Anna Cora Mowatt, Mimic Life, and the Critics

Part IV: The Pushback

I know that I’ve been building to the negative reaction to Anna Cora Mowatt’s novel, Mimic Life for three blog entries.  However, I hope I haven’t given the impression that in March of 1856 folks suddenly started throwing mud at her picture or casting copies of the volume on bonfires.  Pushback in this case took the form of a limited number of thoughtfully worded articles in newspapers scattered across the country.

Resistance to Mowatt’s pro-theatre messaging is of interest to me because the 1840s-60s were a time when attitudes towards drama as a socially acceptable form of entertainment for patrons of all social classes were changing in the U.S.  Anna Cora Mowatt dedicated a great deal of time and energy towards forwarding that cause.  She not only argued explicitly for the acceptance of theatre in Mimic Life, her autobiography, and other of her works, but during her career as an actress, she participated in the opening of playhouses and other arts spaces.  On these and other occasions, she gave public addresses specifically promoting theatre reform, better treatment of theatrical workers in their workplace, and greater acceptance of theatrical work by U.S. society.  Thus because of her strong advocacy, the actress/author during this period became a figurehead of the movement towards growing acceptance of theatre patronage among social classes who had previously thought it taboo – specifically upper and middle class women.  Backlash against Mowatt reveals remaining areas of fissure, contention, and resistance.

[Also — to be honest, the anti-theatrical responses I’m going to quote here are also interesting to me because of grad school…

If you went to college, you will have probably noted that every professor – no matter how mild-mannered – has one little issue that triggers something beastly within them.  Usually it will be an unfortunately phrased question from a student that will set them off — but some idiots will include a detonating phrase in their own lecture notes guaranteed to wave the red cape.

When, like an evil spell, the fatal word or combination of words reaches their ears, a terrible transformation begins.  Like Cú Chulainn in the grip of a warp spasm, one eye gets a little bigger than the other.  The nostrils flair.  The otherwise saintly academic gets a bit frothy about the mouth and launches into a vehement, intimidatingly well-constructed, and almost uncomfortably passionate argument about a topic that may have little to no connection to the class.

Your professor is, in that moment, like a trauma victim, reliving the unspeakable vileness of the moment when they lost – or worse yet, were forced by their major professor to concede — an argument to a member of their thesis or dissertation committee.

For me, this contested issue was anti-theatrical prejudice.  A committee member had done her dissertation or thesis on something about integration of the theatrical in the works of Hawthorne, I think. She put forth the argument that stating Americans of the Victorian era were pre-disposed against the theatre is a false, unexamined stereotype.  Theatre was gaining new heights of popularity during this time period.  She did have a point.  (Her application of this objection to my writing was completely wrong-headed, though. Let that fact not get lost in all this, for God’s sake…) Let me say, without getting too blue and blotchy in the face that the U.S. population was not monolithic in its opinions on this or any other controversial topic.  At the same time that legions of fans were collecting figurines of Charlotte Cushman, madly buying out supplies of Anna Cora Mowatt’s books, and fighting in the streets for Edwin Forrest, there were still laws on the books in some states that classed actors with vagrants and forbid the building of playhouses within certain city limits. There were theaters-in-all-but-name that did a thriving business that called themselves “museums” because reputation-conscious people could not bring themselves to attend something that openly called itself a “theater.”  Churches in some dominations refused to bury actors in parish graveyards. There were also preachers and lecturers who strongly condemned theater in no uncertain terms in addresses that were enthusiastically reproduced in the press – including one minister who claimed he’d prefer to bludgeon his sister to death with a shovel before he’d stand by and see her married to an actor… (although experience guides me to think this last complaint might have more to do with bad experiences dating actors than condemning the morality of theatre…)

Illustration of Pastor refusing burial to an actor, Feb. 4, 1871
Illustration of Pastor refusing burial to an actor, Feb. 4, 1871

So, you as you can see, establishing that anti-theatrical prejudice was very much alive and well in the U.S. in the 1840s-60s wasn’t a hard fix for me.  I had the writing done – footnotes and all – in less than an hour.  However, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, thank you, diligent Committee Member, for making this piece of scholarship –upon the base of which I will publish several articles that will help me get tenure and eventually write a book, and still be writing about thirty-some years later – so much more clear and precise.” I was thinking, “Damn.  This rewrite has got to go in the first ten pages of chapter one.  That means I’ve got to re-print the entire blasted book again.”

And I told you about my daisy-wheel printer…

At any rate, I really wish I had found two of the longer negative responses that I am going to include in this entry when I was writing my dissertation. The writers of each articulate a pair of different stances that were resistant to acceptance of theatre that were not only operational in the 1840s-60s when Mowatt was active, but that continue to crop up in discourse about the Arts in the U.S. to this day. Having access to these responses to Mowatt’s work could have better demonstrated the ingrained attitudes the actress/author was fighting against… as well as sparing my next-door neighbor’s eardrums…]

Most of the reviewers who choose to argue with Mowatt’s pro-theatrical stance in her autobiography and Mimic Life published their critiques between late January to March of 1856. Therefore these writers had time to react not only to the content of Mimic Life, but to sales of the book and publicity surrounding the book.  They also had opportunity to read reviews of other critics. Written months after the book’s publication, the writers assume the reader also has knowledge about the book, its author, and its contents.

This first response is a type of bland meta-commentary playing on the book’s title.  “Let’s stop worrying ourselves about the fake problems in the fake world of actors,” the columnist seems to say, “and go back to thinking about the real concerns of real people.”

Mimic Life – Mrs. Mowatt calls the life of the actor, ‘mimic life,’ and we think the term very appropriate.  But in our opinion there is a great deal of ‘mimic life’ beside the actor’s experience, and beyond the glare of the foot-lights.

There was a time when, looking at everything though the rosy dreams of youth, we thought we could implicitly trust appearances; but the sober reason of riper years has convinced us that we were in an error there, and tempted us to believe, as Shakespeare says, that

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time acts many parts.”

When we know that a rich merchant turns a deaf ear to the wail of the starving; sends forth the poor tenant who cannot pay the high rent he demands, to wander through the cold and snowy streets with her helpless little ones; ‘beats down’ the humble laborer who works for him, and cheats his customers as often as possible, while his name heads every popular subscription list, and his gold flashes brightly in the contribution box on Sundays, when it can be ‘seen of men,’ we say ‘certainly this is mimic life.’

When we meet a woman, who wears a radiant smile, and appears to be the gayest of the gay, to hide the grief which makes her existence a burden, which she would gladly lay down in the grave – we thing that is ‘mimic life.’

When we hear expressions of interest and protestations of friendship from those, who, we feel assured, have not the slightest regard for us, and would rejoice over any misfortune which might befall us, we say, ‘there is another phase of mimic life.’

When we find a family denying themselves of actual comforts that they may keep up the appearance of wealth, flaunting along the streets in silk and velvet, while they are looking forward to a coarse and scanty dinner, we think that’s ‘mimic life’ indeed.

Thus we might go on enumerating, but we will not; we confess we are heartily tired of it, and we hope that the time may soon come when we shall see less of this ‘mimic life.’1

Published on March 22, 1856, this piece suggests to me that there was some burnout occurring in the press by this time associated with Mowatt and her book.  They had heard enough discussion and were ready to move on. Conversely, this writing could have been a pure piece of publicity.  The column says little of substance but does get Mowatt’s name and the name of her book before the public at a time when sales were starting to lag.

Newspaper ad for Mimic Life, 1856
Newspaper ad for Mimic Life, 1856

The next review from Sandusky, Ohio’s Daily Commercial Register, dated January 12th, was earliest published that I have chosen to include with this group.  The writer’s position is a bit difficult to categorize. Although the critique is relatively short, there is a lot going on here;

Mrs. Mowatt Ritchie’s new volume, “Mimic Life,” is now having quite a run.  The lady’s Autobiography excited quite an interest in her as an author, and the success of the work showed that she had decided talent with her pen in planning popular books.  The moral of her first work we ever have considered doubtful.  Young women, fired by the delineations of Stage Life and the Drama, yet kept in ignorance of the darkest and oftenest painted side of the picture, grew unhappy, dissatisfied with their humbler life, and in many instances, sought the theatre and stage to their own ruin.  That such was the tendency of the work on imaginative and excitable minds proved it to be a volume better fitted for old heads than young hearts, and we believe that parents are quite generally denying the volume to their young daughters.  “Mimic Life is a series of tales, or rather, stage tragedies, designed, doubtless, to undo that passion for the stage, with which the authoress had inspired so many girls and young women.  It was well that such a work should be done, and by Mrs. Mowatt herself, and that she had done it will not fail to add to the admiration which the public feel for her.  The tales, three in number are sad histories of the “life before and behind the scenes” and are not calculated to inspire the reader with any particular love for such life.  The authoress evidently has worked hard to write an intense book, and every page bears somewhat of the character of melodrama, so constantly high wrought is almost every scene.  Thus far then, the book is inartistic, overwrought, and impresses the reader unpleasantly.  But the narrative is masterly in the disposition of scenes and characters, and we follow the tragedies through to the end with a deep interest.  For the perusal of young people, we are constrained, however to say, that “Mimic Life” is not unobjectionable, in that the emotion it excites in the heart is somewhat painful and morbid, awakening, by the rule of extremes, a passion for that kind of fiction, in which passion has its culmination in a taste for literature of a repulsive kind.  We do not say “Mimic Life” is of this character – it is not, and yet, it is only removed from it because a consummate artist holds the pen and keeps it within bounds of propriety.  The same scenes and characters, in other hands, might have produced a really revolting book. – This is in compliment to Mrs. Mowatt, for it is acknowledgment of her power, and of her fine perceptions of what is and what is not proper for reward.  Those who have read the author’s Autobiography will read the lady’s last volume with a deep interest and all admire the class of fiction to which “Mimic Life” belongs, will become its readers.2

I suppose it is fair to summarize this review by saying that the columnist ultimately recommends the book but introduces a lot of very negative language and pointed criticism in the course of doing so. The first accusation that the columnist lays at Mowatt’s feet is that her autobiography inspired multitudes of young women to become actresses.  This is a charge that would be repeated by writers creating biographical entries for Mowatt well into the 1920s.  The following from Laurence Hutton’s “Curiosities of the American Stage” is a typical treatment of the subject of her influence;

There have been debutantes enough in New York since the debut of Mrs. Mowatt to fill to overflowing the auditorium of any single city theatre, could they be gathered under one roof to witness the first effort of the next aspirant, whoever she may be. During the season of 1876-77 alone, not less than seven ladies — Mrs. Louise M. Pomeroy, Miss Bessie Darling, Miss Anna Dickinson, Mrs. J. H. Hackett, Miss Minnie Cummings, Miss Marie Wainwright, and Miss Adelaide Lennox — in leading parts made their first bows to metropolitan audiences, without training or experience; and the season was not considered a particularly strong one in debutantes at that. For much of this Mrs. Mowatt, unconsciously and unwittingly, was responsible. Her sudden success turned many heads, while the equally sudden failures, not recorded, but very many in number, have been quite forgotten, and will be still ignored as long as there are new Camilles and new Juliets to achieve greatness at one fell swoop, and as long as there are unwise friends and speculative managers to encourage them. The careers of these candidates for dramatic fame, as they are familiar to the world, are certainly not inspiring to their foolish sisters who would follow them. A few still in the profession are filling, creditably but ingloriously, humble positions; a very small proportion have by the hardest of work become prominent and popular; but the great majority, dispirited and disheartened, have gone back to the private life from which they sprung, without song, without honor, and without tears, except the many tears they have shed themselves.3

Although pinned by detractors with the blame for aspirants who met with failure in their ambitions for stardom, Mowatt is almost never cited as an inspiration by those who were successful. I can quote no instances of famous actresses – particularly those like Katherine Hepburn or Tallulah Bankhead who came from wealthy families, or any of their 19th counterparts – ever saying in interviews or writing in autobiographies that Mowatt had served as a specific role model. It is difficult to gauge, therefore, how much direct influence that she had. She was, undoubtedly, a trailblazer in bringing a new level of acceptability to the profession of actress. Mowatt was also an important figure in the theatre reform movement at a pivotal time when opinions were changing about the social appropriateness of theatre patronage for reputation-conscious people of the upper and middle classes in the U.S.  The Daily Commercial Register’s reviewer and others who complain of the numbers of young people drawn to the theatrical careers because of Mowatt serve as testimony to the fact that those who resisted the easing of anti-theatrical prejudice saw the amount of influence she wielded as a threat to their core beliefs.

Although the reviewer from the Daily Commercial Register seems to be satisfied with the quality of the writing of Mimic Life and Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie’s character, the writer still feels like a responsible parent should not allow their teen-aged daughter to read this book.  Not only might the young reader decide to become an actress, but the storylines of the book are too intense. Although the columnist feels the subject matter is handled responsibly in Mimic Life, a sensitive young adult might become overstimulated by such dramatic material or might develop a taste for luridly histrionic plotlines that would lead them to obsessively seek out similar material and become addicted to reading extreme fiction of poor quality.

Today, we express our concerns about young people’s consumption of media so differently that it makes this writer’s fears seem quaint – almost silly.  However, at the time of the writing of this essay, school boards are banning books using as justification reasoning that is not at all distant from the anxiety expressed by this columnist one hundred and sixty-six years ago.

Illustration of a near-fatal on-stage accident, 1884
Illustration of a near-fatal on-stage accident, 1884

The next reviewer from Chicago’s Daily Democratic Press is indirect in their criticism of Mowatt’s choices and subject matter, choosing to ultimately phrase their disapproval in the form of a question rather than a statement;

Having attained an eminent place among the heroines of drama, and had an opportunity to study all the phases of “Mimic Life,” this new work of Mrs. Ritchie will be sought for with no little interest.  The lady no doubt aims to make a revelation of her own experience as an actress, though clothing the narrative with a thin veil of fiction.  She has evidently carried with her to private life a high degree of enthusiasm for her art, and if all its votaries were equally refined and elevated with herself, we could easily imagine that the drama might be made a potent influence in elevating and refining the whole community.  But a peep behind the scenes speedily dispels the illusion.  The authoress has no doubt pointed out what the curtain conceals, with a faithful pencil, and though there is an occasional gleam of light among the shadows, the picture is on the whole repulsive to the extreme.  We should not imagine a perusal of this volume would encourage a single aspirant for histrionic fame to take the first step in the trying and doubtful career.  With such a depth of vulgarity, such a lack of genuine artistic enthusiasm behind the scenes, one wonders how it is possible that the drama still maintains so strong a hold upon the public admiration.  The fact that it does, shows that, freed from its degrading concomitants, and placed in the keeping of men and women who could appreciate and represent its higher attributes, it might exercise a great influence in the culture of the public morals and the public taste.  Shall we ever see the drama in such hands? 4

This writer begins to explore what will be a theme of the group of critics who pushed back against Mowatt and the pro-theatrical message of Mimic Life. Several of those critics argued that in the process of revealing the sufferings that the “good” people of the theatre must endure, Mowatt exposes the truth about exploitative and morally degraded working conditions that are not worthy of defending.  Unlike the columnist from the New Orleans Crescent who I quoted in the last entry, this reviewer does not seem to take umbrage at Mowatt’s lack of hubris in emerging from retirement to offer insight on her former profession.  However, the writer is questioning her judgement in doing so. Mowatt may, as the review grants, be “refined” and “elevated,” but until all the men and women of the theatre are equally so, she is at best naïve to argue for general acceptance of their failings.  At worst, in the opinion of this writer, she is endangering public morals and degrading public taste.

Prompter, Punch Magazine, 1843
Prompter, Punch Magazine, 1843

I’m going to skip other short negative responses I found and focus on the two long critiques that I wish to feature in this essay.  Because of their length, I am going to break them in segments and then discuss each bit rather than quote each uninterrupted.  The first, titled “Theater as a School” from the Buffalo Christian Advocate, makes its objection to Mowatt’s pro-theatrical stance – as the name of the source might lead you to expect — from a religious perspective. Although the columnist’s language is mild and measured, it is clear from the opening paragraph that this person views the theater as a site of immorality and dishonesty. It seems to be the view of this writer that Christians are both inherently superior to those individuals connected to the theatre in their ethical standards and their potential to contribute to society.

There are certain aspects of the theater which can be faithfully represented only by those who have been behind the scenes.  Preachers and moralists can form some just estimate of the influence of the theater upon society; but only managers and actors know its influence upon those who make the stage their profession.  Now and then one of this class abandons the stage, and makes revelations concerning its tricks and morals that shock the proprieties of even a theatrical audience.  If, however, the person thus abjuring be avowedly a convert to a Christian life, and especially if he had been lightly esteemed for either talent or for morality in his profession, it is easy for the supporters of the theatre to decry his testimony as the offspring of envy or of cant.  But when one who has shone as a star in both hemispheres, and who has maintained an unsullied reputation quits the stage not through disgust at its associations, nor through disaffection toward an actor’s life, but solely from motives of personal convenience, the revelations of such a witness touching the moral influence of the theatre must be allowed the weight due to a competent and impartial experience.5

Despite the writer’s ingrained anti-theatrical prejudice, the writer is willing to grant a respectful hearing to Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie because of the testimony to her good character that her public declaration of her religious allegiances and that her high standing in society affirms;

Just such a witness is Mrs. Anna Cora Ritchie (formerly Mrs. Mowatt) – a lady of the first distinction as an actress, of rare delicacy and grace as a woman, of unsullied purity as a wife.  Whatever of the good, the beautiful, the true, may be found in conjunction with the theater, Mrs. Ritchie at once assimilated with her own artistic life;  whatever of an opposite nature adheres to the stage, not so much as the train of her robes was soiled by it.  Mrs. Ritchie has left the stage for the retirement of domestic life, and the more quiet pursuits of authorship; but she has not lost her affection for the theater, she never forgets that she has a personal history to vindicate by vindicating the theater against the prejudices of certain good people; and hence in all her delineations of the interior life of the theater, she never loses the consciousness of her identity, or falls into a strain of regretful moralizing upon her former career.  What she discloses as to the morality of the stage, is to be taken as the concession of an honest advocate of theatrical entertainments who is equally removed from laxity and from censoriousness.6

The columnist here characterizes Mowatt as a rare individual of high moral character who has managed not to be polluted by the world of the stage.  The writer speculates that it is her ingrained generosity of spirit that has motivated her to defend her former colleagues.

Mowatt’s books championing theatrical workers do stand in stark contrast to many performer autobiographies of the period.  George Vandenhoff’s vituperative Dramatic Reminiscences, or Actors and Actresses in England and America, published in 1860, drew heavy criticism from veterans of the stage on both sides of the Atlantic for the author’s sour, narcissistic tone and indiscreet, self-serving collection of anecdotes about former co-stars.

George Vandenhoff
George Vandenhoff

The article continues with a brief summary of the contents of Mimic Life;

Having already given us some snatches of her personal experience in that piquant volume “The Autobiography of an Actress,” Mrs. Ritchie has lately added to her revelations of the stage a volume of “Mimic Life,” handsomely issued from the press of Messers. Ticknor & Fields of Boston.  The book consists of three sketches of dramatic personages, in preparing which the author assures us that she has drawn upon memory and not upon invention.

The first is the sketch of a star actress, a young girl of delicate sensibility, fine poetic perception, and brilliant histrionic talent, whose generous impulses prompt her to this mode of life as a means of supporting a widowed mother suddenly reduced from affluence to penury. — Her brief career terminates in a fatal attack of brain fever, induced by the excitement and exposure of her new position.

The second sketch introduces an artless child, the daughter of a hunch-backed prompter, who is trained in and for the theater, who makes her debut as an infant, and gives the highest promise of distinction, but is cut off by an untoward accident.

The third is a sketch of an unknown tragedian, whose acting astonishes the multitude, while his eccentricities perplex the stage-mangers and outrage the profession.  This hero is the subject of a high and generous but unrequited love, which at length issues in real tragedy by his suicide upon the stage.

As a whole the volume exhibits no little dramatic power and skill; the incidental renderings of some of Shakespeare’s principal characters display a fine critical taste; and except when it tries to walk upon Shakespeare’s stilts, the style is easy and effective.  But we do not here propose to speak of the literary merit of Mrs. Ritchie’s book.  Let those read it who would learn what the stage is under its best aspects.  Our present interest is with the testimony of Mrs. Ritchie as to the influence of the theater upon those who are professionally connected with it.7

Let me give credit where credit is due – I think “except when it tries to walk upon Shakespeare’s stilts” is a good turn of phrase and makes a legitimate point.  Such an observation is a valid criticism not only of Mowatt’s writing in Mimic Life, but to many writers, poets, and playwrights in that Shakespeare-obsessed age.  The Bard’s plays were in constant rotation in playhouses in Great Britain and the U.S.  His works were a featured part of the curriculum of most schools.  If a household of an English-speaking family of this time period contained only two books, one volume was likely to be the Bible and the other a collection of the works of Shakespeare.  The plays and sonnets were cited by educators, orators, and actors as exemplars of the highest form of creative writing possible. The near idolatry of Shakespeare led many playwrights and poets to adopt a faux-Elizabethan style vocabulary for their works instead of writing in the vernacular of their day. Perhaps this Bard-obsession is why writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens who were more restrained in their indulgence of this fad remain more readable today.  Such writers’ work sounds plausibly Victorian to modern ears, rather than forcing us to puzzle through the presence of the anachronistic “thee” and “thou” constructions throughout.

Shakespeare-loaded logo for "The Theatrical Journal" 1847
Shakespeare-loaded logo for “The Theatrical Journal” 1847

To get back to the article in the Buffalo Christian Advocate — with these short paragraphs, the columnist straightforwardly discards any pretense of a book review and launches directly into an editorial on the morality of theatre.  After granting that Mowatt is a credible witness to give testimony about the decadence of the stage because she is a Christian, the writer attacks her Swedenborgian beliefs.  The columnist rather disingenuously denies knowledge of what specifically her beliefs are.  In a previous paragraph, the writer has stated that they read her autobiography.  In that book Mowatt openly addresses her conversion to Swedenborgism. Mimic Life talks about church attendance and the spiritual life of several of the characters.  The members of the Trueheart family, for example, are all regular church-goers. Elma Ruthven’s beau, Leonard Edmonton, is a divinity student, and she becomes a pastor’s wife.  The author does not specify denominational affiliations for the characters.  The columnist characterizes the religious belief portrayed in the book as insubstantial, a mere sentimental veneer adopted by people with little real understanding of piety;

What then is the testimony of one in whose heart “the Lode-Stone of purity” ever dwelt touching the moral associations of the theater, and its influence as a school upon its devotees? She invests her principle characters with a sentimental piety – a religion of stars and flowers, of music and love, and Shakespearian angels. – They possess noble and generous sentiments, and they “die happy.”  What the religion is which Mrs. Ritchie regards as not incongruous with a life upon the stage, may be inferred from the following paragraph:

“In her perfect trust to the Divine Providence whose invisible agency, like the penetrative atmosphere pervades all creation; the workings of whose secret springs, hourly made manifest redeem life’s humblest trifles from insignificance; the Providence which watches over ‘the falling of a sparrow,’ which  ‘shapes our ends rough hew them as we will,’ – in that trust lay her might.  She felt that absolute reliance is the condition of receiving angelic influence – that they are attracted by the trusting spirit, can approach and enter in where faith opens the door, but have no power to pierce the barrier of unbelief.”

We would not take the position that a genuine piety cannot exist amid the excitements and contaminations of the stage; but the style of religion which Mrs. Ritchie introduces into her book does not assist us to determine the question.7

Unlike Leonard Edmonton, I am not a Divinity student and cannot point out the religious buzzwords in the quoted paragraph that reveal Swedenborgism to be heretical. It seems to me, though, that the columnist’s implication is that Mowatt’s characters are either not believable Christians, or are the wrong kind of Christians.  The writer seems to be granting that a book could conceivably be written about the experiences of genuine Christian theater workers, but Mimic Life, due to the heretical taint of Mowatt’s Swedenborgian beliefs, is not it.

Next, the columnist focuses in with force on an argument also made by other writers.  In her defense of the stage, in order to arouse sympathy for its workers, in the opinion of this writer, Mowatt reveals that theaters are inherently corrupt and corrupting workplaces;

Certain it is that if religion or virtue flourish or even continue to live amid the distracting incidents of stage-life, this can only be when these are too deeply rooted in the soul to be materially affected by the miasmatic wastes that surround it.  With no other criterion of the stage than what the womanly delicacy of Mrs. Ritchie permits her to disclose of life behind the scenes, we must believe that the theater is a most dangerous school for those who are in its service.  The coarse nature and vulgar manners which pertain to nearly all her stage characters, the petty jealousies and rivalries of actors, the spirit of envy and detraction, the eagerness after applause and the artifices used to secure the mead of popularity, the gross familiarities of the green-room, the loose morality of the rehearsal – where the omission of indecent words by a novice raises a jeer from prompter, manger, and actors – the presumptuous advances of mangers towards their employees, and of star actors towards their subordinates – showing that poverty and necessity are held akin to vice in the scale of the theater – the daily routine of excitement, of deception, of coarse wit and unbecoming revelry – things such as these which Mrs. Ritchie incidentally discloses, and which she could ignore only by merging the woman in the artiste convince us that the theater in its best estate is under an inevitable law of deterioration most dangerous to all concerned in it.  We honor those who have clean escaped its corruptions; we tremble for those who are yet exposed to them.8

This writer does not, of course, acknowledge that many other Victorian-era workplaces were also the sites of toxic jealousies, rivalries, ambition, coarseness, and myriad other forms of ill-treatment of workers. Of course, the fact that other occupations were equally bad if not worse in different ways was probably of little comfort exploited theatrical workers like those portrayed in Mowatt’s books.

Being composed at the time it was, the words “sexual misconduct” do not appear in this article, but are implied in phrases such as “vulgar manners,” “gross familiarities,” “loose morality,” “indecent words,” “presumptuous advances,” and “coarse wit.” Let me be clear that the writer is not simply hyperventilating over imagined intimacy here.  As far as I can tell, “gross familiarities of the green room” is inspired by squeamishness about unmarried men and women sitting near each other.  However, Mimic Life does present instances of female characters dealing with sexual harassment. These incidents are narrated in a manner that is not graphic, but was rather straight-forward for the time.

Greenroom scene from illustration, 1863
Greenroom scene from illustration, 1863

In addition to the unwanted sexual advances and disrespectful behavior that Stella and Sue Trueheart (both in their teens) had to endure from men in management positons and co-workers, Mowatt also described many other workplace conditions that we still find completely unacceptable today.  Disabled prompter Robin Trueheart is openly ridiculed for his disability by co-workers.  His bosses, knowing that his infirmity limits his choices of employment, keep him and his family at poverty level wages.  Most tragically, because of insufficient safety precautions, brilliant child actress Tina Trueheart is put at unnecessary risk during performances repeatedly from the time she is an infant.  A foreseeable stage accident eventually kills her.

The writer does have a valid point, don’t they?  Isn’t there something morally bankrupt about an institution that allows this kind of abuse of its workers to continue unchecked?  Knowing that this kind of exploitation occurs, is this a profession into which you could comfortably allow a daughter or son to enter?

The columnist closes with a discussion of the growing popularity of theatre and poses a question that consumers of entertainment grapple with today, “What is the correct ethical response when one finds that a form of entertainment one enjoys is produced by a problematic source?”

If such is the theater as a school for actors, what have Christians to do with sustaining such an institution? What apology can they offer for patronizing a school that brings in jeopardy every soul that enters it? Yet there are Christians who, coming from the country to the city visit the theater from curiosity and who thus help swell the tide of strangers whose patronage is the chief support of these licensed pest-houses, where youth are corrupted by the score.  And there are also Christians of our own population, who knowing the evils of the theater and professing to disapprove of the theater in general, yet occasionally visit it to see some distinguished actress, though that actress be as far removed from purity as Lola Montes from Mrs. Mowatt.  Genius over-rides all social law and receives the homage even of the pure and good.  Let Christian parents read the disclosures of “Mimic Life,” and decide whether they can trust their children within even the outer circle of such a school.9

If one is a person who prides themselves on their ethics and morality, what do you do when you become aware of a situation in which others are subject to degrading conditions?  Do you, like the writer of this article, seal yourself off from the contaminating dirt of the world – cancel theatre, in other words, or do you, like Anna Cora Mowatt, attempt to do something to change those inequitable conditions? To what extent can the exploitative and abusive practices be changed? And, given that we are still dealing with some of these same problems today — How long will true systemic reform take?

Masthead "Buffalo Christian Advocate"
Masthead “Buffalo Christian Advocate”

The last pushback I wish to present is wholly secular and perhaps much more insidious in the anti-theatrical view it presents. The article is titled “The Theater in America.”  It appeared in the Springfield Republican, published in Springfield, Massachusetts.  The writing style is brisk and breezy.  The columnist wastes little time getting to their point – no matter what Mowatt, her career or books might lead you to believe — theatre is just not very American.

A short time before Mrs. Mowatt retired from the stage to take the hand and name of Mr. Ritchie, she issued an autobiography which was received by the public, as it was intended by the authoress, as an apology for, and a vindication of, her public life as an actress.  The book unquestionably had the effect to attract to the writer much public interest and sympathy, and to lift her to the proud position of a heroine.  It had another effect, and that was to endow the stage with attractions which do not legitimately belong to it: — to make it a field where romantic women with any amount of underdeveloped genius and domestic trials, might win fame and money, and, in time, write books, and marry Ritchies, or riches, which is only the same word with another spelling.  Still another result was effected by the book, — that of awakening a taste for private theatricals.  This taste, which is now so prevalent throughout the country, received its grand impetus from this very fascinating book. We are not disposed to quarrel at all with this effect of the book, for, correctly managed, the amusement is much more refined, and refining, than dancing, as brains are superior to boot-heels.  But there is an unfortunate tendency which seems to be almost inseparably connected with this intrinsically harmless amusement.  In some minds, it must necessarily develop a desire for public theatrical life – for, leaving all its immoralities aside, the stage is not, and is not likely to be, an American institution, in any just sense.10

Again, this writer repeats the assertion that Mowatt has caused countless women to flock to the stage in hopes of winning fame, marrying a wealthy husband (unfortunately W.F. Ritchie was not as rich as his name seemed to advertise), and retiring to write books about their experiences. The columnist also credits Mowatt with popularizing the parlor theatrical (I would personally really like for this to be true, but I’ve never heard anyone else make this claim. It is correct to say that parlor theatricals were very popular in the 1850s, but they were already a fad among New Yorkers in the late 1830s during the time period in which Mowatt set the novel “Evelyn.”).  This innovation is wholly acceptable to the writer since this individual was of the opinion that drama at parties beat dancing by a long shot.

Illustration from "The Sociable"
Illustration from “The Sociable”

The columnist then airily dispenses with all the thorny ethical concerns the writer from the Boston Christian Advocate had been wrestling with and flatly announces that theatre is objectionable because it is simply un-American. Fortunately for us, the reviewer does decide to condescend to explain this assertion after informing us that their book review will not actually bother to review Mowatt’s book;

This book of Mrs. Mowatt’s had been recalled to mind by another, from the same pen, just issued by Ticknor & Co. of Boston, entitled “Mimic Life.”  It is well written and interesting, as a matter of course. It consists of a series of sketches of scenes and characters with which the writer was associated, or became familiar, during her career as an actress.  They are written with a tender charity which naturally results from the associations of her life, and are doubtless as closely true as she could make them.  But of the book we make no more remark, as we only took it up as a text for a few words upon the American stage.

The stage has never prospered in America, and there is a cheap and convenient way which its friends have in accounting for the fact, that does much injustice to the American character.  It is the fashion to say that American society is not yet sufficiently refined and polished to support the stage, — that when it shall have arrived at the degree of polite advancement that is exhibited by European nations, it will become a necessity.  A sufficient reply to this may be found in the fact that the most refined and best people in America are the strongest foes to the American stage, while it receives its support mainly from the less intellectual and ruder classes.  Theatre-going, as a habit, among the higher classes of society, has never prevailed in this country, and probably, never will. They are above the theatre – the theater is not above them.11

The writer warns us that all we need to know is that in the U.S., theatre is unpopular with the wealthiest and most educated segments of the population.  Most theatre patrons are uneducated and poor. Therefore, something must be wrong with theatre, not with Americans.  What rich Americans like is good.  What poor Americans like is trash. Who can argue with this kind of impenetrable logic?

After dispensing such wisdom, the writer could have ended their column here, but kindly keeps explaining the way of the world to us;

In America, there is no class of society, and no considerable number of individuals, who pursue amusement as one of the ends, or rather, the principal end of life; and the theater can only prosper where such a class exists.  The healthy public sentiment of this working country makes living for simple amusement disreputable – makes it a vice in the individual, and a sin against society.  So long as this healthy public sentiment shall exist, that which is the chief prop of the theater abroad will be wanting in America.  Heaven grant that it may be long wanting! 12

This paragraph is another example of the writer making an assertion that probably felt true, but probably wasn’t.  The strength of the Protestant work ethic as a cherished principle in the formulation of the U.S. character by popular speakers and writers of the time might have discouraged individuals from openly proclaiming themselves to be wealthy dilettantes.  However, when we look at biographies from this time period, there were any number of rich people who could not be described as living part or all of their lives any other way.

It is, however, the claim that the writer makes in next part of the article that made me sit up and take note;

But there is another reason why the theater does not succeed in America.  The excitements of business; the free and unrestrained pursuit of absorbing schemes of profit; the large realities of American life, involving more of romance and poetry, and startling incident and plot, than the most exciting and entertaining efforts of the dramatists; the extravagances and wonderful freshness and variety of American character – all tend to make “mimic life” upon the stage, appear so tame and unreal, that an active, healthy American mind, of the true stamp, receives little pleasure and less instruction from it.  There is no excitement in it for him.  A steamboat race, with plenty of rosin and hams on board; or a buffalo hunt upon the prairies; or a voyage to Europe; or a trip around the Horn, and a look at California; or a grand excursion by steam from Boston to the falls of St. Anthony; or a peep at Niagara; or a thousand or two miles upon the Mississippi; or a national horse show – all or any of these will attract his attention and excite him.  There are life and largeness about them, by the side of which the painted prettinesses of the stage – and the ranting, and the clumsy machinery, and the clap-trap – appear simply childish and silly – well enough to witness once, but altogether too weak for a permanent attraction.13

Most of this paragraph is composed of assertions of the superiority of travel and sport over theatre. The author ignores expense and inconvenience of the alternatives they tout.  It’s no wonder the columnist sees theatre as the province of the poor. The kind of excursions they describe would be available to only the wealthiest, most able-bodied Americans.

What caught my attention, though, was the writer’s insistence that one of the primary forms of entertainment for a (wealthy, white, educated, able-bodied, male) American was the pursuit of business. As the author elaborates in the following paragraphs, these ideal, privileged citizens engage in making money not merely to sustain themselves or to achieve social goals, but as an engrossing form of amusement with which theatre cannot compete;

All this is true, and true without any lack of appreciation of high dramatic composition on the part of Americans.  We doubt whether in England the works of Shakespeare are nearly as popularly owned and read as in America, and when an interpreter like Mrs. Butler makes her appearance, crowds flock to the simple readings.  They appreciate the poetry, but prefer the scenery and action of their own imaginations to any representation by men of small caliber and machinery of clumsy contrivance.  They prefer to think for themselves, and to have nothing stand between them and their idea.

“But the people must have amusements.”  Very true, and they have amusements.  Many people got their amusement in their business – an amusement which they prefer to any other.  Work that is not drudgery does not call for amusement as its relief; and a grand trouble is that vast branches of American business take hold of the mind with such an absorbing interest that everything that usually passes by the name of amusement is entirely insipid.  There is a large class of American mind that does not need amusement nearly as much as it does social diversion and religious abstraction.14

I myself am not much of a capitalist.  I’ve never been particularly good at making money or very interested in it.  I’ve never looked at business schemes as a form of entertainment, certainly not something that would rival or replace theatre as a form of relaxation and diversion. Business as fun might be an idea that is not at all revolutionary to you, dear Reader.  However, it is notion that is revelation to me.

The idea that making money is a form of entertainment, however, was not alien to Americans in the 1850s. It is also not a foreign notion to inhabitants of the U.S. today of all social classes. The writer of this article would not be in the least surprised at the number of cable channels, websites, and podcasts devoted to business news and investment advice.  Looking at today’s media, the columnist could also find confirmation of the next entertainment venue they single out as being particularly suited to the American mindset;

For the rest, amusement takes its natural channel.  It has established for itself a gigantic institution – the lecture.  The popular lecture has ceased to be the medium of instruction, as its chief end.  Men read for instruction; they attend the lecture for entertainment.  Any lecturer who so far fails to apprehend the fact that men attend upon him for the purpose of receiving high intellectual entertainment, and for nothing else, fails to please, and is voted a bore.  They do not ask him to play the buffoon.  They do not ask him to be full of quips and quirks and funny things, but they ask that he shall entertain them.  They seek not to be fed – instructed – but to be exercised.  The fancy must be excited, the intellect stirred, the imagination led into new fields, the social and religious sentiments stimulated, and all the higher faculties brought, for the hour, into a line of fresh and refreshing experiences.  And this is the way the American seeks to be amused, and a very noble way it is.  It is simple, popular, inexpensive, and under the control and management of the best sense of the community.  Theaters can do comparatively little among such a people as this, and the short-sighted bigot who sees, or thinks he sees, in the lecture system as it is established in this country, a foe to religion, has made a grand mistake; for it is not only one of the legitimate effects of the free Protestant religion of America, co-operating with the circumstances and pursuits of the people, but it is one of the strongest safeguards to virtue, one of the most powerful stimulants to noble action, and one of the most attractive leaders into pure courses of thought, extant.  Men who seek to destroy the lecture system – and there are some such – might very properly be called the foes of religion, if they were not so blind that “they know not what they do.”15

The idea of a Victorian-style lecture might sound deadly dull on the face of it, but how many citizens of the U.S. listen to podcasts on their way to work, or audio-books of the latest best-seller or hottest self-help trend or investment schemes? What are the talking-head style, political opinion shows that fill the airwaves other than lectures by another name? I’ll bet this columnist would love a front-row seat at a TED talk and would be able to break down exactly how the speaker rated against the lecture hall stars of their day. Taste in the U.S. for the lecture format seems to have grown in past one hundred and sixty years rather than faded.  I think if you offered one of my working-class neighbors the choice between tickets to a Broadway musical, a rally held by a political candidate they supported, or a lecture on how to start their own business – as opposed as it is to my tastes –  I’d bet the show would lose out every time.

Enthusiastic audience member, Punch Magazine, 1848
Enthusiastic audience member, Punch Magazine, 1848

Failing to foresee how cinema and then television would bring live theatre into American homes broadening and deepening its appeal, in the conclusion of the article, the columnist predicts that theater is a form of entertainment destined to fade as the U.S. character inevitably “outgrows” it;

Our opinion is that if the theater shall become really and permanently successful in America; if it shall become the permanent amusement of any class of Americans, it will evidence a decided deterioration in American character.  The theater belongs to the past.  Its triumphs are in the past.  It has no future which will either eclipse or compare with the past.  We believe this, because we believe that the world is to advance, rather than recede; and that, in America, the theater is not only outdone but outgrown already.16

Fortunately for modern theatre, it does not coexist with infotainment in the same sort of relationship as shared by the immortal beings in the “Highlander” series.  There does not have to be only one.  Theatre can survive as the second, third, or fourth favorite entertainment choice when viewers are surfing through thousands of bundled channels. Unlike the columnist writing from a religious perspective, the choice presented is not to accept or wholly reject theatre.

The writer of “The Theater in America” did turn out to be right, though.  Infotainment is far more popular than live theatre.  Most Americans see anything connected with making money – from playing the stock market to playing Lotto – as more entertaining than Drama.

Despite the fact that more and more citizens in the U.S. were feeling increasingly comfortable about attending theatres in the 1840s-60s, the undercurrents of strong anti-theatrical prejudice that that Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie spent a considerable portion of her career fighting were very real.  What’s more, these attitudes have not disappeared from U.S. popular discourse about the Arts. Any time there’s controversy, scandal, or some kid tells their parents that they’ve decided to major in Theatre, the same old arguments voiced by the authors of “Theater as School” and “The Theater in America” resurface.

The scandals that set the “Me too” movement rolling woke many up to the need to police the abuse of power dynamics. The fact that vulnerable performers were being sexually exploited by universally lauded actors at the very top of the profession and some of the most successful producers in the industry awakened many to that fact that efforts to correct abuse in the workplace hadn’t progressed that far from the days when Thomas Hamblin was harassing chorus girls at the Bowery Theater.

Thomas Hamblin
Thomas Hamblin

Theatre can survive as second fiddle to infotainment, but it is slowly starving to death from lack of patronage.  Because of their greater love of the pursuits, parents steer their children into careers in sports or business.  Theatre, they assume, adhering to the unquestioned tenets of anti-theatrical prejudice, is immoral and unprofitable.

According to odds-makers, the average talented high school aspirant has roughly the same chance of finding a career in professional theatre as they do in becoming a professional athlete – around 2%.  The probability that a student will receive a fatal or permanently disabling injury during theatre practice is far, far lower than for the majority of sports.  In addition to teaching all the same group work skills that sports participation lauds, theatre education significantly improves language and communication abilities.  Sports lack this advantage. Language, Literacy, and Communication are vital skill sets that can help a student get a job in a field other than Theatre if they are unsuccessful in their first career choice.

There is nothing about a career in Business that is inherently more moral than a career in Theatre. There are corrupt people and situations in every profession. The choice is always up to the individual to be an ethical person in whatever field of endeavor they choose.

Mowatt began Mimic Life as a book that was very personal to her, so personal in fact, that it was advertised as an extension of her autobiography. She wrote the narratives that compose that volume when she was recovering from a life-threatening illness and still grieving from the death of Margret Grey, a teen-aged adoptive daughter who she had supported from childhood.  Although it contains bright episodes of humor and romance, Mimic Life is ultimately one of Mowatt’s darkest works. At least one very important character dies tragically in each story.  Several make significant choices that lead to their own death.

Although Mowatt drew from many happy and funny reminiscences of her time on the boards to create a picture of backstage conditions, she painted a picture with the unsparing brush of a reformer including scenes such the following;

    • Young actresses face sexual harassment from men in positions of authority in the theaters where they work (or are applying to work.) There does not seem to be any official mechanism for addressing this problem.
    • A disabled worker is openly mocked by co-workers. Because of his disability, he and his family are exploited and kept at poverty level wages by management.
    • A child performer is from infancy placed in life-threatening working conditions. These conditions eventually lead to an accident that causes her death.

These are all conditions that we find extremely problematic.  No one would want their child to work in such a place.  There were valid ethical objections to be raised with the way that theaters were managed at that time, just as today’s theatre has room for improvement in the way it conducts itself.

Looking at the book, Mimic Life itself, imagine that you were going to include it as part of required reading for a High School theatre class.  (I think this could actually be a wonderful idea that could be made to be work very well for this grade level, by the way.) How many trigger warnings would you have to post in your syllabus? Although the book is a rich, detailed, and engaging picture of Victorian theatre, the plotlines involve suicide, death from “brain fever,” death from a child being burned, a young girl almost being killed because another young girl planted spikes in a statue, and other disturbing incidents.  Mowatt’s reviewers do have a point when they say that the book can be pretty intense….

Although times have changed, we are still wrestling with many of the same issues with theatre and other forms of entertainment that motivated columnists in 1856 to pick up their pens to write, “Well, Mimic Life seemed to be well written, but I’ve got a few important objections….”

The anti-theatrical attitudes that Anna Cora Mowatt was arguing against — as well as the problems and concerns generating those concerns — were real and active in 1856. They are just as real today.

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of reaction to "Mimic Life"
Anna Cora Mowatt and images of reaction to “Mimic Life”
  1. “Mimic Life.”Trinity Journal. March 22, 1856.
  2. Daily Commercial Register: Sandusky, OH. Jan. 12, 1856. Page 3, col. 2.
  3. Hutton, Laurence.  “The Society Drama”. Curiosities of the American Stage.  (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891.) Pages 53-72.
  4. “Mimic Life.”Daily Democratic Press: Chicago. Saturday, Jan 12, 1856. Page 2, col. 2.
  5. “The Theater as a School.” Buffalo Christian Advocate. Vol. VII, Number 324.  Thursday, March 20, 1856. Page 1, col.1.
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. ibid.
  9. ibid.
  10. “The Theater in America.” Springfield Republican: Mass. January 12, 1856. Page 1, col. 3.
  11. Ibid.
  12. ibid.
  13. ibid.
  14. ibid.
  15. ibid.
  16. ibid.

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