If you, Reader, are a young Theatre History or Performance Studies student, and aspire to the lonely high-wire act that is the career of the researcher who devotes themselves to the investigation of one of the U.S.’s forgotten ladies of the stage, I’d like to recommend to you Avonia Jones. I can see why she has been passed over thus far by the crowd. Other actresses seemed much more interesting. Charlotte Cushman had a somewhat secret girlfriend. Ada Menklen had wild horses. Avonia Jones looks so solid and boring in her pictures. Her name lent itself so well to parody. She was called things like “Ammonia Groans” and the like. Even her most loyal supporters talked about her acting style as suggesting noble statues. I assure you, Dear Reader, Avonia Jones wasn’t marble. She was a chimera.
I’m going to link her Wikipedia page like I usually do when that sort of thing is available. It really isn’t worth a damn, though. This is not the good wiki-people’s fault, though. Avonia Jones was a child of the stage. The “facts” of her life are a collection of press releases. For almost every bullet point listed, contemporary sources exist that provide alternate “facts” to change the overall picture as Avonia or persons associated with her felt was advantageous. For example: She was born in New York or Richmond, Virginia in 1839 or a few years earlier. She was the child of Melinda Jones and George “Count Johannes” Jones. George is variously reported to be her natural or adoptive father. There are even a few accounts that say he is her brother, but I think we may safely dismiss those. Because of the discrepancies about the date of her birth, Avonia seemed to be able to savor being seventeen years old longer than most of us do.
The Wikipedia article records a performance in the role of Parthenia in the play “Ingomar” co-starring with E.L. Davenport in Cincinnati’s largest theatre as being Avonia Jones’ debut. Another biographical account list a performance in Toronto. Other contemporary sources cite other performances in other cities. “Debut” is not a legal term with a rigidly fixed definition. An actor can have several performances that can be described as a “debut” such as their first professional appearance, their first Broadway role, their first international engagement. The confusion about Jones’ debut can be due to this ambiguity. However, because playbills and newspaper advertisements about Victorian-era performances are available to researchers, typically there isn’t a lack of clarity about pinning down a specific performance as being an actor’s professional debut. Also, when a performer is the child of a theatrical family, it is more common to see a note along the lines of “this person began performing small, featured roles alongside their parents at age fourteen.” The extra income generated by a teenaged, dramatically-inclined child was an asset to a usually cash-strapped theatrical family and the experience of performing minor roles was considered an important, necessary apprenticeship.
A good portion of the oddness in Avonia Jones’ biography flows directly from her father, George Jones. Mr. Jones started out as a respected and moderately successful tragedian on the English stage. Over time, his performances became more eccentric and extreme until they turned into a sort of parody of the entire school of acting from which it arose. It is not clear from the historical records if something happened to Jones that made him turn to this unusual approach to performing. Did he have a stroke? Was he bipolar? Or were his exaggerations all part of his act? Was he purposefully putting a brilliant burlesque of the melodramatic stylings of Macready, Forrest, and Kean on stage for his audiences? Yvonne Shafer has written an intriguing article on “Count Johannes,” as Jones insisted that he be called, that examines some of these questions. 1 Mr. Jones’ performance did not end at the stage door. He carried the overblown stereotype of the egomaniacal tragedian into day-to-day life. He became a lawyer so he could sue people who dared question or “defame” him.
One “defamer” was actor, Edward Askew Sothern who played the character “Lord Dundreary” in the play “Our American Cousin” as an imitation of Count Johannes. [If the name of that comedy rings a bell for you, there’s a reason. Lincoln was attending a performance of that play the night he was assassinated. This is another unsettling aspect of Avonia Jones’ life story – for reasons I can’t fully explain, there are enough random links between the actress and events and personages connected to Lincoln’s death to keep a researcher of a suitable temperament wandering around the fever swamps of conspiracy theory connected to that event for years…] Dundreary was the breakout character of that comedy. Southern reprised the role in sequels written by Charles Gayler, John Oxenford, H.J. Byron, and himself. One of H.J. Bryon’s Dundreary comedies, “The Uncrushed Tragedian” raised the particular ire of Jones, who sued both the actor and the playwright. Jones did not win the case. The Count later ended up playing the objectionable role himself in a production of “Our American Cousin” several years later.
Although we do not associate such postmodern, meta-commentary rich fare with the tastes of Victorians, George Jones’ burlesque of the overblown theatrical style of his day was popular with audiences. They came to jeer, but were entranced by the absorbingly disconcerting spectacle of a skilled but perhaps deranged tragedian performing all their favorite roles in such a decidedly off-kilter manner that they were left not knowing whether to throw rotten fruit or applaud. Reports say they did both.
Jones’ act – be it brilliant satire or just bad decision-making – required a leading lady to perform opposite him. The accounts of his performances get a bit confusing on this point. From some records, I got the distinct impression that Avonia played opposite her father. After the “official” commencement of her professional career, Count Johannes secured the services of another actress who he asked to change her name to “Avonia Fairbanks.”
Either I have misunderstood what I read or the theatrical community decided that Miss Avonia Jones deserved the right to just call a mulligan on her teenaged appearances with her father – including a father-daughter pairing as Romeo and Juliet – and be allowed a clean re-start of her acting career at age seventeen…. Well, one of the times she was seventeen…
At somewhere around this point in the story, Anna Cora Mowatt – now Mrs. Ritchie – comes into young Avonia’s life. Eric Barnes dates their association from 1857, but I don’t think we need to take that as a hard and fast cut-off point. The Jones family had lived in Richmond for many years when Mowatt moved there to be with her new husband, William Foushee Ritchie in 1854. Mowatt knew Mrs. Melinda Jones from her stage career and had even played Juliet opposite Melinda Jones’ Romeo. [There are a lot of odd Romeo and Juliet pairings in Avonia Jones’ life. Avonia would also co-star as Juliet alongside mother’s Romeo in 1857. In January of 1864, Jones joined John Wilkes Booth for a portrayal of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers in one of the last theatrical engagements Booth undertook before Lincoln’s assassination (Tried to warn you that sort of thing was going to pop up.)]
Mrs. Jones is supposed to have taken her daughter to her old co-star, Mrs. Mowatt Ritchie for private instruction in acting and elocution. Avonia Jones’ presentational style showed few influences of Mowatt’s naturalistic approach, though. Reviewers were more apt to draw comparisons to Melinda Jones when trying to describe her acting. What I think that Mowatt did for Avonia that has allowed her to be acknowledged as the actress’ protogee, is that Anna Cora networked for Avonia. She wrote letters to friends and acquaintances introducing the young actress into the theatrical and literary circles for her debut (that was perhaps a re-launch). Mowatt also used her connections to permit Avonia entrance into the gatherings of the social elite of New York and Washington, D.C. When Miss Jones appeared in productions such as the one of Mowatt’s play “Armand” in Richmond or in “Ingomar” opposite Mowatt’s old friend E.L. Davenport in Cincinnati, Mowatt’s husband’s newspaper, The Richmond Enquirer always published laudatory reviews. In New Orleans, the Times-Picayune groused:
Miss Avonia Jones, daughter of the well-known George Jones and Mrs. Melinda Jones, we see is spoken of in terms of unqualified praise in the Richmond Enquirer. The notices are apparently from the pen of Mrs. Mowatt Ritchie.2
I will agree with this writer that the author of some of the Enquirer reviews concerning Avonia Jones do have an effusive and grandiloquent flair that strongly brings to mind Mowatt’s narrative style as in the following:
This young tragedienne takes her benefit this evening…Every night she more completely fulfils the promises of great histrionic excellence which she gave during her first engagement here last February. The faults of the novice have faded out of sight; she now treads the stage, the self-reliant, the accomplished actress. She has gained power, self-command, firmness of conception and the ability which Genius can only learn of Experience, to execute her own conceptions. Above all she possesses that indescribable magnetism which attracts an audience and keeps it spell-bound under her enchantment.3
I can’t say without a doubt that Mowatt wrote this review, but if I were to parody her style, the result would look a lot like this. It’s definitely in her style, down to the semicolon abuse, wise words about “Genius,” and reference to ineffable qualities of magnetism.
Though Mowatt did not seem to be able to teach Avonia Jones the uniquely delicate acting style which so enchanted her critics, the older performer apparently was able to impart to her young protégée an even more valuable gift – entre into the top tier of the U.S. theatrical scene. In her 1857 debut (wherever it actually took place) Miss Jones was able to step into the spotlight as her own person – free from the slings and arrows of her eccentric father’s outrageous fortunes.
1. “Count Johannes and the Nineteenth-Century American Theatre Audience”, The Changing American Theatre: Mainstream and Marginal, Past and Present, Yvonne Shafer, University of Valencia, 2002, p. 19-28
2. “Another American Actress.” The Times-Picayune. May 29, 1857.
3. “Miss Avonia Jones.” The Richmond Enquirer, Dec. 18, 1857.