental songs, and recited humorous sketches, in which five or six different characters were personated. One evening he entered the saloon disguised as a “down-east” Yankee. I must say, by way of parenthesis, that his Yankee was a stage representative of Yankee-land — a broad but telling caricature of the reality. He wore a red wig, striped pantaloons that maintained a respectable distance from his ankles, a short jacket, and a flame-colored cravat. He carried his hands deeply thrust in his pockets, as though they had an evident inclination to approach his knees. His “jog-along” gait could only have originated in New England.
He was not recognized when he entered the cabin. The passengers supposed him to be some person who had just come on board. He commenced talking, with a nasal intonation, in a loud and familiar manner, and asking “oceans of questions.” He gave Mr. Mowatt (who was in the secret), a nudge, and accosted him with, “Stranger, I hear that’s Harry Clay; I guess I’ll scrape acquaintance with him, if you’ll do the polite thing.”
Mr. Mowatt presented the Yankee gentleman to Mr. Clay. The impudent speeches of the “downeaster” to the “best representative of republican royalty,” as the Yankee designated the statesman, convulsed the passengers with laughter. Mr. Clay joined in the contagious merriment. Dreading that these personalities might give offence, I took occasion to whisper to him the Yankee’s history, and the name which he inherited from his father. Mr. Clay heartily lent himself to the joke.1
To give you a better idea of how bold and forward Davenport was being in this circumstance, let me return again to my Hilary Clinton on a plane analogy. Henry Clay was very prominent public figure who, although he had never been president, had been nominated for that office multiple times. His name appeared in newspapers on an almost daily basis. Everyone on the steamboat would know who he was. For our modern equivalent — Imagine that for some reason Hilary Clinton and comedian John Mulaney for some reason happened to take the same commercial flight (Improbable, I know, but let’s just pretend.) There are difficulties with the plane and everyone is stuck in the airport waiting area. Senator Clinton is being very gracious about the whole situation and is allowing people get autographs and ask questions. Mulaney suddenly gets inspired, borrows some miscellaneous items from fellow passengers, including a white wig, fishing cap, and oversized sweater. The comedian improvises a bizarre, elderly “concerned citizen” character who begins shouting questions to Clinton from across the room. It is very, very silly, but also hilarious because Mulaney is genuinely funny, it’s such a surprising move, and because everyone is trapped in an airport with nothing better to do. Clinton is cool about the whole thing and laughs along with everyone else.
Like my imaginary version of John Mulaney at the airport, E.L. Davenport was putting a lot of trust in his comedic talents and ability to win over a crowd in his encounter with Sen. Clay on the steamboat.
The next two stories originate from the time William Macready engaged Davenport to play supporting roles in the eminent actor’s grand retirement tour. Macready was a friend to Davenport and Mowatt during their time in London. He advised them and had them to diners at his home on various occasions. The very fact that he asked Davenport to join his company was a mark of his approval. Try to remember these things, because now all the other facts I’m going to tell you – and even these stories – may make it sound like Macready didn’t like Davenport very much. However, bear in mind that Macready was a perfectionist. He was notoriously rather high-strung and difficult.
Neither Mowatt nor Davenport appear in Macready’s memoirs. I think that this may be due to a tension which may have existed between Mowatt and Macready’s friend, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. During her first trip to Europe in around 1840 — long before she became an actress or wrote her first play — Mowatt had been introduced to Bulwer’s ex-wife, Lady Rosina Bulwer-Lytton. Mowatt wrote an article sympathetic to the lady’s side of the couple’s break-up. In the intervening years, the separation had become more viciously bitter instead of fading to a mellow détente. Friends and bystanders were pulled into the feuding Bulwer-Lyttons’ dispute. Mowatt’s scathing article, which originally had been printed under an alias, was reprinted using her real name after she became famous. Macready, who was hoping for a knighthood, may not have wished to alienate his titled friend, Bulwer, by aligning himself too closely with Mowatt. Even praising Mowatt’s former partner, Davenport, in print might have seemed risky at the time when the actor’s memoirs were to be published.
With all this as preface, here are two stories of how the famously easy-going E.L. Davenport dealt with the notoriously high-strung William Macready;
The methods of Macready were very peculiar, being entirely mechanical, he went through a severe ordeal at every performance. He was exceedingly earnest, and completely engrossed with the character in which he appeared; to speak to him, therefore, behind the scenes on the night of representation, dispelled the illusion, and brought him down from Cardinal Richelieu to plain Macready. This was sternly resented by him, and it was tacitly understood by the company that on one must speak to the great actor during a performance.
Davenport was in blissful ignorance of this, Macready having treated him most urbanely at the rehearsals. At night when he was preparing to take up his position in the character of De Mauprat as Macready came out of his dressing-room in the robes of the Cardinal, he naturally said, “Good evening, Mr. Macready.”
The latter stopped, glared at Davenport, a spasm came over his features as though he was suffering from cramps in the stomach and he gasped out, “Good God, sir,” a favorite expression of his.
Davenport, very much alarmed, said, “Are you ill, Mr. Macready?”
“Yes. Ill at ease, sir,” was the reply, “and you have made me so. You have killed my first act, sir!”
Though he found Macready just as cordial as ever at the rehearsal next morning, he never ventured to speak to him again during a performance.2
The next story again contrasts the personalities of the two performers. In this story, though, Davenport has been with the company for a longer time and apparently has learned some tactics in dealing with the Great One;
For the farewell of all the scene was shifted to Drury Lane, where, on February 26, Macready, in the character of Macbeth, made his final appearance in public. It is related that, on a certain evening of this engagement, the intensity of Mr. Davenport’s acting displeased Macready, whereat the subordinate was summoned into the presence of the star, who remarked: “Mr. Davenport, I wish you would not act quite so much. Your extreme earnestness detracts from the legitimate effect.” This rebuke naturally nettled its recipient, and on the following evening he went through the first act with folded arms and without any attempt at expressive action. Macready again summoned him, and said: “You will oblige me, Mr. Davenport, by throwing a little more animation into your acting.” The episode of course ended there, to the satisfaction of both sides.3
Macready’s co-stars frequently complained that the performer liked to be the absolute center of attention in his productions. This story has Davenport – an astute student of human psychology – deciding that the proper solution to this difficulty was not to sulk or pout, but rather to give Macready exactly what he has asked for in abundance and let the star discover for himself that his request was not a productive one for maintaining the appropriate balance of dramatic tension of the scene.
The last story for today comes from the Davenport’s eldest daughter, Fanny. She was born during the couple’s days at the Olympic Theatre in London. Her two middle names – Lily and Gypsy – are two of Anna Cora Mowatt’s nicknames. Fanny Davenport would become more famous during her lifetime than her parents, achieving great popularity on the New York stage. She recalls here one of her early, thrilling experiences on stage with her parents;
I always feel particularly at home in Mr. Tompkins’s theatre, for upon this stage my father and mother passed many seasons in their theatrical career. And I’ve played here many times, too, as a tot, child, and woman. Father first played a starring engagement here in the fifties, and I remember how big this stage looked to me in comparison with that of the Howard Athenaeum and Boston Museum, where I had been as a child in arms — and I was a pretty big child too, I remember. Right here, where you see this big trap-door, was the opening used years ago in “The Cataract of the Ganges” for the entrance of Mokarah and Zerlina in a chariot drawn by eight horses, four abreast. A flight of steps ran up from below, and up this incline the steeds and their burden were rushed on the stage.
Whenever I saw that chariot safely in sight I always felt happy. Why? Oh, I forgot to tell you that father and mother played those two passengers at one of the revivals, and mother used to dread that part of the performance, for it was extremely dangerous. I remember she once told us that the heads of the first row of horses were about at the middle of the staircase and facing towards the stage left. The space was very small, and there was no chance to start straight up the steps. When the word was given to go, the men stationed at the sides whipped up the nags, the driver yanked them around to the right, the two occupants held on tight, bumpy-ty-bump went the wheels, jumpy-ty-jump went the horses, and neither she nor father breathed until they were facing the audience, with the chariot at a standstill.
If father hadn’t been in the vehicle, mother wouldn’t have taken that ride for anything. A funny episode in the same piece was the fight, in front of the cataract of real water, between Mokarah and an English officer, which we always called the “damp duel,” for the water was generally inclined to run over onto the stage; and as father was the one slain in the battle, his usual remark — unheard by the audience, of course — was, “Now for another bath at Tompkins’s expense.” Mother tried to get father to play this scene in rubber boots, but he wouldn’t.4
The picture Fanny Davenport paints of her father is, for me, the definitive image of E.L. Davenport, Victorian-era actor/family man and eternal optimist. In my imagination, he spends the majority of the 1850-70s heading towards the stage up rickety ramps at a full gallop with wife and children holding on for dear life. His beloved spouse is forever trying to figure out ways to integrate galoshes into his stage attire so he will not catch his death in his death scenes. His is a life full of joys and sorrows a bit incomprehensible to those outside the world of the theatre. It is a life filled with adventure and fun, even if it is an existence that is also highly precarious, often dangerous, and even a bit ridiculous. It is a life spent with those most dear to him doing what he loved best… as odd as it may have been at times.
And so I will leave you with the fabulous image of the Davenports dashing onstage in their chariot, with the promise of more stories next week.
1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 259-260.
2. H. A. Weaver, Sr. “No. 2, Bullfinch Place: Some Interesting Reminiscences of Macready.” The Daily Inter Ocean. February 19, 1893. Page 25.
3. Edgett, Edwin Francis. Edward Loomis Davenport: A Biography. (The Dunlap Society: New York, 1901.) Page 38.
4. Ibid, pages 84-85.