PART X: ANNA CORA’S NO GOOD VERY BAD LONDON DEBUT
I’m going to cheat a little this week. The thread tying this series together is that each entry is the story of one of Anna Cora Mowatt’s performances as Pauline in “The Lady of Lyons” stretching from her debut in 1845 to her retirement from the stage in 1854. This week is actually a tale about her performance as Julia in James Sheridan Knowles’ melodrama, “The Hunchback.” I’m sneaking it in because Mowatt intended this to be a Pauline performance. Were it not for Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s exorbitant royalty fees and the machinations of a London theater manager, all these backstage tales would be “Lady of Lyons” stories. In short – blame my inconsistency on Sir Edward’s greed.
After a slow and chilly start in Manchester, the Mowatts were able to hammer out a contract with J.W. Maddox, manager of the Princess Theater in London. This wasn’t as simple as Mr. Maddox picking up a copy of the Era, reading a glowing review of Anna Cora’s work in “Lady of Lyons” and saying, “She’s hired!” — as I might have given you the impression last week. As James Mowatt makes clear in this letter written to Mr. Chippendale some time later, the Mowatts had to agree to underwrite their productions at the Princess before Maddox would consider taking a risk on the unknown performers;
To wind up, it cost me eight hundred pounds, more than I rec’d for the joint services of Mrs. Mowatt and of Davenport before I could get in a position to attract sufficient attention to make it worth the while of the managers to remunerate us.1
This kind of cost-sharing was a common financial arrangement at that time, but was not ideal for the actors. Davenport and Mowatt were to perform at the Princess on alternate nights with Madame Thillion, a light opera star from France, who was also trying to establish herself in London. The Mowatts chose “Lady of Lyons” for their debut performance.
Only days before the show was to go up, Maddox informed them that Bulwer-Lytton had set the royalty fees for that show at £20. According to the internet, £20 in 1848 is equivalent to well over $2000 in today’s money. This charge represented the price for the theater having the rights to stage the script for an entire year. Although Maddox would probably have occasion to mount the play again in the next twelve months, he refused to pay. Rather than cough up that amount themselves, the Mowatts hastily switched to another similar romantic drama from their catalogue — James Sheridan Knowles’ “The Hunchback.” This kerfuffle was the beginning of a series of unfortunate incidents that make for some very interesting backstage stories, but had to be hell on Mowatt and Davenport as they struggled through their all-important London debut.
First, the dress rehearsal was a rolling disaster.
Depending on a company’s organizational structure, the manager or stage manager was in charge of a rehearsal. There was no Victorian equivalent to the modern artistic director. The theater’s leading actors would work out their own blocking between themselves relying on conventionalized staging that remained roughly similar for most productions of the same script.
Veteran performer John Cooper was playing the starring role of Master Walter in this production. Master Walter is the heroine, Julia’s, aging guardian. A twist of fate separates Julia from her love interest, Sir Thomas Clifford, (played by Mowatt’s partner, E.L. Davenport) early on in the play. Therefore Julia actually ends up spending much more stage time with Master Walter in this show than with Clifford. When Mowatt had added this script to her repertoire in 1845, this arrangement had seemed like a plus. More interactions between Julia and Master Walter meant Mowatt was sharing the stage with talented actors such as Harry Placide instead of having to endure her loathed leading man at the time, William Crisp. However, the rehearsal at the Princess gave the first warnings that “The Hunchback” had not been a very wise substitute for “Lady of Lyons” as John Cooper began to offer a plethora of increasingly unwelcome blocking suggestions to Mowatt as she describes in her autobiography;
Our first rehearsal in an English provincial theatre had not proved particularly delightful. But it was a foreshadowing of, and a needful preparation for, the more aggravated, temper-trying inflictions that awaited us at a London rehearsal. The stage aristocrats of the company made no effort to conceal their absolute contempt for the American aspirants.
Figuratively speaking, we were made to walk through a lane of nettles, so narrow that we could not avoid getting scratched. The more gently they were touched, the more deeply they stung. At the request, politely urged, of “Be so good as to cross to the right — I occupy the left” — the answer dryly returned was, “Excuse me ; I played this part originally with Mrs. Butler, at Drury Lane — I always kept this position — it is the proper situation.” Then there was a significant look at the prompter, which said, “This republican dust offends us! We must get rid of it!”
The more mildly Mr. Davenport and myself uttered our unavoidable requests, the more decidedly we were answered with objections to our wishes, founded upon the authority of some mighty precedent. Neither patience nor gentleness could disarm our antagonists. Wearied out with hearing that Mrs. Butler sat during her delivery of a certain speech, and, therefore, that nobody else could stand — or that Miss Faucit fainted with her head leaning forwards, and, therefore, no Julia could faint with her head inclined backwards or that Mrs. Kean threw herself at a certain point into the arms of Master Walter, and, therefore, the embrace was a necessity — I at last boldly, and, I confess, with some temper, said, “Sir, when I have made up my mind to become the mere imitator of Mrs. Butler, or of Miss Faucit, or of Mrs. Kean, I shall, perhaps, come to you for instruction. At present, it is for the public to decide upon the faultiness of my conception. I shall not alter it, in spite of the very excellent authority you have cited.”
This determined declaration (it was certainly a “declaration of independence”) silenced my principal tormentor. He made up his mind that, if I was wanting in talent, I was not deficient in spirit. He would have bowed before the one, but he at least yielded to the other.2
To be fair to Cooper, he was a much more experienced actor. I am confident that Mowatt is referring to John Cooper in these passages because not only do all the examples of staging she mentions reference interactions between Julia and Master Walter, Cooper had worked with Fanny Kemble (referred to here as Mrs. Butler) at Drury Lane and had also appeared with Helen Faucit. The actor had been member of a provincial company with a strong connection to the author of the play — James Sheridan Knowles, himself. Doubtlessly the weight of these experiences made Cooper feel justified in flexing a bit in front of the New World newcomers. However, he seems to have pushed the situation beyond the boundaries of professional courtesy and the endurance of the usually polite and affable Mowatt and Davenport. Later in this story, Cooper will push even further.
If nerves were not frayed enough, next — there’s fireworks. J.W. Maddox, the manager, got into a screaming match on stage with Susan Cushman. Susan was the sister of Charlotte Cushman who was also working in London at this time. The sisters often co-stared opposite each other, but at this time, Susan was part of the Princess’ regular troupe of players. Her contract was for what were called “walking lady” roles. To put this in Oscar nomination terms, a “walking lady” is roughly the equivalent of an “Actress in a Supporting Role.” Cushman had played Gertrude in a production of “Fashion” in Philadelphia, therefore she and Mowatt had met before.
In “Hunchback,” Cushman was to play the part of Helen, Julia’s best friend. Helen is a plum role as secondary female characters go in Victorian dramas. Roles for women are scarce in this genre. Scripts typically have only two or three female characters as opposed to seven to ten male characters. Women’s roles tend to be a bit one-note and sappy. Helen, however, harkens back to the witty female confidents from Restoration comedies. She is saucy and self-willed. She has her own comic romantic sub-plot to serve as a counterpoint to the Julia/Clifford love story. In short, if I were the actress set to play Helen, I would be angry if I got cheated out of that opportunity – which is exactly what happened to Susan Cushman.
When Cushman sent word that she could not make it to one of the rehearsals because she was ill, J.W. Maddox leapt to the conclusion that Susan was jealous of Mowatt and was going to try to sabotage the show by not showing up for the night of the performance as well. At first he was going to cancel the performance entirely (a decision made much easier, no doubt, by the fact that it was being underwritten by the Mowatts). Doubtlessly, the Mowatts (who were paying for everything) were greatly alarmed at this prospect. In a short time, the company’s leading lady, Emmeline Montague (What a perfectly Victorian name!), agreed to step into the role of Helen.
This decision seemed to calm things down… until Miss Susan Cushman unexpectedly arrived on stage to rehearse her part for that night’s performance. The following unpleasant scene ensued;
At the last rehearsal, for we had several, just as Miss Montague commenced rehearsing, Miss Susan Cushman walked upon the stage. She inquired by what right the character belonging to her was given to another lady. The manager, who was not celebrated for a conciliatory demeanor towards his company, bluntly informed her of his suspicions. An angry scene ensued, such as I never before, and I rejoice to say never after, witnessed in any theatre. Rehearsal was interrupted. I sat down at the prompter’s table in a most unenviable state of mind. The actors stood in clusters around the wings, enjoying the dispute. Miss Cushman and Mr. Maddox occupied the stage. A casual spectator might have supposed they were rehearsing some tempestuous passages of a melodrama. Miss Cushman declared that she would play Helen, for that she had done nothing to forfeit her right to the performance. Mr. Maddox maintained that the part should be played by Miss Montague. Miss Cushman was very naturally exasperated. I remained silent, but internally wishing that the disputants might suddenly disappear through some of the trap doors that checkered the stage and were devoted to the use of fairies and hobgoblins.
Finally Mr. Maddox ordered that the stage should be cleared and rehearsal continued. Miss Cushman was forced to retire. Just as she reached the wing, she turned back and offered me her hand. I gave her mine — she departed, and rehearsal proceeded. This extraordinary scene in the drama of real life thoroughly unnerved and unfitted me for the business of the hour; and that night I was to make my London debut! 3
In the end, Maddox had his way. Miss Montague played the role of Helen. Susan Cushman would take on supporting roles opposite Mowatt for the remainder of the actress’ stay at the Princess and receive very good reviews, but she lost out on the opportunity to shine in Knowles’ drama.
Severely rattled and at odds with her fellow players, Mowatt then proceeded with her personal maid to a freezing cold dressing room. There she encountered her next challenge of the evening – the Princess Theater’s formidable wardrobe mistress.
As was true of the position of artistic director, costumers did not yet exist in the Victorian theatre as we know them today. Since all clothing was hand-sewn, it was prohibitively expensive for a theater to build every costume for each actor. Performers were responsible for providing their own wardrobe. A theater’s costume shop might provide some items (such as sashes) to accessorize garments and give them a consistent thematic look. A wardrobe mistress supervised and coordinated the performers and their personal assistants (if they were prosperous enough to engage one) as they donned hair, costume, and makeup backstage before a show.
When the Princess’ wardrobe mistress caught sight of Mowatt on the night of her debut, she was none too pleased;
“Aren’t you going to have a hair dresser?” inquired my tormentor, looking aghast at my evident intention of being my own coiffeur.
“No. I always dress my own hair!”
“Well, now, let’s see what you’re going to make of it! What a heap of hair you’ve got, to be sure! ”
A heap of hair! I was inclined to be vain of the length and abundance of my hair — I may make the admission now. I looked at her, — I will not describe in what manner, but I might as well have looked at the Great Mogul, under the delusion that he would be awed. The “heap of hair” was rapidly divided into a single row of ringlets that fell to the waist.
“You’re not going to leave your hair in that wild fashion?”
“To be sure I am – I constantly wear it so.”
“Good gracious! the audience will guy you!”
“Why, yes – guy you — guy you ! — they will !”
“Guy me? What do you mean by guy?” I asked, becoming alarmed, in spite of myself, at the unknown horror.
“Why, laugh at you, to be sure — and chaff you!”
“Yes; clap their hands, as if they thought it was very pretty, and all the time be guying you. Don’t you know about the fifth of November – Guy Fawkes’s day – when they carry a guy about the streets to make sport of? That’s guying!”
This was a novel style of gunpowder plot, and I was standing over the train which my ringlets were to ignite!4
If there will ever be a movie about the life of Anna Cora Mowatt, she will give the content creators on the internet who criticize the accuracy of hairstyles in period films fits. Mowatt wore her hair in long curls that fell down to her waist. Although we associate masses of long curls with Victorian ladies, nothing approaching this style would be fashionable for adult women of her social strata for several more decades. Long loose hair was acceptable only for little girls and women of ill-repute. Mowatt’s hairstyle looks unremarkable to us only because we’ve seen similar coiffures on actresses based on modern – not Victorian era – preferences so many times in plays and movies and on television.
Although no one else ever mentions Mowatt’s long, loose curls in any pejorative manner in reviews or descriptions, Victorian costume experts should be content to know that the wardrobe mistress at the Princess Theater was horrified by Anna Cora Mowatt’s little girl/harlot hairstyle and assumed she would be hooted off the stage. She wasn’t. Apparently it was a look that worked well for her.
Still none of the above comments were the sort of thing a performer wishes to hear moments before going on stage for one of the most important performances of her career. And the chatty costume lady was not done yet. In a reverse of today’s body image preferences, Victorians liked actresses to be curvy with plump arms and nicely rounded bosoms. The wardrobe mistress decided after observing her in rehearsals that Mowatt was too thin and flat-chested to fill out her costume properly. She decided not only to tell her so, but to do something about the actress’ figure deficiencies;
She returned in a moment, and handed me a wadded jupon, very dexterously made to amplify and round the form.
“I made this for you to wear, for I noticed you hadn’t much more figure than a beanstalk. You look as if a breath of air would blow you away.”
It was true that I was, at that period, excessively thin — my weight being less than ninety pounds, although I was slightly above the medium height. I looked doubtfully at this new and ingenious appliance of the toilet, but was finally persuaded to try its effect. To my own eyes the added breadth gave me a disproportioned appearance, rendering the waist waspish, and the shoulders too narrow. I was assured that it was a great improvement, and made me look less insignificant. There was no time for alteration; the “call boy” had tapped at the door, and given the summons, “Julia, you are called.” At the same moment, Mr. Mowatt came to conduct me to the entrance, where the Helen of the evening stood waiting.5
I have referred to this story in past entries, but have erred by calling the garment that the wardrobe mistress created for Mowatt a corset. The term “jupon” will, confusingly, be used later in the century to refer to a type of petticoat, but here is being applied with a more archaic meaning, referencing a type of padded, short, sleeveless jacket or tunic that knights wore under their armor in medieval times. This jupon was a custom-made costume piece, not a standard item of underwear. It is therefore difficult to say exactly how it was constructed. However, it was probably a little muslin jacket with a padded bodice stuffed with cotton or horsehair and contoured to round out the wearer’s bosom and shoulders. Men during this time period sometimes wore padded undergarments of this sort to achieve a desirable upper body silhouette.
Many reviews from the time of her English debut include descriptions of Mowatt’s appearance. Part of the motivation behind this narrative detailing springs from the objectification of a female performer (descriptions of Davenport are less frequent and less detailed.) However another reason these descriptions are so abundant is because photography was still quite new. The reproduction of images was still an expensive process in which few newspapers regularly indulged. If for some reason the writer thought it was important for reader to know how someone looked, the image of that person had to be drawn in words. From those descriptions, we can glean that Victorian era theatre aficionados thought that Mowatt, who was of medium height (perhaps 5’6?) and weighed around ninety pounds, was a pretty person but was too small and lacked sufficient physique to be an actress. To them, Charlotte Cushman possessed the more ideal body type for a female performer. The Wardrobe Mistress found Mowatt’s slim, boyish figure (which today would be considered ideal for a screen actress) so unappealing that she concocted a padded body-shaper to artfully re-sculpt her with a more voluminous bosom, rounded shoulders and small waist.
To summarize Mowatt’s evening thus far — after a tense rehearsal that had ended in a blow-up with one of her co-stars and a last minute replacement, Mowatt had been forced to dress in a freezing cold dressing room. Then after having her appearance repeatedly insulted by the Wardrobe Mistress, she was stuffed into a hot, heavily padded costume and then stepped out onto the blazing lights of the gas-lit stage of the Princess Theater for her make-or-break London debut. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, it turns out — a lot.
In her very first moments on stage, the nervous tension of the day caught up with Mowatt in a painful and unfortunate rush. Mowatt was seized with an attack of nerves as she describes in her autobiography;
Helen and Julia enter together. As we advanced from the back of the stage, we were greeted with repeated rounds of applause. But it was reasonable to suppose that one half of the welcome was intended for Miss Montague, a lady who, for her talents and her private virtues, was held in deservedly high esteem. For the first time I comprehended the full meaning of the mystical words, “stage fright.” My moment de peur had come at last. The malady had seized me, and in its worst form. With my first attempt to acknowledge the salutation of the audience, I lost
That marks security to please.”
I could not force my quivering lips into a smile; when I spoke, I could not hear the sound of my own voice; floating mists were dancing before my eyes; I saw three faces of Helen instead of one. What was the matter with my feet? When I tried to walk, the tiny links of some invisible chain bound them together. And my limbs — why could not the most resolute effort prevent their tremulous motion? My very hair, as it touched my shoulders, seemed to have a clammy, Medusa-like coil. Mechanically, meaninglessly I uttered the words of the part, and gazed at the triplicated Helen with a vacant stare. Not a hand of applause was raised for Julia through that first act — nor through the second — nor through the third- though the author has afforded manifold opportunities of making “points.” I had never before failed, at certain bursts of passion, to elicit the responsiveness of the audience. But I could make no bursts. Like an automaton, I moved inanimately through the part. I seemed to myself gradually sinking on a shoreless sea, in a dead calm, — the sea of public condemnation, without the power to grasp even at a straw.6
Were all this not bad enough, at the beginning of Act IV as poor Anna Cora Mowatt is drowning in flop sweat, unable to pull herself out of the conviction that she is giving a terrible performance that the audience hates, John Cooper decided to get a little on-stage revenge.
In Act IV, scene II, Master Walter directs Julia’s attention to a mirror located off stage. In rehearsals, Cooper and Mowatt had agreed that the mirror would be located stage left. During the performance, Cooper pulled a switch-up and pointed to stage right. Mowatt had to go through the scene remembering that the imaginary prop was on the opposite side of the stage than where they had rehearsed.
In a second “accident” in the same scene, Master Walter tells Julia a story. At a certain point in the tale, the conventional blocking – with which veteran performer Cooper would have been thoroughly familiar – calls for Julia to stand, thus transferring audience attention to the heroine. Instead the following took place;
At the words,
“O happy steed,
My heart bounds at the thought of thee! Thou comest
To bear the page from bonds to liberty!”-
Julia springs joyfully from her seat. The action is so natural that it can hardly be avoided. Master Walter had handed me the chair. I sat down. He took another chair, gazed at me mournfully for a moment, then deliberately (but unconsciously, I hope) placed it upon my flowing train, and seated himself. To start up at the required moment, without leaving the train behind me, would have been impossible. I endeavored to disengage the folds without interrupting his history of the “princess and page,” but unsuccessfully. I tried to attract his attention to the mishap, but he was rapt in his part. I had no alternative but to utter the required lines without attempting to start up, and to wait patiently until he thought proper to rise and release me.7
Anna Cora Mowatt was a more generous soul than I am. I am fairly sure that Mr. John Cooper was guilty of some rather unprofessional behavior here. If I, like the Mowatts, was paying a big chunk of his salary and he pulled a stunt like that on me in a high-stakes performance, he’d hear some language that would make him want to suddenly disappear through one of the trap doors in the stage devoted to the use of fairies and hobgoblins, I assure you.
However, fortunately, the night was not over. The scene continues as Master Walter exits. Julia’s single best monologue of the show occurs at this point. Mowatt, suddenly freed and knowing that her next scene would be with Davenport there to support her, poured her heart into the words. The audience, stunned and delighted, rewarded her with her first ovation of the night. The next interaction between Julia and Clifford is also their best of the play. If played correctly, it is romantic and heart-rending. The crowd was on their feet by the end of the act, cheering for the Americans and demanding a curtain call. Mowatt refused this honor, but instead ran to her dressing room and tore off the constricting padded jupon before donning the wedding dress Julia wears in the last act.
If anyone in the audience noticed that Julia was significantly less voluptuous in Act V than she had been in Act IV, it did not seem to dampen their enthusiasm. Mowatt writes that she theorized the viewers were free to conclude that the heroine had
…pined away and become etherealized by her sorrows.8
We all know how troubled romance makes you lose upper body weight…
The rest of the final act went off without a hitch. Mowatt and Davenport were applauded vigorously. The show that began as a disaster ended as a triumph.
I have gone into so much detail about the excruciating details of the run-up to the performance that I haven’t left myself sufficient space to talk about the critical reaction to it. Suffice it to say that the reviews were fairly good. There were critics who noticed that her performance in the first three acts was distinctly lack-luster. An upside of her difficulties — and even of John Cooper’s cruel pranks — was that her unusually bland performance in the first half of the show did make it very difficult for even those reviewers holding a grudge against Edwin Forrest to level accusations that she was a typical American “shouter” or “ranter” who was “too violent.”
And how did Mowatt feel about her narrow scrape with theatrical disaster? In her autobiography, she wrote;
It was six months before I wholly recovered from the mental effects of that first night upon a London stage.9
Next week, I will return to “The Lady of Lyons” and tell of Mowatt and Davenport’s first performance of that show in London. Will it be less traumatizing? Charles Dickens will almost make an appearance! Come back for that!
1. Cited in Blesis, Marius. Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. 1938. University of Virginia, PhD dissertation. Page 288.
2. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 272-3.
3. Ibid 273-4.
4. Ibid 276
5. Ibid 277-278
6. Ibid 278-279.
7. Ibid, 280.
8. Ibid 281.
9. Ibid 282.