Part XII: It was a Dark and Stormy Ghostwriter…
[This multi-part series examines Anna Cora Mowatt’s experiences playing the part of Pauline in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “Lady of Lyons” from her debut to her retirement from the stage. A full cast recording of this classic melodrama is available a Librivox]
Before I begin in earnest with an account of Anna Cora Mowatt and E.L. Davenport’s performance of “The Lady of Lyons” at the Olympic Theater in London in 1848, I’m going to put forth a statement that would be controversial if I was talking about Shakespeare. However, since the playwright in question is known today as the author of the worst opening line in the history of English Literature, this probably won’t raise too many eyebrows.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton wasn’t the sole author of “The Lady of Lyons.”
He may have written the first draft by himself. It borrows its plot from a story called “The Bellows Mender.” The script was re-written extensively – as were all his plays — by William Macready to make them more “suitable for the stage.” The following excerpt from one of Macready’s biographers describes the lordly approach Bulwer-Lytton took to the collaborative process that would produce one of “his” first hits, “Richelieu;”
…The author, professing no desire to write for the stage, offered his services to Macready in the cause of “ the degraded drama.” There were many consultations on a proper subject. The first draft of the piece arrived November 12, and Macready sat up till half past two reading the manuscript, which he found “excellent in parts, but deficient in the important point of continuity of interest. The character itself was also not consistent. He reads the play to his wife and Letitia, his sister, making short notes and suggesting alterations. On November 17, he calls on Bulwer, finds him combative on certain of his points, but finally brings the author to his way of thinking. As the plan of alterations was unfolded Bulwer grasped the purpose and grew enthusiastic, exclaiming, “What a felllow you are!” Macready was likewise pleased with himself, for he notes in his diary as to Bulwer, “He is a wonderful man.” In a few days Bulwer calls with two acts revised in the way suggested, and the other acts were determined on. Bulwer works with eager spirit, and the whole is soon ready. Macready is still not satisfied. He writes to Bulwer that he is solicitous for his reputation, and that while the play would be a great thing for any other author, he looks for some additional improvements. It is to be remarked that Macready was not easy in composition; Bulwer was not the man to yield his pen to another; so it is certain that he did all the writing required in the revision. Macready had a sure eye for effects, and worked steadily to bring the play up to the point of absolute success. He summoned Browning, Henry Smith, Serle, Fox, Blanchard and Lane to a reading of the play at his house at Elstree. They were provided with pencils and paper, and directed not to speak during the reading, but to take notes for suggestion. All were favorable. When read to the actors “Richelieu” was received with excitement. Macready read extensively to make sure of the truth of the characters, and few plays have had such close and careful study.1
In case you didn’t recognize that list of names, Bulwer-Lytton’s private preview/workshop audience included poet, Robert Browning, playwright, Thomas Serle, drama critic and playwright, E.L. Blanchard, and drama critic and Member of Parliament, William Johnson Fox. This group was not a random gathering of chums ready to passively applaud his lordship’s efforts. These fellows comprised enough combined experience and literary brain-power to turn amateurish scribblings into an instant theatrical classic – which is what happened.
Bulwer-Lytton never acknowledged Macready or anyone else as having contributed to “Lady of Lyons,” “Richelieu,” or any of his works. He did, however, pay the actor £210 in royalty fees for “Lady of Lyons.” In a letter, Macready referred to the amount as, “a recompense for much ill-requited labor and unpitied suffering.”2 The title of the play was of the actor’s choosing not the author’s. Bulwer-Lytton had called the drama, “The Adventurer.” The work was originally produced anonymously.
I think it should be apparent that, having contributed so actively to their composition, the London Theatre world felt a high degree of ownership in the works of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The following article from the London Illustrated Times sets the stakes nicely for the production of “Lady of Lyons” at the Olympic in early spring of 1848;
Mrs. Mowatt, the American actress, and Mr. Davenport – both of whom lately performed at the Princess’ – made their first appearance at this house on Monday evening, in Sir Edward Bulwer’s play of “The Lady of Lyons,” and were very warmly received by the audience. They will, we expect, prove an acquisition to the company until Mr. Brooke returns. The performance of each of these transatlantic artistes bore evidence of superior intelligence and education; and there are circumstances connected with the career of the lady which render her appearance on the boards additionally interesting. At the same time, Pauline Deschapelles is a dangerous character for a new actress to play before a London audience. All have seen it so often, and sustained by so many leading performers, from Helen Faucit’s earliest days to Laura Addison’s later achievements, that some very extraordinary talent is required to make an impression…3
Let me pause this quote at this point for a reality check that I want you to bear in mind for the rest of this blog entry as this and other writers talk about the role of Pauline. I am a great advocate of trying to recapture the original context in which these plays were enjoyed. However, be aware that there is a little over-sell going on here. If you haven’t listened to the play, please do. It’s a very enjoyable drama. However, do you remember this quote about the role from that skeptical newspaper critic in Philadelphia after Mowatt’s debut?
It should be remembered, however, that the character is not a great one, nor one difficult to sustain. Melnotte is the hero of the piece; Pauline being of scarcely more importance in the author’s development of character than “Mad. Deschapplles,” which any ordinary stock actress may go through with credit.4
Pauline is not Medea, Phaedra, or Lady Macbeth. Compared to Claude Melnotte, she has much fewer lines. When it comes to psychological depth, to be perfectly frank, she’s not a great deal more complex than the character of Laurie from Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklaholma!” When Anna Cora Mowatt played her in Cincinnati, critical reaction reveals that this character did not seem inherently more challenging, prestigious, or noteworthy to her audience than any others in her repertoire. In London, though, the reputation, personal power, and privilege of the playwright, (and that of the other contributing but unacknowledged authors), the history of production of the play, memories of outstanding performances by other actresses, and critical reactions to those performances combined to form a larger context surrounding this role. All these factors meshed to create an elevated sense of importance and heightened expectations for Mowatt as she set forth to play Pauline at the Olympic.
The article from the Illustrated London Times continued on to warn of problems with the venue in which Mowatt was appearing;
We fear, from the appearance of the house, that the theatre is not in good odour with the playgoers. No evidence is offered of a pains-taking management, and the public eye has, of late, been so accustomed to the clever and artistic revivals at Sadler’s Wells and the Marylebone, that it is remarkably quick at detecting any inefficiency behind the scenes. The disgraceful manner in which two or three plays have been scrambled through, rather than acted, deserves the severest censure.5
Henry Spicer’s Olympic was small, aging, and in need of repairs. He was an inexperienced manager who had attempted to conceal his identity for fear of being accused of being in the business merely for the purpose of producing his own scripts – a supposition which actually has a good deal of truth to it, to be perfectly honest. Spicer had blown his cover by getting into feuds with critic, John Forster, and Benjamin Webster, manager of the Haymarket Theater. His star, G.V. Brooke, was suffering from a slump in popularity. After a meteoric rise to stardom, Brooke was suddenly overexposed, over-hyped, getting tons of negative press concerning a contract dispute – and, perhaps worst of all, had been discovered to be Irish.
When Brooke – as was his wont to do – became thoroughly disgusted with London and abruptly departed for the loving arms and fresher air of the provincial theaters, Spicer quickly engaged the two relatively unknown American performers, perhaps hoping that they might become the next sensational foreign import like Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, or even G.V. Brooke himself had been.
Long story short — That didn’t happen with this play.
Most of the reviews were fairly good. This one from the Morning Advertiser was has a positive tone throughout;
In the lighter, the girlish portions, of the character we have been better satisfied than with the performance of Mrs. Mowatt, who made her first appearance at the Olympic Theatre, last night. The playfulness was rather thoughtful than thoughtless, as it ought to be. Pauline, the beauty of Lyons, lives as yet only in the picture, without a care, for she imagines nothing but happiness. But as the play proceeded, and especially in the fourth and fifth acts, Mrs. Mowatt lost herself in her character, and spoke out the love which is prepared to brave everything for its object, with a passion which evidently came from the heart, and touched that of her audience. In these scenes she left nothing to be wished, except a physical firmness, a decision of gesture, she would do well to cultivate. We cannot indeed recollect to have been more impressed by any other representation of Pauline. It was more the acting of a woman of mind and soul. There was nothing of the automaton; no noisy declamation, but passion of the right sort; and this, too, before one of the coldest audiences we remember to have seen. We wish that in adding the fact that the performance was free from the vice of imitation, we could extend the benefit of his judgement to Mr. Davenport, who was the Claude Melnotte of the evening. This gentleman has taken Mr. Anderson for his type; and Mr. Anderson being one of the most successful imitators of Macready, we have, therefore, in the American actor, only the copy of a copy. Still his Claude Melnotte is better than Mr. Anderson’s, both in personal advantages and in acting. But it is much to be regretted that a man who has evidently some talent for the stage should throw it away so woefully as to pirate a bad edition of an actor, whose peculiarities are only tolerable in himself.5
The most important of the good reviews for the production of “Lady of Lyons” at the Olympic came from John Oxenford, respected drama critic of The Times. Mowatt remembered this as first notice she had received from this paper. The usually conservative critic singled the actress out for particular praise, saying;
For the expression of the tenderest emotions, Mrs. Mowatt’s countenance is admirably adapted. It is not only beautiful in itself but beams with intelligence, tempered by the most feminine softness.6
Oxenford would not only become consistent supporter of Mowatt in the press, he was a prolific playwright. He wrote and adapted several plays specifically for the actress during her residency at the Marylebone and Olympic Theaters.
The review in the Examiner was also encouraging;
We must add a word in praise of the earnestness of intention and the grace with which a very clever American lady, Mrs. Mowatt, had been playing at the OLYMPIC during the past week, in the Lady of Lyons. The feeling of the actress, and the deportment of the ladylike accomplished woman, are perhaps more observable than stage practice or skill: but the performance has considerable interest, and is extremely well supported by Mr. Davenport as Claude Melnotte, one of the most sensible American actors we have seen.7
The Examiner was usually John Forster’s beat, however, this review was probably the work of William J. Fox, who had recently made the acquaintance of the Mowatts via the Howitts. He was a reliable champion of Anna Cora throughout her stay in London. Given the fact that he might have had a hand in contributing to the writing of “Lady of Lyons,” his words of approval carry some weight.
Now, to the bad reviews – The first two are merely curt and dismissive rather than really being bad, per se. The first is from the Era which had panned Mowatt and Davenport’s “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Princess;
Mr. Brooke being compelled to fill a provincial engagement for a week, the management has, during his absence, engaged the services of Mrs. Mowatt and Mr. Davenport (the recent importations from America), who appeared on Monday evening in the “Lady of Lyons.” We so recently had occasion to criticize the performance of these transatlantic stars, when they appeared at the Princess’s, that it would be a work of supererogation to readvert to the subject. Mrs. Mowatt is a very pretty woman; her Pauline is something more than a respectable performance, and anything but a great one. Mr. Davenport’s Claude is a careful and gentlemanly version of the character, but sadly lacks fire and intensity.8
This review may have been turned in by E.L. Blanchard, actor Morris Barnett, or another of the crew of “penny-a-liner” critics who covered London’s many playhouses for the Era.
The next lackluster critique comes from the Observer. It might have penned by playwright, Joseph Munt Langford who served as drama critic for that paper for many years;
Mrs. Mowatt is a lady of great personal attractions, and acts with marked intelligence and originality. Her voice is “sweet and low,” and in passages of pathos is exceedingly effective; but she seems to lack the physical force necessary for the due expression of the loftier forms of tragic emotion. Mrs. Mowatt, independently of her histrionic capability, is a lady of literary distinction in the United States, and has, besides tales and poetry, written a five-act play reputedly illustrative of New York society, entitled “Fashion.” Of Mr. Davenport, it must be said that characters of the melo-dramatic importance of Claude Melnotte are beyond his present means; though time and industry may do much to remove certain irregularities of style and elocution which at present certainly go far to mar his good intentions.9
The complaint about Mowatt lacking “physical force” was one that she encountered throughout her career. As the wardrobe mistress at the Princess Theater had warned her, popular preference at that time ran towards a larger, more full-figured body type. Also, there were no microphones or sound systems in playhouses. Audiences expected performer’s voices to be loud and their gestures to be big. Although a certain degree of subtly was appreciated where appropriate, viewers had little patience with actors they could not see or hear clearly.
Many tragedians of this period, like Edwin Forrest and G.V. Brooke, are supposed to have taken clarity of gesture to an extreme. They are reputed to have become expert at assuming magnificent, full body poses of exaggerated emotion at dramatic high points in scripts and to have held them frozen in place milking audience applause. These dramatic freezes functioned in much in the same manner as the mie pose from Kabuki drama.
Mowatt never seems to have gotten the hang of the grand gesture. She was very good at pathos. Critics frequently compliment her on her small, humanizing touches that surprise audiences into sudden laughter or tears. However there are often complaints that her attempts at big gestures tended to be a little awkward, half-hearted, or self-conscious.
Now for the really bad review – This piece, from Lloyds’ Weekly London Newspaper, is not like the straight-forward anti-American slam that Mowatt and Davenport were dealt in Manchester. This beauty has a knife-twist at the end that has got to earn it a place in Theatre History’s BACKSTABBER’S HALL OF FAME… and we all know that is already a long and crowded corridor.
The review starts out with a slightly sour note that should warn us what is to come;
“The Lady of Lyons” was revived on Monday evening for the debut of Mr. Davenport and Mrs. Mowatt, both importations from the American stage. They had previously performed a few nights at the Princess’s, but, as we were not present on any of the occasions, no notice of them has hitherto appeared in our columns. Mrs. Mowatt’s deportment is most lady-like, her action good, her voice melodious, and her personal appearance extremely prepossessing. The only fault in her performance of Pauline is a want of dignity and physical capability.10
As I’ve said, critics often carped that somehow Mowatt did not have the correct physical build to be an actress. The complaint that she did not display proper dignity is an outlier, however. Note that in the previous sentence, the reviewer has confusingly stated that Mowatt is “most lady-like.” The complaint about dignity is not explained anywhere in the critique, although it does go on to get very specific about her and Davenport’s performances beyond this point;
In “The Lady of Lyons,” the author has fairly grappled with his subject. He has dealt with love as a dignified emotion, not indebted for its triumph over the pride of station to the freaks of accident, but to the energy of its own inspiration. Mrs. Mowatt’s conception of the heroine is a most able one; the extremes of grief, love, indignation, all of which are called into action in the character of Pauline, are represented with truth, and the transitions from one to the other managed with judgement and nice discrimination. The by-play with which she listened to Claude’s narrative, in his mother’s cottage, after she discovers her real situation, stamps Mrs. Mowatt’s performance far above mediocrity. In this scene all is left to the actress, and only an actress of decided superior conception could so perfectly fill up the outline of the situation. Pauline had been deeply wronged, she had not made the slightest external approximation to forgiveness; but the calm interest with which she heard Claude’s confession, was an earnest of the love which she afterwards displayed; and the momentary remorse she evinced on the indignity she had shown to the gardener’s son, being recalled to her mind, was exquisitely pourtrayed. It was the sudden agonizing consciousness of a retribution. The struggle between pride and a strong feeling of sympathy for the man who had so seriously injured her, was happily hit off by Mrs. Mowatt. The scene in which Melnotte returns, under the assumed name of Morier, and Pauline bids him, when he sees his friend, —
“Tell him, e’en now, that I would rather share
His lowliest lot – walk by his side an outcast;
Work for him, beg with him – live upon the light
Of one kind smile from him, than wear the crown
The Bourbon lost”—
Was most carefully and effectively represented by Mrs. Mowatt.
The manner in which she made her appeal to Beauseant – “Oh, sir! Be just – be generous. Seize a noble triumph – a great revenge. Save the father, and spare the child!” was highly meritorious; it was delivered with all the essential intensity of feeling. Mrs. Mowatt received much applause during the play, and at its termination.
Mr. Davenport is also an actor of sterling worth, and possesses many capabilities for the stage. His voice, person, address, and style, are all good; he reads well, and is very careful in giving effect to the minute business of the scene in which he is engaged. He evidently studied Hamlet’s advice to the players, and follows the instructions there given; he never oversteps the modesty of nature. His Claude Melnotte is a highly creditable performance; it has manly bearing and energetic manner. In the first scene, on his return from the shooting match, the buoyancy and free play of spirits were well assumed. The superior manner in which he gave the description of the palace of the Lake of Como was well worthy of the delicate attention Pauline bestows upon it. The narrative in his mother’s cottage was delivered with touching masculine pathos; and in the portions where he has to assert a right, or to resent a wrong, he comes out with an impressive force, a command of respect highly characteristic – this is witnessed in his early scenes with Damas, and in the scene where he rescues Pauline from the insults of Beauseant. The last scene in the fourth act, where Melnotte departs to join the army, and takes leave of Pauline, was capitally played by Mr. Davenport, as was also that in which he returns and rescues her from becoming the wife of Beauseant.11
“Wait… What?” you’re asking now. “Is that it? Is that supposed to be a famously bad review? No. That’s a good review. That’s the best review of the bunch. It’s specific. It’s positive. It’s very, very good.”
No. It isn’t. Here’s the next line;
Both Mr. Davenport and Mrs.Mowatt are first of the second-rates, and will be a great acquisition to the stock company of any theatre.12
See? Mean. Stone-cold, “Et tu, Brute?” epic, petty, brutal, mean-for-mean’s-sake mean.
If whoever wrote this review actually thought that Mowatt and Davenport were second-rate, then why write a long, detailed, deceptively complimentary review about them? A reviewer who genuinely thinks they’re only mediocre performers writes a review like the one that appeared in the Era or the Observer. The one in Lloyds seems designed to call attention to itself and then deliver a killing cut between the shoulder blades.
Mowatt and Davenport hadn’t been in London long enough to make many enemies. It’s a mystery why a critic would wish to deal them such a nasty blow.
Reviews in Lloyds — as in all the London papers — were anonymous. Working from diaries, biographies, and articles published in the 1860s-90s, researcher Christopher Kent pulled together a list of many of those writing newspaper reviews at this time in 1980 that I have been using as a guide.13 Jonas Levy, a lawyer, wrote some critiques for Lloyds during this period. Horace Mayhew also appears on Kent’s list as a Lloyds’ drama reviewer. However, I think he was still with Punch in 1848. E.L. Blanchard also wrote for Lloyds. Blanchard reviewed for at least four different papers between 1845 and 1869.
We know from the evidence of the scrupulous accounts that E.L. Blanchard kept in his diaries that Victorian newspaper editors generally did not pay their drama critics very well. That’s why he worked for several papers at the same time. The job paid by the word or by the line. This is one possible explanation why the review of “Lady of Lyons” in Lloyds was so long. The writer might have been focused on building up a bigger paycheck.
Another characteristic of the review is that it is very laudatory of the script itself. Although the critic doesn’t go into any specifics about what makes Mowatt or Davenport “second-rate,” the writer does quote from the script twice and go into loving detail about various scenes and how they were played as well as finishing with the following praise for the drama;
The play remains as great a favorite as ever. People who have witnessed it half-a-dozen times are still interested at the story – still shed tears at the incident – still applaud at certain turns in the vicissitudes of the characters. Those portions of the play appertaining to the French revolution were caught at with particular avidity.14
As I said at the beginning of this entry, the London theatre world felt a certain protective ownership over the works Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Perhaps the writer of the critique in Lloyds had been part of an uncredited workshop that had helped write this play – just as E.L. Blanchard had helped write Bulwer-Lytton’s “Richelieu.” Maybe the critic felt no one could really do the role of Pauline justice.
Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton was probably not thrilled to see that Anna Cora Mowatt– someone who had written a very frank article in the U.S. in 1843 exposing how he had beaten, cheated on, and heinously abused his ex-wife– was now starring in one of his plays in London. Perhaps the critic from Lloyds wrote a critique saying that Mowatt lacked dignity and was second-rate specifically intended for Bulwer-Lytton’s eyes in order to curry favor with his Lordship.
…Or maybe it was just a wicked bad review.
In the end, such critiques are just the opinion of one person and do not necessarily reflect the ability of performers like Davenport and Mowatt to appeal to audiences as this letter to Boston’s Daily Evening Transcript reminds us;
Mr. Editor: I was glad to notice your remarks in relation to Mr. Davenport and Mrs. Mowatt. As D. was an old schoolmate of mine, I naturally feel some interest in him. In letters from my brother received by the last steamer, he says; “Mrs. Mowatt and Davenport are killing everybody here; they played the Wife by Sheridan Knowles, wonderfully well, and a friend of his, (of Knowles,) said it was never done so well before; and sat down and wrote to Knowles a most excellent letter.” And again: “They have succeeded admirably, and are breaking through the outer crust of the English Theatre goers. The process of getting into people here is slow and discouraging; one needs patience, wisdom, discretion, and he may be disappointed, perhaps. They have done admirably well. Mrs. M. excels in her parts. The Drama is in a low state here. McCready and the Cushmans are going out to America in September.” All this is of course only private opinion, unprejudiced, unbiased, and unpaid for; but still it shows what the opinion of the people is, notwithstanding what newspaper critics may write.15
Despite the poison pen of the anonymous critic from Lloyds, “Lady of Lyons” had a very respectable six day run at the Olympic. Spicer was impressed enough with the Americans to reengage them to star in a production of his script “The Lords of Ellingham” alongside G.V. Brooke. After this series on “Lady of Lyons” wraps, I will return to cover that production at the Olympic in full. Although critics found fault with Spicer’s writing, this show gave Davenport and Mowatt their first taste of popular success in London.
E.L. Davenport wrote home, crowing in delight over a cartoon that appeared in Punch of legs sticking out under the final curtain lampooning the high body count in the final scene.16 Rumors flew on both sides of the Atlantic — Spicer planned to stage Mowatt’s “Armand” next. Mowatt was writing a tragedy for Spicer’s theater set during the reign of James I. Spicer was writing a comedy for Mowatt set in the reign of Charles II.
In the spring of 1848 it was uncertain when or if any or all of these things would come to pass. What did seem clear was that Mowatt and Davenport were, after many struggles and cruel disappointments, beginning to find their footing and break through to audiences who would appreciate them. They did not yet realize that in the audiences at Princess and Olympic theaters had been one viewer with an extremely strong appreciation for their talents.
His name was Walter Watts.
1. Price, W.T. Life of William Charles Macready. Brentanos, New York: 1894. Page 64-65.
2. Ibid, page 83.
3. “Olympic.” The Illustrated London News. April 1, 1848. Page 217, col.3.
4. “Amusements.” Dollar Newspaper: Philadelphia, Wednesday Morning, June 18, 1845. Page 3, col. 3.
5. “Olympic Theatre.” Morning Advertiser. Tuesday, March 28, 1848. Page 3, col.4.
6. Cited in Blesis, Marius. Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. 1938. University of Virginia, PhD dissertation. Page 237. [Note: Although Mowatt reports this review, Blesis quotes it, and there’s a mention in the Boston Daily Transcript that refers to it, I can find no trace of a review of “Lady of Lyons” in the Times from March 27- April 8, 1848. There is a review of “The Stranger” and “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady” at the Princess in February and another of “Lords of Ellingham” in the summer in that paper. The only explanation I have is that the review may have appeared in a Sunday edition of the Times which, at present, I cannot access.]
7. The Examiner, April 1, 1848, page 5, col. 1.
8. “Olympic.” The Era. April 2, 1848. Page 12, col.1.
9. “Olympic Theatre.” The Observer. April 2, 1848. Page 7, col. 1.
10. “Theatricals.” Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper. April 2, 1848. Page 10, col. 2.
13. Kent, Christopher. Periodical Critics of Drama, Music, & Art, 1830-1914: A Preliminary List. Victorian Periodicals Review. Vol. 13, No ½ (Spring-Summer, 1980). Pp.31-55.
14. “Theatricals.” Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper. April 2, 1848. Page 10, col. 2.
15. “Theatrical.” Daily Evening Transcript. Friday, March 3, 1848. Page 3, col.2.
16. Cartoon appeared in Punch Almanac, Vol. XIV, London: Fleet St. 1848. Page 233.