Anna Cora Mowatt and Notes on G.H. Lewes’ “The Noble Heart”

I will return to my series on “The Lady of Lyons” next week, however, some months ago, a volunteer cast of readers and I began creating a recording of G.H. Lewes’ “The Noble Heart” for Librivox. The play is now available for download. As promised, the experience of hearing the play voiced gave me certain insights into this script I did not have when I last wrote about it. In part, these opinions were inspired from the alchemy of hearing the lines spoken. Admittedly, though, much came from the purely practical experience of having read and listened to the dialogue many, many times as I edited the project into final form. I also continued to gather historical information on the writing of the script. Here, then, are my additional observations on “Noble Heart:”

THE CHARACTER OF HERMAN – In my earlier entries, I talked about the character of Herman, the monk, as being a metaphorical representative of Faith. By this, I indicated that he was a stand-in for the Catholic Church. This characterization of that role is misleading. Herman is an advocate for the concept of faith, but in a broader sense than I was indicating. Although Lewes identifies him as a monk, Herman is really more of a hermit. He is not so much Lewes’ representation of a member of an organized religion as he is an avatar of sanctity. Herman encourages Don Gomez at several points in the script to take the leap of faith that will be necessary to overcome de la Vega’s pride and passion and to live an aesthetic life where honor is the nobleman’s one and only priority.

George Henry Lewes
George Henry Lewes

Herman is a Cassandra-like character. He functions in the play as a type of a one-man Greek chorus, warning of the impending disastrous consequences of the actions of other characters. He poses hard moral questions to the lead players that they usually dismiss too easily — ultimately to their detriment. Herman’s arrival in Act II heightens the sense of looming, inevitable tragedy in the play.

“NOBLE HEART” AS SPANISH RENAISSANCE DRAMA – In 1846, G.H. Lewes published “The Spanish Drama: Lope de Vega and Calderon.”1 The work seeks to introduce the English public to the lives and works of two of the foremost authors of the Spanish Renaissance. Until I started doing research into this play, I was not aware there was so much primary source material available from this era. I do not recall having ever seen significant mention of the Spanish Renaissance included in surveys of Theatre History. This is really rather remarkable because hundreds of intact manuscripts of plays from this period have survived in full from the 1600s. Detailed biographies of the playwrights are also available. The texts are written in Spanish – a language that is spoken and read by people all over the world. I think the absence of Spanish Renaissance Drama from Theatre History textbooks is a testament to an unfortunate side-effect of the overwhelming emphasis historians give to Shakespearean theatre. Although Shakespeare’s lasting impact is undeniable, a narrow focus on the Bard does tend to crowd out all other developments in performance around the globe from this period.

In “Noble Heart,” Lewes very lovingly blended Spanish renaissance performance traditions with Victorian tastes in popular drama. For an audience member who had read Lewes’ 1846 book, the play would have been filled with allusions to people and places frequently mentioned in Spanish drama. If YouTube existed in that day, a hard-core Lewes fan might have posted a video entitled, “Top 20 Spanish Renaissance Easter Eggs in ‘Noble Heart.’” Even the family name of the play’s protagonists – de la Vega – might have been a tip of the hat to playwright Lope de Vega. Juanna could possibly reference writer Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.

Anna Cora Mowatt, circa 1850
Anna Cora Mowatt, circa 1850

For me, the most significant way Lewes chose to emulate Spanish Renaissance tradition is that at the crux of “Noble Heart” is a conflict between love and honor. As I will discuss in the next section, the plot is not about a melodramatic clash between sharply contrasting forces of good and evil. The story is both an emotional and philosophical conflict. Even if we ignore the metaphysical debates that Lewes includes and choose to look only at the drama of a father and son falling in love with the same woman, “Noble Heart” can remind us of today’s telenovelas – which can also trace their long lineage back to the Spanish Renaissance.

I believe this topic deserves a much more in-depth exploration than I could possibly provide in this format. I think that a researcher with a better grounding in Spanish cultural and performative traditions as well as more extensive knowledge of Lewes’ works – particularly those on philosophy – could easily find material for a fascinating paper, thesis, or even dissertation project in “Noble Heart.”

Playbill for "Noble Heart" 1850
Playbill for “Noble Heart” 1850

“NOBLE HEART” IS NOT ACTUALLY A MELODRAMA – In the past few weeks I have become so discontented with the term “melodrama” that I am considering weeding the word from my vocabulary. This aversion is the result my having viewed a number of lectures online on the subject of 19th century theatre history. [If you wish to cultivate a deep sense of dissatisfaction concerning any topic in which you have a passionate interest, listen to a snarky grad student gabble through a lecture on it to a class of bored undergrads.] I have come to realize that while I tend to use the word “melodrama” employing the more general, dictionary definition, it might be more appropriate for me to go by the stricter delineation of the term as used by theatre historians. The only problem with such a greater exercise of academic rigor on my part would be that by 1845, none of the plays I’ve been calling melodramas actually match that classification.

A Victorian melodrama, according to the lectures I listened to and references I consulted, has the following six stock characters:

  • a hero
  • a villain
  • the heroine
  • an aged parent
  • a sidekick
  • a servant of the aged parent
  • Melodrama is characterized by sensational plots about love and murder. The storyline is usually episodic, starting with a threat from the villain and followed by various exciting complications until we reach the hero’s rescue of the heroine and the inevitable happy end. The basic theme of melodrama centers on a clash between good versus evil.

    Although “Noble Heart” is melodramatic in that it deals with a highly emotional situation for the characters, it does not qualify as a Victorian melodrama as defined by the above characteristics. The play does not have the proper configuration of characters. There is no clear villain. The plot is all wrong. Although Don Gomez and Don Leon share the spotlight as protagonists, both take actions that jeopardize the outcome of their romance with Juanna.

    I would also not wish to call G.H. Lewes’ Don Gomez, Don Leon, Herman, or Juanna mere one-dimensional, “stock” characters. They are not mere cookie-cutter duplicates of similar characters from other plays. They may not be as complex as some characters in modern scripts, but they do have psychological depth.

    Gustavus V. Brooke, 1851
    Gustavus V. Brooke, 1851

    The central conflict in “Noble Heart” is not a simplistic conflict of the clearly defined forces of good versus evil. It is an emotional exploration of the theme of love versus honor in tribute to the style of Spanish Renaissance Drama. The stage directions do call for a church organ to be played during the wedding scene in Act III, thus fulfilling one of the classic requirements of the genre – the inclusion of music. However, other than that, it appears that “Noble Heart” is not a melodrama.

    I wouldn’t be disturbed by this conclusion were it not for the fact that when I tried to apply these characteristics to every other mid-century popular drama that I have encountered thus far in connection with Mowatt – “Armand,” “The Lady of Lyons,” “The Hunchback,” “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady,” “Which is The King?” “Dream of Life,” ”The Witch Wife,” “Ion,” etc. I came to a similar conclusion. None of them could be fairly described using the definition of Victorian melodrama promulgated by theatre historians.

    Walter Watts’ “Dream of Life” came closest. This script was written, I believe, as a nostalgic treat for the Marylebone Theatre audience in the style that was already out of date when it was produced in 1847. At that, the theme is not clearly good versus evil, but is instead has a central message that is a bit morally ambiguous. Again, there is no clearly defined villain. The hero is his own worst enemy. Many characters behave badly but are not portrayed as being evil per se. Harry is tempted by Billy, a character who gets off with a lighter sentence in the end. There is no heroine other than a faithful wife who is not really rescued by anyone. Sir George Wormley shows a paternal-type concern for Bertram’s family, but is not Grace’s father or acting as a suitable stand-in. Despite the fact that this show is a fairly typical temperance drama of the period, the characters don’t fit the pattern predicted by Theatre History’s definition of the genre of melodrama, neither does “Dream of Life’s” plot.

    Victorian mid-century drama suffers because there are so few dramatists who modern scholars consider worthy of critical examination. Goodness knows I’m not nominating Edward Bulwer-Lytton for a “Great Authors” award, but if none of the characteristics of melodrama as currently defined apply to most of the plays of Dion Boucicault, J.R. Planche, James Sheridan Knowles, Anna Cora Mowatt, Edward Stirling, Thomas Noon Talfourd, Henry Spicer, and other playwrights publishing and being performed in the 1830s-1860s, isn’t it time to either update that definition or develop new, more precise terms to cover their work?

    E.L. Davenport as Benedict
    E.L. Davenport as Benedict

    “NOBLE HEART” AS AUTOBIOGRAPHY – The following section is composed purely of my own observations and speculations. I have very little data to back up these conjectures. I would not include this sort of material in a formal academic paper. I only feel free to share these thoughts here because blogs are a chattier, more informal format. Therefore, if you are a theater history student looking for material to quote, I would advise that you avoid the following paragraphs. They are no more than the academic equivalent of gossip.

    Before the London debut of “Noble Heart” in 1850, there was a production of the play in Manchester in 1849. In it, G.H. Lewes played the role of Don Gomez himself. This could indicate that the playwright didn’t trust any actor to interpret the role correctly, or it could reveal that he identified strongly with the character that he had created.

    The plot of “Noble Heart” centers on a love triangle. Don Gomez, like G.H. Lewes, falls in love with a much younger woman. He is tortured by the notion that her feelings for him spring only from respect, not passion. The nobleman is crushed to find that Juanna’s true love is his son, Don Leon, who is much nearer to her own age.

    At this time, Lewes was also involved in a love triangle. His wife, Agnes, was considerably younger. He had insisted on an open marriage. She had agreed. Eventually she fell in love with Thorton Hunt, son of G.H. Lewes’ friend and mentor, Leigh Hunt. Agnes and Thorton had several children together which Lewes claimed as his own for legal purposes. By 1849, Lewes had drifted out of the marriage and was living primarily as a single man.

    Sketch of Lewes, his wife Agnes, and Thorton Hunt drawn by W. M. Thackery
    Sketch of Lewes, his wife Agnes, and Thorton Hunt drawn by W. M. Thackery

    The final act of “Noble Heart” focuses on Don Gomez coming to terms with Juanna and Leon’s relationship. The nobleman reaches a point of peace with his own wounded pride. He renounces passion in favor of the pursuit of a purely aesthetic life. He demonstrates true love for Juanna and his son by walking out of their lives and letting their love for each other live unimpeded by his jealousy.

    What I’m suggesting is that “Noble Heart” may have carried a good amount of autobiographical meaning for Lewes. He might have seen himself as a Don Gomez, walking out of his first family’s life into a metaphorical emotional desert of purely intellectual pursuits. In 1849, he did not know he was about to meet someone who would open up a very exciting new chapter of his life. This might have been another reason why Lewes ultimately cast this play aside. After meeting George Eliot, the trajectory of his life changed so radically that the play no longer held the same meaning for him. He was lonely Don Gomez meditating nobly in the desert no more.

    As I said at the beginning of this section, these observations are only speculation on my part. Lewes destroyed the bulk of his correspondence from this period. “Noble Heart” is not considered a major work by the author. I could find little mention of it. Although several well-known Victorian writers – Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Elizabeth Gaskell – knew of and might have attended performances of this drama, there are few surviving references to it. The play had the misfortune of immediately preceding Walter Watts’ arrest. The production is frequently conflated into negative press surrounding that scandal.

    G.H. Lewes
    G.H. Lewes

    Most Lewes biographers have concluded that “Noble Heart” was forgotten because it was a bad play. I disagree. It has been forgotten, yes. Less than a half-dozen of the thousands of plays produced from the 1830s-1860s are recalled by today’s audiences. [When put on the spot, you may only be able to name “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Our American Cousin.” You probably don’t know any details about the plot of this second play, which Lincoln attended on the night of his assassination.] Of those thousands of plays, the majority of scripts from that era – no matter how golden their reputation might have been during Queen Victoria’s reign – are typically held in low regard by today’s writers. Critics and historians have been disparaging the intrinsic literary worth of these texts since they fell completely out of fashion sometime around the 1880s. Criticism has only become sharper as the passage of time peels back layers of social normalization to reveal how these dramas reflect their culture’s tacit tolerance of racist, sexist, and classist attitudes that wouldn’t have lifted an eyebrow when the shows originally played.

    George Henry Lewes is not known today because he became a successful playwright. Despite the fact he was a prolific and respected author in an astonishingly broad array of fields, we remember him because he was beloved by a famous novelist. The many achievements of all the combined dramatists of the entire Spanish Renaissance have been eclipsed by the unprecedented global impact of one writer from Stratford-on-Avon. Neither of these quirks of history should trick us into believing that since “Noble Heart” did not represent a path to greater acceptance, fame, and public acclaim for Lewes or the Spanish Renaissance style, a closer examination of this drama has nothing to teach us.

    Sometimes the path we do not take reveals as much — if not more — about our character than the road we choose.

    Anna Cora Mowatt and images of G.H. Lewes' "Noble Heart"
    Anna Cora Mowatt and images of G.H. Lewes’ “Noble Heart”

    1. Lewes, G.H. The Spanish Drama: Lope de Vega and Calderon. (Charles Knight & Co.: London, 1846).

    Leave a Reply

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