PART III: WILLIAM CRISP’S FALL FROM GRACE
[This is a continuation of my multi-part series of entries examining Anna Cora Mowatt’s experiences playing the role of Pauline in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “Lady of Lyons” from her debut to her retirement from the stage nearly a decade later. If you are unfamiliar with the play, a full cast recording of this classic drama is available at Librivox]
Anna Cora Mowatt’s life frequently reads like bad melodrama. Her greatest, most unlikely successes are usually followed by crushing, out-of-the-blue disasters. The unexpected media circus that converted her debut as Pauline in “Lady of Lyons” at the Park Theater in New York at the beginning of June in 1845 into an overinflated triumph was quickly followed by the humiliating debacle that was the show’s tour in Philadelphia at the end of the month.
She would write of the experience in her autobiography;
I made my appearance there a few nights after my debut in New York. If I had abundant cause for gratitude and self-congratulation on the first night of my appearance in public, I suffered enough upon the second to atone for all the elation or vanity of which I may have been guilty.1
Dear Reader, please remember as you listen to this story that although Pauline is the female lead in “Lady of Lyons,” Claude Melnotte is actually a much, much, much more important role in that show. He has many more lines than any other character. The play is about Claude. A production can survive a lukewarm performance of Pauline. A bad Claude would quickly make the viewing experience torturous.
In hindsight, Mowatt recognized that there were red flags early on concerning this engagement. When the red-hot production, floating on clouds of unprecedented good press, hit the road for Philadelphia, friends warned the Mowatts that the established favorite leading man of the Walnut Street Theater, rising star William Wheatley, would expect to be offered the role of Claude. Integrating local actors into visiting casts was a common practice for touring companies. Wheatley had headlined in “Lady of Lyons” to great acclaim in Philadelphia only recently. Audiences, those in the know hinted to the Mowatts, might be quite disappointed if they didn’t get to see their favorite next to New York’s sensational new Pauline.
However, the Mowatts had signed a contract with William Crisp that allowed him to pick his roles. Particularly after their success at the Park Theatre and all he had done to make that hurried debut possible, they did not feel they could do him the insult of asking him to step aside. [Note: The couple quickly learned their lesson about this aspect of the business. If one examines newspaper advertisements for performance engagements with the replacement they hired for Crisp – E.L. Davenport – one can see that they seemed to structure their new leading man’s contract in manner that allowed them much more leeway in inviting guest artists to star opposite Mowatt while she was on tour. Davenport had a great range as an actor. He was comfortable playing everything from romantic/tragic leads to comic character parts like old Adam Trueman.]
The house was packed on their opening night in Philadelphia. The show seemed to start well. Pauline only makes brief appearances in the first and second acts. By the third, though, Mowatt became alert to the first hints of trouble;
I observed that Mr. C hesitated in the words of his part; now and then he spoke in a thick voice; he walked with an unsteady step; and when the business of the play required him to take my hand, his own trembled violently.2
Having suffered a bout of the malady herself recently, Mowatt decided that Crisp was in the painful throes of stage fright. She reasoned that he too had been warned how much Wheatley coveted his role and was fearful of the audience’s displeasure. To be fair, it is plausible that Crisp had heard the rumors and was worried. What was not immediately apparent to Mowatt — but was becoming quite clear to the audience — was the action that Crisp had taken before the performance to relieve his worries.
While Mowatt was offstage awaiting her entrances, the audience had suffered through enough of Crisp’s fumbled lines, off-balanced stance, and bleary demeanor to figure out the cause of his poor performance. They had not only been cheated out seeing their favorite actor next to lovely Mrs. Mowatt, they were being insulted by being fed this sorry, sodden substitute. The Philly crowd was out patience with Crisp and getting ready for revenge;
In the fourth act, during the scene between the widow, Beauseant, and Pauline, I began to recover my suspended faculties. Claude enters; and with the first words he uttered came that sound, more fearful than all others to an actor’s ears — a hiss — a faint one, still a hiss! I heard Claude groan and ejaculate something in an undertone. I felt indignant at the want of generosity displayed by the audience. As the act advanced, the hisses were repeated whenever he spoke. A succession of false notes in a concert could not have a more jarring effect upon the nerves. I could scarcely remember a line of my part, and, immediately after the curtain fell, had not the slightest recollection how the act ended.
After a change of attire, Pauline appears alone in the fifth act. When the scene opened, the audience loudly testified by their greeting that no share of their displeasure was intended for me. I was too much agitated to attempt to personate Pauline as I had done on a previous occasion. I mechanically uttered the words of the text. The anticipation of Claude’s appearance, which must take place in a few moments, had filled me with dread — a fear that was too well founded. The audience allowed him to enter, and were silent. Pauline makes her appeal to Colonel Damas; Claude advances, and she approaches him. Without looking at him, I hurried over the language of the part, not waiting for his few words of reply, and turned to the table, where the father and mother of Pauline were seated. Then Claude must speak. The hisses of the audience were deafening. The theatre seemed suddenly filled with snakes. I turned round instinctively; the pit had risen in a body with evident intention of violence. (I afterwards heard that they were prepared to fling brickbats at the offending Claude.) I did not suspect in what manner Mr. C had deserved their displeasure. That he chanced to be an Englishman was, I imagined, his principal crime; and the audience chose that I should appear with my own countryman, Mr. Wheatley, their avowed favorite.3
What happened next tells you something very important about Anna Cora Mowatt’s character. It is true that she reached the wrong conclusion about why Crisp was giving a bad performance and why that Walnut St. Theatre audience was so angry with him. However instead of “coming to cues” and rushing through the rest of the performance, or signaling for the curtain to be brought down, or waiting for some man to decide that one of these things should be done, Mowatt walked downstage towards the angry mob who was preparing to hurl potentially deadly objects at the actors.
The woman had some guts.
Advancing to the front of the stage, I rapidly entreated their forbearance. What I said I have not the remotest idea; for I acted on impulse, and under strong excitement, believing that I was only preventing a gross injustice. Instantaneously every seat was resumed. A dead silence prevailed while I spoke, and applause took the place of hisses. There were too many true gentlemen present for Mr. C to have anything further to fear, little as he merited the defense. A faint attempt was made to conclude the play. The audience offered no opposition, and in a few minutes the curtain fell.4
Coming off stage after having risked the wrath of the Philadelphia audience and possible bodily harm, Mowatt finally learned the real reason for Crisp’s slovenly performance as Melnotte;
Mr. Mowatt was leading me to my dressing room when I overheard the Madame Deschapelles of the evening say to another lady, “He got no more than he deserved — I wish they had brickbatted him — the man was as drunk as he could be!”
“What a shame!” I involuntarily exclaimed, turning to Mr. Mowatt; “did you hear what that woman said?”
“Yes,” he replied, “and it is too true. I saw you did not suspect his situation, and purposely left you in ignorance.”5
Mowatt was incandescently angry. Not only had Crisp embarrassed himself by turning up drunk for a performance, Anna Cora felt humiliated at having mistakenly defended his behavior to the crowd. Although Mowatt would continue to perform love scenes multiple times a night with Crisp for the remaining year of his contract, she would never again speak to him off stage. Necessary communications between the two actors in rehearsals would be relayed via the prompter.
Equally chilly were the reviews of the show from Philadelphia press;
The Walnut Street Theatre was densely crowded on Monday evening, to witness the first appearance of the much talked of Dramatist and candidate for Histrionic Fame, Mrs. Cora Mowatt, author of the new and highly successful Comedy of “Fashion.”
The play was the “Lady of Lyons,” the part of Pauline by Mrs. M., and the entertainment would have been one of unalloyed gratification, but for the sad defection of the “Melnotte” of the piece, a Mr. Crisp, of New York, who, as was wittily remarked, in our hearing, really did up the character brown. – At an early stage of the performance, it was evident that he was either burlesquing the part or something worse. As the play advanced, his extraordinary gestures caused no little excitement in the audience, and in the last scene they broke out into a tempest of hisses. With a great firmness and presence of mind, Mrs. M. stepped forward and claimed indulgence for his efforts, and the affair closed with the usual shower of roses and wreaths.
Mrs. M. is evidently a gifted woman, and for a novice, was wonderfully successful. She is of petite but not remarkably graceful figure; a sweet, intelligent, pretty face, light complexion, and of remarkable nerve – a quality indispensable in her new profession.6
Crisp made a public apology at the next evening’s performance, claiming that he overindulged while dining out. However, the damage was done. “Lady of Lyons” played to half-filled houses for the rest of its run in the city. To add to the general misery, heavy rains set in.
In a scene in “Mimic Life” that I believe may be based on this nadir experience at the Walnut St. Theater, Mowatt describes the gloomy ambiance as follows;
The curtain rose. How cheerless looked those rows of half-empty boxes! The play had been worn threadbare: that circumstance, combined with the tempestuous weather, accounted for the meagre audience. Stella was only welcomed by a faint round, which chilled rather than inspirited her.7
Mowatt fell into a depression. In her autobiography, she wrote;
The painful impressions of that wretched night very nearly gave me a distaste for the profession — but I had not entered it for amusement.8
Crisp retreated to New York while Mowatt and the management of the Walnut Street Theatre arranged to salvage the situation by staging a production of “Fashion.” The show featured the renowned Mr. Wheatley in Crisp’s signature role of Count Jolimaitre. Mowatt made her first appearance as the show’s romantic heroine, Gertrude. The weather abated and the fashionable crowds were finally tempted back to the playhouse.
Enough wind returned to the Mowatts’ sails for a return to New York where they would endure the wilting summer heat at Niblo’s Garden Theatre and brave the scrutiny of the critical eye of none other than the notoriously sharp-tongued Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.
Horrors! See next week’s blog for the details.
1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 228.
2. Ibid, 229.
3. Ibid, 229-230.
4. Ibid, 230-231.
5. Ibid, 232.
6. “Mrs. Mowatt’s Debut.” Saturday Courier: Philadelphia, June 28, 1845. Page 3, col. 1.
7. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. Mimic Life. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston: 1856.) Page 124.
8. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 232.