Part XIV: The Noble Heart of Gustavus V. Brooke
Tragedian Gustavus V. Brooke was a flawed person. He drank to excess. His handling of his finances, career, and relationships were all fraught with disasters – frequently of his own making. Brooke was inconsistent, moody, and unpredictable. He was, however, capable of incredible generosity. Brooke, with all his dramatic excesses, would seem to be an unlikely friend for the disciplined and lady-like Anna Cora Mowatt. However, the Irish tour the two performed together in the winter of 1851 is a testament to the strength of the connection between the two performers following the Watts Scandal and the depth of Brooke’s consideration for Mowatt in her hour of greatest personal and professional need.
In biographical profiles of Mowatt in the U.S., one will usually find phrases making the assertion that she was never touched by the faintest breath of scandal. Because of Mowatt’s association with movement for reform of the theatre in the U.S. and her creation of a morally upright social façade in her autobiography and other writings, this sort of impression was important. However, the claim is not true.
Walter Watts, the manager of the Marylebone and later the Olympic Theater, was also a bookkeeper in the auditors’ office of the Globe Insurance Company of London. Watts embezzled money from his employers for around a decade. The Mowatts were investors in Watts’ theaters. Anna Cora asserts she did not find out about this financial involvement in these venues until after Watts’ death – although she was personally selecting some of the scripts that were to be included on the Olympic’s performance calendar for the coming season. Script selection was usually the prerogative of top management, not star performers. It is unclear if James Mowatt knew anything about how Walter Watts was financing his theaters. In letters, James mentions that Watts was a frequent guest of the Mowatts and often dropped by to discuss business matters concerning the theater.
In the fall of 1849, James Mowatt left England for Jamaica. Anna Cora reports in her autobiography that this was because of a recurrence of the illness that took his sight. She is not specific about the nature of this illness. It is somewhat puzzling that he did not take advantage of the advanced treatment options that might be available for a possible neurological disorder in Switzerland, Germany, or England. James had previously demonstrated a willingness to explore treatment options that today would be termed alternative medicine such as homeopathy and mesmerism. He might have been seeking treatments of that nature in the Caribbean, or looking only for palliative care in a warmer climate. Either way, his condition worsened steadily during his stay.
I will also say that if there were difficulties in the Mowatts’ marriage, their religious beliefs would preclude divorce as an option. Followers of Emmanuel Swedenborg believed that marriage could only end at the death of a partner and the only justification for divorce was adultery.
Anna Cora records that she was in a nervous and highly distressed state during the month prior to Watts’ arrest. She began to have extreme problems with her memory. As March approached and letters filled with news of James Mowatt’s failing health came in from the Caribbean, she finally became so ill that her understudy had to go on for her at the Olympic Theater.
After Watts was confronted at the Globe Insurance Company by his supervisor with evidence that his crime had been discovered, instead of fleeing, he went to consult with Anna Cora and the Davenports. Despite this advance warning, when she was informed of his arrest days later, Mowatt’s reaction was dramatic. She fainted and became ill. Unlike the Davenports and other friends and associates who eventually recovered from their shock and tried to go back to work to salvage what they could of their careers the Olympic’s season, Mowatt did not leave her room for the next six months. E.L. Davenport kept her hypnotized in order to keep her calm. However, unlike previous experiences with mesmerism, Mowatt seemed tormented. A second personality that emerged during this trance state called her waking self “the little fool.” At one point, she stole a pair of scissors from her nurse’s basket and cut off her long, beautiful hair of which she had always been so proud.
Mowatt received no visitors while she was in this condition – including her desperately ill, dying husband. A few days after Walter Watts committed suicide in Newgate prison; she snapped out of the trance state and returned to her normal self.
Although there are no surviving documents that confirm anything other than a cordial professional relationship existed between Anna Cora Mowatt and Walter Watts, the above circumstances alone would make it easy for a contemporary to conclude that there was some sort of stronger tie between the two than appeared on the surface. Rumors would circulate for the next seventy years that the two had been romantically involved or that she had been the cause of or had knowledge of his financial misdeeds.
Contrary to the show business maxim, not all publicity is good publicity. Because of the nature of the public image that Mowatt had already established for herself as a proponent of theatre reform and a respectable member of the upper class, there was no way for her to spin the rumors now swirling about her into a type of notoriety that could work to her advantage. Watts’ downfall ruined Mowatt’s prospects in London. Socially, there was now a large question mark next to her formerly spotless reputation. Many of her literary friends quietly deserted her. Her career prospects plummeted. She would never again perform on a stage in that city.
E.L. Davenport, who had continued to work, was now effectively Fanny Davenport’s acting partner. He had a small family to support. The Davenports were now leaning on Fanny’s family connections to make ends meet.
James Mowatt was dying. He had invested all their savings in Walter Watts’ theaters. That money was gone. In a few short months, Anna Cora would be a widow. If she did not return to work soon and do something to remove the shadow of scandal from her name, she would be left with no way to support herself. Lying on his death bed, James Mowatt informed his wife of their financial situation and that he had arranged a tour for her in Ireland with Gustavus Brooke.
Here is where G.V. Brooke’s magnanimity comes into the story. The tragedian did not have to say yes to this booking. Brooke was always a bigger star than Mowatt. He certainly did not need anyone’s help to fill seats in Irish theaters. Generating press that reminded everyone of his ties to Walter Watts was not going to make his eventual return to England any warmer. Brooke didn’t owe Mowatt anything. It did not profit him to antagonize London theater managers by aiding someone they had declared a pariah. There was nothing in this pairing for him except a chance to do some good theatre with someone he enjoyed acting with and an opportunity to do a favor for a friend who was down on her luck.
Thus, at an extreme low point of her life when Anna Cora Mowatt had either lost or was in the midst of losing almost everything and everyone she cared about, she went to Dublin and played Pauline in “Lady of Lyons” opposite G.V. Brooke. Mowatt’s mood was bleak as she made the journey. She describes it as follows in her autobiography;
We crossed the channel in the steamer called the Iron Duke, the strongest and swiftest on the line. I found comfort in the name; it accorded with my experiences. Iron seemed the inflexible necessity that launched me upon this new and lonely career. Iron-like must the courage be which could enable me to face the future; of iron the strength which was needed to endure the present. 1
However, Mowatt would find that she was not as alone as she thought. She was arriving in Dublin as a friend of Gustavus Brooke. This was a connection that carried weight and opened doors. Mowatt would also find that being an American in Ireland was much different than being an American in England. The Irish press breathlessly anticipated her arrival for weeks, printing items like the following to prime audiences for the productions to come;
The distinguished American actress, Mrs. Mowatt, with whom Mr. Calcraft has been enabled to effect an engagement, arrived in Dublin yesterday, and will, we understand, make her first appearance before a Dublin audience on Monday night. The American and English press alike speak in the highest terms of the histrionic powers of this gifted lady. The Evening Packet has the following notice on the subject of Mrs. Mowatt’s engagement: —
“MRS. MOWATT, THE AMERICAN AUTHORESS AND ACTRESS – We learn that during Mr. Calcraft’s recent visit to the metropolis, he concluded an engagement for the appearance of this distinguished lady at the Theatre Royal.
Mrs. Mowatt is the author of two five-act plays, both of which have been produced with great success in America and in London. She is said to resemble Miss Foote and Miss O’Neill in her style of acting, and combines a peculiar grace and lady-like bearing with great personal attractions.”2
The production at the Theatre Royal went immediately into rehearsal. Unlike her experiences at Manchester and the Princess in London, the cast, under the leadership of her friend, Brooke, was cordial and welcoming.
Mowatt reports that she chose “Lady of Lyons” for her return to the stage after almost a year away from audiences because the character does very little in the first two acts. She felt she might need time to recover from an attack of stage fright.3 However, no attack of nerves came. In fact, she felt she never made a more confident first appearance. Mowatt found Irish audiences a particular delight;
I know of no audience who exert so inspiring an influence over an actor as the Dublin. Their thorough enjoyment, their quick comprehension, their ready responsiveness to exalted sentiments, their genuine tokens of delight, often expressed in a comic, and always in a hearty manner, bear the performer as upon a triumphant wave to the Elysian shores of success. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and rouses his energies, kindles his ambition, and renders even labor a pleasure. To act tamely before that audience would be an impossibility. No genius could slumber in such a vivifying atmosphere, no aspirations become weary, no ardor grow cold.4
The Dublin press was also generous with their plaudits;
“On last evening Mrs. Mowatt appeared for the first time before our Dublin audience. This event, doubtless highly interesting to the admirers of dramatic novelty, and looked forward to with pleasurable anticipations by connoisseurs who constitute critical authority on affairs dramatic, must have been considered an occasion somewhat trying by an artist of whose natural genius and histrionic ability public report has spoken so highly, sustained by the ornate and elaborate criticisms of the American and English press. Throughout the whole range of stage representation, actors and actresses, from the highest to the lowest, from Macready and Siddons to the humblest professor of light comedy, all have dreaded the ordeal of a Dublin audience. It might, perhaps, seem needless to remind the readers of this journal of the fastidious character of that same audience, the most considerate, as it is the most just and generous, of any before which true genius has ever presented its claims. We would not do so were it not that we wish to enhance the magnitude and the delicacy of the compliment paid on last evening by that audience to the fair and gifted actress who came before them as a daughter of America — the adopted land of thousands of our countrymen.”5
Building on this idea of general gratitude towards Americans, the following review combines praise for Mowatt’s performance with commendations for her charity towards impoverished Irish citizens;
On Monday evening, Mrs. Mowatt appeared, for the first time in Ireland, for the first time in Ireland, in the character of Pauline, in Bulwer’s Play of the Lady of Lyons, in which she was most judiciously sustained by our gifted fellow-citizen, Mr. Brooke, as Claude Melnotte. We have already frequently referred to the performances in those characters by artists who hold the first rank on the English stage, and everything we have said applicable to the most refined personations of Bulwer’s creation, with several new readings and exquisitely touching passages rendered in the present style of classical effect and dramatic pathos, might be justly applied to Mrs. Mowatt, as the once proud and haughty Pauline, and to Mr. Brooke, as the gardener’s son – ambitious, humbled, spurned, promoted, elevated, and at last successful. The American Review, in referring to Mrs. Mowatt’s pretensions as an actress, pronounces its judgement in the following terms: — “The great merit of Mrs. Mowatt’s acting is – and it is the highest merit of any acting – the force and refinement of imagination which she displays in the embodiment of character. Her mind, we should judge, is uncommonly flexible and fluid, and rises and falls into the moulds of character with singular ease. She reproduces the creation of the poet in her own imagination – makes all its thoughts and emotions real to herself – stamps on the expression of each the peculiar individuality she is representing, and loses all sense of self in the vividness of her realization of the part.” The opinions expressed in the fore-going extract have been adopted by the London press, and, without subscribing to the sponsorship of our contemporaries at the other side to the full extent of admitting to the idea of “ensouling” and the “vitality of life,” we willingly admit that Mrs. Mowatt is an artiste of the highest order of talent – aye, of genius – and according to our American friend of the Review, she has the charm of doing away with “mechanical contrivances of elocution,” and that by attitude, gesture, and delivery, she commands at will a power which “pervades and animates her acting, and makes itself “felt along the heart of her audience.” Irrespective of this lady’s professional abilities, the Irish people owe her a debt we feel assured they will not be slow to acknowledge: During the disastrous years of 1846 and ’47, Mrs. Mowatt was prominent amongst those “ministering angels” who took a lively interest in alleviating the misfortunes to which the Irish poor had been subjected – through her personal exertions no inconsiderable sum from America towards this benevolent object.”6
In a one hundred and eighty degree turnabout from the cynical distaste with which she had been greeted by many English critics and fellow performers, in Ireland, her identity as an American granted Mowatt instant status as a symbol of hope and generosity. The fact that she had history of personal giving was a cherry on top of the already overwhelmingly positive image the average Irish theatre-goer at this time seems to have had of U.S. citizens. In her autobiography, Mowatt recalled the near-crushing enthusiasm of Dubliners;
On emerging into the Street, we found such a crowd assembled that it was with difficulty that the gentlemen who led me could force a way to the carriage. This throng had gathered to witness my departure, not merely because I had become a favorite in Dublin, but because I was an American, and America had succored Ireland in her hour of need. They grasped my hands as I passed, seized my dress, crying out, “God bless you, mee lady!” “The Lord give you prosperity!” “America! America’s the blessed land!” There were a number of women in the crowd, some of them with infants in their arms. These pressed upon me, crying out, “Look at the baby, mee lady! Take a look at mee baby!” and, ” Let the little girl kiss your hand,” &c. I was forced to stand some minutes in the street, complying as well as I could with their requests.7
Mowatt also proved to be a definite hit as a playwright in Ireland. The Theatre Royal staged a production of “Armand” with Brooke in the title role and Mowatt starring as Blanche. The script was played in its original form, free of all anti-monarchial censorship. The Dublin crowds went wild, as Mowatt recounts;
Armand was produced towards the close of the engagement, and never created a more powerful sensation. Mr. Brooke’s delineation of the peasant Armand was interrupted by cheers from the commencement to the close of the play. The galleries fairly seemed inclined to make a descent upon the stage, and carry him off upon their shoulders. At the summons before the curtain, after the most deafening clamors of applause, as I was making my final acknowledgment, the cry rose of “Nine cheers for America!” The pit started to their feet, and lustily gave the cheers with waving hats and handkerchiefs. When the last peal ceased, the orchestra struck up “Hail, Columbia!” and drew down a new response. Our national air was immediately followed by “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning,” which always creates a furor of patriotic delight.8
Mowatt even had the confidence to debut a new Shakespearean role – albeit a relatively small one – in this engagement. She played the Queen in support of Brooke’s Richard III. Humorist Terry Driscoll captured the scene for the Wexford Independent;
Darby M’Monagle, who’s in town, bent on buying a small spot undher the Incumbered Estates Court, if you please, threated us the other night to a pit prospect of Misther Brooke and Mrs. Mowatt in Richard the Third. There was about a dozen people in the dhress boxes, and thim same looked so perished, you’d imagine ‘twould be the hoight of humanity to hould a coal-box convaynient to ‘em for a few seconds. I was greatly taken with the performance myself, and had to pinch the Missus very hard to keep her from exposin’ herself, she cried so loud whin the bla’guards wor whippin’ off the young children to the tower. ‘Pon my word, the American acthress was mighty clever and engagin’ and a purty piece o’goods into the bargain; and, indeed, ‘twould be hard to blame Misther Brooke for complainin’ o’bein’ hoarse from callin’ Richmond. I declare he a’most frightened myself, the bould way he shouted, and his dyin’ afther the single combat was the livin’ image o’ the reality.9
Like Driscoll’s colorful description, Brooke and Mowatt’s Irish tour seems to have been a refreshing bit of fun for all involved. G.V. Brooke was still riding a high tide of popularity. He lost nothing by agreeing to appear with Mowatt – despite her disgraced status in the eyes of some of the London theatrical elite. Brooke’s biographer devotes only half a sentence to these performances. The account appears between descriptions of a tour opposite Helene Faucit and a conversation in which William Macready confides to Brooke that he is the tragedian’s only fit successor.10
Ireland gave Anna Cora Mowatt the confidence she needed to return to the stage with the degree of enthusiasm and determination it was going to take to manage her career on her own. The high-profile performances opposite Brooke generated the right sort of press to send back to New York, Boston, and managers of provincial English theaters who might still be dragging their feet about terms and wages.
Although Mowatt was not able to resuscitate her career to the point where she was able to return to the London stage, she was able to restore her finances through work in provincial playhouses. These engagements were sufficient to clear her debts, bury her husband, and return home.
Next week – A new beginning.
1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Page 350.
2. “The Theatre Royal.” The Freeman’s Journal. Friday, January 24, 1851. Page 2, col. 5.
3. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Page 356.
5. “Theatre Royal.” The Weekly Freeman’s Journal. Saturday, February 1, 1851. Page 3, col, 4.
6. “Theatre Royal – Mrs. Mowatt.” The Dublin Evening Post. Thursday, Jan. 30, 1851. Page 3, col. 5.
7. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Page 361.
8. Ibid, 357-8.
9. Driscoll, Terry. “Taste and Theatricals.” The Wexford Independent. Feb. 15, 1851. Page 4, col. 5.
10. Lawrence, W.J. The Life of Gustavus Vaughn Brooke, Tragedian. (W&G Baird: Belfast, 1892) Page 114.