Part VII: Anything Ellen Tree Can Do…
[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]
Before I launch into a discussion of her experiences playing the lead role in Thomas Talfourd’s tragedy “Ion,” let me remind you of the circumstances under which Anna Cora Mowatt began her career as an actress. Unlike Fanny Vining or William Macready, she was not born into the profession. She did not learn the trade from her parents. Unlike Mary Warner, she was not carried on stage to perform her first role as a baby. Mowatt was not sustained by powerful connections established through an extended family employed in show business. Unlike E.L. Davenport or Edward Stirling, Mowatt was not a talented amateur with hopes and dreams, who worked her way up through a system of provincial theatres, slowly developing a network of friends and allies until she hit the big time.
When James Mowatt lost the largest part of his fortune on the stock market, he still had enough money left to buy a small publishing firm. Anna Cora was his star author. Another sustaining talent was Epes Sargent. Sargent’s Modern Standard Drama series was one of the company’s most lasting legacies. The Samuel French company would take over series. It would become a defining collection of mid-19th century U.S. and British drama. John William Stanhope Hows, theatre critic for The Albion, served as a co-editor on this project. The Mowatts also published a monthly literary magazine edited by Sargent, who had established his credentials in the theatrical world as author of the 1838 tragedy, “Velasco.” The play had been praised by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. British actress Ellen Tree starred in productions in the U.S. and England. E.L. Davenport, who would later become Mowatt’s acting partner, played a supporting role in the Boston debut of “Velasco” at the Tremont Theater.
The Mowatts had presented lavish amateur theatricals in their home at Melrose before they lost their fortune. However, the publication of Sargent’s works was the couple’s first real contact with the New York’s theatrical establishment. The Mowatts entered the world of the stage as writer/publishers. “Gulzara,” Anna Cora’s parlor theatrical, never made it to a professional stage, but, through James Mowatt’s efforts, was published in Park Benjamin’s prestigious “New World” newspaper where Epes Sargent was then working as an associate editor. Anna Cora wrote “Fashion” at Epes Sargent’s urging while he and the Mowatts were still working together on the literary magazine he edited. Without Sargent’s connections as a playwright, author, and editor, the comedy probably would not have made its way to the Park Theater manager’s desk so quickly or been given any serious consideration. Mowatt pivoted to acting only when her husband’s publishing firm went bankrupt and a follow-up comic vehicle she was writing set to star actor William Crisp fell through. Sargent remained a close friend and advisor for the rest of Anna Cora’s life. He also actively supported her career in his capacity as the editor of the Boston Evening Transcript, one of the most influential taste-making publications in the Northeast’s literary scene.
Although she loved the art of theatre sincerely, throughout Mowatt’s career, she never lost the clear-eyed approach of an entrepreneur with an unwavering focus on branding and profit potential. Rather than having the sort of conventional path to a career in theater of a typical theatrical professional from the mid-19th century in the U.S. or England, I feel it’s probably realistic to view Anna Cora Mowatt as the most successful product of the small but savvy creative team assembled
at the short-lived Mowatt Publishing Co.
I give this preface because previously in this series of blog entries devoted to examining performances of Thomas Talfourd’s “Ion” I have focused on some rather rarified rhetorical and aesthetic approaches to this play and the general functions of breeches roles. This week, as I present Mowatt’s first productions of “Ion” in 1847, I’m going to be taking you on a more prosaic journey in which the actress combats the eternal problem of getting the butts of patrons on theater seats.
The first mention I can find of Mowatt starring in a production of “Ion” was in Mobile, Alabama, in January of 1847.1 The actress was engaged in her first tour of the South after partnering with E.L. Davenport. In practical terms, the show allowed Mowatt, the more famous of the pair, to be featured for the majority of the five acts of this production. Davenport, who played Adrastus, had time to prepare for the second feature of the evening after his character’s demise in Act III. For example, in May of that year, I have a newspaper advertisement for Cincinnati’s Athenaeum at Rockaway Amphitheater that shows a double-bill of “Ion” starring Mowatt and Davenport followed by a production of the one-act, “The Trumpeter’s Daughter” featuring Davenport and an actress named Mrs. Thorne. The ad promises that during the course of the second show, Davenport and Thorne will “dance the Polka!”2 At this time, Mowatt’s new partner was still working on learning numerous new leading male roles to compliment her repertoire.
Although advertisements and listings of the productions that the pair performed show that “Ion” became a regular part of their rotation of scripts, there aren’t very many reviews of this drama available from the Mowatt-Davenport performances that took place from January of 1847 until they left for England in November of 1848. The easiest explanation for this lack of critical response is that “Ion” was usually one of the very last shows the performers presented before leaving a city. Newspaper critics tended to write reviews of the first one or two shows of the actors’ visit. It was rare for a paper to print a critique of each production. The last show of a tour tended to get only a cursory mention in the press.
As has been discussed in previous blog entries, “Ion” was reported by many writers of the day to be a “cold” show that, although full of beautiful language and sentiments, did not have many dramatic moments sprinkled throughout its plotline that roused audiences to wild applause. The cool and intellectual nature of this tragedy might have earned it the anchor spot on Mowatt and Davenport’s tour schedule. The pair probably preferred to start their visit with productions they felt were stronger bets to have audiences on their feet cheering and throwing bouquets.
I couldn’t find any bad reviews of this show. Mowatt and Davenport seemed to have a lot of confidence in “Ion” despite scheduling it at the end of their tours. I say this because advertisements reveal that they used “Ion” for several benefit performances. Actors chose shows for benefits that they assumed would draw the largest audiences and generate the richest rewards in ticket sales.
There’s one other issue I would like to touch on before I address the main topic I on which I want to focus. Previously when I’ve brought up breeches roles, I’ve gone to some lengths to not dwell on the erotic appeal of this casting strategy. I have avoided doing so because in too many lectures or interviews where this subject came up, someone inevitably asks, “Why did women dress up as men?” After the too-quick and too-easy answer of “So men could see their legs,” the discussion ends. Mid-19th century cross-gender casting in all its complexity is now reduced to a shameful voyeuristic practice that modern folks can wisely shake their heads at before forgetting about it completely. Enthusiasm for titillating costuming only tells part of the story of why it was a common and well-beloved practice for women to play young men on stage in the early Victorian era.
Part of the appeal of Anna Cora Mowatt’s portrayal of Talfourd’s Ion seems to have been that she looked good in the costume. The actress wrote the following in a letter to Epes Sargent’s brother, John Osborne Sargent, (who was — I should probably not neglect to mention — the editor of the New York Chronicle and Examiner) on April 13, 1847;
And so you would like to see “Ion?” –It was played for my benefit last night and drew a fine house. Strange to say – stranger to believe, it is everywhere admitted that I wear no costume which so heightens every imaginary charm – and my glass scarcely contradicts the general decision. Whether it is in the effect of the light Grecian attire so admirably calculated to display the figure – or the appropriateness of that fragile figure itself – and the light hair bound in clusters with a white fillet – to the dreamy Ion, I cannot say, but I have more than once, in different cities, heard the term “vision” applied to the picturesque tout ensemble, in producing which the tunic and toga have a wonderful share. I am afraid all this sounds like vanity – and yet I hope not.3
The few reviews that exist of this show bear out Mowatt’s report. She is frequently described by reviewers as very beautiful and well suited to the role. Audiences seemed to always enjoy seeing the actress in Greek and Roman costumes. Some of the most detailed and enthusiastically positive descriptions of her appearance on stage come from writers recalling her performances as Virginia, Ariadne, and Parthenia. Mowatt’s letter to John Sargent gives the impression that she felt attractive and confident when garbed in her Ion attire.
Unfortunately, there do not seem to be any surviving illustrations of Mowatt as Ion or in any of her other Greek or Roman roles. I’ve read mentions of a sketch that her brother-in-law, Cephas Giovanni Thompson, made of her as Parthenia, but that drawing is lost or in the hands of a private collector. The illustration I’m using for this blog entry is taken from the cover of the Dick’s British Drama Illustrated edition of the play. The drawing probably references William Macready’s interpretation of the role. Note that the youth in the picture is small and has long hair, but has fairly muscular arms and legs. Ion was played by both actors and actresses in London, but only by female performers in the U.S.
In my opinion, Anna Cora Mowatt’s primary motivation for attempting the role of Ion in 1847 was not the merits of play itself but the status of the actresses who had played this character before her. As I discussed in previous blog entry, Ellen Tree had enchanted and enthralled the U.S. market with her interpretation of Talfourd’s Argive prince in 1836. In the ensuing decade, the British actress had continued to have a successful career on the London stage and had become Mrs. Charles Kean.
Unless someone invents a practical time machine, we shall never really know if Charles Kean was a good actor. He was the son of the great Edmund Kean. It was of the senior Kean that Coleridge said, “Seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”4 Nobody ever said anything like that about Charles Kean, although he seems to have been a perfectly good performer and a very charming person dine with. Judging from the comments of London reviewers, the junior Kean never approached the dazzling heights of professional excellence reached by his illustrious father. However, the length of Charles Kean’s career and degree of commercial success he maintained at home and abroad tends to argue that he was not quite the absolute nadir of a bumbling incompetent that the lampoons of him in Punch magazine might lead us to believe.
Michael Douglas might not be as good an actor as his father, Kirk. That doesn’t necessarily make him a bad actor by any means. Conversely, there have been some very famous performers whose entire careers seem to have been constructed entirely out of the fabric of their very famous names. Charles Kean, by all reports, was a fairly pleasant fellow on and off stage. Because he was the son of the greatest actor of the prior generation, Kean aroused some rather violent feelings in his contemporaries and was held to a very high standard by drama critics.
Queen Victoria adored the Keans. She and Prince Albert had Charles Kean organize a couple of their yearly special performances of Shakespeare at Windsor Palace. Unfortunately, this made other folks — like William Macready, who felt Charles Kean was a no-talent hack just skating along on his famous father’s name — hate Kean all the more. The view theatre history has of Charles Kean today has been filtered through documents such as Macready’s diary entries and Punch’s cartoons of him. This has been very unfortunate for Charles Kean’s hopes of a noble lasting legacy.
In the U.S., the tour of Mr. and Mrs. Kean made money hand over fist. Charles and Ellen were delightful. The couple was exemplars of European charm – witty, sophisticated, and elegant. They were favorites with audiences and critics alike. Everyone loved them — Everyone, that is, except for those unfortunate U.S. performers who ended up competing with the Keans for audiences as the British couple steam-rolled their way up and down the theatre centers of Eastern seaboard.
Some acts could hope to woo audiences by offering some specialty the Keans did not possess – such as singing, dancing, acrobatics. Anna Cora Mowatt had just spent a grueling year on the road, mastering a catalogue of over twenty-five leading roles. In that relatively short time, Mowatt had managed to delineate a performance idiom for herself that in many ways duplicated Ellen Tree Kean’s sophisticated, lady-like charm. When the booking agency they shared with the Keans put Mowatt and Davenport on a schedule that had the partners not only frequently crossing paths with the British couple but sometimes playing across the street, the actress was faced with a choice. Mowatt could choose to create a significant distinction between herself and Mrs. Kean. This path would mean that Mowatt would need to re-brand, possibly starting again from square one, and learn a new repertoire of roles. The second option was to battle the Brits directly and find ways to be the better Ellen Tree.
Mowatt does not write about this competition. To do so would be inconsistent with the public image she was trying to project in her autobiography or fiction. I don’t wish to take agency from Mowatt by suggesting she was not actively in control of her career. However, there are letters from James Mowatt that indicate he helped manage public relations for her. Epes Sargent also saw to it that she received a good deal of friendly coverage in the Boston press. In other words, I have no quotes to confirm that the tactics I am laying out here were planned by Mowatt and her advisors. I am inferring a strategy from the actions that took place.
The key points that convince me that Mowatt and those advising her decided to seek comparison to Ellen Tree Kean are first that instead of modifying her choice of scripts to differentiate herself from the English actress, Mowatt seems to have purposefully duplicated the Kean’s roster of productions in cities where her tour dates were in close proximity to theirs. This strategy extended to learning two new roles in addition of Mowatt’s already impressive catalogue. In early 1847, the actress added two of Ellen Tree’s signature characters, Ion and Rosalind, to her repertoire.
The second part of what I think was a two-pronged strategy was publicity. In January of 1847, Knickerbocker Magazine published “The American and English Actress.” The article purports to be the letter of an Englishman comparing the relative assets and liabilities of Anna Cora Mowatt and Mrs. Charles Kean. The letter could be genuine. However, each time I read it, new doubts arise for me concerning its authenticity. I feel it is probable that this text was composed by someone (my money is on Epes Sargent) who wished to promote Mowatt’s career.
Not only is the style of the letter very polished and professional, but the person who wrote this piece is thoroughly familiar with both Mowatt’s and Mrs. Kean’s personal biographies and professional resumes. Ellen Tree Kean had been on the stage for over two decades at this time. Information about her might not be that difficult to track down for a true fan. However, Mowatt was only in her second year as an actress. The success of her debut as Pauline at New York’s Park Theater was more of a local than a national sensation. She was only beginning to establish a reputation for herself as an actress. There had been no major interviews with Mowatt containing a detailed biography printed yet, but somehow this writer is quoting facts about her life and career as if he is copying and pasting from her Wikipedia entry.
In another similarly incongruous access to detail that probably wouldn’t be available to the average theater-goer, the writer describes Mowatt’s appearance as if he is gazing at a full color 8×10 glossy. He can even tell us the color of her eyes. Remember that in 1847 audience members with box seats above the stage or near the foot lights would still be ten to twenty-five feet away from the performers at the very least. Even with opera glasses, it would probably be difficult to get a good enough stationary view for long enough to tell what color an actor’s eyes were.
What was my surprise, when the representative of Juliet came on, to see, instead of a “tall actress,” a young, delicate, fair-haired creature, just the height of the Medician Venus, slim, but well-portioned, and with a face which many would call “strangely beautiful,” while others would admit the strangeness but dispute the beauty. Her features are of a cast admirably fitted for the stage. The face forms a beautiful oval; the eyes are blue but capable of great animation; the mouth and teeth are faultless; complexion clear and radiant; the nose Wellingtonian and prominent, but feminine and in good keeping with the rest of her countenance As she moved across the boards I was struck with the exquisite ease and grace of her carriage. You at once see the lady, and are pre-possessed in her favor.5
Another oddity that I don’t think is accident at all is that this author takes the liberty of contrasting Mrs. Kean’s landmark performance of “Ion” to how he projects Mowatt would play this role in the following passage;
In “Ion” I do not believe Mrs. Mowatt could ever attain the excellence of Mrs. Kean. There is little genuine passion in the character. It is cold and statue-like, not combustible like Juliet. It requires the well-drilled artist to deal with such a part; for all the effects of which it is capable are of the head rather than the heart.6
For this article to have been printed in the January issue of “The Knickerbocker,” it would have had to have been written some time prior to that date. In December of 1846, Anna Cora Mowatt and E.L. Davenport would have been rehearsing “Ion.” They played the tragedy for the first time in January, 1847 in Mobile, Alabama, then for a second time on February 12, at the St. Charles Street Theater in New Orleans. If the mention of a role that Mowatt would be adding to her repertoire just as the article would be published was mere coincidence, then it was a remarkably well-timed one.
Although the “English Gentleman” is saying that he believes Mowatt could never play the role like Kean did, his reasoning teases us to picture a Mowatt performance of Talfourd’s lead character. Kean’s Ion, according to him, was technically perfect, but frigid and passionless. A Mowatt Ion, we are left to imagine, would be more like her portrayal of Juliet that he has described, imbued with warmth and passion.
“The American and English Actress” does not simply bash Ellen Tree Kean and praise Anna Cora Mowatt. The approach is more subtle. In some contests, he awards the win to Mrs. Kean. As you can see in the excerpts I have quoted already, in some instances the writer includes opinions that are less than complimentary to Mowatt such as when he says that some people would just find her face strange instead of strangely beautiful or when he doubts that Mowatt could play Ion better than Ellen Tree’s iconic portrayal of Talfourd’s tragic hero. Overall, though, more time, attention, and loving detail is given to descriptions of Mowatt. Ellen Tree Kean, this author is saying in passages like the following, might have more experience and might have greater technical prowess, but Anna Cora Mowatt, in this author’s opinion has a special giftedness that makes her worthy of comparison to the English actress;
The personal qualifications of these actresses may, perhaps, be balanced against each other, — Mrs. Mowatt has the stronger and sweeter voice, but her figure conveys the idea of fragility; an objection which cannot be argued against that of Mrs. Kean. Both are exceedingly lady-like and easy upon the stage; but with Mrs. Kean every movement seems to be studied and pre-arranged; with Mrs. Mowatt it is as natural as the stooping of a bird. The self-possession of the latter is indeed very remarkable. She always seems on the most amicable terms with her audience, as if she had that “perfect love,” which the Scriptures describe as “casting out fear.” She does not appear to dream that there are beings in the world as carping critics and malicious spectators. All her hearers are, in her estimation, her indulgent friends; and she takes liberties with them with a grace that is irresistible. It is creditable to the American public, that while they have showered their dollars upon the Keans, they have at the same time shown so thorough an appreciation of their own charming and gifted actress.7
Despite the fact that the article has an obvious underlying bias in Mowatt’s favor, the reader is not supposed to exit the piece with a simple thought of “Ellen Tree Kean – bad. Anna Cora Mowatt – good.” Rather the merits of both actresses are presented. The author, I think is framing Mowatt as Kean’s worthy successor – the newer and improved model. I also think that it is significant that this supposedly “English” author uses patriotism as an argument in favor of Mowatt when he compliments U.S. audiences on their financial support of both the Keans and Mowatt and Davenport.
“The American and English Actress” was reprinted in full in a few Mowatt-friendly Boston papers. Although no one at the time went as far as I have done and claimed that this article was a piece of publicity written by someone connected to Mowatt, there was some lifting of editorial eyebrows at various papers across the country. The Knickerbocker apparently received some pushback from at least one reader concerning the partisan nature of the piece because in their February issue, they printed the following;
‘P.’ will bear in mind that we expressed no opinion as to the correctness of the views assumed in the article entitled ‘The American and English Actress.’ We certainly deemed the contrast-style adopted by the writer as one not in consonance with good taste, and liable to disparaging comment. The high estimate which this Magazine places upon the acting of Mrs. Kean is surely sufficiently well known to its readers. We have never had the pleasure to see Mrs. Mowatt upon the stage, except on the occasion of her very promising debut; and we thought her present popularity, as evinced by that safest of all tests, full houses, was palpable evidence of her great improvement and general dramatic excellence. But if the encomiums awarded her were a little ‘exaggerated,’ as is charged, it can do no harm to our fair countrywoman. We should never be too niggardly in our praise of true American talent; for the commended person will often do more to support a character than to gain one. ‘Are you answered?’8
In this rather frank reply, the editors state that they felt it was more important to print a piece that encouraged a U.S. born actress in her career rather than worry about strict accuracy. Mowatt, they felt, if she did not already, would feel duty-bound to soon live up to the claims made by the author of this letter.
The small flurry of controversy roused by the publication and reprinting of “The American and English Actress” only served to make the article more widely read. Generally, protective patriotism like that displayed by the editors of The Knickerbocker granted Mowatt a certain degree of leniency in the contest with Kean.
Despite any skepticism reviewers might have had about the authenticity and/or objectivity “The American and English Actress,” they began to fall into the lines the article set of comparing Mowatt to Kean as the performers crisscrossed their way along a trail of U.S. playhouses. This New Orleans reviewer condenses some of the points made by the Knickerbocker article;
Mrs. Mowatt, on the stage, reminds us much of Ellen Tree, being not unlike that queen of the drama in personal appearance, and having apparently taken her for a model. The most natural trait in Mrs. Mowatt’s acting is, that there is no struggle for effect; and moreover, she never seeks to exceed her physical faculties in the delivery of the strongest sentences. She has a sweet, unassuming style, totally devoid of all stage trick, and a clear, finely modulated voice, which, though never masculine in tone, is nevertheless capable of expressing every note in the gamut of passion or declamation. Her personal appearance is very lady-like, and her performances give indication of dramatic genius of a rare and brilliant quality.9
Playing Ion and being compared to Ellen Tree Kean elevated Mowatt from being a flash in the pan overnight sensation to being a top-level performer whose work was to be considered in the same breath as an English actress who had spent her entire adult life on stage. As I have mentioned previously in entries about “Ion,” critics often felt comfortable discussing actresses who took on this particular very challenging breeches role in the same breath as top tier male tragedians.
Anna Cora Mowatt entered the profession not as a trained actress, but as the writer of a surprise hit comedy who unexpectedly turned performer with only one month’s preparation and one rehearsal with the full company. To be brutally blunt, she debuted as a money-making publicity gimmick for herself and the Park Theatre at a time when both she and that venue were desperately short on ready cash. A little less than two years later, by taking on the character of Ion, Mowatt was inviting comparison to one of the most respected actresses of her day in a notoriously difficult role that was originally written for the undisputed master tragedian of that generation. It was a gutsy move.
The opinion of this reviewer from the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin quoted the Boston Courier reflects how little respect actresses of that day generally received from critics and by how much Mowatt’s skill passed the general mark;
Professional excellence is much more rarely attained by female than by male performers. We, perhaps, are unusually fastidious in our taste as regards the former, but we think the general error with them is too much acting – too much of the tragedy air, tone and action, and not enough of nature. It is the natural care and chasteness in Ellen Tree (Mrs. Kean) which constitutes the great charm of her acting, and which ease and chasteness Mrs. Mowatt possesses in an eminent degree. We consider her and Mrs. Kean as the two most pleasing performers we ever saw upon the stage.10
Even when Mowatt would return to the U.S. after her years in England and play “Ion” without E.L. Davenport’s support (as we shall explore further in the next blog entry,) comparisons to Ellen Tree would persist.
To-night we are again to have Mrs. Mowatt in the character of Ion, in which herself and Mrs. Charles Kean shine almost alone. A critic remarks that though Mrs. Mowatt is not superior to Mrs. Kean in mechanical gesture and attitude, she transcends her in all which relates to the essential vitality and meaning of the part. In our experience of Mrs. Mowatt’s acting, we notice that on not two occasions does she perform alike, and the more ideal the character, the more wide the difference. She acts from no mental stereotype; her prolific genius at each impersonal creates new forms of expression, and with her Ion, as with a flying dove in the sun, its white gleams ever change.11
What Mowatt and her team seemed to understand – as people who entered the world of theatre peddling plays and magazines might very well have a clear grasp of – was that a competition between the two actresses could translate into a win for each team of players. If publicity pitted the younger American against the experienced Brit, it is true that theater-goers might choose a favorite. Some fans would never desert their beloved Ellen Tree. Others would fall in love with the beautiful Anna Cora. There would even be those who would like both equally. No matter where they sided on the controversy, one basic and essential fact remained constant: Audiences would have to buy a ticket to see the shows of each actress as they made up their minds.
And in the end — win, lose, or draw — selling tickets was the name of the game.
Next Time: Mowatt’s Ion becomes autobiographical.
- Blesi, Marius. “The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt.” Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1938. Page 211.
- “Amusements.” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune. May 8, 1847. Page 3, col. 1.
- Blesi, Marius. “The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt.” Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1938. Page 211
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Table Talk, 27 April 1823 in Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Morley, Henry (1884). Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christobel, &c. New York: Routledge. p. 38.
- “The American and English Actress: In a Letter from an Englishman to a Friend.” The Knickerbocker. January, 1847. Vol. XXIX, No. 1. Page 54.
- Ibid. Page 58.
- “Editor’s Table.” The Knickerbocker. February, 1847, Vol. XXIX, no. 2. Page 194-195.
- “St. Charles Theatre.” The Daily Delta. Saturday, March 6, 1847.
- “Mrs. Mowatt.” Boston Courier. March 5, 1847. Page 1, col. 7.
- “Theatre.” The Louisville Daily Journal. Friday, July 2, 1852.