Anna Cora Mowatt and Ellen Tree’s Ion

Part III: The Grand Experiment Begins

[This multi-part series of entries examines Anna Cora Mowatt’s experience playing the lead role in Thomas Noon Talfourd’s “Ion.” If you are unfamiliar with the play, a full cast recording of this classic drama is available at Librivox]

Anyone who knows anything about Victorian era theatre will be able to tell you that part of the explanation for the fad for the so-called “breeches roles” at mid-century was due to a titillation factor.  In that day when fashions dictated that the lower halves of female bodies were usually concealed under layers of skirts and petticoats, putting actresses in male costumes and thus revealing their lovely legs added definite sex appeal to productions for certain segments of the audience. However, the erotic thrill that a glimpse of a shapely calf might inspire was far from the only effect that theatrical practitioners hoped to achieve when they made the decision to gender-swap roles.  The desired effect, as when Ellen Tree decided to cast herself in the lead role of Thomas Noon Talfourd’s “Ion,” could be far from frivolous.  Rather than following the pattern of some of today’s Halloween costume companies and seeking to create a “Sexy Ion” by having a role written for a man be performed by an actress, the gender-change of Talfourd’s tragic hero was intended to enhance intellectual, moral, and spiritual aspects of this character.

Ellen Tree as Clemanthe, 1836
Ellen Tree as Clemanthe, 1836

As you may remember from the last blog entry, Ellen Tree played the female love interest, Clemanthe, opposite William Macready in the premiere performance of “Ion” in May of 1836. Less than a month later, the actor heard news that Tree was seeking permission to mount a production in which she played the lead role. Macready’s reactions ran an interesting gamut of emotions.  The first diary entry is perhaps his most self-aware;

June 14th – I looked into some papers, and saw that Mr. Morris was said to have obtained Talfourd’s permission to perform Ion with Ellen Tree as Ion.  Here was another instance of my exacting temper.  I felt displeased.  My interest was menaced, and I only looked at my own supposed degree of damage.  In strict justice, I do think that having arranged the play (which Talfourd would not have done successfully – see his version) and put it upon the stage, it is scarcely fair, before the attraction is decided as past, to turn over my labours to any other persons.  But it is not worth caring for, even if Talfourd has given permission, which is not certain, though far from improbable.  On reflection I almost wished it might be so, for the conversation upon the play would be maintained, and I cannot think it possible that the experiment can succeed.  But here is another instance of my selfish temper – why could I not regard it, as I should have done, with indifference?1

Victorian theatres usually rotated a varied line-up of productions rather than repeating one show as is common practice today on Broadway and the West End. Therefore the economic challenge posed by Tree mounting a competing production of “Ion” was different in 1836 than it would be today. However, the play was still fresh to Macready’s repertoire.  The tragedy was a critical and popular hit.  “Ion” was still making money for him.  Another production would inevitably cut into those profits.

“Ion” had personal significance for Macready.  Audiences and critics had rallied to him and made his debut in the role of Ion a resounding success, vindicating him personally and professionally after his humiliating loss in court to controversial London theatre impresario, Alfred Bunn. Not only did Macready feel a protective ownership of the role, his diary bears witness that he still felt very embarrassed and frustrated with himself at any incidents where a loss of temper recalled the disastrous fracas with Bunn.

Alfred Bunn
Alfred Bunn

Another consideration was that by today’s standards, Macready’s work crafting the stage adaption of “Ion” from Talfourd’s dramatic poem should have given him at least a co-author’s byline on the resulting script. As would happen with other similar projects with Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the actor was left feeling that his contributions in bringing this play to the stage should entitle him to participate more fully in profit-sharing and decision-making about subsequent productions. Today, Macready would have volumes of legal precedent and union guidelines on which to rely to see that his interests were protected.  In 1836, all he had were vague, perhaps never openly articulated, gentlemen’s agreements with his collaborators about how his efforts would be repaid. It is no wonder the actor became increasingly disgruntled as the list of hits for his co-authors grew longer.

To me, the most intriguing thing about Macready’s June 14th entry is that he refers to the prospect of casting Tree as Ion as an “experiment” much as a contemporary theatre practitioner influenced by Postmodern practices that encourage the active manipulation of the elements of performance might.  Of course, Victorians were not influenced by Postmodernism. Theatre artists of that day, had, however, learned from the popularity of Pantomime and Burlesque the power of exaggeration and reversals of expectation to capture and hold the attention of an audience.  Putting the exciting and unusual on stage reliably filled theater seats.

Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836
Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836

Women playing men’s roles was part of a theatre of the uncanny whose techniques included casting men as women, children as adults, adults as children, putting extremely large and small individuals on stage, and displaying other extremes of human physicality to create spectacle.  All these casting traditions have theatrical genealogies that stretch back into antiquity.  The Victorian era theatre artist freely used such reversals of casting expectations to shock or produce laughter in carnivalesque farces, comedies, and sensational melodramas that created a topsy-turvy fantasy world that celebrated the temporary triumph of misrule.  A manager or performer might also choose to deploy these attention-riveting techniques in more subtle ways to enhance feelings of pathos, anxiety, aesthetic distance, or even admiration in more serious dramas.

Even though Macready’s diary entry shows that he is dubious that casting a woman as Ion will serve to attract a new audience or elucidate any deeper meaning in the script, I feel his choice of the word “experiment” in this context is telling.  To me the use of the term indicates that he recognizes that a technique is being deployed in hopes of achieving an effect, rather than a purely idiosyncratic, unprecedented decision was being made by Tree. Macready might not have agreed with his former co-star’s conclusion that she would succeed in the endeavor, but it seems that he could readily grasp the practical and artistic considerations behind her decision to play Ion.

When dueling productions are staged, head-to-head comparisons between the lead actors are inevitable.  This is true even when one performer is male and the other is female.  William Macready avoided attending Ellen Tree’s debut as Ion for several weeks, telling his diary that he was too busy and that he read nothing in the reviews that made him feel any interest in seeing the production.  When he did go, his enthusiasm for the show was, at best, tepid;

London, August 8th – Went to the Haymarket to Ion; it was tiresome and sleepy to a degree; over at ten o’clock.  Miss Tree’s performance of Ion is a very pretty effort, and a very creditable woman’s effort, but it is no more like a young man than a coat and a waistcoat are.  Vandenhoff was frequently very false and very tiresome; some things he did very well.  The play was very drowsy, very unreal.2

John Vandenhoff as Adrastus, 1836
John Vandenhoff as Adrastus, 1836

The Vandenhoff Macready refers to here is John Vandenhoff, father of actors George and Charlotte. Vandenhoff was a long-time associate of Macready’s and a frequent target of sharp criticism from the actor.  Macready’s faint praise is at odds with most of the London press, who loved Tree and Vandenhoff as Ion and Adrastus. One thing that must have really rankled with the actor was that many, such as the following reviewer, made a point of stating how much more they had enjoyed Ellen Tree as Talfourd’s hero than they had liked Macready;

Sergeant Talfourd’s “Ion” is still performed here, as if for the express purpose of proving that Macready is wholly unfit for the character.  The contrast between the youthful grace and patriot devotedness of the character is one of its greatest charms; and of this, alas! the bearing and manner of Macready can give us no idea.  The performance of Ellen Tree was necessarily defective in giving a perfect notion of the character, yet it was replete with grace and beauty; and, on the whole, came nearer the genuine Ion of the tragedy, than did that of Mr. Macready.3

Talfourd’s script does not state a specific age for Ion.  It is clear from context that he is a very young man – less than twenty years old. In 1836, Macready was forty-three.  He had large, expressive eyes set in a face that more strongly suggested sharp intelligence and depth of character than youth and beauty.  The actor was also possessed of a rich, resonant voice with a distinctive, rolling hesitancy to it that fans and foes alike loved to mimic.  I imagine he had the sort of wonderfully distinctive mien and sound of a mature Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman.  Macready was at the height of his powers as a performer.  However, he did not look or sound like a teen-aged boy.

William Macready
William Macready

In the opinion of many viewers, Ellen Tree, a woman playing a young man, was able to capture the essence of Talfourd’s idealistic youth more successfully than the middle-aged male actor had been.  One critic explained the actress’ appeal in this seemingly contradictory manner;

Her personations are eminently feminine.  She has woman’s energy, and woman’s passion, and woman’s tenderness, and woman’s weakness.  She cannot unsex herself.  In Ion, for instance, she is not a whit masculine.  She becomes not Ion, but Ion becomes Ellen Tree – most beautifully and eloquently delivering Sergeant Talfourd’s beautiful and eloquent reveries.4

In other words, at mid-century, part of viewers’ pleasure in Tree’s performance as Ion was that they were able to maintain a blended, double awareness of the performer as a woman and the character as a male.  There was not at this time – as there would be late in the 19th century – a demand from audiences that female performances create a perfect illusion of maleness when playing men’s roles.

Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836
Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836

There is a degree of androgyny embedded Talfourd’s Ion.  Although the character is written as straightforwardly male, essential plot points revolve around the tyrant Adrastus fusing or confusing Ion’s identity with that of the youth’s dead mother as in the following passage;

Adrastus: No; let me meet thy gaze;
For breathing pity lights thy features up
Into more awful likeness of a form
Which once shone on me; and which now my sense
Shapes palpable in habit of the grave,
Inviting me to the sad realm where shades
Of innocents, whom passionate regard
Link’d with the guilty, are content to pace
With them the margin of the inky flood
Mournful and calm; ’tis surely there; she waves
Her pallid hand in circle o’er thy head,
As if to bless thee and I bless thee too,
Death’s gracious angel! Do not turn away.5

Talfourd’s use of imagery stressing a similarity in appearance between Ion and his mother make casting a woman in the role of the hero a plausible, if not rather advantageous choice. I think that perhaps part of the “dream-like” quality of this production of the tragedy that many writers report experiencing stems from the way Ion’s identity keeps shifting during some phases of the drama.  Like Adrastus, the viewers of the play might have found themselves constantly switching between an awareness of Ion, the male character and the female actress playing the male character and the simultaneously present and absent image of Ion’s mother recalled by Adrastus who was unconsciously embodied by Ion and the female actress playing him.  Heady stuff, right? As the identities of individuals in a dream can merge and melt into one another, an audience member viewing Ellen Tree’s performance as Ion in scenes where Adrastus is calling forth memories of his dead wife might have experienced the illusion that the actress was flowing between transformations into herself, Ion, and Ion’s mother. That sort of multi-layered impression is, needless to say, difficult to achieve on stage without aid of special effects.

Ion is an individual whose decisions are powerfully shaped by the generations who preceded him. Making a casting choice that allows the audience to concurrently see his mother’s face and hear his mother’s voice superimposed on his own creatively underlines what a complex and unusual person he is.

Thomas Talfourd gave his approval for Tree’s production and seems to have embraced the idea of a woman playing Ion with some enthusiasm.  For William Macready, though, the degree of public zest for Tree’s gender-fluid interpretation of Ion left a bitter taste in his mouth. After many weeks of hearing an increasing chorus of praise for the actress’s performance from everyone including the show’s author, Macready made the following peevish entry in his diary;

August 27th – Went to the theatre and rehearsed Ion, which I no longer feel pleasure in performing.  I feel, I fancy, rather dégouté with Talfourd’s “delight” at seeing Miss Tree’s appearance in the part; if it is the author’s feeling that it is the nasty sort of epicene animal which a woman so dressed up renders it, I am very loth to appear in it, and to this notion the author seems to lend his opinion.6

Macready did keep Ion in his repertoire for a few more weeks, though.  He repented of the harshness expressed in this entry and offered to portray Adrastus at a benefit performance for Ellen Tree. His reaction does demonstrate however, although popular with theater-goers and artists, experimentation with breeches roles was not uniformly successful or well-received.

Macready as Ion
Macready as Ion

I learned something about the possible appeal of “breeches roles” from my experience recording Talfourd’s “Ion” for Librivox.  Because of pitch differences between the average female and male vocal ranges and the socio-cultural stereotypes we tend to unconsciously attach to them, even mature women with relatively low voices sound young and somehow quite innocent in comparison to most men. Today we are very accustomed to knowing what actors’ faces look like in granular detail.  In the Victorian era, performers’ voices were equally important.  Even audience members with the best seats in the house might not have a clear view of an actor’s face during a performance.  Everyone, however, expected to clearly hear each performer’s voice.  Writers would devote paragraphs to lauding or critiquing an actor’s vocal performance.

Critics positively reviewing Ellen Tree’s performance as Ion consistently singled the actress’s vocal performance out for praise. She may not have looked exactly like a perfect image of the Greek youth, but in the opinion of many, she spoke like him.  After hearing Tree’s dulcet tones, some joked that the gravel-voiced Macready had sounded more like young Ion’s grandfather.

Within the context of the play, it is entirely appropriate that Ion have a sound and appearance that subtly set him apart from the other characters.  Even before he sets foot on stage, the other characters begin to tell us what a special person he is.  Even as a child, he was not like the other boys;

Ion, our sometime darling, whom we prized
As a stray gift, by bounteous Heaven dismiss’d
From some bright sphere which sorrow may not cloud,
To make the happy happier? Is he sent
To grapple with the miseries of this time,
Whose nature such ethereal aspect wears
As it would perish at the touch of wrong?
By no internal contest is he trained
For such hard duty; no emotions rude
Have his clear spirit vanquish’d; Love, the germ
Of his mild nature, hath spread graces forth,
Expanding with its progress, as the store
Of rainbow colour which the seed conceals
Sheds out its tints from its dim treasury,
To flush and circle in the flower. No tear
Hath fill’d his eye save that of thoughtful joy.
When, in the evening stillness, lovely things
Press’d on his soul too busily; his voice,
If in the earnestness of childish sports,
Raised to the tone of anger, check’d its force,
As if it fear’d to break its being’s law,
And falter’d into music; when the forms
Of guilty passion have been made to live
In pictured speech, and others have wax’d loud
In righteous indignation, he hath heard
With sceptic smile, or from some slender vein
Of goodness, which surrounding gloom conceal’d,
Struck sunlight o’er it; so his life hath flow’d
From its mysterious urn a sacred stream,
In whose calm depth the beautiful and pure
Alone are mirror’d; which, though shapes of ill
May hover round its surface, glides in light,
And takes no shadow from them.7

When Ion makes his entrance, he begins to confirm the portrait painted in this monologue of an individual gifted with a superior moral and intellectual nature.  One of the young man’s first major actions is to volunteer for what appears to be a suicide mission to convey the grievances of the plague-cursed people of Argos to their king who has promised to kill any such messenger.  Throughout the drama, Ion continues to behave in a manner and be treated by other characters in such a way that marks him as extremely special.  Ion is more heroic and noble than the majority of mortals.  He willingly sacrifices himself to atone for the sins of his forefathers. He gives up his true love for honor.  His dead mother speaks to his father through him. The gods themselves communicate with Ion and have specific plans for him. Ion is not an average Joe.

Cover of script of "Ion" by Thomas Talfourd
Cover of script of “Ion” by Thomas Talfourd

In making Ion so special, in fact, Talfourd digs a bit of creative hole for directors and performers attempting to stage the drama.  Phocion, Ion’s foster brother, is written very much as the usual Victorian-era male protagonist.  He is bold, fearless, and decisive.  Aegnor, the sage, and Medon, the priest, are genre-typical respectable patriarchs.  Each is shown through his speeches and actions to be wise and noble. However, Adrastus, Talfourd’s cynical antagonist, easily dismisses and openly mocks all of these potential protagonists when they attempt to confront him.  There must be some quality that sets Ion apart and makes him shine brighter than these other meritorious characters for Talfourd’s plot to maintain plausibility for an audience.

I think that Ellen Tree’s performance of Ion layered gender-related stereotypes for her Victorian audience in such a way that communicated what the listeners of that day felt were the best qualities of each sex and therefore managed to be as special as Talfourd’s script required his tragic Grecian hero to be. The prevailing prejudice of the day was that men were physically stronger and had more capacity for intellectual development than women.  However common beliefs dictated that women possessed superior emotional and moral maturity.

By crafting a performance that combined physical and vocal characteristics associated with each gender, Tree created an interpretation of Talfourd’s Ion that achieved far more than the titillation of displaying her ankles. Playing on popular assumptions of male and female strengths, the actress found a way to blend both into the creation of a character who was almost super-naturally heroic.  Rather than creating a simple novelty by playing a male character, her assumption of the role brought forth connections between Ion and his lost mother hinted at in the script, made Adrastus’ fascination with the youth more plausible, enhanced the other-worldly feel of the prophecy-driven plotline, and underlined the ineffable aura of uniqueness that set the young Grecian hero immediately apart from his peers.

Some, like William Macready’s friend, drama critic, John Forster, may have dismissed Tree’s performance as being merely “pretty to observe.”8 However, many others would have no hesitation in joining the writer from John Bull who proclaimed Tree’s Ion “one of the greatest histrionic triumphs of modern times.”9 The verdict from the press and the public on Tree’s experiment was in.  Macready’s Ion had been a hit.  Ellen Tree’s Ion was a bona fide sensation.

Next Time: Ellen Tree takes her interpretation of Ion to the U.S.  Without Macready’s performance as precedent, what will notoriously fickle and conservative American audiences make of the lady in Greek robes?

Images of Ellen Tree as Ion
Images of Ellen Tree as Ion
  1. Macready, William Charles. The Diaries of William Charles Macready 1833-1851, Vol. I. Edited by William Toynbee. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912). Page 328.
  2. Page 340.
  3. “Covent Garden.” The Sunday Evening Globe. October 30, 1836. Page 23, col. 2.
  4. Cox, William. “Miss Ellen Tree.” New York Mirror: A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts. Saturday, Dec. 10, 1836. Vol 14, No. 24. Page 190, col. 2.
  5. Talfourd, Thomas. “Ion.” The Modern Standard Drama. Edited by Sargent, Epes. New York: Berford & Co, 1847. Page 59.
  6. Macready, William Charles. The Diaries of William Charles Macready 1833-1851, Vol. I. Edited by William Toynbee. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912). Page 341.
  7. Talfourd, Thomas. “Ion.” The Modern Standard Drama. Edited by Sargent, Epes. New York: Berford & Co, 1847. Page 14-15.
  8. “Theatrical Examiner.” Examiner. August 07, 1836. Page 501, col. 3.
  9. “Friday’s Gazette.” John Bull. August 08, 1836. Page 250, col. 1.

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