PART VIII: PRINCE MOWATT ON THE PRAIRIE
In 1832, Frances Trollope horrified and scandalized upper-class East coast urbanites when she published “Domestic Manners of the Americans” detailing how U.S. citizens habitually engaged in obnoxious behavior such as spitting tobacco juice on carpets or sitting in public spaces with their boots propped up on the back of the seat in front of them. When Anna Cora Mowatt was introduced to Mrs. Trollope by Lady Rosina Bulwer-Lytton in the early 1840s, she was incredulous that all the author’s experiences in the U.S. had all been with people who lacked good manners and failed to show what Mowatt considered to be ordinary hospitality. Trollope explained;
My case differed from that of most travelers through your country. I had no claims on America, and did not receive that hospitable reception, which should seal the lips. My circumstances were far from good. I endeavored to establish in Cincinnati a bazaar, such as you have seen in London and Liverpool. I met with neither support nor encouragement. The hand of friendship, which had been extended towards many of my countrymen, was not offered to me. I had no civilities to acknowledge by especial forbearance. Why then, should I lose the opportunity of obtaining a livelihood by using my pen in delineating traits of American character? 1
Mowatt wrote this article reporting on her conversation with Frances Trollope in 1843, during the time that she, too, was trying to make a living as an author. Mowatt had not yet written “Fashion” or seriously considered becoming an actress. Coincidentally, her conversation with the English writer did take an unexpected detour into the stage as a subject when the two discussed how Trollope’s name had entered into the slang of the day;
Mrs. Trollope asked me if it were true, that the pit at the theatres called out “Trollope,” whenever any person in the boxes turned his back upon them to converse with someone behind.
“Too true, as I can attest to my sorrow,” I replied.
“Well, then, you must acknowledge,” said she, “that you have something to thank me for. There is one reformation towards which I have been instrumental.”
“I might have offered my thanks had I not been a sufferer. Surely ladies should enjoy an immunity in such cases. Speaking of theatres reminds me that I never remember seeing or hearing of individuals, who sat in the dress-circle with their hats on and their coats off, and rested their feet on the rim of the boxes, yet you relate something of the kind in your work?”
“Have you ever visited Cincinnati?”
“What I related was of the theatre at Cincinnati, which is seldom attended by ladies. I have frequently seen persons in the first tier, sitting in the ungraceful positions I describe. Are you content?”
“With you” –I commenced saying – Not with myself, I was inclined to add; but I saw my intention had been divined.2
In the late spring of 1847, Anna Cora Mowatt would get a chance to see how accurate Frances Trollope’s impressions had been and if there had been any improvement in the domestic manners of the inhabitants of that metropolis, for she was on her way to play “Lady of Lyons” at a brand new theater in Cincinnati.
Although the city had become gentrified enough to support two theatres, it was still rather rough around the edges. To give some sense of the place, here are a few items that appeared in the newspaper alongside notice of Mowatt and Davenport’s performances;
The presentation of “Lady of Lyons” in Cincinnati is, I think, Mowatt and Davenport’s last performance of this drama before leaving for England in November. I must admit that I am not 100% certain of this fact, though. The partners made stops in St. Louis and Pittsburgh that are not well documented. Their sojourn in Pittsburgh seems to have been devoted to debuting their interpretation of Epes’ Sargent’s “Velasco.” St. Louis at that time was even more of a frontier town than Cincinnati. The only information I can glean from newspaper clippings about their stay is that it was rather brief and that they performed Talford’s “Ion.”
I am also unclear on a very important point about Mowatt and Davenport’s trip to Cincinnati. The manager of the National Theatre in that city was a man named J.W. Bates. He also owned a theater in nearby Louisville, Kentucky. The Mowatts wished to work out an arrangement to play both venues. Anna Cora had a sister who lived in Cincinnati. Playing an engagement in Louisville would fulfill a promise she had made to Senator Henry Clay. The statesman had already written a letter of introduction for her that would prove key in boosting her career in England.
Bates, however, was recalcitrant. He would not offer terms and a schedule that the Mowatts could agree upon. They were forced to pass through Louisville without performing. Someone leaked details of their distress to the press. As a result, the following notice appeared;
The Theatre closed on Saturday evening. We understand that Mrs. Mowatt and Mr. Davenport arrived on the Alexander Scott, and solicited an engagement with the Manger, but the Manager having determined to close, the citizens were deprived of an opportunity of witnessing the acting of these Stars.6
The Louisville Morning Courier was less restrained in their displeasure. Their writer proclaimed acidly;
We regret that in consequence of the parsimony of a selfish, obstinate, and illiberal manager, the citizens of Louisville will not have an opportunity of seeing this lady on the stage. Mr. Bates, according to his uniform custom, dictated terms which no person with proper self-respect could assent to, and hence, Mrs. M. leaves the city this morning for Pittsburgh.
…We understand that the theatre closed on Saturday night for the season. This sudden proceeding may be accounted for from the fact that Rockwells’ Amphitheatre was about to open and Mr. Bates to insure an attendance at his establishment, would be compelled to employ some attraction for which he probably would have to pay a trifle. In addition to Mrs. Mowatt… the Ravel family, Mr. Anderson, Mdlle. Blangy, and other distinguished stars are expected here shortly, and the manager was fearful he would be compelled by the public to depart from his usual custom and engage some of them.7
In Eric Barnes’ account of this episode in his biography of Mowatt, he indicates that Bates owned both the National Theater in Cincinnati and the new Athenaeum. This arrangement is entirely possible, although Rockwell and Jones — not Bates – are listed as the proprietors of the Athenaeum. If true, the impresario took a number of actions during the Mowatts’ stay that were at best, shortsighted, and at worst, very mean-spirited and petty. First, throughout the company’s tour, Bates counter-programmed the Athenaeum’s schedule with duplicate productions of the same plays at the National. Mrs. Melinda Jones starred in competing versions of “Lady of Lyons” and “Ion” at the National. Admittedly this was the same treatment Mowatt had been giving Mrs. Charles Kean for many months. However, it seems a rather risky move for a theater owner to undercut potential audience interest by purposefully playing the same play twice in such quick succession.
The next aspect of Mowatt’s visit that I felt was somewhat peculiar was the handling of the address she gave at the opening of the Athenaeum and the lack of publicity surrounding it. In her autobiography, the actress describes the hasty and abrupt manner in which she was informed that she was to both compose and deliver this speech;
Mr. Davenport and myself had never appeared in Cincinnati. We were engaged to open the Athenaeum. The manager had nobly determined to banish from this theatre all the abuses that degrade the drama. The public gave him their hearty cooperation. No inaugural address had been prepared. I was expected to deliver one, and the manager coolly informed me that he presumed, of course, I would write it myself. It wanted but two days of the opening of the theatre, and the address had not only to be composed, but committed to memory. It is a well-known fact, that an author can remember the language of another person with far greater ease than his own. I accomplished my forced task, and by an emphatic delivery made the most of what I had written; but no applause could compensate me for the nervous miseries incident upon rapid composition, quick study, and the compulsatory utterance of one’s own consciously crude thoughts.8
Mowatt, as was her practice, does not give the manager of the Athenaeum’s name in her account at any point. At this time, I only have access to one Cincinnati newspaper from the spring of 1847 — the Commercial Tribune. There is very little publicity in its pages connecting Mowatt to the grand opening of the Athenaeum. Her address was not reproduced in that paper.
Not to cast undue aspersions on the journalistic integrity of the editorial staff of the Tribune, but it does seem if the paper was printing items about long-nosed pigs on page two, they should have plenty of ink to burn on a famous New York actress/author/playwright giving a speech at the opening of the city’s second theater. Whoever was the owner or manager of the Athenaeum did a poor job of exploiting a golden opportunity to get their name and their theater’s name in both the Cincinnati news and in the newspapers back East.
I have access today to Anna Cora Mowatt’s opening night address because James Mowatt immediately fired off a copy to friendly outlets in New York and Boston. The speech — which was actually a long poem praising reforming efforts to create more “family friendly” audience spaces for theatre — was immediately printed with glowing reports of the opening… that omit the name of the manager and sometimes the theater. The Boston Bee even included it in their special weekly edition alongside a biography of Jenny Lind, two short stories, and a song.9 The address Mowatt wrote for the opening of the Athenaeum runs as follows;
The Drama on her onward course to cheer—
To Beauty, with her smile of radiant light,
That makes the lowliest thing it dwells on bright –
To age, that honored sits, with brow serene,
And lenient eye, to judge each opening scene –
To all we give a welcome warm and true,
And trust the Drama finds firm friends in you!
The Drama, oft caressed and oft reviled,
The Bigots’ scorn – the Public’s favorite child –
Oh! Who her holy uses shall deny,
That views them calmly with unjaundiced eye?
When, Muse and Actor faithful to their trust,
Her lyre is pure – his potent painting just!
The Drama – see her hand a mirror holds,
Where life its panoramic scenes unfolds;
Where Vice his own distorted features sees,
And from the loathsome image, trembling flees
And Virtue dearer loves the power to bless,
While gazing on her pictured loveliness!
The Drama – while its uses we revere,
Ah! Should its toiling children not be dear?
For you they smile or sigh – they laugh or weep –
Forget their private wrongs – their private woes –
Forego their ease – their pleasures, and repose!
The radiance o’er your thronging faces thrown,
Reflects its sunny brightness on their own,
And when the need of your applause they gain,
How light appears each sacrifice or pain!
The Drama – true she oft perverts her might,
And swerves too widely from the rule of right,
Too often lends, alas! her siren art!
To foster tastes that but degrade the heart!
But ye, her transient failing who despise,
Reflect how oft with you the error lies;
Within your hands the chast’ning rod is placed,
To scourge the vices that her fame disgraced.
Then use it justly – and yet mildly too,
And bid her once more to herself be true!
Hoot from the stage each lax, licentious scene,
And strip from vice his fair and flowery screen.
Let naught that modesty should blush to hear,
Suffuse her lovely cheek – profane her ear.
Then shall the stage resume her olden right,
At once to cherish, chasten and delight.
Portray but scenes instructive or refined,
To mend the heart and to exalt the mind!
Then shall each Grace and every Muse combine,
To lay their choicest offerings on her shrine,
‘Tis yours to bring this longed for era near,
To purify the Drama’s stained career; —
Restore the actor’s hopes and triumphs fled,
To smooth the rugged path that he must tread;
And while his heart beneath your looks expands,
To give your smiles, your voices, and your hands.10
The reform Mowatt was implicitly praising here was a pledge on the part of the management of the Athenaeum to banish prostitution from their venue. The third tier gallery, which was the traditional spot for solicitation, was eliminated from the Athenaeum’s floor plan.
Aside from any personal prudery Mowatt might have felt towards sex workers and their trade, there were practical business implications in throwing her weight solidly behind strong anti-prostitution policies in theaters. While the public associated sex work with playhouses, audiences were effectively limited to adult males. Reform efforts had the potential to double or triple the pool of prospective theatre patrons by making playhouses socially acceptable for children and reputation-conscious women to attend.
Mowatt herself stood to gain by increasing the attractiveness of theater attendance to women in the U.S. Throughout her career, newspaper accounts that mention audience demographics typically comment on the unusual number of female viewers at her shows. A hidden sub-agenda in Mowatt’s autobiography — of which the author herself might not have been fully aware — was not only that it advocated for careers in theatre for women, but also that the book gave women permission to embrace and enjoy the viewing of theatre as a perfectly acceptable form of recreation.
In the spring of 1847, the Tribune was slow to gain any enthusiasm for Mowatt and Davenport. Their reporter tells us very little about the performance of “Lady of Lyons” except that it was well-acted and enthusiastically attended. It was only after the performers had been in residence for two weeks that the Tribune finally began to sit up and take notice. The reporter was particularly enchanted with the production of Mowatt’s comedy “Fashion.” E.L. Davenport played Adam Trueman for the first time in Cincinnati. The writer approved both of the interpretation and the script, which he described at length, and concluded;
Davenport is a fine actor in any part he undertakes. As the farmer he was the personation itself. The dresses of the Comedy are tasty and appropriate. Whether they were gotten up for it, or picked up by chance, is nothing – they could not be more to our liking. Upon the whole we like the Comedy of Fashion, and think the authoress possesses a large share of talent, and that this effort will exercise a correcting influence upon her country.11
After this point, the Tribune began to give the actors the kind of attention that I would have assumed visiting celebrities should have gotten all along in city where a man made front page news that month by having trouble with his horse because he was wearing the wrong kind of spurs. The paper noted when the pair donated their efforts to a benefit performance held for a local playwright. Rumors were circulated that Mrs. Mowatt was working on a new play. (This project was probably early drafts of Armand.)
My favorite bit of celebrity coverage by far, though, was a piece about Mrs. Mowatt going fishing. The writer seemed to assume that we know that Anna Cora is a queen of the U.S. stage. The reporter also reasons that the rules of address appropriate for Queen Victoria’s Albert should apply to the actress’ husband. Therefore throughout this article James Mowatt is referred to as “Prince Mowatt.” Dear Reader, I must confess that, because of his frequently high-handed behavior, I find this liberty so amusing that were it not unscholarly, disrespectful, and downright annoying, I would follow suit and adopt this appellation for Mr. Mowatt in the rest of my writings hereafter.
Have no fear of this, however. I have lived through too many decades of suffering the confusion and inconvenience to me caused by Eric Barnes’ choice of calling Anna Cora Mowatt “Lily” to indulge in such irresponsible onomastic juggling. I will simply smile as I share this sample of the writer from the Tribune mercilessly poking fun at the citified Mowatts as they rusticate on the prairie;
The “Court Journal,” over at the corner, says that Mrs. Mowatt has received visits from the elite since her sojourn at Foster’s Crossings, and that Mrs. Mowatt is progressing her new drama. Mrs. Mowatt having had a long talk with an old couple at the bridge in the neighborhood. Mrs. Mowatt, it is supposed, will permit the people to anticipate something recherché. Mrs. Mowatt, the Court Journal is astonished at being informed, snatches sufficient leisure for rural exercise. – Indeed Mrs. Mowatt has actually indulged in Isaac Walton’s favorite sport, and with much success, as the editor has been informed by credible witnesses, who could have had no object in perverting the truth. How beautiful is this to contemplate! Genius bends down its lofty flight and goes fishing. Prince Mowatt too, it is understood by the editor, actually levelled his gun without assistance and brought down a large bird en wing. It is more than suspicioned to be a species of the Eagle, though an ignorant country booby was heard to say that he was glad that “city feller” had thumped over the “darned suck-egg crow.” It is being stuffed preparatory to being sent to Audubon for his opinion. Further movements of their majesties will be duly reported in the proper journal.12
Although the engagement got off to a fractious start with J.W. Bates, the people of Cincinnati warmed to Mowatt and Davenport. The partners were held over for an extra week and given a celebratory dinner upon their departure. A group of young men of the city took up a collection and presented Mowatt with a brooch shaped into the form of a spray of forget-me-nots with diamond centers. Davenport was given a gold watch and chain.
Bates eventually suffered for his cavalier treatment of visiting artists. His battle with the Louisville press continued to escalate. He lost his theater in that city less than a year after Mowatt’s visit to Cincinnati.
The story of the ups and downs Mowatt and Davenport had to endure on the road to playing “Lady of Lyons” in Cincinnati gives a good snapshot of the crucial, behind-the-scenes role James Mowatt was playing in supporting the partnership. In 1847, entertainment lawyer, publicist, and tour manager weren’t job titles that one could list on tax forms. However, as is clearly evident from these records, Mr. Mowatt was doing his level best as a pioneer in all these challenging fields. As I delve deeper into the details of these early days on tour, it becomes easier for me to understand why Anna Cora retired from performing so soon after her first husband’s death. James was much more essential to her career as a performer than I had previously realized, tirelessly promoting her and handling much of the day-to-day aggravations of dealing with theater managers, the public, and the press so that she could get on with the strenuous business of the practice of her art.
What a prince!
Next week – on to London!
1. Berkeley, Helen. “A Sketch of Mrs. Trollope from the Portfolio of One Who Knew Her.” Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine. Volume 1, No. V. New York, May, 1843. Page 200.
2. Ibid, page 202.
3. Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, June 2, 1847. Page 2, col. 2.
4. Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, May 25, 1847, Page 2, col. 1.
6. Louisville Daily Democrat. March 29, 1847. Page 3.
7. Blesis, Marius. Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. 1938. University of Virginia, PhD dissertation. Page 216.
8. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 261.
9. “New Publications: The Boston Weekly Bee.” The Boston Bee. Wednesday, June 9, 1847. Page 3, col. 1.
10. “Address. Written and Spoken by Mrs. Mowatt at the Opening of the Cincinnati Athenaeum, April 26, 1847.” The Albion. June 5, 1847. Page 276, col. 2.
11. “The New American Comedy, Fashion.” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. May 14, 1847. Page 2, col. 2.
12. “Latest from Court.” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. May 22, 1847. Page 2, col. 2.