Anna Cora Mowatt and E.L. Davenport – Part III


The career of E.L. Davenport bears witness to the fact that the man’s love for the art of acting far outweighed any desire he may have had for fame and fortune. Brander Matthews and Laurence Hutton in their biography of Edwin Booth describe E.L. Davenport as “wasting his fine talent in undignified versatility.”1 Unlike Booth, Edwin Forrest, and other leading men of his day, Davenport did not find one genre of character for himself that audiences and critics seemed to favor and stick to playing such roles for the rest of his career. Although he rose to fame portraying romantic leading men opposite Anna Cora Mowatt in the late 1840s, he would never hesitate to attempt any type of role be it comic, tragic, heroic, or villainous. In the practice of his art, Davenport was absolutely fearless.

The stories I want to share today center around E.L. Davenport’s always audacious commitment to his craft. For me, one of the bravest choices he made was to play the part of William in the maritime melodrama “The Black-Eyed Susan” before London audiences. “Black-Eyed Susan” was an old-fashioned, tear-jerking melodrama from the 1830s. It became a surprise hit of the late 1840s when it was revived by T.P. Cooke — who was himself at this time a relic of the 30s. Although he had been a popular leading man a decade before, the performer was nearing an age when actors usually retired. An out-of-style show starring an actor in his early sixties as a vigorous young sailor in his twenties was not on anybody’s radar to become a smash hit. However, Cooke and the show caught a second wind and won new popularity with the theater-going public.

E.L. Davenport as William in "Black-Eyed Susan"
E.L. Davenport as William in “Black-Eyed Susan”

Mowatt and Davenport added “Black-Eyed Susan” to their repertoire while they were at the Marylebone. Upon reflection, this decision does seem in keeping with Walter Watts’ general pattern for setting that theater’s calendar of performances. Before Watts came to the Marylebone, the theater had a reputation of being the home for traditional-style melodrama in the area. The manager periodically dropped an un-apologetic, old-fashioned specimen of this genre into the schedule to satisfy his regular patrons, even composing one himself (“Dream of Life.”) Like the typical Watts’ production, “Black-Eyed Susan” was presented to the public with exquisite sets and costumes. Music and dance were added to augment spectacle, enhance the nostalgic feel, and feature E.L. Davenport’s fine tenor voice.

E.L. Davenport as William in "The Black-Eyed Susan" 1885
E.L. Davenport as William in “The Black-Eyed Susan” 1885

This production at the Marylebone, although well received, came and went without a great deal of fanfare. In 1853, though, none other than Charles Dickens decided that he wanted to see “Black-Eyed Susan” and would Ben Webster, manager of the Haymarket, be so good as to ask if E. L. Davenport might re-create the role of that quintessential British sailor for he and his friends and the rest of the theater-going public?

Therefore it was altogether fitting that Benjamin Webster, at the conclusion of Macready’s tour at the Haymarket Theatre, should hire Mr. Davenport to appear in a special revival of Douglas Jerrold’s play. The interview between Mr. Webster and Mr. Davenport which resulted in this engagement is thus told by Howard Paul:

“They tell me,” observed Webster, “that when you were at the Marylebone you made quite a sensation as William in ‘Black-eyed Susan.’ ”

“It is true I did play it repeatedly, and it seemingly gave satisfaction.”

“Well, I think of putting it up for you at the Haymarket next week. I had a note from Charles Dickens this morning saying that he should feel great pleasure in witnessing your representation of the character. Mr. Jerrold, the author of the piece, has also more than once signified his desire of seeing you. What do you say? Suppose I put it up on Monday night?”

“I shall be delighted,” replied Davenport, gratified at the good intentions of his patrons. “And I’ll tell you. Suppose I sing two songs and dance a hornpipe with Susan. It may be a ‘draw.’ As I’ve just been doing Othellos and Rochesters, it will give them a specimen of variety.”

“Or of versatility, just as you please. It’s a sealed matter. Up William goes for Monday, and at ‘half-price’ on Tuesday night.”

The affair was a notable one. In the audience sat Dickens, Thackeray, Mark Lemon, Douglas Jerrold, and other eminent literary men. The first piece on the programme was “Nan the Good for Nothing,” a popular play by J. B. Buckstone, and then followed the feature of the evening.

“Davenport, the tragedian,” says a contemporary writer, “who for two months had been sustaining such characters as Brutus, Laertes, Macduff, and Ulric, was to be transformed into a rollicking, jaunty jack tar. The transition was a difficult one, but never was a William played with so much ease, spirit, and naturalness. The house was ‘brought down,’ as the saying goes, the box of novelists was marked in its approbation, the ladies wept with the trials of the brave, free-hearted sailor, and sympathized with the virtuous Susan — everybody, even the critic of the ‘Times,’ was pleased, and in consequence ‘Black-eyed Susan’ revived is having a run.” The critic of the “Times,” least of all among his brethren inclined to look favorably upon an intruding foreigner from America, was gracious enough to acknowledge that “the chief feature of the piece was the performance of William by Mr. Davenport. Less nautical in his manner than Mr. T. P. Cooke, this gentleman had nevertheless a thorough command over the sympathies of his audience, and this is a great point with a drama addressed to the feelings. His hilarity is hearty and unaffected, his pathos is manly and genuine, and, as an additional quality, he looks the part to perfection. That here and there his movements became somewhat artificial is not a fault. Part of the piece is carried on in pantomime dumb show, and this requires a formal mode of action. From the beginning to the end of the piece he was applauded not only by the hands, but by the audible mirth and visible tears of his public, arid when it was ascertained that the model sailor was not to be strung from the yard-arm the delight expressed was as if he had been a personal friend of everybody present.” In this revival of “Black-eyed Susan” Mrs. Davenport acted the title role.2

In 1853, Davenport had already been hard at work at a number of tasks that required great intestinal fortitude. He had co-starred with Macready in the last leg of the great actor’s long farewell tour. This required the Boston-born Davenport to A) play major Shakespearean roles to London drama critics prejudiced against American actors particularly those attempting Shakespeare and B) live up to the high professional standards and deal with the personal idiosyncrasies of perfectionist and type A personality, Mr. William Macready. Successfully managing this series of performances was Davenport’s chance to cement a reputation for himself in the minds of reviewers and the public as a serious actor.

E.L. Davenport as "William" in "The Black-Eyed Susan"
E.L. Davenport as “William” in “The Black-Eyed Susan”

In accepting the invitation to perform “Black-Eyed Susan,” the risk of failure was great. Davenport’s performance would inevitably be compared to living legend, T.P. Cooke. He would again be an American actor attempting to play an archetypically British character. The play itself was old-fashioned and quirky. Revivals without Cooke in the lead had experienced mixed success. In the audience would be Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, the show’s playwright, Douglas Jerrold. These men were all Victorian literary superstars. The revival of “Black-Eyed Susan” at the Haymarket was at their request, yes, but what if the show had been a flop? These literati luminaries could also be incredibly catty and vicious when disappointed. They all had very loud voices in the London press in 1853.

The cautious and career-smart response that one of today’s professional management teams might have recommended to Davenport when he got the request from Webster was to say that he was, of course, flattered, but his schedule was just too full at that moment. Instead, when he got the chance to play sailor William, Edward Loomis Davenport essentially replied, “Yes, I can be ready as soon as you are… and hey, I can also sing and dance! I think the folks would love that!”

Davenport was correct; audiences did love him as William in both London and the U.S. The following is a description of his performance as this production played on Broadway;

There are occasions when the almost magnetic influence of a thoroughly appreciative audience can so stimulate and exalt an actor, that the character he enacts becomes an inspiration in his hands, and for this William and its impersonator, this first time we saw Mr. Davenport in the part, we claim this inspiration; he carried the house with him; and this fact, and the fact that he felt it, added “fresh fuel to the fire of his genius.” One of the standard jokes of the play, the only “funny business” in the trial scene, the reply of the boatswain, Mr. Quid, to the Admiral’s inquiry as to William’s moral character: “His moral character, your honor? Why, he plays on the fiddle like an angel!” provoked not a smile; it seemed irreverent to laugh, the audience grasping at any straw in William’s favor. The decision of the Court, “Guilty,” and the reading of the sentence, “Death,” were terrible blows to William’s scores of friends before the footlights; and William’s subdued” Poor Susan,” found echo in every sympathizing heart in the audience.

The interest in the drama, however, did not reach its intensest point until the last scene of all — the execution. The farewells with his shipmates and friends, the last dying gifts and bequests, and his parting from Susan, were all very harrowing, and very real, and very choking; but the culmination was William’s standing under the yard-arm, his bare neck ready for the rope that was ” to launch” him, the parson on the black platform, the twelve melancholy-looking captains, the grief-stricken Admiral Leffingwell, and the entrance of Captain Crosstree with his pardon, and his honorable and explanatory speech. Never was a Captain Crosstree so well received!

We do not recall many evenings where a single great actor has so controlled and moved his audience as did Mr. Davenport on that occasion; and, as we look back upon it, and compare it with the playing of other actors, we can only account for it as being a true artist’s handling of an impressive part. When William was finally released and congratulated, and when he took his Black-eyed Susan in his arms, the audience made a personal matter of it, and cried over it as if it were their own personal and particular joy, and the Young Veteran, and all the rest of the boys in the pit, went home to their little beds, resolved, with the young Columbus, “to go and be sailor boys, by jingo, or die.”3

The clearest example of a contemporary actor I can think of who accepts roles with the same sort of joyous disregard for establishing any sort of clear brand identity for himself that Davenport displayed might be Hugh Jackman. The multi-talented Jackman moves from action films to musical comedies to thrillers to rom/coms to fantasy dramas to period romances seemingly with no concerns other than determining if he likes the project and thinks he can do justice to the role. (Come to think of it, affable family-man Jackman would be much better suited to play hard-working performer E.L. Davenport than sleazy huckster P.T. Barnum… Someone should write that screenplay!) The economics of show business are different today. Unlike Davenport, Jackman has been fortunate in his choices and achieved great financial success. However, the characteristic Matthews and Hutton called “undignified versatility” – a willingness to attempt any type of role in any genre — does sometimes puzzle audiences and critics and perhaps prevents some from giving the actor full marks for the depth and breadth of his gifts.

E.L. Davenport as Sir Giles Overreach, 1863
E.L. Davenport as Sir Giles Overreach, 1863

Tall, sandy-haired, with piercing light grey eyes, Davenport was handsome enough to be in the running for leading male roles. However, he was never afraid to be cast as even the most unsympathetic of villains. Anna Cora Mowatt and her husband first encountered the actor when he played Beauseant, the scheming antagonist of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Lady of Lyons” at Niblo’s Gardens in the summer of 1845. Davenport’s first major success as an actor had been in the role of Sir Giles Overreach in “A New Way to Pay Old Debts.” This play is obscure now, but was a great favorite in the early 19th century. Edmund Kean and Junius Booth (the elder) both had notable interpretations of the reprobate Sir Giles. In the following quote, Davenport talks about how he came to embrace playing not only unsympathetic characters such as Sir Giles but other classic Shakespearean anti-heroes like Brutus and Othello;

On December 21, 1875, came the elaborate revival of “Julius Caesar” referred to by Mr. Hutton. It took place at Booth’s Theatre, with Mr. Davenport as Brutus, Lawrence Barrett as Cassius, F. C. Bangs as Mark Antony, Milnes Levick as Caesar, Edmund Collier as Octavius, Mary Wells as Portia, Rosa Rand as Calphurnia, and Helen Morant as Lucius. “In the quarrel scene,” remarked a theatre-goer, “Davenport looked like some grand St. Bernard listening to the snarling of Cassius — Barrett.” The run lasted until April 1, 1876, and “Julius Caesar” was presented nightly to large audiences. Public interest in the production was something unprecedented. On Wednesday afternoon, March 22, Mr. Davenport was tendered a complimentary benefit, the affair being made especially interesting by the presentation to him of a suit of Roman armor, valued at five hundred dollars. At the end of the New York season “Julius Caesar,” with its “star cast,” was performed in Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Washington, Albany, Providence, and other Eastern cities. In the fall the company, still with Mr. Davenport as Brutus and Lawrence Barrett as Cassius, began a Western tour which continued several months, and finally ended on the New England circuit. In this revival he played Brutus two hundred and twenty-two times, and traveled many thousands of miles. Questioned at the end of the tour as to whether he had not wearied of the role, he replied:

E.L. Davenport as Brutus
E.L. Davenport as Brutus

“No, I never enjoyed Brutus more nor felt more in the spirit of it than the last night I played it. I was accustomed, when not on the stage, to leave the door of my dressing-room open, so that I might hear the noble words of the play. I did not go on to see it — I have seen it so often — but there is something about that play that I never tired of.” Of Barrett’s Cassius he spoke in the highest terms, but of all Antonys he considered the Antony of Walter Montgomery (who played that role to Davenport’s Brutus and Barrett’s Cassius as early as 1867) by far the best he had ever witnessed. To a question as to his favorite role, he replied, “Othello.” In answer to an exclamation of surprise, he explained that Othello has the sympathy of the audience — they hate Iago, they pity Othello. He added — and this is significant, in view of the opinion of William Winter quoted on page 106 — that he had “a kindly liking for that miserable Sir Giles Overreach — Sir Giles has not a single virtue.” “Why, then, do you act the role?” was asked. “Because of his tremendous power and passion,” he replied. “My acting in it was originally an accident. I was playing at Wallack’s, and talking over with the younger Wallack the characters in which I should appear. He objected to one after another, mainly on the ground that they were his father’s roles, till finally I exclaimed: ‘There’s that devilish Sir Giles!’ ‘Ah, that’s just the thing!’ he replied. I played it, and it has been one of my favorite parts ever since.”4

Although he fell into playing Sir Giles initially through a process of elimination, Davenport enjoyed the challenge of conveying the emotional intensity of antagonists and anti-heroes. Perhaps his most shockingly unsympathetic role was that of Bill Sykes. One writer pronounced that E.L. Davenport’s interpretation of the murderous thief from “Oliver Twist” was one “to make Dickens shiver.”5

Ad for performance of "Oliver Twist" featuring E.L. Davenport as BIll Sykes
Ad for performance of “Oliver Twist” featuring E.L. Davenport as Bill Sykes

A reviewer from the time described the performance as follows;

Mr. Davenport – unlike many actors – when portraying a character was not Davenport, but the character himself, even changing the voice, and so splendidly versatile was he that he impersonated “Hamlet” one night and Bill Sykes, the murderous tough of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” the next, with equal perfection in both characters.
At this point it may be well to mention, in a brief way, Mr. Davenport and Lucille Western as Bill and Nancy Sykes in the murder scene, as horrible a presentation as the “Chamber of Horrors” in olden times. Imagine, if you can, a scene like this: Bill Sykes, a thief and a bully, clutches his kind and affectionate wife, Nancy, by the hair and drags her to the footlights and back again to the door outside, not in the view of the audience. Here he supposedly crushes her brains at the stone wall. With piercing shrieks and loud appeals for mercy, followed by a death-like silence, in which the house is darkened. Bill returns, facing the audience. As he approaches the footlights, with sleeves rolled up and hands and arms red with his wife’s blood, he looks at them intently, and exclaims in the hoarse whisper so characteristic of Davenport, “I’ve done it! I’ve done it!” In the stillness, while the audience looks on spellbound, from the threshold comes a creeping creature in the form of poor Nancy. With her hair covering her entire face she appears at Bill’s side, and taking him by the trouser-leg for support, in a deep whisper, cries, “Why did you do it, Bill? Oh, why did you do it? And throwing her hair back, she reveals a face red with her life’s blood as she topples over in death’s agony, still crying, “I forgive you, Bill!”6

With this disturbing image, I find that I have once more run out of space before I have run out of stories. The rest of my trove of Davenport tales must wait for next week to be told!

Images from the career of E.L. Davenport
Images from the career of E.L. Davenport

1. Matthews, Brander and Laurence Hutton. The Life and Art of Edwin Booth and His Contemporaries. (L.P. Page: Boston, 1907) Page 65.
2. Edgett, Edwin Francis. Edward Loomis Davenport: A Biography. (The Dunlap Society: New York, 1901.) Page 38.
3. Hutton, Laurence. Plays and Players. (Hurd and Houghton: New York, 1875.) Page 155-156.
4. Edgett, Edwin Francis. Edward Loomis Davenport: A Biography. (The Dunlap Society: New York, 1901.) Page 114-116.
5. Ibid, 12
6. Davis, W. Albert. “Some Yesterdays of the Stage.” Americana. December, 1911. Page 1127.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *