PART II: THE DAZZLING DEBUTANTE
In 1845, society ladies of New York’s top 1% income bracket did not have careers. They had husbands and children. They were known for their beautiful houses, gorgeous gowns, and glittering social calendars. They might have a fascinating hobby or a pet charity. These ladies were not expected to have jobs — interesting or otherwise.
By shocking contrast, in June of 1845, Anna Cora Mowatt was about to embark on her third very adventurous-for-a-person-of-any-economic-background career. She had been a Public Reader, presenting poems and other dramatic excerpts to respectable audiences in dignified settings. This was still beyond the pale for many of her upper class friends and relatives who had cut her acquaintance. Next, Mowatt had metaphorically donned the bluestocking and had been a writer of novels, short stories, and articles. She published anonymously at first. The success of “Fashion” brought her work out into the open.
Authorship at least had a somewhat scholarly cachet. Acting was another matter entirely. Individual performers like Edwin Forrest or Fanny Kemble might be lionized or respected on their own merits, but the profession itself was not held in high regard in the U.S. in the 1840s. The line between prostitutes and actresses was not always bright and clear. Although the management prided itself on the upscale reputation of the venue, the theater in which Mowatt was to perform, New York’s Park Theater, was at intervals subject to attention from the city’s police department because sex workers solicited clients in the gallery. Acting was simply not a profession for society ladies.
In 1937, Marius Blesis had the opportunity to interview Clifford Smyth, son of Mowatt’s youngest sister, Julia. According to Smyth, only his mother and his grandfather, Samuel Ogden, supported Anna Cora’s decision to go on stage.1 Mowatt had ten brothers and sisters. Many of them had married by this date. That’s a heavy weight of disapproval just in her immediate family.
On June 7th, The Albion published the following announcement of Mowatt’s upcoming debut with what seems like a heavy sigh;
We may individually regret the hazardous step Mrs. Mowatt is about to take – but since it is taken, we indulge the hope that the lady will add another to that list of bright ornaments to a profession, which ranks amongst its distinguished names – a Farren, a Siddons, an O’Neil, the “Trees,” and Fanny Kemble – whose private virtues shed a halo around the stage – and in who the high position to which many of them were elevated, equally cast a luster upon their dignified station in private society.2
For these reasons, many friends, relatives, and well-wishers of Mowatt were holding their collective breaths as the day of her debut approached. Despite my emphasis on these concerns, I don’t want to overplay the taboo nature of Mowatt’s decision to go on the stage. If her choice was absolutely beyond the pale, she would have been declared a pariah by her former peers and history might know nothing about this performance. Instead something – perhaps sympathy for her financial plight, enthusiasm generated by the recent success of “Fashion,” growing acceptance of theatre as a form of amusement, or even simple morbid curiosity – brought New York’s “upper ten” out in droves to the Park Theatre that night to see her perform in “Lady of Lyons.”
The evening got off to a bit of a rocky start for Mowatt. In her autobiography, she reports;
At that moment Mr. Mowatt came to conduct me to the stage. Mrs. Vernon, who played my mother, was already seated at a small table in Madame Deschapelles’ drawing room. I took my place on a sofa opposite to her, holding in my hand a magnificent bouquet, Claude’s supposed offering to Pauline.
After a few whispered words of encouragement, Mr. Mowatt left me, to witness the performance from the front of the house. Somebody spread my Pauline scarf on the chair beside me. Somebody else arranged the folds of my train symmetrically. Somebody’s fingers gathered into their place a few stray curls. The stage manager gave the order of “Clear the stage, ladies and gentlemen,” and I heard sound the little bell for the raising of the curtain.
Until that moment I do not think a pulse in my frame had quickened its beating. But then I was seized with a stifling sensation, as though I were choking. I could only gasp out, “Not yet — I cannot!”
Of course, there was general confusion. Managers, actors, prompter, all rushed on the stage; some offered water, some scent bottles, some fanned me. Everybody seemed prepared to witness a fainting fit, or an attack of hysterics, or something equally ridiculous. I was arguing with myself against the absurdity of this ungovernable emotion — this humiliating exhibition — and making a desperate endeavor to regain my self-possession, when Mr. Skerrett thrust his comic face over somebody’s shoulder. He looked at me with an expression of quizzical exultation, and exclaimed, —
“Didn’t I tell you so? Where’s all the courage, eh?”
The words recalled my boast of the morning; or rather, they recalled the recollections upon which that boast was founded. My composure returned as rapidly as it had departed. I laughed at my own weakness.
“Are you getting better?” kindly inquired the stage manager.
“Let the curtain rise!” was the satisfactory answer.3
Mowatt was fortunate enough not to suffer from stage fright many times in her career. This was her first and one of the worst cases she ever experienced. Other than being extremely exhausted by the fifth act, the rest of the performance went off without a hitch, though. Mowatt spends another page and a half describing it in rather modest terms.
The most remarkable accounts of the night come from the New York press. In previous blogs, I’ve outlined the London press’ loosely-followed, four-part formula for drama reviews consisting of:
Although not as clearly defined, U.S. reviewers had a similar standard format that most tended to employ.
The articles correspondents submitted concerning the performance of “Lady of Lyons” at the Park Theater on June 16, 1845 were not drama reviews. They were breathless reports of a social event. Many of them didn’t even mention the name of the person playing the main character in the play – despite the fact that Claude Melnotte has around 65% of all the lines in the show. As a puzzled columnist in Philadelphia reminded their readers about the role of Pauline, anticipating the show’s arrival in that city;
It should be remembered, however, that the character is not a great one, nor one difficult to sustain. Melnotte is the hero of the piece; Pauline being of scarcely more importance in the author’s development of character than “Mad. Deschapplles,” which any ordinary stock actress may go through with credit.4
The following article managed to sound a bit like a wedding announcement;
Mrs. Anna Cora Mowatt, a granddaughter of the late Rev. Dr. Uzal Ogden, made a successful debut at the Park Theatre, on Friday evening, as Pauline, in Bulwer’s Lady of Lyons. The morning papers say the house was never before so crowded by so fashionable an assembly, and the reception of the fair debutant is described as enthusiastic beyond precedent. The newspapers compare her acting with Charlotte Cushman’s, no ordinary praise.5
When is the last time that you read a review of a play where the writer began by going out of their way to announce that the lead actress was the granddaughter of a distinguished minister? This writer from the Herald even repeatedly demurred from offering any critique on Mowatt’s acting – which is usually one of the primary functions of a drama review;
We certainly have seldom witnessed a debut more full of promise and of triumph. As a first performance, it really merited high praise. Faults, of course, there were, chiefly of attitude and gesture, but they were faults which time will correct, and for which the circumstances of the case sufficiently apologize, even did not the many striking beauties of the performance entirely disarm the critic. There were burst of natural and genuine passion and feeling, which must have touched every heart in the house. We do not mean to go into any formal criticism of the performance, but we may merely allude to the scene with the “Prince” at the close of the third act – that in the cottage, when “Claude” acknowledges his guilt, and the final scene of reunion and joy, in all of which, Mrs. Mowatt sustained her part with a degree of grace, pathos, and dramatic skill, which afforded the most satisfactory promise of no ordinary success hereafter. As we have said, we do not desire to enter on any detailed examination of the merits or demerits of this first performance; nor is it called for; but we think, after having witnessed it with dispassionate attention, we are quite justified in saying, that if Mrs. Mowatt devote a reasonable amount of time and study to the profession in which she has so brilliantly entered, and trust to her own natural genius and talent, and instinctive perception of all that is fitted to give grace, life and truthful passion to dramatic effort, she may have a very brilliant career. Mrs. Mowatt’s form is fragile, but graceful, and her face is extremely pleasing and expressive.6
If these newspaper articles about the opening of this production of “Lady of Lyons” starring Mowatt weren’t drama reviews, what were they? As I said earlier, I feel the coverage was more in line with what was typical of a social event. Mowatt’s debut as Pauline was presented somewhat as it were a sort of a debutant ball. Mowatt was on display. The critiques are written from a perspective that views her performance not merely as acting a part in a play but as if the actress is actively engaged in impressing her audience with the degree of grace and charm she possesses. The articles like the following almost completely ignore the play and the rest of the cast in favor of concentrating on describing Mowatt’s successful presentation of a pleasing stage persona and her audience’s enthusiastic reception;
On Friday evening, Mrs. Mowatt, the accomplished author of “Fashion,” made her debut at the Park Theatre, in the “Lady of Lyons.” She was greeted by an immense audience, composed of the elites of the city, and was triumphantly successful. As a first appearance, it is universally considered to be one of the most extraordinary in the history of drama. She trod the stage with all the ease of an actor educated in the profession, and, what is better still, she seemed so completely absorbed in the part as to be unconscious of the audience. Her conception of the character was admirable for its truth to nature, and was sustained throughout with great skill. To the charm of a beautiful and flexible face, and a fine figure, she adds grace of movement, faculty of gesture, a voice of great melody and variety of tone, and entire forgetfulness of self in the representation of the character she assumes. The audience were evidently taken by surprise at the instinctive sense of the proprieties of the stage, the brilliancy, the naturalness, the force of passion, the sprightliness and airy grace she displayed in her acting; and the theatre repeatedly rung with the most deafening plaudits.
You know that Pauline, during the first and second acts, appears as a proud, vain girl, dwelling merely in shows of things, with not depth of feeling, and hardly conscious of the real goodness of heart which underlies her thousand affectations. Mrs. Mowatt represented this phase of her character with admirable felicity. In the last three acts, circumstances develop in Pauline, stronger elements of mind and feeling; the agony of insulted pride, the strife between tenderness and vanity, the rapid transitions from scorn to love, the quick succession of all the passions of a woman’s heart, stung almost to madness by conflicting thoughts and emotions, and ending in entire surrender of the whole soul to the object of her affection – these were represented by Mrs. Mowatt, with wonderful vigor and variety of power. She glided into the variations of Pauline’s feelings as though the character was identical with herself, and gave to the whole an appearance of reality to which the audience were evidently not accustomed. Though the house was crowded almost to suffocation, and the extreme heat would have afforded an excuse for restlessness and inattention, still the play was received throughout with the most undivided interest; and it is hard to say whether the impulsive applause which repeatedly broke the general stillness of attention, or by the stillness itself. At the close of the performance, the call for the fair debutante was unanimous; and when she appeared, the audience stood up, received her with nine cheers, — there was an immense waving of white handkerchiefs, and clapping of white hands – and a perfect shower of wreaths and bouquets fell upon the stage. It was a most unequivocal triumph.7
In the standard review formula, the reaction of even the most enthusiastic audiences is covered in only a sentence or two. Writers usually treat them as anonymous an impartial jurors waiting to pass sentence on the merits of the performers. As with the oversized focus given to Mowatt’s relatively small role in “Lady of Lyons,” the audience also grew into a major character in the New York coverage of this performance. The writer of this piece gave up the usual pretense of impartiality of the part of the listeners and rather presented us with a picture of some auditors nervously cheering Mowatt on;
She went through the first few scenes, however, with admirable composure, and with such measure of spirit and grace as at once relieved the anxieties of her friends, and created throughout the house a feeling of satisfaction which sought frequent expression in the most flattering and encouraging manner. In the fourth and fifth acts, Mrs. Mowatt won still more and more upon the sympathies of the house, and the curtain fell amid a hurricane of applause, such as has never struck the walls of old Drury since the time when Fanny Kemble carried all hearts by storm.8
After hurriedly devoting a sentence to informing us that William Crisp had adequately performed his role as Claude Melotte, the writer enthusiastically turns back to describing the audience’s reaction at the play’s end;
In obedience to the request of a fat gentleman in one of the boxes, who although ready to sink from the heat, contributed more than his share of the plaudits. Mrs. Mowatt soon appeared, led on by Mr. Crisp. The cheers – shouts –screams – plaudits – burst forth afresh, whilst a whirlwind of pocket handkerchiefs swept over the boxes, and five or six hundred pair of boots thundered in the galleries. Mrs. Mowatt curtsied, and shower of bouquets fell at her feet. Again she curtsied, and a magnificent floral crown was thrown on the stage. This was gracefully picked up by Mr. Crisp, and placed on the head of the fair debutante. Another terrible burst of applause, and Mrs. Mowatt retired.9
In cities up and down the East coast, eyebrows were raised not only at the news of this astonishing new talent, but at the usually hard-nosed New York press’ pink-cheeked and dewy-eyed passion for her. “Lady of Lyon’s” next stop was to be in Philadelphia. One correspondent from that city reported with cheerful dubiousness;
Judging from the excitement produced, the most important event that has transpired here since my last has been the debut of Mrs. Mowatt, at the Park Theatre, Friday evening. Never was public expectation more perfectly taken by surprise. All, or nearly all (myself included) anticipated a dead failure. For myself, and for many other of the Gotham “bugs” (as Fanny Kemble termed them,) I can say, that so far from expecting the fair debutante to sustain herself even tolerably in the difficult character she had chosen, we anticipated a mortifying failure; and, as far as I have heard, even her most sanguine friends entertained oppressive fears for the issue. How perfectly, how splendidly Mrs. Mowatt succeeded, you have ere this abundantly learned by our city journals of Saturday. The house was crammed from pit to dome with the elite of the city, and it appeared as though all the news-paperial fraternity of the city were in the house. The excitement throughout the immense assemblage, at the close of the performance was intense in the extreme. I can give you no idea of it without occupying more space than you would care to grant the subject. However, I expect that her next appearance will be upon the boards of your own classic Chestnut, when you will be able to see her, and judge for yourselves what the effect such a performance must have had one two or three thousand anxious and misgiving friends.10
In Philadelphia, Mowatt would need to survive not only the less friendly Philly crowds, but torrential storms, and William Crisp’s unexpected fondness for Philadelphia nightlife.
Read next week’s blog to see how she fares!
1. Blesis, Marius. Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. 1938. University of Virginia, PhD dissertation. Page 174.
2. “Mr. Crisp’s Benefit.” The Albion, June 7, 1845. Page 275, col. 3.
3. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 224-225
4. “Amusements.” Dollar Newspaper: Philadelphia, Wednesday Morning, June 18, 1845. Page 3, col. 3.
5. Public Ledger: New York, June 16, 1845. Page 2.
6. “Theatricals.” New York Herald, June 14, 1845. Page 3.
7. “Mrs. Mowatt’s Acting in Pauline.” Boston Courier, June 16, 1845. Page 2.
8. “Theatricals.” New York Herald, June 14, 1845. Page 3.
10. “Things in New York.” Dollar Newspaper: Philadelphia, Wednesday Morning, June 18, 1845. Page 3, col. 3.