Part VIII: Waking Realities of Mowatt’s “Dreamy” 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]
Anna Cora Mowatt scored her biggest hits playing beautiful young women in historical dramas. Proud Pauline in “Lady of Lyons” and the pretty Parthenia of “Ingomar, the Barbarian” were hands-down her biggest fan favorites in the 1850s. At the turn of the century, theatre historians liked to contrast frilly and feminine Mowatt to Charlotte Cushman. However, throughout her career, one of the staples of Mowatt’s repertoire was a character that had been one upon which Cushman had built her reputation as a preeminent performer of breeches roles – Thomas Talfourd’s Ion.
As I discussed last time, when Anna Cora Mowatt was seeking to establish herself as a serious actress, there were a number of reasons for her to choose to add Talfourd’s “Ion” to her catalogue. The issue I want to address this week is why that role stayed as a featured performance after she returned to the U.S. from Europe. Why did Mowatt keep “Ion” in her rotation of performances until the end of her career instead of discarding it in favor of a role that was more “on brand” for her?
One explanation we can rule out immediately was that Mowatt retained “Ion” as a featured drama in her repertoire because of any paucity of choices at her command. By the fall of 1851, the actress had played the starring role in around fifty different plays. Madelaine in Epes Sargent’s “Change Makes Change,” Blanche in her own “Armand,” Cecil Howard in Henry Spicer’s “Witch Wife,” and the title roles in John Oxenford’s “Virginia” and “Ariadne” were all composed specifically with her in mind to play the leading lady.
Another factor that I feel it is safe to quickly rule out as a possible explanation for the presence of Talfourd’s tragedy in Mowatt’s rotation of performance titles is audience expectations. From comments in reviews and publicity material, it is clear that although “Ion” was considered by critics and theatre-goers of the 1840-50s to be a very prestigious play, they did not rate the tragedy as exceptionally exciting entertainment. As the following reviewer from the Charleston Daily Courier delicately puts the matter;
The merits and charms of this piece are peculiar as is known to all readers. It abounds not in those striking emergencies, sudden changes and catastrophic incidents, which mark the generality of plays now keeping their hold on the stage. Ion on the contrary charms and awes chiefly by its reproductions of a past age, and its revival of classic scenes and associations.1
(May we all be so lucky as to have an eloquent friend like this writer to defend us the next time we are guilty of being a little stuffy and boring.) Unlike fan favorites such as Pauline in Bulwer’s “Lady of Lyons” or Julia in Knowles’ “The Hunchback,” no grumbles from the discontented popped up in letters to the editor when Mowatt omitted “Ion” from her tour in a particular city. When the actress introduced a new production set in Greece, one columnist even used the comparative dullness of Talfourd’s tragedy to sell the new play, enthusiastically proclaiming;
“Ingomar” has all the classical purity of “Ion,” and is far more interesting, dramatic, and effective.2
Retaining “Ion” in her repertoire after her return to the stage in 1851, then, was a deliberate choice on Mowatt’s part, not a decision that external pressures forced her to make. To underline her confidence and enthusiasm for the script, the actress often selected this play for benefit nights. Performers received large percentages of the profits from ticket sales on the occasions of these special fund-raising performances. Therefore Mowatt’s choice to play “Ion” for benefits indicates that she felt this role was one of strongest performances, most likely to attract the largest audiences. There can be many explanations for her preference for this role, but I break my reasoning into three broad headings.
The first reason why I think Mowatt continued to play “Ion” is a practical motive I have mentioned in previous blog entries. After her return to the stage in 1851, she no longer had an acting partner who toured with her. After Walter Watts’ arrest, E.L. Davenport and his wife, Fanny, had tried to keep the Olympic Theatre company afloat for some time. During Mowatt’s long absence from the stage in 1850, Davenport moved on with his career, establishing other ties and commitments that precluded his continuing as her partner when she returned to work in 1851. Davenport, Mowatt, and Vining remained friends for the rest of their lives despite the fact that their professional paths diverged at this juncture.
Mid-19th century playwrights did not generally create fully developed starring roles for women. Despite what you may have been told in Intro to Drama 101, not all plays from this time period were melodramas. Women’s roles were more complex and varied than the outlines that have been drawn of that genre would lead you to believe. However, male performers did command the lion’s share of lines and stage-time in most plays of the 1840-60’s. It is also true that female characters tended to be more reactive than active in their choices, making them less dynamic and more unlikely to have the sort of big dramatic moments that would win an audience’s applause.
Mowatt’s selection of dramas for her engagement at Manchester’s Theatre Royal in May, 1851 reveals the mind of an experienced and strategic professional at work, in my opinion. The list includes “The Wife” and “Love Chase” by James Sheridan Knowles, “Ariadne” by John Oxenford, Calcraft’s “The Bride of Lammermoor,” “Ion,” and ends with “Merchant of Venice.” All these scripts, excluding “Ion,” feature a female character in a leading role who drives the pace of the plot. With the possible exception of “Merchant of Venice” where perhaps an extraordinarily good or bad Shylock could steal or spoil the show, Mowatt does not seem to leave herself vulnerable to an unfamiliar actor she encounters on tour taking focus from her star turns in any of these productions.
As I have discussed in other blog entries, part of the appeal of breeches roles like Ion for actresses such as Ellen Tree, Charlotte Cushman, and Anna Cora Mowatt, was that such parts were more substantial than the characters being created by contemporary playwrights for women. Although the list of starring roles Mowatt chose for her appearances in Manchester provides some very good counter-points to the image of the empty-headed heroine from a generic melodrama tied helplessly to a train-track that you might have thought was typical of how women were written during this period, socio-cultural beliefs about women prevalent in England and the U.S. at that time did impose many limitations on the possibilities and potentials for female characters that were not present when writers were imagining the speech and actions of men. Ion simply speaks more words, does a wider variety of things, and is on stage longer than the average female character.
As she toured by herself, it was vitally important for Mowatt to govern the stage for as much of the production as possible. Coming into a new theatre, she had little to no control over the quality of the performances of the company she would be working with and had little time to rehearse with them. In order to maintain her reputation for doing excellent work, she had to choose the material she performed carefully to display her talents to the best advantage. “Ion” was one of the scripts that made the cut to remain in her rotation of performances when she returned to the stage in 1851 because it was an example of a drama that maximized her opportunities to be onstage before her fans, setting the pace and tone of the production.
The next appeal I feel that “Ion” held for the actress is that it showcased her talents as an elocutionist and her passion for the aims of that art form. Before she achieved fame as a playwright and an actress, Mowatt debuted as a public reader. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this subject on the blog before, but the first papers I wrote about Mowatt concerned this very short-lived phase of her career as a performer. Elocution was an art form that required more specialized training and conveyed much more cultural capital in the Victorian era than some sweet soul reading “Goodnight Moon” to a group of kids at your local Barnes & Noble. It is a now virtually lost form of artistic expression that developed parallel to – but separated from – acting and theatre. Interpretive reading did not usually involve mimesis, the techniques of role-play. The reader did not assume a character unless the material they were reading dictated that they do so. Performers read as themselves. The focus of the elocutionist was bringing to life each word of the poem, prose selection, dramatic monologue, or speech they were reading or reciting by pronouncing each word perfectly with proper emphasis and meaning and accompanying it with appropriate gesture and/or body positioning. The aim of these interpreters was to bring culturally valued texts fully and vividly to life for their audiences.
Traces of the art of the elocutionists survive to the present. Politicians and other professional public speakers still use their techniques to move audiences. Glimpses of the legacy of the public readers are rarer but still can be found. The delicate, illustrative gestures that accompanied Amanda Gorman’s 2021 inaugural poem would, I think, warm the heart of any student of Delsarte. Rendered with aching depth of subtext and in the appropriate dialect, Michael Sheen’s powerful delivery of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” proves he’s the kind of performer who with little alteration would have had museum audiences of the 1850s cheering and stamping in the aisles.
Anna Cora Mowatt’s career as a public reader was short but significant. She was one of the first women in the U.S. to score a critical success in this field traditionally dominated by men. Other women were inspired to follow her example. I feel that women’s elocutionary performances at this time in U.S. history were significant because the material they were presenting wasn’t merely pretty and pleasant to the ear. A significant portion of the poems, prose selections, and speeches were either overtly patriotic or chosen specifically because they were the works of U.S. authors. Although they did not yet have the right to vote, the women who gave public readings were participating — passively or actively — in defining a national character for the U.S. They were doing the work of public intellectuals, creating dialogue that articulated the soul of the nation.
After she became an actress, Mowatt reports that she occasionally gave readings while on tour in towns too small to sustain a theater. However, she much preferred acting to reading because;
In the lecture room I missed the friendly footlights, which form a barrier between the real and the ideal. I longed for the illusion — the self-forgetfulness. On the stage I was somebody else — in the lecture room I could not rise out of myself.3
“Ion” then, must have combined the best of both worlds for her. Similar to her work with Shakespearian roles, Talfourd’s “Ion” was an example of a script where the sophistication of the language employed by the author called upon Mowatt’s skill sets both as an elocutionist and an actress. In this role, her critics would expect her not only to convincingly create a character, but to deliver Talfourd’s classically inspired poetry with proper emphasis and correct technique. The actress did not disappoint her audiences in this respect. The highest praise she received from critics for her portrayal of Ion in the productions from 1851-54 never fails to laud her elocutionary skills, as does this reviewer for the Daily Republic;
We think that no one who has studied the performances of Mrs. Mowatt for the last three evenings, in Parthenia, Beatrice, and Ion, can withhold from her the praise that belongs to the first actress of the American stage. Indeed, we are acquainted with no actress speaking the English language who is her superior. She possesses all the natural advantages which are requisite to professional success. She is a woman highly educated, and never slights the text of her author. She is a consummate elocutionist. So distinct is her enunciation that we never lose a word. Her face is one of great expressiveness and singular beauty. Her movements are not merely graceful, they are grace itself. Her experience on the stage has made her familiar with all its traditions, and renders her perfectly at home in all situations.
Ion was originally written we believe for Mr. Macready, but has been successfully played only by Ellen Tree until it was undertaken by Mrs. Mowatt. With a distinct recollection of the silver tones of Miss Tree, and her exquisite elocution, her finished action and utterance, we are at quite a loss to find any respect in which Mrs. Mowatt can be considered her inferior. More nearly than any other actress she resembles Miss Tree, without being in any manner a copyist; but she has more vivacity and animation, while she is an equally accurate reader and agreeable elocutionist.4
At this time in the in the common imagination of most of English-speaking world, theatre still carried strong associations with gaming, prostitution, and vice. As this quote demonstrates, elocution was tied to education, literature, and intellect. According to Victorian-era standards, skillful elocution raised the level of a theatrical experience beyond the mere sensual pleasures rendered possible by ordinary acting. Sublime levels of intellectual stimulation that offered fresh insights into the mind of the poet/playwright were made accessible by the rare performer trained in the art of elocution. Our tactful friend in Charleston who I quoted earlier agreed;
As Ion, Mrs. Anna Cora Mowatt met or surpassed the highest expectations of her many admirers. The antique dignity of the language, and the solemn import of the plot and purpose, were alike portrayed and embodied in her enunciation and personation. In subdued and narrative passages, elegant, calm, and graceful, she adapted herself happily to every want of the author, and every transition of style and meaning – rising in dignity and force, or sinking to plaintive tenderness and melting cadences.
The union of both youth and unassuming innocence, with a lofty purpose springing from a consciousness of Heaven’s ordination, was most expressively and happily portrayed, especially in the request to the sages, where Ion offers himself a willing victim to the tyrant’s doom, and in the former part of the interview with the King. The heroic aspect of the leading character, was sustained and preserved admirably indeed on all occasions demanding it throughout the whole piece, while the tenderer passages between the lover and his fair Clemanthe, were no less effective, and showed a happy adaptation of elocutionary resources.5
Although I mentioned earlier that in the U.S. the public readers played an important part in delineating a canon of national literature, British actors and elocutionists still dictated standards of technical proficiency in the art itself. In this and a host of other areas of the performing arts, the U.S. was still England’s struggling, insecure stepchild. Therefore in these critiques, we see Mowatt compared to again and again to her old nemesis, Ellen Tree (Mrs. Charles Kean,) as in the following publicity release in a Boston paper;
Mrs. Mowatt takes a benefit at the Howard this evening, appearing in Talfourd’s noble tragedy of Ion, in which she personates the hero. We doubt if there has ever been a more truthful and admirable representative of the part than Mrs. M. Not even Mrs. Charles Kean, in her best days, could surpass her in the beauty and distinctness of her elocution, and the passionate energy which she throws into those passages where Ion is roused to a heroic enthusiasm. All lovers of dramatic acting of the highest order will be richly repaid by a visit to the Howard this evening.6
Although intent on establishing a distinctive national drama, the fact that “Ion” was written by an Englishman also did not devalue the play at all in the eyes of American critics. The play’s success on the London stage plus Thomas Talfourd’s scholarship and professional achievements greatly enhanced the status of the drama. The tragedy has lapsed into utter obscurity today. However, in the 1850s, theatre critics rated the work as one of the finest dramatic compositions of the day for its refined literary qualities. Note the laudatory terms used to describe the play in the following publicity release;
The beautiful and accomplished Mrs. Anna Cora Mowatt is winning “golden opinions from all sorts of people” at the Howard… She never appeared to better advantage than during her present engagement. Tonight Mrs. Mowatt will personate the classic part of Ion, in Sergeant Talfourd’s tragedy of that name, sustained by the fine acting of Mr. Marshall as Adrastus. Ion is deservedly reckoned one of the most perfect specimens of classic tragedy existing in any language. It is said that Talford devoted twenty years to its composition.7
Just as the elocutionists read poems and other texts that were considered to be of high cultural value, I feel part of the reason Mowatt kept this play in her catalogue of productions was because she agreed with her contemporaries who ranked “Ion” as a prestigious literary creation. Performing this play is in line with her greater mission as expressed in her writing and her many speeches in favor of theatre reform. She saw the ultimate purpose of theatre as not mere entertainment, but felt the stage also should be educational and uplifting to the human spirit. As she says in her autobiography,
To unite amusement with instruction is to give relish to nourishment.8
Although “Ion” was set in Ancient Greece, the text reified many mainstream values of the 1840-50s, including a strong sense of patriotism and anti-monarchial feeling. Despite the fact that the Argive prince was obedient to pagan gods, the script’s portrayal of Ion’s views on controversial topics such as suicide, pre-marital sex, and respect for the law had little to upset the religious sensibilities of Mowatt’s audiences. On a more practical note, as the following quote used to publicize one of her appearances attests, one of the selling points of the actress was the high moral tone of her performances;
The Boston Bee mentions the fact that several clergymen of that city are in the habit of attending the theatres, and that several of them were at the Athenaeum on one evening while Mrs. Mowatt was playing there. We can see no reason why clergymen should not be attracted to such places by moral and elevated pieces and actors. It is one of the most impressive ways to impart instructive and moral lessons when properly conducted. If the managers of theatres and museums would take care to select good plays, and avoid the disagreeable and contaminating influences that too often surround such places, they would soon draw around them the support of the wise and the good. When rightly conducted, the stage is capable of wielding a moral influence not surpassed by the pulpit itself.9
“Ion” stylistically and ideologically highlighted aspects of Mowatt’s skill set, personal beliefs, and character to great advantage. The challenge of bringing Talfourd’s classical poetry to life allowed the actress to display her accomplishments as an intellectual, poet, and elocutionist. Because of her privileged background, Mowatt had education and training that enabled her to speak with an authentic sophistication which few other American actresses of her day could even mimic. Although lacking in the sensational thrills of the generic melodrama to which Intro to Drama 101 claims they were addicted, “Ion” was revered by audiences for its literary merits and the noble virtues it preached. Metaphorically, in the context of this era, Talfourd’s tragedy was like the peas and carrots of the theatrical meal – good for the viewer if not the most exciting item on the plate. To extend this gustatory imagery, from all reports, Mowatt’s portrayal of Ion was skilled and satisfying to such a degree that all involved felt very pleased about maintaining a healthy and balanced entertainment diet.
Finally, I feel Mowatt chose to keep “Ion” in her line-up of plays because she might have found some personal resonance with the tragic storyline of the play. Newspaper advertisements for Mowatt’s performances of Talfourd’s “Ion” subtitle the play “or The Foundling of Argos.” Most printed copies of this script give the title simply as “Ion; a Tragedy.” Choosing a longer, more descriptive subheading for play provides paratextual cueing for potential viewers which shape their reception of the actress’ performance even before they buy a ticket. Rather than preparing us to see Ion as a hero, introducing him as an orphan emphasizes his vulnerability and isolation. This choice may give us insight into how Mowatt interpreted this character.
Those writing about William Macready’s performance as Ion generally make special note of the actor’s ability to convey the tragic tenderness of the Argive prince’s doomed love for Clemanthe. A highlight of Ellen Tree’s (Mrs. Charles Kean) performance for many viewers was the strange dance of shifting identities and fatal fascination between Ion and Adrastus (particularly when played opposite John Vandenhoff in the role of the tyrant). In Mowatt’s portrayal, reviewers mention these connections to other characters almost as an afterthought. The strongest parts of her performance, as the following quote from a publicity release suggests, were in the sections of the play where Ion is at his most detached and solitary, speaking directly to his gods about the agony of his fate;
This evening Mrs. Mowatt will appear in the character of Ion, the most exquisite and ideal of all her personations, and in some respects, the most powerful… Mrs. Mowatt’s conception of Talfourd’s pure and beautiful creation is the finest we ever witnessed, and her expression of it is masterly. The celebrated invocation, commencing with “Ye eldest Gods,” she delivers with a mingled sweetness, depth, and power of enunciation, which brings out all its pathos and grandeur.10
In 1851, Mowatt found herself more alone in the world than she had ever been before. She was born the tenth in a family of fourteen brothers and sisters. She had married at age fifteen. Unlike many performers who traveled the country solo, Mowatt always toured with her husband and an acting partner. As a young lady of this era born into wealth and privilege, she was always carefully chaperoned when she ventured out into public spaces.
After a long illness, James Mowatt died on February 17 of 1851. Anna Cora was also in poor health after the shock and trauma brought on by Walter Watts’ sudden arrest in March of 1850, his trial, and subsequent suicide. The Mowatts’ fortune was decimated (again.) Instead of taking time to fully re-group and recover, her financial situation forced her to immediately go back on tour while her husband lay dying. She found herself simultaneously coping with that grief and managing production details that had never before been her responsibility. In her autobiography, looking back on the experience, Mowatt joked;
This was my first journey unsurrounded by the tender protection of relatives or friends, and my London maid had never before been sixty miles removed from the sound of Bow bells. The two forsaken-looking beings, who, in frozen bewilderment, stood shivering beside a huge pile of trunks, would have added a speaking addition (though they were nearly speechless) to Punch’s portraits of “unprotected females.”11
She is here referencing a satirical series of short comic sketches titled “Scenes from the Life of an Unprotected Female” that Punch ran in 1849 describing the misadventures of a woman trying navigate the complexities of London’s transportation systems without the benefit of a male escort. Although Mowatt poking a little fun at her predicament, even today the experience of a woman traveling alone can be challenging, frightening, and exhausting. She had led an extremely sheltered existence up to this point in her life and was emerging suddenly into an environment extremely hostile to the idea of female independence of any sort.
Anna Cora Mowatt was a very spiritual person. Her Swedenborgian-based religious beliefs are an ever-present undercurrent that frequently flows to the surface in her prose, poetry, and non-fiction. Like Ion, she wrote of having experienced prophetic dreams and premonitions. The few poems and prose pieces that she composed that date from the years 1851-54 feature strong religious imagery and messages from angels and the spirits of the departed. I feel it is quite possible that she may have found points of empathy with the mystical elements of “Ion’s” plot that involve direct communication between otherworldly forces and human beings. She may have greatly identified with the feeling of being caught up in the hands of a fate one cannot control.
The following review from a performance that occurred in 1854 after Mowatt’s autobiography had been published, emphasizes this degree of identification between personal and portrayal;
She acts from no mental stereotype; her prolific genius at each impersonation creates new forms of expression, and with her Ion, as with a flying dove in the sun, its white gleams ever change. After a perusal of Mrs. Mowatt’s life, a biography marked with strongest fortitude and sacrifice, we feel that in Ion she acts out her heroic self, grandly rendering the ideal, by richly revealing the real.12
Of course, this reviewer and I are both speculating on the actress’ state of mind based on our reading of her autobiography, “Eight Years on the Stage.” Mowatt does not overtly connect her experiences to her portrayal of this character in any writing that I have yet come across. However, part of the deep impression that Mowatt’s Ion made upon audiences was that rather than creating a hero who struggles melodramatically or rails against his tragic fate, her Argive prince accepted the will of his gods with a mournful but sublime dignity as the following review indicates;
The house was full last night, and Mrs. Mowatt riveted the attention of the audience by her quiet and artistic personation of Ion. The exquisite poetry of the character was fully developed in her hands. We have not seen her in anything we so much admired.13
In interviews and other publicity material that was generated by Mowatt or her allies that dates from 1851-54, the theme of quiet resilience in the face of tragedy often emerges. The actress characterizes herself or is often characterized as an individual who had made her peace with loss and was moving bravely forward alone. This role became a major part of Anna Cora Mowatt’s public persona after her return to the U.S. and helped her weather the Watts scandal. There seems to have been an overlap between this narrative that the actress had selected as the appropriate one for packaging herself as she interfaced with her fans and the press and her interpretive approach to Talfourd’s “Ion.” Whether or not this choice was deliberate and conscious on her part and/or designed to be transparent to her audiences is debatable and perhaps unknowable. However it does seem that there was much in melancholy poetic musings of Talfourd’s ill-omened prince as he makes his lonely way to meet his inexorable fate that Mowatt could identify with at this difficult point in her life and career.
In conclusion, rather than being an odd choice, for these reasons I feel “Ion” was a strong, strategic, and logical candidate for inclusion in Mowatt’s repertoire of regular roles. Her popularity playing characters such as Pauline and Parthenia may lead one to believe she had skill for protraying nothing but charming ingénues. However “Ion” is an example of the type of role that cemented her reputation as an intellectual actress who championed works of high literary merit. Her work in Talfourd’s tragedy displays Mowatt putting her advocacy for theatre reform into action by bringing sensitive and engaging interpretations of serious works by critically recognized authors to U.S. playhouses. When we look at the fact that Talfourd’s “Ion” was a featured production in Anna Cora Mowatt’s regular rotation of shows in the years before her retirement from the stage, we should not wonder why she would consider including a role that was so “off brand.” Any doubts would only reveal how much we’re limiting how broad and deep the true nature of Mowatt’s appeal to her audiences was at the height of her popularity.
Next Time: A Merry Manuscript with a Bit of a Mystery – Exploring another of the Lost Plays of Walter Watts
- “Theatrical.” The Charleston Daily Courier. Wednesday, March 1, 1854. Page 1, col. 2.
- “Theatrical.” Daily Evening Transcript. Thursday, March 11, 1852. Page 2, col. 2.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856.) Page
- “Mrs. Mowatt.” The Daily Republic, Saturday, January 22, 1853. Page 2, col. 4.
- “Theatrical.” The Charleston Daily Courier. Wednesday, March 1, 1854.
- “Mrs. Mowatt’s Benefit.” Daily Evening Transcript. Friday, February 27, 1852.
- “Howard Athenaeum.” Daily Evening Transcript. 18, 1852.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856.) Page
- “Clergymen and Theatres.” Daily American Telegraph. Tuesday, October 14, 1851.
- “Theatre.” The Louisville Daily Journal. Friday, July 2, 1852.
- Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856.) Page
- “Howard Athenaeum.” Daily Evening Transcript. May 28, 1852.
- “St. Charles Theatre.” The New Orleans Crescent. Friday, March 4, 1853.