Anna Cora Mowatt and The Lady at Niblo’s

PART IV: SUMMER THEATER IN NEW YORK AND EDGAR ALLAN POE

[This entry is a continuation of my multi-part series 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 this play, a full cast recording of the classic melodrama is available at Librivox ]

Because of the riot that took place there, Astor Place is the New York theater most mentioned when referencing the 1840s-50s. I talk about the Park a great deal because of the important firsts that Anna Cora Mowatt experienced in that venue. However, I think that Niblo’s Garden may give a better example of the exuberant flavor of the New York theatre scene from this period. The performances of “Lady of Lyons” in the summer of 1845 are worthy of examination, in my opinion, not because of any one particular outstanding incident, but rather for the snapshot they give us of the New York theatre world and how Mowatt and her audience were navigating her new-found celebrity.

Exterior of Niblo's Gardens
Exterior of Niblo’s Gardens

In a little over a month, Mowatt had gone from a nervous novice to an assured professional in the role of Pauline. Although she was no longer on speaking terms with her leading man, she felt quite secure with the character at this point and was hard at work learning other, more challenging roles to add to her repertoire. By December, she would have mastered over fifteen different characters that she would play in rotation while on tour.

The U.S. theatre world was not centered on Broadway at this time. Stars had to tour to make a living. They did not rely on one hit show as is the rule today, but typically played through a catalogue of around ten to twenty scripts in quick succession during a stay in a city. A leading actor might end up playing two or even three different roles in two or three different shows on a bill in a single night. It was a profession that required a great deal of discipline and stamina – to say the least.

Interior of Niblo's Gardens
Interior of Niblo’s Gardens

Mowatt does not write anything further about her portrayal of Pauline during this time in her autobiography. However in the semi-autobiographical “Mimic Life,” she reveals what was probably her secret for making one of the more credulity-straining scenes in Bulwer-Lytton’s script believable;

The drama of the “Lady of Lyons” has been so pertinaciously hunted down by critics that there is no temptation to dwell upon its striking situations. The author has planned a series of prominent points, all as unmistakable as sign-posts on a turnpike; a succession of dramatic traps, in which the hands of audiences are invariably taken captive. These Stella could not miss. It was only in the fifth act that she rose above her author, and filled out and perfected his incomplete portraiture. The gorgeous garments with which Pauline had bedecked herself, in the days of her untamed pride, were exchanged for a white muslin robe, fastened with bunches of purple violets, — the emblems of mourning, — and a few of these grief-betokening flowers were scattered among her disheveled locks.

That Pauline could not recognize her husband, after an absence of two years, because he wore a mustache, was habited in a military dress, and his presence was unanticipated, seemed an improbability which Stella reconciled by never lifting her eyes from the ground, as she addressed him in heartbroken accents. And, when he spoke, her sobs drowned the tones of the loved and well-known voice.

That Pauline’s confidential communication could have been made in a room occupied by her father, mother, affianced husband, the notary, etc., is an obvious absurdity when the words of the text are declaimed, according to custom, in an elevated tone. The credulity of the spectators is too largely drawn upon when they are required to believe that only two of the party present are not afflicted with deafness. But every word that Stella uttered was spoken in a whisper which, though distinct to the audience, conveyed the impression that it reached Claude’s ear alone. Thus unwonted reality was imparted to a scene which, albeit touching and effective, offends against probability. 1

Another profound significance of the Niblo’s Gardens production of “Lady of Lyons” that Mowatt neglects to mention is that this was the first time she acted opposite E.L. Davenport. In the past, I think may have stated that he played a minor role in a show she was in at this time. During my research for this blog entry, I discovered that Davenport was part of the cast of “Lady of Lyons” at Niblo’s in July of 1845. The role he played was Beauseant. This character is the show’s villain. I would estimate that Beauseant has the second greatest number of lines in the show. He appears in every act and has nearly as many scenes with Pauline as Claude Melnotte. This is not a minor role.

Ad for "Lady of Lyons" New York Herald, 1845
Ad for “Lady of Lyons” New York Herald, 1845

Given how upset the Mowatts were with William Crisp after the debacle at the Walnut St. Theatre, it is likely that they were already scouting for a replacement to become Anna Cora’s acting partner. It seems like they did less window-shopping than I had thought they did. Affable and versatile E.L. Davenport didn’t get a lot of attention from the newspaper reviewers for his turn as the scheming Beauseant. However, it seems he was in just the right place at just the right moment to make a positive impression on the Mowatts that would pay dividends for the rest of his life.

Niblo’s Gardens was at this time primarily a summer theater. William “Billy” Niblo had emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland as a teenager. Before age 20, he had acquired a large house which he converted to a coffee shop. He used profits from this venture to purchase a hotel, a tavern, and finally land that had been used as a circus fairgrounds. P.T. Barnum held one of his first exhibitions on this site in 1833. Niblo’s first theatre was what had been the fairground’s exhibition amphitheater. It was initially a large, open-air structure. (One of my sources referred to it as a “shed.”) The venue hosted variety of entertainments as well as theatre. Concerts, acrobats, fireworks, minstrel shows, dancing, and exhibitions shared the bill with plays. Productions typically featured forty minute intermissions that allowed patrons to visit the on-site beer garden or ice cream parlor.

William "Billy" Niblo
William “Billy” Niblo

Niblo’s was more family-friendly than theaters in the Bowery and catered to a more affluent clientele. Their official policy was that no un-escorted women would be admitted. This did not mean that unmarried ladies were unwelcome. The policy was a coded way of communicating that the management was pro-actively taking measures to see that prostitutes were not conducting business on the grounds as was considered a problem at other venues.

Despite the venue’s overt attempts to appeal to middle-class virtues, Edgar Allan Poe scolded Anna Cora Mowatt for choosing to play Niblo’s for her return to New York;

Mrs. Mowatt, at Niblo’s, has been the great theatrical attraction of the week. She has been very successful, drew large and fashionable as well as intellectual audiences, and elicited boisterous applause, with much of a kind less equivocal.

She has erred, we think, in making this arrangement – that is to say, she has somewhat injured the prestige of her name, first in appearing at a summer theatre, and secondly in appearing again at all after so brief an interval. Mrs. Mowatt owes it to herself to maintain a certain dignity; and, although this certain dignity be preposterous, in fact in the fiction of the world’s view it is all important. A lady so well-connected, and so well established in the public eye by her literary reputation, could have had no difficulty in coming upon the stage in her own fashion, and almost on her own terms. The Park, as the place of her debut, was, of course, unobjectionable, although in a negative sense. She lost no caste by coming out here, but the fact cannot be disputed that she would have gained much by first appearing in London, and presenting herself to her countrymen and countrywomen with the éclat of a foreign reputation. We say this, with a bitter sense of our national degradation, and subserviency to British opinion:–we say it, moreover, with a consciousness that Mrs. Mowatt should not have done this thing however much it would have furthered her interests.2

Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1845
Edgar Allan Poe, circa 1845

So, for Poe, there was actually no theatre in the U.S. that was prestigious enough for an actor wishing to establish a first rate reputation in the profession to make a serious professional debut.
In addition to the struggles that theater owners like Billy Niblo and the Park’s William Simpson were having trying to fight theatre’s “den of vice” image in the U.S. to establish an atmosphere that would draw a wider range of upper and middle-class patrons, Anna Cora Mowatt’s experiences with the press for “Lady of Lyons” give an example of how the economics of show business in New York interfered with theatre being taken seriously as an art form.

For this second round of performances of the play, several critics tried to leaven the overblown praise she had received from her debut with comments such the following;

The individual friends of Mrs. Mowatt, and a portion of the press, which lauds her to the skies, speak of the position she may attain, rather than that which she has attained. In the meantime, the excellence of the material she possesses to make an actress, and which has caused her successful debut, will keep alive the gallantry of audiences – who will overlook many of her faults, applaud all her beauties, and cheer her on in her road to lasting, not ephemeral fame.3

Despite such efforts to keep evaluation of her work firmly tethered to reality, it is clear that other writers were working from a motivation of boosting ticket sales. Published pieces such as the following frame Mowatt as an “attraction” rather than as an actress;

THE ATTRACTION AT NIBLO’S. – No one who has attended Niblo’s during the performances of Mrs. Mowatt, and witnessed the crowded and delighted audiences, can doubt the promptitude of a New York public to welcome genuine talent of native growth whenever it manifests itself. This lady has been justly described as a sort of female Kean; and yet, while many of her effects are the result of true genius, she shows all the advantages of a careful and judicious histrionic training.4

Exterior of Niblo's
Exterior of Niblo’s

Of course, the above is not a review of the play. It is a piece of publicity that was probably paid for by Mr. Niblo – who needed to sell tickets and beer and ice cream. The same is likely to be true of the following as well;

NIBLO’S GARDEN. – Mrs. Mowatt is attracting crowded and overflowing saloons. Her popularity is actually on the increase. Nothing can exceed the excitement her appearance creates. Parties come from the neighboring watering places, and Rockaway and New Rochelle are quite deserted the evenings Mrs. M. acts at Niblo’s. She is to again delight a fashionable saloon to-night by her personation of Pauline.5

Although they were not drama reviews, these two pieces of advertising and others like them appeared in the same newspapers that would carry serious critiques. They are an example of a common phenomenon that plagues us today – publicity masquerading as reporting. The real drama critics felt they needed to respond to the outrageously overblown claims in such puff pieces. Therefore even though the reviewers are trying to be more even-handed and realistic in their comments, we still get critiques of “Lady of Lyons” in July of 1845 that focus so narrowly on Mowatt’s portrayal of Pauline –the character who, by line distribution, should get third billing – that the reviewers sometimes forget to mention the name of the actor who played the main character.

One of the New York reviewers taking his job very seriously was a Mr. Edgar Allan Poe of the short-lived Broadway Journal. Poe had reviewed “Fashion’s” run at the Park twice. He attended almost every showing. The performance of “Lady of Lyon’s,” however, would be his first time to see Mowatt herself. After his remarks about Niblo’s, Poe commenced his review of the show with a stirring defense of the Theatrical Arts that some enterprising soul should sift through and select excerpts to turn into pieces of graphic art to emblazon the t-shirts, dorm walls, and phone cases of Drama Majors world-wide;

We have no sympathies with the prejudices which would entirely have dissuaded Mrs. Mowatt from the stage. There is no cant more contemptible than that which habitually decries the theatrical profession–a profession which, in itself, embraces all that can elevate and ennoble, and absolutely nothing to degrade. If some–if many–or if even nearly all of its members are dissolute, this is an evil arising not from the profession itself, but from the unhappy circumstances which surround it. With these circumstances Mrs. Mowatt has, at present, no concern. With talents, enthusiasm, and energy, she will both honor the stage and derive from it honor. In the mere name of actress she can surely find nothing to dread–nothing, or she would be unworthy of the profession–not the profession unworthy her. The theatre is ennobled by its high facilities for the development of genius-facilities not afforded elsewhere in equal degree. By the spirit of genius, we say, it is ennobled–it is sanctified–beyond the sneer of the foul or the cant of the hypocrite. The actor of talent is poor at heart indeed, if he do not look with contempt upon the mediocrity even of a king. The writer of this article is himself the son of an actress–has invariably made it his boast–and no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of his descent from a woman who, although well-born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty.6

Although this is a lovely piece of writing that makes all us with a BFA in Acting stand a bit higher in our Capezios, Poe is reacting here to the chatter surrounding Mowatt rather than responding directly to the play itself. Mowatt’s status as a celebrity again threatens to overshadow serious consideration of her work as an artist. She is not just an actress in a play. She is a controversial media event.

Like a London newspaper critic, Poe moves on to give us his evaluation of “Lady of Lyon’s” literary merits even though this is a familiar play to New York audiences;

On the play itself we have lately seen some strictures which seem to us unjust. We regard it as one of the most successful dramatic efforts of modern times. It is popular, and justly so. It could not fail to be popular so long as the people have a heart. It abounds with sentiments which stir the soul as the sound of a trumpet. It proceeds rapidly, and consequentially: the interest not for one moment being permitted to flag. Its incidents are admirably conceived, and wrought into execution with great skill. Its dramatis personae throughout, have the high merit of being natural, although, except in the case of Pauline, there is no marked individuality. She is a creation which would have done no dishonor to Shakspeare–and she excites in us the most profound emotion. It has been sillily objected to her that she is weak, mercenary, and at points ignoble. She is–and what then? We are not dealing with Clarissa Harlowe. Bulwer wished to paint a woman, and has done so. The principal defect of the play lies in the heroine’s consenting to wed Beauseant, while aware of the existence and even of the continued love of Claude. As the plot runs, there is a question in Pauline’s soul between a comparatively trivial, because mere worldly, injury to her father, and utter ruin and despair inflicted upon her husband. Here there should have been not an instant’s hesitation. The audience have no sympathy with any. Nothing on earth should have induced the wife to give up the living Melnotte. Only the assurance of his death could have justified her in sacrificing herself to Beauseant. As it is we hate her for the sacrifice. The effect is repulsive–at war with the whole genius of the play.7

I included Poe’s evaluation of Bulwer’s script because, as I frequently say, time and taste has not been kind to early Victorian melodrama. In Poe, we have a writer whose work is still readable and enjoyable today. Here is an intelligent, thoughtful person who saw these plays performed live. Poe’s evaluation reflects the status this play carried in 1845, not the half-apologetic, heavily footnoted manner I present it to you today.

Interior of Niblo's Garden
Interior of Niblo’s Garden

Poe begins his assessment of Mowatt’s acting, not like a drama critic, but like a novelist. He describes her in exquisite detail;

We have never had the pleasure of seeing her before–and we presume that there are many of our readers who have never seen her. Her figure is slight–even fragile–but eminently graceful. Her face is a remarkably fine one, and of that precise character best adapted to the stage. The forehead is the least prepossessing feature, although it is by no means an unintellectual one. The eyes are grey, brilliant, and expressive, without being full. The nose is well formed, with the Roman curve, and strongly indicative of energy; this quality is also shown in the prominence of the chin. The mouth is somewhat large, with brilliant and even teeth, and flexible lips, capable of the most effective variations of expression. A more radiantly beautiful smile we never remember having seen. Mrs. Mowatt has also the personal advantage of a profusion of rich auburn hair.8

The almost caressing attention Poe lavishes on this and other descriptions of Mowatt has caused some enthusiasts to give her a tentative place in the list of “Poe’s Women.” However, I have not yet come across any evidence of encounters between the two of them outside the theater. His eloquence seems to spring from a love of beauty and his artistic eye for detail. He goes on to describe her overall stage technique;

Her manner on the stage is distinguished by an ease and self-possession which would do credit to a veteran. Her step is very graceful and assured–indeed all her movements evince the practised elocutionist. We watched her with the closest scrutiny throughout the whole play, and not for one instant did we observe her in an attitude of the least awkwardness, or even constraint, while many of her seemingly impulsive gestures spoke in loud terms of the woman of genius–of the poet deeply imbued with the truest sentiment of the beauty of motion.

Her voice is rich and voluminous, and although by no means powerful, is so well managed as to seem so. Her utterance is singularly distinct–its sole blemish being an occasional Anglicism of accent, adopted probably from her instructor. Her reading could scarcely be improved. In this respect no actress in America is her equal–for she reads not theatrically, but with the emphasis of Nature. Indeed the great charm of the whole acting of Mrs. Mowatt is its naturalness. She moves, looks, and speaks with a well-controlled impulsiveness as can be conceived from the customary rant and cant–the hack conventionality of the stage. If she does not suffer herself to be badgered out of this good path it will lead her inevitably to the highest distinction–a very proud triumph will assuredly be hers.9

For me this description is particularly valuable – not because it is a famous person commenting on another famous person – but because Poe gets specific about elements of Mowatt’s performance technique that are not changed by stage conventions that were in style at that day. He seeks to tell us how her voice sounded, whether or not she seemed graceful when she moved, and how mobile her features were when conveying emotion. These are all things we can still understand and use to envision how she might have appeared on stage even though we may not ever be able to completely grasp what the Victorians meant by correctly playing “points” or executing an aside perfectly.

Poe doesn’t forget the nominal star of “Lady of Lyons.” He tells us that Mowatt would have been better off playing Pauline opposite Edwin Forrest. (The choice of this more muscular performer as the poetry-spouting hero of the play surprised me until I remembered that Claude Melnotte also fights a duel in the play and wrestles a pistol away from Beauseant.) William Crisp, he advises, should stick to light comic roles like Count Jolimaitre.

In this article, by focusing on Mowatt’s assets as a performer I feel he was able to strike a fair balance in evaluating the actress realistically without falling into the trap of playing into the hype surrounding her at this point in her career. He was able to be quite specific about her strengths as an actress independent of the size of the role that she was playing and in a manner that is still intelligible to us today.

Other reviews written about her from this summer are more ambiguous and a bit difficult to interpret because the critic is struggling to find just this sort of equilibrium. The bulk of the critiques broadly translate as, “She’s pretty good – not as good as some people are saying she is, of course…Nobody’s that good – Let’s just be real… And not as good as she can be.. and we hope will be… She’s definitely improving. Not bad. Not perfect. Pretty darn good, though.”

And what did Anna Cora Mowatt think of her newfound status as a celebrity and the sort of response she was receiving from the press? She skips over this period in her autobiography, but in “Mimic Life” she has the character Stella reflect at an equivalent point in her career;

Stella’s debut and second appearance had only been chronicled in the public journals by a few stereotyped phrases, emanating probably from the licensed puffer of the theatre; but now the clarion note of praise was loudly sounded. The press awoke from its apathy; the tide of popular approval bore her aloft on its triumphant waves. The fickle public had already forgotten the worshipped Lydia Talbot, and with ready hands lifted a new idol upon her empty pedestal. 10

Fortune seemed to be smiling on the Mowatts once more. How long would it last? Read next week’s blog to find out!

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of Niblo's Gardens
Anna Cora Mowatt and images of Niblo’s Gardens

1. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. Mimic Life. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston: 1856.) Page 124.
2. Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Drama.” The Broadway Journal. July 19, 1845. Page 29, col. 1.
3. “Niblo’s.” New York Atlas. July 20, 1845. Page 2, col 6.
4. “The Attraction at Niblo’s.” New York Herald. July 17, 1845. Page 3, col. 5.
5. “Niblo’s.” New York Herald. July 16, 1845. Page 3, col.3.
6. Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Drama.” The Broadway Journal. July 19, 1845. Page 29, col. 1.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. Mimic Life. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston: 1856.) Page 128.

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