Part XVII: New Roles, New Men
Although this series of entries is devoted to covering instances of Anna Cora Mowatt appearing in the role of Pauline in “Lady of Lyons” from her debut in 1845 to her retirement in 1854, there have been several occasions thus far that I have made exceptions and discussed at length her performances in other roles. I fear that this entry will be another one of those instances, for in 1852, although “Lady of Lyons” still remained an audience favorite, Bulwer’s drama was squeezed out of its prized place in Mowatt’s repertoire by the arrival on the scene of a new, monster hit for the actress with the unlikely title of “Ingomar: the Barbarian.” Pauline would have to step aside for Parthenia as Mowatt transitioned into a new phase as she welcomed a whole new cast of supporting players into her life and career.
The first man playing a significant new role in Mowatt’s life was her seventeen-year-old nephew Stanislaus Guillet, her sister Charlotte’s son. Young Stanislaus’ job was to take James Mowatt’s place at his aunt’s side and act as her escort and protector backstage while she was on tour. The idea that a teenaged boy could act as any sort of a defender and moral guardian to a woman in her thirties instead of the other way around is ludicrous to us today. However, standards of propriety demanded that a lady must have a male escort. Guillet fit the bill sufficiently to enable the actress to continue to tour without raising eyebrows.
Probably of much more practical use to Mowatt was her assistant and dresser, Mrs. Renshaw. This lady had been a wardrobe assistant employed at the Marylebone Theatre. She had been in attendance on the fateful night Walter Watts had thrown a gala to celebrate at the close of his last successful season as manager of that venue. During a banquet for the cast and crew, a chorus girl had wandered too close to one of the gaslights at the foot of the stage. When the young woman’s skirts caught fire, Renshaw was the only person in the crowd who had kept her head and had the bravery to tackle the girl and put out the flames by rolling her on the floor. She sustained several severe burns herself in the process, but saved the young woman’s life.
Mowatt hired Renshaw as her dresser afterwards. The two were together for the rest of the actress’ life. Mowatt wrote characters based on Renshaw into her novels “Mimic Life” and “Fairy Fingers.”
Mowatt might have been glad of her chaperons in her first engagement of the new year in Richmond, Virginia. The actress was quite popular in the South. Her performances were usually very well-attended and met with praise from reviewers. One paper in particular was noticeably vehement in its response to Mowatt’s visit. The Richmond Enquirer was a publication that was typically more noted for its fiery political rhetoric than its cultural pages. However, the person writing these reviews had a particularly strong reaction to Mrs. Mowatt;
This lovely woman and beautiful and captivating actress won a complete triumph on Monday night. The house was crowded and brilliant, and everything passed off most pleasantly. Since Mrs. Mowatt was here – some five years since – she has wonderfully improved. Then she was delicate and without great power – she has now grown into a woman of rich beauty of face and form, and her acting is marked by touch sweetness and impassioned force. Her versatility of talent was admirably displayed in the various phases of “Julia.” Some of her attitudes were beautifully classical, and brought to mind the finest specimens of Grecian sculpture.1
The writer returned in the next issue to review Mowatt’s performance in “The Love Chase” and further expand upon her gifts and charms saying;
When Mrs. Mowatt was first here, about five years since, we saw her several times, and thought that there was scarcely any room for improvement. But we were never more agreeably surprised when we beheld an entirely changed person in almost every respect. She was then pretty, but now beautiful; she was then an actress of considerable merit, and was though second scarcely any in this country; but now may be regarded as the first, (except probably Miss Cushman,) and as being nearly faultless in all her parts. She should, therefore be seen by every lover of good acting before she concludes her present engagement, which terminates tomorrow, (Saturday night.)2
The reviewer was again present for Mowatt’s special benefit performance of “Armand.” According to report, this show was also attended by Virginia’s new Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, one of the state’s U.S. senators, and a large portion of the two Houses of the Legislature.3 The writer again had nothing but praise for the actress’ skill and person, saying;
The lovely authoress never looked better, never played with more beauty, power, and fidelity to nature, in spite of an obstinate cough. At the close of the play, Mrs. Mowatt was called forth and most enthusiastically greeted. She cordially responded in a very neat, graceful and touching little speech, in which, with taste and good feeling, she paid a handsome compliment to Mr. Maule and the excellent troupe which had so well sustained her.4
The above articles are all unsigned but in all likelihood were probably written by the Richmond Enquirer’s editor, William Foushee Ritchie, who would later become Mowatt’s second husband. Some contemporaries claimed that he fell in love with the actress while witnessing her performance in the role of Parthenia. It is true that the play “Ingomar” was very significant to the couple. However, Mowatt’s appearances in Richmond took place a full month before her first performance as Parthenia. Ritchie began to display a high degree of interest in Mowatt from January of 1852. It is very likely that he followed her to Baltimore and saw her debut in the role. Starting around this time, he began to show up at her performances and bombard her with flowers and other gifts.
The final new man to emerge as an important figure in Mowatt’s life during this year was Wyzeman Marshall. Marshall, a veteran performer and the manager of the Howard Athenaeum teamed up with the actress for a series of performance beginning in February and stretching through late fall. Unlike E.L. Davenport, Marshall’s commitments did not allow him to travel the country with Mowatt. However, their temporary partnership did guarantee that she would have a strong co-star with which to launch the hot new property she had discovered that had been lighting up the London theatre scene the previous season. By special arrangement, the play had premiered simultaneously at the Broadway and Bowery Theaters in New York. The show had successful runs at both venues but did not become a runaway hit in the U.S. until Mowatt and Marshall’s interpretation debuted in February of 1852.
Before I begin to describe the play, bear in mind that Mowatt needed a script that called for the leading actress to be onstage speaking and engaged in meaningful dramatic action for the majority of all five acts. It was remarkably difficult to find a text that met this basic requirement at this time in theatre history. Most plays were geared to feature a male actor. As the title suggests, “Ingomar: the Barbarian” also includes a hefty part for a leading man. However, the role of Parthenia provided enough stage time to qualify this drama as being an appropriate starring vehicle for a female performer. The character also had many qualities that played to Mowatt’s strengths as a performer. Parthenia is sweet, but self-willed. She is honest, brave, patriotic, romantic, and at the same time a pragmatic problem-solver and a loyal daughter. She is also a little naïve and oblivious at times. Therefore the character can be played with a touch of humor. I would guess that Mowatt, who was a skilled comedienne, probably emphasized the gentle humor of the role to save the part from becoming too sappy.
Another bonus was that Mowatt looked good in the costume. Parthenia is a young, Greek maiden. The stage directions call for her to wear simple, draped gowns constructed of merino wool, embellished with Grecian embroidery. Previous productions such as “Virginia” and “Ariadne” in London and “Ion” in the U.S. which had called for her to wear similar, figure-revealing garments generated many comments complimenting her appearance. Despite initial concerns from some quarters about her weight gain in the summer of 1851, “Ingomar” would also elicit many plaudits on the actress’ costume and figure.
One can see immediately why “Ingomar” might have attracted Mowatt’s eye. The play was translated and adapted from a German text by a fellow playwright/actress, Maria Ann Lovell. Mowatt often chose to perform the works of other female writers. Lovell was the wife of dramatist, George William Lovell, author of “Love’s Sacrifice” – a longtime favorite drama in Mowatt’s repertoire. The original version of “Ingomar” was titled Der Sohn der Wildnis or “The Son of the Wilderness” by an Austrian author named Eligius Franz Joseph, Freiherr von Munch-Bellinghausen. George Vandenhoff’s sister Charlotte had starred in the first London production of the play in 1851.
“Ingomar” can perhaps be best categorized as an action/adventure/romance. To me it calls to mind the Tarzan and Jane films that were popular in the first half of the 20th century. Parthenia offers herself as hostage when her father is kidnapped by a band of barbarian tribesmen. When the exchange is accepted, the chief, Ingomar, is impressed by her bravery. He falls in love with the innocent and noble-spirited young girl. Parthenia, in turn, promptly sets about doing her best to civilize the barbarian chieftain. Complications ensue for three more acts.
The Convention on Women’s Rights had taken place in Seneca Falls in 1848. Notions of what a more assertive womanhood might look like were beginning to run through the cultural zeitgeist at this time. “Ingomar” most definitely isn’t a serious Women’s Liberation drama. However, the plot does create a space that allows for some playful experimentation with a degree of agency on the part of the heroine in taking the lead in the romantic relationship with the otherwise very dominant and traditionally patriarchal Ingomar. There are also a few other plot points where Parthenia behaves in a very assertive manner that moves the action forward. Reviewer and audience reactions do not complain of finding her “unfeminine” or “forward” in Mowatt’s interpretation of the role. This was, perhaps, part of the alchemy that made the show into a hit. “Ingomar” was not only the right role for the right actress, but dealt in a fun, fanciful manner with a serious issue that was generating a certain amount of cultural uneasiness at that particular point in the nation’s history. There are certainly scores of other sometimes silly, sexy, “girl power” movies, plays, and television shows that emerged during the 1920s, 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, and other times when Women’s Rights were a controversial cultural issue that had similar characteristics.
The drama was quite definitely a resounding success for Mowatt and Marshall. The show debuted in Baltimore at the Holliday Street Theater in February. A correspondent described the premiere as follows;
One of the most delightful entertainments we have ever enjoyed at the Theatre was the new play of INGOMAR, as produced by this accomplished actress at the Holliday Street house on last Friday and Saturday evenings. It is a drama translated from the German of Friedrich Halm, and a poem rich in beauties of the most refined and lovely character. The ground tone of the poem is the power of goodness in woman, as an attribute above intellect or beauty, to refine and humanize a barbarian, to subdue a coarse and savage nature….
Parthenia found in MRS. MOWATT an embodiment so perfect that the character seemed her own creation. Her costume was severely and beautifully classical, and every movement and attitude might furnish a study for an artist. We have never witnessed anything more charming in its simple nature and graceful loveliness than the scene in the second act where the Greek maiden is employed weaving garlands and prattling to the savage chief lying at her feet. Not a line in the play describes the be the beauty of Parthenia; no word points to the unseen power by which her work is wrought; and yet this must be realized to the heart and mind, or the incidents of the play would seem incongruous and absurd. – MRS. MOWATT sent these beautiful meanings to the hearts of the audience by a power above genius – one beyond the sphere of the critic – the power of goodness and purity of soul that shone through human eyes with a light not of their own, and kindle in the human countenance an expression that earth cannot counterfeit.5
The production was moved soon to the Howard Athenaeum. The Boston Herald was quick to proclaim;
It is pronounced by many as Mrs. Mowatt’s very best character. Most certain it is that she throws into it great power and beauty, and achieves many brilliant points. It should be seen by all who appreciate fine acting.6
The Boston Evening Transcript raved;
Mrs. Mowatt’s performance in Parthenia is a succession of artist-like effects, which seemed to touch the audience in the right place. Her Grecian costume is very becoming; and the high moral tone of the character is in admirable association with the feminine graces that complete the conquest of the barbarian Ingomar, without any strain upon our credulity as to the result.
Mr. Marshall displayed a very high order of histrionic ability in Ingomar. His conception of the part was delicate and true, and he brought out all its fine points with great power of execution. He has a fine person, a good voice and bearing; and he attempts no part of which he has not the full mastery.7
“Ingomar’s” popularity inspired a new wave of enthusiasm for Mowatt. All the rumors of a London scandal that had dogged her the year before suddenly disappeared from the national press. In their place were tribute poems from admirers like the following (This is the last stanza only of this work);
Beneath the letter of a noble art
I scan the spirit of a nobler life;
And deeper still within the fiery core
Of life itself, as at a holy shrine,
Two vestals, Faith and Love, forever kneel.
The painted mummery of a clumsy stage
Is not thy home, sweet Mother of Delights!
I watch thine eye. It climbs beyond the stars.
Ages and empires are too mean to match
Thy swelling frame and glory smitten cheek.
For visions of the Infinite have swept
Across the purple orbit of thy youth,
And thou in joy or agonies must soar – or die.8
A group of the Boston literary elite that included the venerable Henry Wadsworth Longfellow organized a highly publicized, special benefit performance for her at the Howard Athenaeum in May. In December, another group of fans presented her with a live fawn. The little creature was of a rare and beautiful breed of deer. It was allowed to accompany the actress on stage for a performance of “Ingomar.” The fawn was reported to have tamely nibbled on garlands and the actress’ curls during a scene in the second act to the delight of all.9
Mowatt’s solid success as Parthenia cast a positive glow over the rest of her career. Petty carping about her lack of power vanished almost overnight. By mid-summer, Mowatt’s rank alongside Charlotte Cushman as the U.S.’s queen of the stage was undisputed. The Evening Post observed the following:
It was evident that she has returned from abroad with higher perceptions of dramatic art, and her powers and judgements more matured. Familiar with the best models, and having closely studied them to emulate or excel them, her acting is found to be more chaste, and possesses a much higher degree of artistic excellence than formerly. It shows the result of study and reflection.
Her sphere and habits of observation have been greatly extended, and her knowledge of the human heart, and of the various passions by which it is assailed, have become in a corresponding degree widened and matured. She has all the advantage of perfect ease of manner and the polish and elegance of refined life. She is thus eminently calculated to shine in the character she aims to portray and to her Julia, and Pauline, Mrs. Haller and the Wife – the last, one of Sheridan Knowles’ most impressive portraits – must be awarded great excellence, in which the inward and mysterious workings of a woman’s heart are naturally touched by a hand of no common power. In these pictures of domestic life, that appeal to the sensibilities of all, Mrs. Mowatt exhibits no studied effort, no straining after effect, no violation of good taste. Her acting is characterized by truthfulness, and bears in all she undertakes the impress of feeling and intellectual culture.
Last evening she appeared in Parthenia, in the new play of “Ingomar,” written by a noted German lyric poet; original in its conception, poetical in its style, and abounding in bursts of feeling, and effective situations. The plot is one of interest. Parthenia was played in a chaste, beautiful, and impressive manner, portraying by turns most touchingly a young maiden’s filial devotion, her indignation, her pride, her sensibility, and, in the end, her deep, absorbing love.10
The Boston Bee had the following to say about Mowatt status as an actress;
Mrs. Mowatt is a rising star. She is a glorious one. And what is better is all American. She is today, in many respects, the queen of the American stage. She is almost great. She has not gained, by any means, the highest histrionic reaches, for the time she has been on the stage would hardly permit that. Taking Mrs. Siddons as a standard, she has yet a great ways to go on the ladder of attainment and fame. But in comparison with those who have shone lustrously in stage firmament since, we place Mrs. Mowatt up among them with entire confidence. We very well know that strict comparison would rather elevate than depress her reputation and powers. Take her Ion, and Parthenia. We are quite willing to risk our mental head in saying that they are as fine touches of acting; as full of fresh nature and natural art; as have been seen on any stage for half a century. In them melts and sinks Mrs. Mowatt the woman; and we see and feel only the noble boy, and the beautiful maiden – patriotism, devotion; — duty, affection, religion.
We will give a reason or two for the faith that is in us. And first, because she has a strong personality. She has a mould, a spirit, a vitality for every character. You never witness the same person in two personations. You cannot see on a Monday night what she will play clear through the week, as is the case with many starlings. She has a conception for every part, and it never runs into, or interferes with others. Her Blanche is never taken for Ion; nor would it be if it were in an alien dress. Whatever Mrs. Mowatt is engaged in, she is there and nowhere else. A close watching will note this; will note a most thorough intenseness. She has, in short, a great personality. You see it in her eye – it sparkles out. You see it in her lip – it leaps off. You see it in her whole frame – it moves and urges like passion. This is personality – the grand substratum of greatness in anything; and above all of stage greatness.
Then she studies her characters. She studies them clear through the mere garb and show of words, back and down to their meaning; down among the vitalities. Hence we see she is always true to the author. It is this – the force of this quality – its nervous, constant, intense action – that has made her an author, and produced Armand; one of the best plays, as true as gospel, that has been written for many years. We have never witnessed a person who conceives and measures a character better than Mrs. Mowatt; and this comes of intense study. Those who talk of hitting upon great points; striking lights out of darkness; tumbling as it were upon extraordinary beauties, should analyze this lady’s unfolding a character. They will see her mind blended and penetrated with every word she utters; and every word has its meaning. One very prominent reason why we have no more and better actresses and actors in our time is that the stage is not studied thoroughly enough. It is this which has carried Mrs. Mowatt over the heads of those who affect twice her powers, and who nature has gifted quite as profusely.
Undoubtedly, Mrs. Mowatt’s personal appearance is very much in her favor, for a countenance blooming with so much intellect, beauty, humanity could not but attract all eyes; but a mere face is nothing without power, passion, intellect in action behind it. So is the case of this lady. Physiognomy come in to finish and top her fine powers; not as a lever to them. – People soon cloy of prettiness; and personal beauty very soon goes a begging, if it stands on nothing.
Mrs. Mowatt feels rather than acts in her impersonations. To act simply, is to go through a part as a machine. Hence the grand quality of magnetism seems to go out from her. She takes an audience almost to a certainty, and keeps them, so real is the power of feeling. – Identifying herself; knowing, thinking, seeing, feeling nothing but that it is within her, she makes, to a great degree, her audience feel like-wise. This is reckoned among the very first qualities of fine acting. And this is found a dominant element in all she attempts.
Her powers do not indeed range into characters like Lady Macbeth or Queen Elizabeth, in the stately or solemn walks of tragedy; but it must not be forgotten that it requires nearly or quite as much power and compass of intellect to delineate the more subdued but not less deeper passion of our nature. She is at present physically incapable of giving adequate effect to the movings of the human frame in their volcanic attitudes; nor is it to be regretted, since they would lift her out of that circle of personations with which she is identifying herself, and which alone can perpetually have a response in the general heart. The terrific, whether in nature, intellect, art, humanity can, never have but an occasional hold on the mind. A summer made up of thunder and lightning, would be anything but a summer we like.
It would require columns to discuss Mrs. Mowatt’s merits; which we have not at our elbow at present. We, however, unhesitatingly pronounce her as one of the first of living actresses; and not far behind any that are dead.11
The Boston Herald used Mowatt’s now undisputed title as a queen of the U.S. stage to announce the sole performance of “Lady of Lyons” that I’m supposed to be discussing in this entry;
Mrs. Mowatt, whose reputation as one of the very first actresses of the age, is longer an unsettled question, will appear this evening as Pauline, in the “Lady of Lyons.” It is pronounced by critics as one of her best characters. Most certainly it is one in which she has achieved some of the brightest of her laurels. Mrs. Jones will sustain the part of Claude Melnotte, which has met with so much approbation of late. The “Warlock of the Glen” will also be played. The announcement of such a sterling bill is sufficient, we doubt not, to fill the house.12
From brief mentions in other reviews, this production was successful and well attended. Even with cross-gender casting and excellent performances that had caused such a sensation the year before, “Lady of Lyons” couldn’t compete with “Ingomar” fever.
At least one long-time Mowatt fan got a little miffed about not being able to see their old favorites;
I am a constant attendant at the Theatre whenever so good an actress as Anna Cora Mowatt appears. During her last engagement in this city, only two or three different plays were put upon the stage; and during last week, Mr. Marshall has varied the bills so far as to allow us to witness the plays of “As You Like it,” and “School for Scandal.” I am informed that Mrs. Mowatt is to appear during the next week, it being the last under charge of Mr. Marshall, and it will afford him a favorable opportunity to bring out several popular plays. There are many desirous of seeing Mrs. Mowatt as Pauline in the “Lady of Lyons,” and as Margret Elmore, in “Love’s Sacrifice.”13
Mowatt had reached the upper echelons of the U.S. theatre world. How long could she remain there? How long would she choose to do so?
1. “Mrs. Mowatt.” Richmond Enquirer. January 16, 1852. Page 5, col. 3.
2. “Mrs. Mowatt.” Richmond Enquirer. January 17, 1852. Page 2, col. 1.
3. “Mrs. Mowatt’s Benefit.” Richmond Enquirer. January 20, 1852. Page 2, col. 3.
5. “Mrs. Mowatt.” American and Commercial Daily Advertiser. February 3, 1852. Page 2, col. 5.
6. “Howard Athenaeum.” Boston Herald. February 2, 1852. Page 2.
7. “Ingomar.” Boston Evening Transcript. March 6, 1852. Page 2.
8. “To Mrs. Mowatt.” Boston Evening Transcript. September 29, 1851. Page 1, col. 3.
9. “Arrival.” Baltimore Sun. December 25, 1852. Page 1.
10. Cited in “Mrs. Mowatt.” The Republic. December 3, 1851. Page 4, col. 1.
11. “Mrs. Mowatt.” Boston Daily Bee. March 2, 1852. Page 1, col. 1.
12. “Howard Athenaeum.” Boston Herald. February 17, 1852. Page 2.
13. “Mrs. Mowatt.” Daily Atlas. May 29, 1852.