Anna Cora Mowatt and Charlotte Cushman’s Ion

Part V: Lady Ion

[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]

It would be both peevish and plain silly to be aggrieved about the lack of scholarly attention that has been devoted to Charlotte Cushman’s performance as Ion. When she added the role to her repertoire in 1846, it was significantly overshadowed by her landmark performances as Meg Merrilies in “Guy Mannering” and Shakespeare’s Romeo. Compared to the firestorm of enthusiasm generated by her outing as Romeo, in-depth reviews of her performances in Talfourd’s tragedy are rare and a bit difficult to locate.   Today, relatively few scholars write about Cushman at all.  It is entirely reasonable that those who do focus on the highlights of her career.  However, if you are a student or researcher who, in the recent resurgence of interest in Cushman inspired by Tana Wojczuk’s Lady Romeo,  has become fascinated by the life of this actress and are looking for a research topic that is a bit off the beaten path, the actress’ portrayal of Ion may provide the sort of new perspective on her career you might be seeking.

Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet
Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet

Cushman’s Ion was neither a critical nor a commercial failure, but, in my opinion, received little attention because it was dwarfed by greater successes.  The role seemed to be of personal importance to the actress. She signed intimate letters to her friend Sarah Anderton, “Your Ion.”1 Although Talfourd’s tragedy is obscure today, the text has many aspects that can help deepen and broaden our understanding of the function and appeal of breeches roles in mid-19th century drama (as I have covered in previous entries to this series on the play.)  Investigating Cushman’s Ion can significantly supplement our understanding of her interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and its bombshell impact on mid-century audiences.

And now, breaking all the rules of good introduction composition, I’m going to drop Cushman’s performance of Romeo almost entirely. (Dear Reader, I’ll leave the writing of that comparison/contrast to you.) Instead, I want to explore the similarities between Talfourd’s “Ion” and another of Shakespeare’s plays. I think there are significant parallels between “Ion” and “Hamlet.”  Playing the lead in Talfourd’s tragedy, in my opinion, served as vital preparation for Cushman, her critics, and her audience for the time when she would go on to tackle Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane and other roles that had been written for men.

Playbill for Charlotte Cushman as Hamlet
Playbill for Charlotte Cushman as Hamlet

I have found no quotes from Thomas Talfourd that would lead me to believe that when he sat down to compose “Ion” he did so with any thoughts of building a better “Hamlet.” His conscious inspiration seems to come entirely from Greek dramatists.  However, Talfourd was an avid theatre-goer.  By the time that he wrote “Ion,” he might have seen more than a hundred different productions of “Hamlet.” Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy was relished by 19th century audiences. The drama was part of the essential narrative vocabulary for literate persons of that time.  It would be as difficult for a well-read theater aficionado of the late 1830s to write a character who was a tragic prince struggling with his destiny who did not in any way reference Hamlet as it would be for a modern comic book fan to create a superhero who did not in any way borrow from Superman or Batman or for a contemporary guitarist to create a rock anthem that in no way referenced the music of the 1960s.

Although Hamlet was an iconic role that all top-level tragedians were expected to master, this Elizabethan era character’s behavior and attitudes must have troubled the sensibilities of his Victorian viewers at times.  To the extent that Ion was consciously or unconsciously shaped in Hamlet’s mold, Talfourd seems to have smoothed out some of the Danish prince’s rough edges, shaping Ion’s morality to be much more in keeping with mid-19th century notions of an ideal gentleman.  For example, in the very first long speech he gives, Ion responds to another character’s suicide attempt;

And art thou tired of being? Has the grave
No terrors for thee? Hast thou sunder’d quite
Those thousand meshes which old custom weaves
To bind us earthward, and gay fancy films
With airy lustre various? Hast subdued
Those cleavings of the spirit to its prison,
Those nice regards, dear habits, pensive memories,
That change the valour of the thoughtful breast
To brave dissimulation of its fears?
Is Hope quench’d in thy bosom? Thou art free,
And in the simple dignity of man
Standest apart untempted:—do not lose
The great occasion thou hast pluck’d from misery,
Nor play the spendthrift with a great despair,
But use it nobly!2

In contrast to Hamlet’s ambiguous “to be or not to be,” Ion gives a very straightforward response to existential despair – Our lives are valuable. One should give one’s life up only in service of a noble cause.  Therefore, like an ideal 19th century hero, Ion demonstrates himself to be brave, decisive, and in line with mainstream religious positions on suicide prevalent at the time of the play’s writing.

Ad for a performance of "Ion" staring Charlotte Cushman
Ad for a performance of “Ion” staring Charlotte Cushman

Ion, like Hamlet, has some unfinished business with his father that set him on a course of revenge that ultimately will doom him. These domestic entanglements of Argos’ royal family are, like those of the Danes’, messy enough to arouse the interest of Freudian analysts.  However, Talfourd discretely kills off Ion’s mother long before the beginning of the play, saving the Greek youth from the necessity of Hamlet’s uncomfortable confrontations with Gertrude.

Doing away with the sordid family complications early on in the script in this manner puts the emphasis of Talfourd’s plot in the last acts on Ion’s noble sacrifice. At the end of “Hamlet,” after all the suffering and scheming of the characters, the audience is left with the spectacle of a pile of bodies.  Fortinbras, a character in whom the audience has little investment, inherits the Danish throne. Old Hamlet has been revenged, but at a terrible cost. At the end of “Ion,” in a much more satisfactory resolution of the initial problem presented in Act I, scene I, Ion’s sacrifice saves the city of Argos from the plague.  Additionally, viewers are left with a strong promise that Ion has set the polis on the road to becoming a democracy.

Unlike the notoriously indecisive Hamlet, Ion accepts his destiny as an instrument of fate early on in the play.  As we see in the many soliloquies in which he ponders the implications of this choice, the decision causes him great angst. Like Hamlet, Ion feels he must conceal his course from some of those closest to him.  However, Ion does not feign madness or let his anxiety turn him to violence.  Consequently, at parallel points in the plot, Ion does not kill the characters who correspond to Ophelia’s brother, Laertes (Phocion) and her father, Polonius (Medon.)

Overall, Ion has a more positive relationship with his love interest, Clemanthe, than Hamlet has with Ophelia. Talfourd’s dialogue makes it clear that Ion loves and respects Clemanthe.  He regrets the pain that his actions inadvertently cause her.  In contrast, Shakespeare leaves the viewer much more room to make conjectures about Hamlet’s true feelings about Ophelia.

Ad for a performance of "Ion" staring Charlotte Cushman
Ad for a performance of “Ion” staring Charlotte Cushman

At the beginning of “Ion,” the main character is an orphan of no status. His true origins won’t be confirmed until Act III. Clemanthe, as the daughter of a high priest, outranks him. Therefore Talfourd reverses the differences in social status that limit the viability of an Ophelia/Hamlet relationship from the first moment we meet them.

Although, like Hamlet, when he realizes that course to which he has committed himself excludes the possibility of maintaining a connection to romantic partner, Ion first attempts to discourage Clemanthe from pursuing their relationship by pretending disinterest, he soon drops this strategy.  Unlike Hamlet, Ion is never cruel or insulting toward Clemanthe.  He doesn’t gaslight her or… kill immediate family members… which is a real relationship-ender for most folks.

In one of the most touching scenes in the play, in what he knows will be some of their last moments together, Ion shares his true feelings with Clemanthe and tries to say goodbye to her in such a way that will leave her free to love again with a clear and happy heart.  Although Ion feels he must conceal the fact that he is soon to lay down his life in an effort to save his city, he strives to be honest with her about his emotions. They have a love that is doomed to be brief. Unlike Hamlet and Ophelia, though, they are not forced to deny their feelings for each other although their time together must end prematurely. Where Shakespeare has Hamlet cut his ties with Ophelia so curtly that we’re left wondering how deep an attachment was present at all, Talfourd gives Ion and Clemanthe a sad and beautiful moment to bid their love goodbye.

Ad for a performance of "Ion" staring Charlotte Cushman
Ad for a performance of “Ion” staring Charlotte Cushman

I am neither the first person nor the only person to notice these Hamlet/Ion parallels.  On the occasion of the play’s debut, speaking of William Macready’s performance, a critic for English Chronicle and Whitehall Evening Post wrote the following, observing that Hamlet and Ion both derive their base motivations from supernatural forces who inspire them to seek justice;

Upon the soul of Ion also the thought painfully predominates that justice is only to be attained by some desperate expedient, and he feels that upon him too rests, in a great degree, the fulfillment of the intention of the gods.  His nature becomes his fate and impels him onward.  It is impossible at this conjuncture of the plot of the drama not to remark the similarity that arises between the position of Ion and that of Hamlet.  The thoughts of both become a sort of dream, in which ideal beings urge them on with awful and irresistible influence to conclusions but drawn by their instinctive tendencies.  Hamlet sees his father’s ghost to shape his suspicions and point his vengeance, and to the bosom of Clemanthe, Ion confides that he is prey to supernatural impressions.3

This reviewer also found parallels between the Ion/Clemanthe and Hamlet/Ophelia relationships, writing;

…He urges his own solemn inauguration that he may then arrange the future free government of Argos, and tortures himself by assuming a cold demeanor towards Clemanthe, that she may the less feel the loss which he is about to inflict upon her.  (In this also will be found somewhat to remind one of Hamlet and Ophelia.)  The unnatural restraint of the young lover is, however, beautifully broken, when on Clemanthe’s passionately exclaiming against his new and seeming regal heartlessness-

“Oh! Unkind!
And shall we never see each other?”

To which he as passionately replies – thinking not of his crown but death –

I have ask’d that dreadful question of the hills,
That look eternal – of the hill-born streams
That lucid flow forever – of the stars,
Amid whose fields of azure my raised spirit
Hath trod in glory – all were dumb; — but now
While I thus gaze upon thy living face,
I feel the love that kindles through its beauty
Can never wholly perish – we shall meet
Again, Clemanthe.”4

Disregarding the fact that the playwright gifted Ion with a more polite and reserved personality than Hamlet and a marginally less homicidal immediate family, Talfourd’s tragic Greek prince is still every inch a role built to accommodate a Victorian era tragedian. Ion wrestles with existential questions, handily wins two fights, and almost kills his father. He confesses his love for the show’s leading lady and makes grand public speeches about duty and honor.  He is part of conspiracy and has a dramatic death scene that ends the play.  Even more than Shakespeare’s Romeo, who splits focus with Juliet and has a strong ensemble cast of supporting characters like Mercutio, the Nurse, Tybalt, and Friar Lawrence with whom he shares the spotlight, the performer in the role of Ion  is responsible for carrying forward the dramatic momentum of this play. An excellent production of this drama requires strong performers in the roles of Adrastus and Clemanthe as well.  However, Adrastus dies in Act III and Clemanthe only appears in a limited number of scenes throughout the play. Having outstanding actors in these roles wouldn’t save a production with a weak performer in the role of Ion.

Macready as Ion
Macready as Ion

I think the following review of Cushman’s Ion captures the level of difficulty this role entailed;

Elevated, noble and pure as are the sentiments and the scope of Sergeant Talfourd’s play of Ion, and highly dramatic as are some of the situations, it is too severe and cold to gratify the taste of the present age – more than average acting is required to render it even tolerable: it is evidence of genius of the highest order, when the feelings and passions of the audience are enlisted in behalf of a production as classic, but as cold as a marble muse of Phidias. This amount of genius did Miss Cushman displayed last night.  Her performance of Ion, as of Romeo, stands far and away beyond any other we have ever seen; the beauty and distinctness of her diction and enunciation – the peculiar charm she threw round the delivery of the high aspirations of the model Greek – the freedom and power of her action delighted the audience, and won applause we never witnessed bestowed on this play before.4

Victorian era audiences responded to hit productions – both comedies and dramas – much the way modern audiences react to musical theatre.  Successful shows were frequently interrupted by enthusiastic applause. Popular performers aimed to create as many of these show-stopping events as possible.  Today we use the term “clap-trap” as a synonym for nonsense. In theatrical parlance of the 19th century, clap-traps were lines of dialogue or bits of stage business designed to pander to the audience and cheaply win their noisy approbation.

Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet, 1845
Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet, 1846

As the writer of the previous quote attests, “Ion” is quite lacking in what a Victorian-era theatre-goer would consider clap-traps. Reviewers frequently called it a “cold” play just as this critic does because there were so few moments that inspired fervent applause.  Theatre reformers who loved Ellen Tree’s interpretation of the lead role favored the tragedy precisely because it demanded a well-bred audience who sat and listened attentively rather than raucous one who cheered at will.

Unruly behavior of 19th century audiences is usually ascribed by theatre historians to lower-class, predominantly male audiences.  However, in this letter, Anna Cora Mowatt humorously complains of the behavior of some well-to-do ladies in at a benefit performance in Louisville in June of 1852;

I had a splendid benefit last night– house liberally crammed and the ladies in ball costume. But bless your heart! Don’t imagine they come to see the play. They come to act a bit themselves — to be seen, not to see. I felt as though I had won a victory when (with the aid of the pit and gallery) I awed them into silence and attention. (You can’t think how dreadful I looked!) It is Louisville fashion for the ladies constantly to sit with their backs to the stage and to talk about as loud as the actors. They are deeply riveted by every change of dress, but Shakespeare is an unknown tongue to them. They decidedly prefer their own.5

Charlotte Cushman as Meg Merrilies
Charlotte Cushman as Meg Merrilies

During this era, an actor had to fight for an audience’s attention.  Talfourd’s blank verse didn’t lend a lot of dramatic exclamation points to aid the cause.  This review from the Morning Post sought to explain how the playwright’s beautiful but “cold” script fails to provide Cushman with a “warm” audience;

In the drama of Ion the author exhibits the intellect of the poet rather than the genius of a writer for the stage.  The play abounds in passages of intense beauty; felicitous in imagery, flowing in versification, and elevated in sentiment.  Refinement and taste combine with judgement and learning to throw a halo of splendor over the pages of the writer.  Heroism and love, pathos and devotion, shed a radiance of loveliness around the chief characters of the play.  Notwithstanding all these erudite and poetic captivations, there is but little sympathy awakened in the spectator.  The passions are feebly excited, the interest indifferently elicited.  He who sacrifices his life for his country’s welfare, will strike the deepest chords of the heart, provided the motive be recognizable and probable.  The modern audiences are incapable of receiving and assimilating to their imaginations the mystic and religious requisition of the ancient oracle.  The purpose for which Ion immolates himself, and upon which the tragedy is grounded, is therefore remote from the sensibilities of the spectator.  The drama in consequence loses its motive-power and the catastrophe is misunderstood or regarded with frigidity.7

Given this inherent challenge posed by Talfourd’s script, the reviewer goes on to rank Cushman’s performance side by side with what in that critic’s opinion was the only other successful interpretation of the character of Ion that they have witnessed since the play’s debut;

A character like that of Ion, remote from human sympathy, and unrelieved by human weakness, requires in its enactment the highest amount of dramatic art, to give it life-like seeming, and invest it with interest.  In Macready’s performance the poet’s intention was realized, and the actor’s consummate skill clothed the part with truthfulness and beauty.  The character has since been attempted by others, but failure has been the inevitable result.  Miss Ellen Tree played Ion at this theatre some years since, and a more inefficient performance we never witnessed.  It now remains to speak of Miss Cushman, who, we understand, represented Ion for the first time last night.  There was throughout a thorough appreciation of the inner meaning of the poet, and of the dramatic exigencies of the character.  Miss Cushman realized to the fullest extent the ideal she had set up – there was vast energy and classical identity, but the stereotyped mannerisms and Macredian tendencies marred much that was really excellent in the delineation.8

As I noted in my entry on Ellen Tree’s performance as Ion, I find it significant that the cross-gender casting of Ion allowed critics to compare the respective skills of male and female performers attempting this role as if their gender was inconsequential to an evaluation of their skill at a time in history when prevailing prejudice encouraged belief that women were not the physical or intellectual equals of men. The critic from the Morning Post — without any hesitation or apology — expects Cushman’s Ion to meet the standard set by Macready’s performance.  The reviewer’s only critique is that Cushman’s interpretation is bit too derivative of the more experienced master tragedian’s.

Charlotte Cushman as Romeo
Charlotte Cushman as Romeo

The writer from the Era is more generous.  This review is a rave from start to finish and includes a report of backstage congratulations bestowed on Cushman by the playwright himself;

It has been stated to us, and we believe the fact, that the accomplished author, Mr. Sergeant Talfourd, after Miss Cushman’s first impersonation, which he attended, went behind the scenes, and tendered her his fervid thanks for her chaste rendering of the pure avenger, and for her perfect realization of his ideal.  The abstract creation of the poet’s mind was incarnate; Argos, smitten with the pestilence, and a tyrant on its throne, by whose extinction only, and that of his race, the wrath of heaven can be appeased, propounds the coming oracle of Phoebus.  Warming into the holy conspiracy, and nipping the first blossoms of love, the visit of futurity opening in the sacrificial destiny, Ion vows him to the deed of death, which he fells to be pre-allotted.  The thrilling “I knew it,” when the lot is drawn, concentrated fearfully the “foregone conclusion;” in it we see no stoic Brutus, but the chosen vessel of the Gods. We would point to the scene where Medon averts the hesitating dagger from his father’s bosom, and Ion falls senseless to the ground.  It was a “chef d’oevre,” and only to be equaled by his parting interview with Clemanthe, and the solemn and assured –

“—-We shall meet again,”

Or the God-instinct afflatus with which he gives his last injunctions to his first assembled Court to be consummated in the immolation.  Never can we forget the starting from the bed of death and staying the oozing blood in the wild impulse to the frame subservient to the soul, as the messenger rushes in to announce the staying of the plague; and then the collapse, the drooping head, the dying limbs.  The effect was electric – as physically true, as it was morally correct.  The work accomplished, and Ion resigns his life and love without a struggle; the chosen of the Gods, and the savior of his country.  From first to last Miss Cushman forgot not for an instant the conception, throwing her colors alone as the canvas needed the more glowing depiction, or the sterner relief, ever portraying the virgin innocence of the Argive martyr; the mind, translucent as the chrystal streams –

“—in whose depths
The beautiful and pure alone are mirrored.”9

This critic (probably E.L. Blanchard, who was also a playwright) does not complain about the lack of action in the script, but rather commends the way that Cushman brings passion into her interpretation of each of Ion’s highlight dramatic scenes – the drawing of lots among the conspirators, Medon’s interruption of Ion’s attempted patricide, Ion and Clemanthe’s farewell, Ion’s charge to his Court, and Ion’s death scene.  In the few reviews that one can find of performances of this play, this pattern will hold true.  Critics will comment on how unusually subdued audience response to the play is.  However, despite the difficulty in holding and maintaining listener attention, reviewers are impressed by the intensity that Cushman brings to this role. Most single out the clarity of her diction and the soaring power of her voice as being particularly appropriate for the role.

Charlotte Cushman as "Ion," 1845
Charlotte Cushman as “Ion,” 1846

Note the amount detail that the reviewer from the Era gave to the physicality of Cushman’s death scene at the end of the play. Part of the function of having women play male characters in 19th century drama was that doing so could add more pathos onto tension already extant in a script.  Ion’s death is tragic.  He is heroic and pure of heart.  Having such a character played by a woman – who according to widespread and deeply rooted belief in the Victorian era, was capable of higher moral development than men were – made the character’s death super-extra-doubly-tragic.  According the reviewer from the Era, Cushman played the instant of death so realistically that for a moment the audience bought into the illusion, experienced shock, grief, and yet felt that balance had been returned to the world of the play, and that Ion’s sacrifice was not in vain.

Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet
Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet

Victorian era viewers could accept female performers in the roles of certain romantic young heroes because they looked younger on stage than male performers. Cultural norms concerning the appropriate display of emotion also allowed actresses portraying youthful male characters greater latitude in openly exhibiting the extremes of states such as fear, glee, sorrow, or hopelessness without appearing foolish to either themselves or their audience. In situations where a male performer might feel ridiculous playing a prideful, fawning young fop like the character of Victor in Anna Cora Mowatt’s “Armand” with the comic abandon the role demands, or hesitate to burst into despairing tears as Charlotte Cushman memorably did in her portrayal of Romeo in Friar Lawrence’s cell, cultural beliefs about the greater affective flexibility of women left Victorian era actresses free to portray youthful raw emotion on stage without embarrassment. Cushman herself explained the rationale behind breeches role-playing in this manner;

When a man has achieved the experience requisite to act Romeo, he has ceased to be young enough to look it; and this discrepancy is felt to be unendurable in the young, passionate Romeo and detracts from the interest of the play.  Who could endure to see a man with the muscles of Macready, in the part of the gallant and loving boy?10

The critic from the Daily News gives us a vivid picture of Cushman in the role of the noble, young Ion;

She looked the character admirably.  Her tall and handsome person, and strongly-marked features, render her appearance a little masculine in characters of her own sex; a circumstance which, in parts like Romeo or Ion, is in her favour.  Attired as the Grecian youth, if she had not Miss Tree’s classical beauty of head and features, she had greater manliness of look, and more freedom, firmness, and energy of manner, while she had the appearance of early youth which belongs to the character.  Her whole aspect and bearing were noble and heroic, and the deep tones of her voice were well fitted to give utterance to the grand and lofty sentiments of the poet.11

As this quote demonstrates, rather than being a startling or unsettling experience to see a woman play a man’s part, by standards of the day, Cushman had exactly the correct sort of appearance for this role. Viewers seem to have had no problem in comfortably coding her performance to be a heroic young man with no dissonance. The Daily News reviewer also did not shrink from comparing Cushman to Macready, seemingly with no fear of appearing inappropriate or ungallant;

Throughout the whole piece, she reminded us of Macready, not only in her general conception of the part and the reading of the most remarkable passages, but in her gait and gestures, her manner of elocution, and the inflections of her voice.  This resemblance has often been remarked upon before; but it never struck us so much as in this part of Ion.  The imitation, we believe, is involuntary and unconscious; and, in our eyes, it is far from derogatory to her merit as an actress.12

Cushman’s robust physique was not her only physical asset that suited her perfectly for playing the role of Ion in the minds of her contemporaries.  Observers also were quick to praise her precise elocution and her golden voice. This praise of Cushman’s vocal technique would be rather meaningless if it were not tied to the last characteristic I feel that Ion and Hamlet share. When reviewers comment on Cushman’s voice, they are not simply indicating she was clearly audible and sounded nice.  Those are baseline expectations.  In the type of reasoned argumentation it calls for, this role is not like Pauline from “Lady of Lyons,” Julia in “The Hunchback,” or any of the standard leading lady roles for women from mid-19th century dramas written in English.  Ion debates his comrades – not playfully or flirtatiously as a clever ingénue might do, but employing logic and reasoned argument.  In the last act, Ion assumes the role of orator and delivers a formal address to his people, persuading them to take the responsibility of self-government on their own shoulders.  Like Hamlet, Ion is an intellectual.  Remarks in reviews positively noting Cushman’s vocal technique in “Ion” frequently lead to commentary on her ability to successfully communicate the Argive prince’s noble ideas.

1907 Cigar Box design featuring Charlotte Cushman
1907 Cigar Box design featuring Charlotte Cushman

The following quote from the Boston Daily Mail directly praises the intellectual appeal of Cushman’s performance as Ion;

Almost every period evolves some classic idea, refined through the alembic of Talfourd’s brain, and re-issued with the stamp of English coinage.  The now united progression of American and English influence adds additional reasons to make Miss Cushman’s splendid performance of this magnificent character especially appropriate for her.  In fact, the dullest mind must surely perceive how nobly the forthcoming glories of Christianity and Republicanism are announced in the speeches and soliloquies of Ion.

In witnessing Ellen Tree’s delightful personation of the noble youth, we are charmed with the “sky-tinctured” desires and conflicting emotions of the character; but, when we hear the “oracular voice” of Charlotte Cushman (which sounds as if thundered from Delphos) discussing the thoughts and doubts of the soul on corporeal suicide and future existence, we temporarily forget our mortal state, and take a flight with her ethereal mind, rushing through the Ciceronian and Platonic philosophy, to pay our visit arm-in-arm with Orestes and sit down in Argos among the gods and poets of the universe!

On Tuesday night, this was apparently the effect produced among all classes.  Even minds quite innocent of Greek, and not overburdened with English, seemed to say at the close of the tragedy – “Can this be a mortal thus holding converse with our inmost thoughts?” When Ion falls, we fancy that letters of fire inscribe “Hospes Astra” over the body. 13

The critic is giving to Cushman the same type of reaction that a Victorian era reviewer might give to a male performer – Not simply “She inspired the audience to feel strong emotions” but “Her performance caused the listeners to think deep thoughts.”

In the end, Hamlet is interesting to us today not because he is an exciting melodramatic hero. He is not ultimately remembered for his duel with Laertes, his killing of Polonius, his tempestuous affair with Ophelia, or his dramatic death, but because he is an interesting thinker.  We cherish him for his reflections on the human condition — not as an action hero. Thomas Talfourd created his tragic prince in this same mold.  The playwright gave Ion core beliefs in line with those of his era – “Christianity and Republicanism” as the writer from the Boston Daily Mail put it. To modern ears, this alignment with 19th century values can make the text seem everything from quaint to deeply problematic.  However, in the play, as in “Hamlet,” the character’s core beliefs are challenged by circumstances beyond his control. We hear him go through the painful philosophical process of deciding to either forsake those principles or defend them with his life.

The role of Ion posed an intellectual challenge for Cushman that the role of Romeo did not.  Although the characters are probably roughly the same age, Ion and Romeo were very different types of problem solvers.  Ion is a thinker.  Romeo is an impulsive doer. Romeo is a passionate young man whose actions are driven by his strong emotions – a profile almost exactly in line with prevailing beliefs about the cognitive proclivities of women.  Ion is an intellectual.  He carefully weighs decisions against a larger code of beliefs and possible outcomes with future ramifications for others before taking action.  He is capable of denying his own gratification and sacrificing for a greater good. Ion, in this and many ways, conforms to the ideal image of a Victorian gentleman.

I feel that it was important for Cushman to play not only Romeo at this point in her career, but Ion as well.  Although her Romeo was a runaway success that proved her ability to fill theatres, Ion was an essential follow-up that demonstrated that not only could she play with emotional intensity, but she also had physical endurance, vocal range and technical proficiency, as well as the intellectual depth to sustain even the most difficult sort of leading role in a serious drama.

Costume worn by Charlotte Cushman in "Richelieu"
Costume worn by Charlotte Cushman as Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, ca 1857.

Although no one ended up with little statuettes of Cushman as Ion as they did with her as Romeo, this role was a necessary step in establishing her credibility as a performer for her performances as Hamlet, Cardinal Wolsey, and other major roles written for men that would come later.  In “Ion,” Cushman was playing a character who could win debates with the sages of his city and sway crowds with his rhetoric.  At a time when men had little respect for women as serious thinkers, Cushman possessed sufficient gravitas to successfully take on the role of a character who was an embodiment of ideal male intellect.

Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet
Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet

After proving the depth of her skill and versatility as a performer in playing Ion, we can see that Cushman would have no fear that when she did attempt Hamlet she would not be laughed off the stage for her presumption or accused of cheaply eroticizing one of the Bard’s premiere leading men in a tawdry publicity stunt. On alternate nights to playing a Romeo with an emotional intensity that social inhibitions of the time made male performers hesitant to attempt, the actress portrayed Talfourd’s tragic Argive prince with dignity and elegance that they could not help but respect.  Cushman’s portrayal as Ion was definitely a case where cross-gender casting was serving more functions than simple sensual appeal, or as one commentator speaking admiringly of one of her performances concluded;

Those funny fellows who go to a theatre merely to see a pretty woman floundering about in various states of dress or undress, fare badly on such occasions as these.14

Next Week:  Anna Cora Mowatt dons Ion’s sandals for a U.S. tour.

Images of Charlotte Cushman as Ion
Images of Charlotte Cushman as Ion


  1. Merrill, Lisa. When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.) Page 130.
  2. Talfourd, Thomas Noon. “Ion: A Tragedy in Five Acts.” (New York: James Mowatt & Co., 1844). Page 17.
  3. “Covent Garden Theatres.” English Chronicle and Whitehall Evening Post. Saturday May 28, 1836. Page 1, col. 3.
  4.  ibid.
  5. “Theatre Royal.” The Freeman’s Journal.  Tuesday, March 10, 1846. Page 2, col. 4.
  6. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Letter to Kate Oliver Coale. June 30, 1852.  Personal Collection of Margret Garrett.
  7. “Haymarket Theatre.” The Morning Post. February 17, 1846. Page 5, col. 6.
  8. ibid.
  9. “The Theatres.” The Era. Sunday, Feb. 22, 1846. Page 6, col. 2.
  10. Stebbins, E. Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of her Life. Boston: Houghton, Osgood, and Co. Page 59.
  11. “Haymarket Theatre.” The Daily News. Saturday, February 14, 1846. Page 5, col. 6.
  12. ibid.
  13. “Miss Charlotte Cushman.” Boston Daily Mail. Thursday, Dec. 06, 1849. Page 2, col. 3-4.
  14. “Theatrical Tuttle.” Boston Daily Mail. December 08, 1849. Page 2, col. 2.

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