Part XV: The Lady Transformed
[This entry is one in a multi-part series tracing Anna Cora Mowatt’s experiences playing the role 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 Victorian drama is available at Librivox]
When Anna Cora Mowatt arrived in New York in August of 1851, four years had passed since she had last set foot on a U.S. stage. She was now returning for an engagement at Niblo’s Gardens in New York for which the press reported that she would be paid the princely sum of $100 a night. This meant that in less than a week, Mowatt would collect more than a skilled adult male might make in a year. However, Mowatt’s time abroad had left a number of indelible marks that were going to have a direct, unavoidable impact on her career. She returned to the U.S. on the same ship as journalist, Horace Greeley. A reporter, signing himself “David Copperfield,” described the two returning celebrities as follows;
Horace Greely came home on Saturday, in the Baltic. He has undergone great changes, during his sojourn in Europe. From an ardent Peace man, he has become a rousing fighting man; and he says that nothing but war to the Knife will ever help the down-trodden nations of the Old World. I have no time to tell you of all the changes friend Horace has undergone; but you will read them, doubtless, in the columns of the Tribune.
Anna Mowatt came here, also, in the Baltic. – She has changed more than Mr. Greely; but her transmogrifications are of a character different from those of the great journalist.1
As the writer alludes with a bit of dark ambiguity, the actress was no longer the same person who had sailed for England years before. Although there had been regular updates in the press on her activities while she’d been away, Mowatt would need to be re-introduced to American audiences. Her experiences in London would require appropriate framing for U.S. consumption. Mowatt had grown and matured as an artist and had accolades to add to her credit. However, the actress would also have to take what she knew would be negatives in stride and deal with them as well as she could.
The first of these significant alterations was the loss of E.L. Davenport as an acting partner. In previous entries, I spoke at length about the Mowatts’ search to find a suitable leading man to tour with Anna Cora. Part of the reason why I believe that finding E.L. Davenport was so crucial to Mowatt’s success was that Victorian playwrights did not write plays structured to feature female star players. Women’s roles tended to be reactive rather than proactive. There were rarely more than three women in each play. These characters usually had far fewer lines than the male roles. Pauline, the character that had won fans’ hearts for Mowatt, makes only brief appearances in the first two acts of the play. “Armand’s” Blanche, a role Anna Cora had created for herself, still requires the support of a villainous Richelieu, a lecherous Louis, and a heroic Armand to sustain the drama of the complex plot.
For the remainder of her career, in productions where Mowatt stars opposite strong performers, her acting generally received the most positive evaluations from auditors. When the reviewer has to sit through bad performances by the actors in the company supporting her, Mowatt usually can’t save the show on her own power. I would argue that the material she was performing was not designed aid her in this desired outcome. Female characters did not have enough applause-winning speeches and big dramatic moments to carry a production by themselves in front of a mid-century Victorian audience.
The advantageous structuring of dramas in favor of male characters was probably another reason why actresses like Charlotte Cushman and Ellen Tree were so willing to experiment with the so-called “breeches roles.” Mowatt’s lone foray into male roles, Talfourd’s “Ion,” was a regular feature of her repertoire at this time. In the absence of a strong and versatile partner like E.L. Davenport reliably at her side, Mowatt was now once more as vulnerable to having productions spoiled by a weak co-star as she was in her early days touring with William Crisp.
In her first performances in New York, however, the actress was fortunate in her supporting cast. Mr. John Dyott played Claude Melnotte opposite Mowatt’s Pauline at Niblo’s. (Although he was an actor with an sterling reputation, unfortunately, Dyott’s lasting claim to fame would prove to be that he had the misfortune to be playing one of the lead roles in Laura Keene’s company’s production of “Our American Cousin” the night Abraham Lincoln was shot.) She garnered excellent reviews for the performance, such as this one;
This distinguished actress made her fourth appearance last evening at Niblo’s before a crowded and brilliant audience. Bulwer’s play is, perhaps, the most popular of modern dramas – the character of Pauline, one of the most beautiful and affecting pictures, drawn from domestic life. It is true to nature and hence its repetition never tires. It abounds in striking situations and in the sterner trials of the heart. It is, therefore, the test of the powers of an actress, to which Mrs. Mowatt in her Armand had not been subjected. Expectation had been highly raised and it was not disappointed. Her reading pleased us. It was in the tones of a voice sweet and expressive and with just emphasis and modulation. Her conception of Pauline throughout was consistent and beautiful. It was an eminently chaste performance, and the result of reflection and study. Pauline is a beauty, spoiled by adulation, and whose vanity and pride are strongly excited by the overweening ambitious designs of a weak mother. In the earlier scenes of the play these qualities were depicted with great fidelity. The transitions to the warm and natural impulses of her heart, when she, for the first time, awakened to a deep and absorbing passion, was given with the most touching effect. The struggles of love and pride, the agony of the parting scene, and the triumph of a warm, generous and noble nature, ever a sense of wrong and disappointed ambition, evinced in her mastery over the passions, which only the highest order of talent could exert. They told powerfully with the house. The closing scene, in which she portrayed her undying love and her selfless devotion to save from ruin the parent she love, her intense agony of feeling, her inward shrinking from the man she loathed, and whom she was doomed to wed, her sudden restoration with her lover, and her lost hopes, was one of the most profound interest, and rendered with a force and truth that came home to the hearts of all. There was nothing studied or artificial in it. It was natural and affecting, devoid of exaggeration or straining after effect. It was a triumph of dramatic art.2
Partnership is also the theme of the second major change that Mowatt’s four years in England had wrought. She was now a widow. By Victorian standards, Anna Cora should have still been in deep mourning. However, her Swedenborgian beliefs did not call for any extended period of grieving for the death of James Mowatt. New Church members believed that the afterlife was idyllic. The elaborate and rather theatrical funerary customs of that day represented a lack of faith in promises of a Divine Hereafter to that group of believers.
In terms of her social status, Mowatt was now an unescorted female. In addition to the loss of her husband as an irreplaceable team member who had handled tour arrangements, negotiated contracts, and managed publicity, James Mowatt functioned as a potent socio-cultural signifier in Anna Cora’s public persona. Previously, her husband had been both literally present by her side in her theatrical endeavors and had served as an essential part of the narrative put forward in the press that justified her creative ambitions.
Anti-theatrical prejudice still ran very high in the U.S. Playhouses were still strongly associated with prostitution and other forms of vice. In quotes from her autobiography, you may have noted that Anna Cora frequently mentions that James Mowatt escorted her from her dressing room to the stage. He wasn’t merely being overprotective or possessive. He was doing his duty as a 19th century husband to shield his wife from the possible scandal that could arise from inappropriate interactions. Reputation-conscious persons of this era were very skeptical of the ability of adult men and women to have interactions that did not carry sexual overtones. Women who wished to remain scandal-free avoided unchaperoned interactions with men. Additional and irreparable damage to a respectable lady’s reputation could be caused by association with theatrical professionals who turned out to be doubling as sex workers, procurers, or other types of petty criminals. (And Heaven forbid that anything should happen that would make a good part of metropolitan London suddenly leap to the conclusion that one was the secret girlfriend of an infamous embezzler who had led a double life as a theater manager and who had committed suicide in prison.)
Proper, reputation-conscious 19th century women were also not supposed to be ambitious. Thus in biographical sketches published in the press detailing the life events leading to Anna Cora’s decision to become an actress (often based on material written by James Mowatt), her husband’s debilitating illness is usually prominently featured – instead of his crippling losses in the stock market. If the article is long enough, the writer will also cite incidents illustrating Anna Cora seeking and being granted her father’s approval and his support of her career choice. Thus Mowatt becomes in these stories an appropriately dutiful wife and daughter of that time period instead of an adventuress aggressively seeking the public eye. Now that James Mowatt was dead, what was her justification for remaining in the theatre going to be? Who was going to be there to shield her from scandal?
Although James Mowatt was no longer there to coordinate its efforts, the collection of individuals – known and unknown – that I have previously dubbed “Team Mowatt” was still hard at work. The actress seems to have had good support from contacts in the press in Boston and New York as well as a network of friends and fans in those cities actively lending aid to her cause. In the months after her return to the U.S., one tactic that I think was to prove highly effective on the part of those wishing to create positive buzz for Mowatt was the publication of the endorsements of average citizens in the form of letters to the editor and write-ups in local interest columns. (When I call these letters a tactic, I mean to imply that I suspect that individuals might have been encouraged to write letters and coached on content, or at the very least, certain letters were selected for specific content and placed prominently by editors such as Epes Sargent who were friends of Mowatt.) Quite a few Mowatt-friendly letters and items appeared in Boston papers, offering testimonials to the actress and recounting her life story as the following does briefly;
From the Senate let us step into the Howard, where the lady-like Mrs. Mowatt has been drawing full houses for a week. Mrs. M has recently returned from England, where she was much noticed. She is an author as well as an actress, and has written several works which have done her honor. Descended from one of the most respectable families in New Jersey, she seems to have made a choice of her vocation out of pure love for the stage, where she has maintained an unspotted character, and has won the highest encomiums, not only as an actress, but as a lady, whom one may feel it is an honor to own as a friend. Not being a theater-going man, nor thoroughly posted up about the “stars” that have from time to time flitted across the stage, I shall not try to tell you of her acting, only, that when compared with those I have seen in modern times, I have not seen her superior.3
The correspondent places Mowatt’s family in New Jersey instead of New York, but otherwise hits all of the salient points that would be repeatedly emphasized in other “fan letters” from this period and publicity material that would appear for the remainder of her career: Mowatt was a lady with an exemplary reputation. She had praiseworthy achievements as a performer and an author. She was in the theater not because she was ambitious but because she was an artist and a reformer. She was a charming individual with whom any respectable person should be honored to associate.
One angle of positive spin that the letter in the Worchester Daily Transcript does not cover, but that definitely emerged during this time, is Mowatt’s patriotism. After her return to the U.S., publicity concerning her broadened from her family ties to embrace the metaphor of Mowatt as “America’s Daughter.” I have previously written about how “Armand” functioned as a patriotic play even though it was set in 18th century France. Mowatt considered herself and her plays representatives of the U.S. in England. Deployment of this nationalistic type of promotion began immediately after the actress’ arrival in the U.S. as in this announcement of an appearance a Niblo’s;
We most confidently predict for her all the success that she may desire. As an actress, a lady, and a scholar, Mrs. Mowatt is an honor to her native land.4
Another press release summarized the talking points as follows;
The daughter of an old, revolutionary family, excellently educated, much travelled, loved by the most eminently literary characters at home and abroad, herself a poet, she appears upon the stage combining the fascinating beautiful actress with the accomplished lady in a way rarely met with. We should be proud of her as an American and secure to her that success worthy so high a genius.5
There was resistance to “Team Mowatt’s” publicity campaign, however. This piece appeared in early September and was reprinted a few Northeastern papers;
We have never seen or heard Mrs. Mowatt, and can form no opinion as to how just the criticisms are that we have read in relation to her; but we have never been able to understand how a lady of her literary ability can obtain the consent of her own mind to appear upon the stage of a theatre.
The following, from the New York Star, has the appearance of fairness, and we therefore quote it:
“MRS. MOWATT AS AN ACTRESS. – Mrs. Mowatt is drawing pretty fair houses at Niblo’s. We wish she were a better actress; but in spite of both patriotism and gallantry, we cannot admit that she is anything more than an ordinary in that branch of the fine arts. She is a pretty woman, however, and, as a writer, talented, agreeable, natural and full of vivacity. We wish she would abandon the stage, for which she is not fitted, and turn her attention to authorship, for which she is so peculiarly qualified. We could then praise her with warmth and sincerity; and honest praise is worth something, while the farrago of flatulent sycophancy with which the interested would sustain her in a false station is utterly valueless. As to Mrs. M.’s success in London, we are familiar with all the facts, and know exactly how to appreciate them.”6
Newspapers in the U.S. had covered Walter Watts’ trials and his suicide. Veiled and vaguely threatening references to this scandal would appear periodically in the press for the rest of Mowatt’s career as an actress. It seems that she sold the expensive silver vase Watts presented her with at the gala benefit performance of “Armand” in March of 1849 after her return to the U.S. because the following blind item began to haunt newspaper columns beginning in the fall of 1851;
Tenry’s jewelry store exhibits a silver vase, presented by the manager of one of the London theatres to Anna Cora Mowatt and a very beautiful testimonial it is; but could the entire facts of the case be made public, I fear it would be looked upon in an entirely different light.7
I believe that this period marks emergence of a public persona for Mowatt that was aggressively supported in publicity materials put forward by her confederates and reinforced by her in her autobiography and in interviews. She was Anna Cora Mowatt, lady/scholar/patriot, devoted daughter, and dutiful wife, whose primary passion was the reformation of the theatre for the enlightenment of Humankind. (By lady, I mean that, in accordance to the standard of the time, she is making the claim that she is a person born to rank, education, and privilege who had maintained a spotless reputation.)
Looking at some of the attacks on her reputation launched in the press, I can now understand some of the vehemence of Mowatt and her supporters’ insistence on her sterling character. She was fighting an uphill battle for survival in her career laced with landmines in 1851. Mowatt was very lady-like and patriotic, but the story of her life reveals that she was also stubborn, passionate, and quite unconventional as well. These, however, were not characteristics that were going to help her survive the public relations nightmare in which she found herself or aid in convincing conservative Northeasterners to buy theater tickets. Therefore all traces of a frank, gutsy, bohemian, and/or rebellious Anna Cora begin to be carefully toned down or edited out of the picture. For the public, Mowatt and her associates scrupulously crafted an image of the actress as the noble lady from this point going forward.
The last sort of mark that her time in England left on Mowatt is one that will be immediately understandable to today’s readers. It is the sort of inevitable transformation that a certain segment of every actress’s audience still finds unforgivable in their chosen idol.
Mowatt got older and gained weight.
Anna Cora Mowatt was now thirty-four years old. Because she was thin, willowy, and had long hair worn in a girlish style, the actress had convincingly debuted playing teen-agers when she was well past twenty-five. By all reports, in 1851 she was still a very attractive woman. However, she had been through severe physical and mental stress. Mowatt couldn’t pass for a teen-ager anymore.
One difference between the 1850s and today is that at that time, a slim frame was not necessarily considered an ideal body type. To be very thin was associated with poverty and ill health. A letter from a fan printed in the Boston Statesman frames Mowatt’s weight gain in the most positive light possible;
When Mrs. Mowatt left America, her health was feeble; the worm of care was at her heart, and her form was exceedingly fragile, and in some of her personations, which were so full of passion, it seemed an impossibility for one so frail to go through to the end of the play, without meeting death at the fall of the curtain. But, her travels and residence abroad have invigorated and revolutionized her physical frame, restored her health, and renewed her youth; and she comes back to her “loved native land,” with a well-developed and finely rounded figure, which, to the eye of the observer, indicate the possession of vigor and ability to personate any character in her role, and portray any degree of passion that belongs to her part.
Those who have never seen Mrs. M. may be interested in a description of her personal appearance. She is of medium height – neither too tall nor too short. Her complexion is florid; her hair flaxen light, just the color for an ideal being; her features quite regular; her eyes are light blue, and very expressive; her muscles are well developed; her step is firm and elastic; her voice is full, clear, and rings out in that class of tones which defy particular description, but justly be called musical. When you see and hear her once, you have the desire to see and hear her again. But she inspires no unholy sentiment. In her highest and purest impersonations, so perfect is the illusion she throws around you, that you wonder whether you are gazing upon a human or superhuman being.8
At the other end of the spectrum, another writer bluntly estimated that Mrs. Mowatt had gained “forty pounds in flesh.”9 Who knows from whence this jackass derived that number. I’m certain he wasn’t offered the opportunity to put her on a set of scales. However, the estimate, if exact, would mean that Mowatt now weighed somewhere around one hundred and thirty pounds – which is not excessively large for woman in her mid-thirties of medium height.
Using the word “stout” in a congratulatory manner few would ever consider today, the Daily Republic commented approvingly on Mowatt’s more solid physique as a stature befitting a tragedienne;
Mrs. Mowatt made her first appearance last evening at Niblo’s since her return from London and was greeted by a very full house. She looks extremely well, having grown quite stout in person and seemed more at ease on stage than when she played here before.10
The most elegantly formulated and perhaps most balanced commentary on the alterations four years in England had wrought on Mowatt’s physical presentation came from her mentor, J.W.S. Hows, of the Albion;
In appearance, Mrs. Mowatt has changed considerably during her four years’ residence abroad, having lost the delicate and fragile air by which she was wont to be distinguished, and acquired in its place that unethereal embonpoint which betokens improved health and the march of time. She retains, however – that great charm of woman, off or on the boards – her personal beauty. There is the same winning smile and the same intelligent expression.11
Transformed in body and social status, bereft of her life and business partners, and haunted by scandal, Mowatt had to restart her career in the U.S. from a crisis point that might have toppled others. However, she managed to maintain a disciplined focus as she marshalled her resources and utilized her network of fans, friends, and contacts in the press to craft an off-stage persona that would be as pleasing to her audiences as her on-stage characters. Next week we will look in depth at how effective Team Mowatt’s publicity strategies actually were when they were put into practice in two important Northeastern theatre cities.
Next week – Mowatt takes her show on the road to Boston and Philly!
1. Copperfield, David. “Our New York Correspondence.” The Buffalo Daily Republic. Wednesday, August 20, 1851. Page 2, col 2.
2. “Mrs. Mowatt in ‘The Lady of Lyons.’” New York Herald. Thursday, August 28, 1851. Page 3, col. 3
3. Telescope. “Transcript Correspondence.” Worchester Daily Transcript. Sept. 24, Page 2, col. 3.
4. New York Atlas. September 24, 1851. Page 3.
5. Boston Evening Transcript. November 24, 1851. Page 1.
6. Daily American Telegraph. Wednesday, September 3, 1851.
7. New Orleans Weekly Delta. Dec. 1, 1851. Page 7, col. 3.
8. H – Time. “Odds and Ends about Home.” Boston Daily Statesman. Saturday, September 27, 1851. Page 2, col. 8.
9. Caesar, Don. “Baltimore Correspondence.” New Orleans Times-Picayune. Saturday Evening, November 1, 1851. Page 1, col. 6.
10. S.K.S. “New York Correspondence.” The Daily Republic. Friday, August 22, 1851. Page 2, col. 5.
11. “Drama.” The Albion. September 23, 1851. Page 404, col. 3.