PART V: THE PARTNERSHIP THAT WASN’T
In May of 1846, Anna Cora Mowatt was back at the Park Theatre in New York. She was once more performing the role that had made her famous in a new production of “Lady of Lyons.” Her torturous contract with William Crisp had finally expired and now she was starring opposite suave, accomplished tragedian, George Vandenhoff. The critics were singing their praises. There was already chatter in the press about a possible European tour for Mowatt. British-born Vandenhoff would seem an ideal pick for an acting partner. Why didn’t things work out between the two of them?
Mowatt skims quickly over the eventful first year of her career in her autobiography. Following her lead, her biographers do as well. Traipsing trustingly along after all of them, I have followed suit until I started doing research for this series of entries on her performances as Pauline. Since “Lady of Lyons” was both the first and final script she chose to perform, I am using this research project as an opportunity to compile a master list of Mowatt’s roles for my website. Checking newspaper reviews and advertisements for shows, I find that there are a few items worth mentioning that writers like Eric Wollencott Barnes and Marius Blesis have omitted or stated in a manner that is difficult to grasp.
First, I want to clarify the claim that Mowatt mastered fifteen roles in her first year on the stage. I have repeated this statement several times and even put it on an infographic. The truth is she had added fifteen roles to her repertoire within the first five months. By my count, she had performed at least twenty-three different roles at years end. One article mentions that she had played Rosalind and Viola in New Orleans as well. However since I can’t find any ads or reviews to confirm this, I have not added these characters to my total. She may have performed monologues from these roles. It is, however, possible that she committed to memory and played twenty-five to twenty-seven different roles in her first year as an actress.
This is an astounding accomplishment.
Her sustained level of effort is staggering. The entire time she was performing, she was also memorizing and rehearsing new roles. The Mowatts were touring at this time as well. They performed in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Mobile, Louisville, Saratoga, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Charleston, and New Orleans. There may have also been stops at cities along the route without playhouses where Mowatt performed public readings of poetry and dramatic monologues. She references this type of performance in her second year on tour in her autobiography.
Travel was difficult and time-consuming. Parts of the journey would be via train, steamboat, and horse-drawn carriage. And yet, Mowatt managed to get in over two hundred performances during this first year on stage.
Blesis and Barnes do mention that Mowatt began to take lessons from J.W.S. Hows around the fall of 1846. Hows was a former elocutionist now serving as the drama critic for the Albion. He was at times a stern critic of Mowatt’s work. Hows’ reviews demonstrate that he was not being condescending or dismissive merely to make a show of not buying into the media feeding frenzy surrounding her debut. He had high standards and a background of professional experience in England on which to base those judgements. Mowatt had great respect for Hows. She went to him to train before attempting her first Shakespearean roles.
I think her ambition for a European tour may have been inspired or at least intensified by the arrival of Charles Kean and his wife Ellen Tree for a tour of the U.S. that summer. William Macready’s visit to the Eastern seaboard that culminated in the Astor Place riots has become notorious in the annals of Theatre History. However, both before and after that debacle, stars of the English stage were able to reap great financial rewards from making the rounds of the scattered American playhouses. The Keans were lionized by the U.S. press and audiences. Anna Cora Mowatt appeared on the bill with them at Niblo’s Garden. Her path crossed the couple’s several times during their tour. The Mowatts had to be impressed by the kind of box office the Keans were drawing. Anna Cora seemed to take particular note of Ellen Tree’s choice of roles. She would add several of them to her repertoire in the coming year. Having a number of Shakespeare’s heroines at ready would be mandatory if she hoped for any success in London.
The list of characters played by Mowatt during this time tells a story of her and Crisp attempting to minimize friction in their professional relationship, in my opinion. Rather than the sentimental romances that she and E.L. Davenport would favor during the heyday of their partnership, Mowatt and Crisp more often played lovers in light comedies that have antagonistic relationships for most of the plot or melodramas where their characters are estranged for long periods of time. The two seemed to avoid scripts that called for many tender scenes that would call for them to spend a lot of time in clinches proclaiming their love for each other.
This turn towards comedy was probably a very good move for Mowatt in terms of her development as an actress. Given the financial pressures driving her and the unexpectedly enthusiastic reception of her debut performance at the Park, I think it’s possible that if Mowatt had begun her career partnered with a performer like Davenport, her focus in choosing roles might have been on guaranteeing maximum box office success. If she didn’t have to worry about choosing plays that stayed within her leading man’s skill set and minimized the number of love scenes she would have to play with him, I think it’s probable that she might have quickly succumbed to audience pressure to stereotype herself in typical ingénue roles like proud Pauline or “Fashion’s” sweet, pretty Gertrude.
With William Crisp at her side, Mowatt became a skilled comedienne. Instead of sticking to pure, spirited, but virtuous maidens like Helene Faucit was playing on the London stage, Mowatt expanded her range into the sort of sarcastic and witty women’s roles that Madame Vestris had made her specialty. Playing characters such as Lady Gay Spanker in “London Assurance,” Lady Teazle in “School for Scandal,” and the Duchess de Torrenueva in “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady” demanded that Mowatt not simply look and sound lovely, but be a master of comic timing as well.
Perhaps it was this skill in comedy that added to what reviewers praised as the “naturalness” of her acting. It is possible that she was comfortable in adding small, humanizing moments of gentle humor to add a sense of reality to the high tension world of Victorian melodrama. This is mere speculation. However, for the rest of her career, critics praised how well-suited she was for playing comedy. By necessity, her first year with William Crisp inspired her to immediately develop an impressive repertoire of favored roles of comic hits of the day.
Unlike Crisp, who had caused trouble for the company in Philadelphia by refusing to forego playing Claude Melnotte in favor of allowing William Wheatley to take a turn at the leading role, in going through the listings for this first year of tour dates, I found, to my delight, that Anna Cora Mowatt was willing to learn a second role in a play to accommodate the needs of the company. Although Mowatt initially learned the role of Lady Gay in Dion Boucicault’s “London Assurance,” advertising in October of 1845 shows her switching to the character of Grace Harkaway. William Crisp had gotten married. A Mrs. Crisp was added to the company and appeared in the plum role of Lady Gay. Crisp was playing Dazzle, the comic accomplice to the play’s romantic lead, Charles Courtly.
In another switch, on at least two occasions Mowatt gave up the role of the Duchess de Torrenueva in J. R. Planche’s “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady” to member of the touring company, Mrs. Farren. Mowatt instead donned breeches and played the part of precocious fifteen-year-old King Charles II. These role-swaps were for her special benefit performances at the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans on March 31st and at the Park Theatre on May 8th. I point this out with particular emphasis because you may remember from my blog on Mowatt’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s Rosalind, that the usually very thorough biographers, Blesis and Barnes, both insisted that the actress didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t possibly play breeches roles. Well, folks, King Charles in “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady” is a breeches role. There is simply no other way to define it. We’ll put this matter aside for further discussion in a future blog…
Finally, during this important year of growth and exploration for Mowatt, E.L. Davenport was closer at hand than I had ever realized. He did not merely have one small part in one show during her stay at Niblo’s, he had sizeable parts in several of the productions. He was one of Mowatt’s co-stars for “Bride of Lammermoor,” — another important early success for the actress. Unlike his portrayal of Beauseant in “Lady of Lyons,” Davenport was singled out for positive notice by the critics for his efforts in this show.
Even if Davenport and the Mowatts did not socialize off-stage, Anna Cora and James had ample opportunity to observe at close range Davenport’s level of professional accomplishment, work ethic, and social skills in practical application for a little over two months while they were all under contract at Niblo’s Garden. During the couple’s travels, the actor was often in productions at different theaters in the same city. Even if they had no free time to go see shows he was in, reviews and word of mouth – positive or negative – about Davenport could be reaching them through the theatre world grapevine. E.L. Davenport might not have always been at the top of the Mowatt’s short list of candidates to become Anna Cora’s acting partner, but he would be a performer who would have been on their radar at several points during that first year of her acting career.
Despite efforts the Mowatts might have been making to accommodate Crisp, reviews seem to indicate a worsening situation with the actor in the winter of 1845. At best, Crisp continued to be ignored by critics in favor of Mowatt. With more frequency, the actor was singled out for negative comment. In New Orleans, he was even panned for a performance as Count Jolimaitre – a role he had originated. The critic for the Daily Tropic gave this damning evaluation of his interpretation;
Mr. Fleming and Mr. Skerret were most excellent, but the part of Count de Jolemaitre is repulsive in the play and made insufferably so by the affectations of Mr. Crisp. We venture to say that a more disagreeable personation of character was never witnessed on the St. Charles stage.1
In March and April, Mowatt cancelled tour dates due to illnesses brought on by nervous exhaustion. It is easy to see how her punishing schedule could have brought on accompanying physical ailments. However it is also very possible that there was tension, anxiety, and conflicts within the Mowatts’ touring company in anticipation of the expiration of Crisp’s contract.
Anna Cora Mowatt might have remained discreetly silent on circumstances surrounding William Crisp’s departure as her leading man; however the New York newspapers were openly jubilant. Here at last was an opportunity to see their favorite Pauline opposite a Claude truly worthy of her.
At the Park Theatre last night, Mrs. Mowatt and Mr. Vandenhoff played in “The Lady of Lyons” to a house crowded in every part. Of Mr. Vandenhoff’s “Claude Melnotte” it is sufficient to say that it was a most artistic and every way satisfactory performance; fully worthy of his high reputation as an accomplished actor. And as to Mrs. Mowatt’s “Pauline,” – it was the first character she ever performed on any stage and nothing could be better devised by her for the purpose of demonstrating the rapid and solid advancement she had made since the night of her debut than the choice of this charming but arduous character. Besides this, she, on this occasion, has the support of Mr. Vandenhoff instead of Mr. Crisp’s by no means adequate assistance.2
Vandenhoff was an English import with an impressive pedigree. He was the son of actor John Vandenhoff and brother of Charlotte Vandenhoff. He debuted at Covent Garden with Madame Vestris and Charles Matthew. After arriving in the U.S. in 1842, he had quickly achieved recognition not only for his interpretations of Shakespeare, but also as an author. Vandenhoff published volumes on elocution in 1844 and 1845. In May of 1846, critical opinion of him was at high ebb in New York. As one review of his and Mowatt’s performance in “Love’s Sacrifice” ended;
Mr. Vandenhoff is an actor of the good old school. He brings a highly educated mind, nice judgement, and good appreciation to aid him in his efforts – many of which are of a high order. He will be well patronized.3
For a London tour, Vandenhoff’s contacts would have been invaluable to Mowatt. It is also possible that in the same way that playing opposite William Crisp pushed Mowatt to attempt comedic roles she might not have otherwise attempted, having George Vandenhoff as an acting partner might have prompted her to try her hand at a selection of “heavy tragedy” roles. Critics have said she was physically unsuited to play characters like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Queen Katherine. The truth is, she never tried. The same people, having only seen her play roles like Pauline and Gertrude might have proclaimed her unable to play roles like the sarcastic and naughty Lady Gay and Lady Teazle.
Given Vandenhoff’s multitude of obvious advantages as a partner, why didn’t the Mowatts offer him a contract? Anna Cora makes no mention of the actor in her book, which is a little odd given his fame at the time of the publication of her autobiography and the degree to which she had idolized his father, John Vandenhoff. The elder Vandenhoff was her acknowledged inspiration for becoming a Public Reader.
Mowatt does, however, describe an unpleasant engagement with a tragedian who I am convinced is a fictionalized George Vandenhoff in the semi-autobiographical “Mimic Life;”
After half an hour’s delay, Mr. Tennent made a pompous entrance. The stage echoed with his heavy tread. His deep, sonorous voice, as he issued some despotic orders, his imperious bearing, his athletic frame, cast in one of nature’s rudest molds, inspired Stella with a feeling akin to awe.
Mr. Belton presented him.
“Sorry you’ve got me a novice I detest acting with amateurs!” was his audible observation, as he eyed the young girl with supercilious scrutiny. “Poor Lydia! We shan’t soon see her match again.” He turned on his heel without addressing a single syllable to the discomfited novice.
“And he is to enact Virginius!” thought Stella to herself. “How will I ever imagine myself his daughter? If he had only spoken one word to me, it would make such a difference!”
Rehearsal commenced. To Stella’s great surprise, Mr. Tennent rattled over the language of his role in the same senseless manner as the other actors, pausing now and then to explain his particular “business,” and ejaculating “Brute!” in an under-tone, every time some unfortunate individual failed to comprehend him.4
Stella performs many of the same catalogue of shows with the performer she terms “the supercilious, exacting, self-sufficient tragedian” Mr. Tennent that Mowatt did with Vandenhoff — including a turn as Pauline to his Claude Melnotte. After considering several other possible candidates for a real life correspondent for Tennent, I finally settled on Vandenhoff for a number of reasons. First, Stella’s experience with Mr. Tennent is all the more painful because she is a novice. Vandenhoff was one of the small group of Mowatt’s early leading men. Second, there are details of the physical description that I think fit with him well. Most importantly, though, of the number of performers that Tennent could be, Vandenhoff has the most anecdotal evidence to support the characterization in “Mimic Life.” Although lionized by the critics, Vandenoff had a bad reputation with his fellow players in the U.S. It is not difficult to find anecdotes like the following from Lester Wallack about the actor;
I first met George Vandenhoff at the Broadway Theatre, where it seems he had made an engagement with Colonel Mann, in which he stipulated that he should not be held inferior to anyone in the company. In other words he was to be strictly the leading man. When Mr. Blake came into the stage management he advocated making a star theatre of it, and among other stars he engaged was my cousin, Mr. James Wallack, Jr. The opening play was “Othello,” in which Wallack was cast for Othello, as a matter of course, and Vandenhoff for Iago. About half past six, the curtain being supposed to rise at seven, there was no Mr. Vandenhoff in the theatre. They sent a message to his lodgings or his hotel, or wherever he was, to know whether he was aware of the lateness of the hour. The messenger came back and reported that Mr. Vandenhoff was out and had left no word as to when he would return. The time approached for the commencement of the performance. Mr. Wallack was waiting, dressed for Othello. I was waiting, dressed for Cassio, which I was to play that night; everybody was waiting, dressed for everything. No Mr. Vandenhoff, no message, until about five minutes before the curtain should have risen, when a note did arrive at last from him, explaining that as his name in the bills and advertisements did not appear in equal prominence with Mr. Wallack’s, he did not intend to play at all.5
Also indicative of how Vandenhoff was viewed by his peers is how upset people were by perceived snubs of U.S. performers and slights of British actors in his 1860 memoir, “Dramatic Reminiscences, or Actors and Actresses in England and America” as the following rather vehement review makes clear;
Mr. George Vandenhoff takes great trouble to impress upon our minds whose son he is. His father’s virtue he parades, laying great stress on the fact that he never disgraced his profession, but was always, on the contrary, an ornament to it. This, we have no doubt, is true enough; Mr. John Vandenhoff was one of the men of which the stage might be proud; would we could say as much for his son George. But why make such a feature of this? Are there no other actors who have never degraded their profession, and who remain ornaments to it at the present day? Are actors now so immoral that a virtuous man amongst them is a novelty? Such, at all events, appears to be the opinion of Mr. George Vandenhoff, judging probably by the society he has moved in. The only excuse that can be made for him is that he must have been unfortunate in his associates.
Mr. Vandenhoff was brought up to the profession of the law, but through being disappointed in love, determined to go upon the stage. Alas what has that unfortunate young lady who declined the proffered hand of Mr. V to answer for, to the law for its loss, and to the country for the loss in the law of one who might ere now have graced the woolsack. Whether the loss is greater to the law or to Mr. Vandenhoff would be an interesting problem for the metaphysician to attempt to solve, but too profound for us to enter upon.
Our hero appears to have met with little difficulty in his attempt to win the favour of the presiding genius of the histrionic art. He presents himself to Madame Vestris, at Covent-Garden Theatre. She engages him at once, at a salary of eight pounds per week. Hear that, ye young aspirants for tragic fame: ye whose visions have pictured to you years of hard work and small pay, before you could reach a position like this! Yes, but you are not Vandenhoff’s. Now how does Mr. Vandenhoff reward Madame Vestris for this kindness? He rakes the gutters and kennels of calumny to pick up any dirty piece of gossip he can use to garnish his dainty dish. No matter how filthy – it will suit his purpose. Coarse jokes, stale stories, obscene adventures which had been buried for years, and might have been forgotten ere now, are fished up out of the sewers of scandal, to be given to the world as a delicious morsel, by the immortal author of this book. Fie, son of old John Vandenhoff!6
To summarize, from what I have gathered from mentions of him in memoirs and diaries of his peers, Vandenhoff was quite sold on his own importance and not afraid to throw his weight around. He does not seem to have been impressed with Anna Cora Mowatt’s nouveau-celebrity status in 1846. He makes no mention of her in his memoir. Looking at the issue dispassionately from his point of view, there is little reason why she might seem like a significant entrant into the theatre world.
Although there were many advantages to the Mowatts in aligning themselves with Vandenhoff, the reverse was not true. Anna Cora was not a member of a theatrical family dynasty like Vandenhoff. She had not spent enough time coming up through the ranks to have gained an impressive collection of powerful friends and allies among actors, managers, and other decision-makers in the business. Mowatt was a successful playwright and novelist. However, living playwrights were not generally very high-status in the Victorian theatrical world. The literary output of women was considered particularly dubious by many men. It was true that Mowatt was a darling of the press at that moment, but fame could be fleeting and Vandenhoff wasn’t suffering for good notices.
If Mowatt and Vandenhoff were modern celebrities, their respective press agents would probably put out statements that summer saying that rumors of a partnership between the two were completely unfounded. It was never in the works, their people might declare. Mr. Vandenhoff was fully booked for months to come and had no plans to return to Europe or thoughts of engaging an acting partner. Any speculation in that area was probably just an attempt to drum up publicity for the Park Theater’s very successful production of “Lady of Lyons” and other box office favorites in which the two stars had worked together so splendidly.
However, I am of the opinion that Vandenhoff ticked off too many boxes on the Mowatts’ wish-list of a potential partner for them not to have gone into the May engagement without some hopes of scouting him as a possible addition to their touring company. His London connections as well as his credentials as an elocutionist would seem to make him terribly tempting. I think they were probably very disappointed to find out that in addition to displaying no interest in a joint venture, Vandenhoff just wasn’t a very nice person.
Meanwhile, though, during the same week that Mowatt and Vandenhoff performed “Lady of Lyons” at the Park, E.L. Davenport – who contemporaries declare was a nice person almost to a fault — was across town playing Claude Melnotte at the Bowery Theatre opposite another old friend of the Mowatts’, Mrs. Melinda Jones.
Next week – Mowatt finally finds… or rather re-boots her perfect leading man!
1. “Mrs. Mowatt’s Comedy of Fashion.” Daily Tropic: New Orleans. Wednesday, March 25, 1846, Page 2, col. 3.
2. “Dramatic and Musical.” New York Evening Express. May 8, 1846. Page 3, col. 2.
3. “Theatricals.” New York Atlas. May 17, 1846. Page 2, col. 4.
4. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. Mimic Life. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston: 1856.) Page 67.
5. Wallack, Lester. “Memories of the Last Fifty Years.” Scribner’s Magazine, Volume IV, July-December, 1888. Page 421.
6. “Reviews of New Books.” The Players, No. 2, Monday, January 9, 1860. Page 11.