[Librivox’s recording of this play can be heard here.]
Although she was called upon to play the character frequently throughout her career as actress, Anna Cora Mowatt grew to despise the role of Gertrude in her play “Fashion.” She termed performing the part a “severe punishment” in her autobiography and even admitted to delaying productions of her hit comedy during tours until demands from the public made the necessity unavoidable.1 By contrast, the character of Blanche in the play “Armand; the Peer and the Peasant” was one she wrote for herself to play. She frequently selected the melodrama for high-stakes benefit shows. Mowatt’s performances in both roles were beloved by audiences of the 1840s and 50s. Critics praised both. Both of these Victorian ingénue parts seem hopelessly antiquated to our modern eyes. What made playing one pure drudgery and the other absolute bliss in 1847?
If you have seen or been a part of a modern production of “Fashion,” you may be surprised at Mowatt’s antipathy towards Gertrude. After all, she is the female romantic lead of the play. She has a good number of lines of dialogue. Her actions are important to the outcome of the plot. With all these factors considered, Gertrude does not seem to be what most ambitious young actresses would term a bad role. However, Mowatt complained of her;
The character affords no opportunity for the display of dramatic abilities…2
Mowatt’s problem with Gertrude has everything to do with the way that the performance of melodrama was handled by actors in Victorian times.
Our modern understanding of what constitutes good acting is strongly shaped by the intimacy of performative choices allowed by the technology involved in creating the dramatic performances seen in cinema and on television. Victorian theaters were large venues with no microphones that usually seated over a thousand audience members who were often drinking and eating snacks during shows. An actor who did not speak loudly, face the audience, and move energetically risked creating a performance that was invisible, inaudible, or just plain boring. When reviewers complain of performers lacking “power,” often they are talking about an actor failing to meet the sheer physical demands of being sufficiently seen and heard under these challenging conditions.
To combat the impediments imposed by the venues in which they labored, star players of the Victorian stage gave performances that we might find ridiculous today. They found excuses not only to turn towards the audience, but to come downstage and speak directly to them whenever possible. Many, like Gustavus V. Brooke, became famous for using the full range of their voices from bass to treble to speak in a manner that was nearer to singing than talking. Most tragedians had a distinctive “stage walk” that consisted of taking long, rolling strides with the right leg and half-sliding the left along behind. In other words, lead actors did everything they could to draw focus to themselves.
Mowatt began her career as a thin young woman with a history of respiratory infections. As critics frequently complained, she had trouble sustaining the kind of “power” melodrama required. A mild-mannered character like Gertrude didn’t do her any favors in getting the audience’s attention. This part didn’t have any built-in applause lines. Gertrude doesn’t even get to wear any fancy costumes.
When Mowatt wrote the role of Blanche, she wrote herself the kind of monologue-heavy part that usually went to lead male players. Although Blanche ends up with around the same number of total lines as Gertrude, she gets several opportunities to speak at length (and directly to the audience if the actress chose) about subjects such as love, the importance of women in men’s lives, fidelity, and subjects of that nature. If delivered with the appropriate amount of feeling, these speeches were almost sure to get an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience. The resulting artificiality in the dialogue did not escape the notice of the reviewer from The Era (probably E.L. Blanchard who was himself an experienced playwright):
Her play may be taken to pieces like a child’s toy, and each separate part made perfect of itself. She makes Richelieu and the King say one thing, only that Blanche may say another. “For thy soul’s good,” exclaims the former, that the daughter may retort in the same words. “I love,” says the King, that Blanche may describe what love is. “Happiness,” says the foolish dame, that her foster child may describe happiness.3
One wonders if it was just the sex of the playwright and the character that made this compositional technique so noticeable to the reviewer since male authors created exactly the same sort of convenient setups for male characters to pontificate on applaud-able topics in similar dramas of the period.
Even the way the character is clothed reveals that Mowatt has purposely crafted the romantic lead of “Armand” as a star vehicle designed to dazzle. The stage directions for “Fashion” tell us that Gertrude’s dresses consist of “white muslin” and “Ball dress – very simple.”4 Blanche, in contrast, has four changes of costume;
First dress: White muslin cottage dress, with rows of white satin ribbon around the skirt, on the head a wreath of white may-flowers, shaped like coronet, a garland of white flowers, hung from the left shoulder. — Second dress: Plain white muslin slip, same wreath. -Third dress: A sober colored merino, made in the style of Louis XV., the bodice, trimmed with a ruche of pink silk and pompadour rosettes down the front, open skirt looped all around with same rosettes, under skirt of embroidered muslin, a band of pearls on the head. — Forth dress : Silver brocade, embroidered in blue, closed In front, and looped all around with bunches of blue and silver leaves, the bodice, trimmed with ruches of white tulle and blue ribbon, under skirt of salmon colored satin, linings of brocade the same, powdered hair, with a small wreath of blue and silver leaves on one side, diamond ornaments.5
There is marked contrast here in terms of the amount of attention these dresses would bring to the character on the stage. In “Fashion,” Gertrude in her simple white muslin tends to fade into the background next to Mrs. Tiffany and Seraphina’s gaudy nouveau riche attire. Even as a simple peasant girl, Blanche, in her garb as the Queen of May, is the center ornament of the stage in every scene in which she appears.
Finally, when it comes to the centrality of each character to the plot, Blanche is a character whose scenes pack far more dramatic punch than Gertrude. Yes, each lady is the romantic lead of her respective play. However, whereas Gertrude has a quiet scene of frustrated longing with Colonel Howard in the conservatory where they primarily talk about roses, Blanche shares her first kiss with Armand in a scene in which she also has a dramatic death scene (spoiler alert: she gets better!) after dancing around a Maypole with a group of adoring peasants. Yes, upon each rests a pivotal plot point wherein each heroine – demonstrating more assertiveness and agency than we may stereotypically associate the damsels of melodrama – thwarts a sexual advance from the play’s antagonist. Gertrude’s assailant is Jolimaitre, a petty criminal posing as a count. Blanche’s is the king of France.
Blanche, in other words, is Gertrude on steroids. She is the same sort of sweet but strongly-principled heroine as the governess from “Fashion.” However in the second play, the basic ingénue role has been carefully re-tooled by Mowatt to thrill a Victorian audience and bring them to their feet cheering. To judge from contemporary reviews, this strategy worked. The Albion, usually quite stingy with praise, effused;
Mrs. Mowatt sustained the heroine with more than her wonted power, especially in the concluding acts; she looked lovely, and became the gorgeous costume she wore in the last act, in a truly regal style.6
The following critique in the New York Herald of a performance at Park Theater in New York paints a picture of the audience’s enthusiastic reaction:
Mrs. Mowatt gave great interest to the character of Blanche and played it with great effect. There was much simplicity and occasional archness in her manner. She read many of the passages of the play beautifully and her scene with her lover in the second act was a fine display of impassioned tenderness. In her closing scenes with the king she gave great force to her bursts of indignation.
At the close of the piece Mrs. Mowatt was called before the curtain, and appeared accompanied by Mr. Davenport; she was received with cheers and other demonstrations of applause, and garlands and bouquets were thrown in abundance at her feet.7
This review from the Boston Daily Times highlights how each act in which Blanche appears brings out a different emotional coloring that Mowatt excelled in portraying:
The character of Blanche is well drawn and most admirably represented by Mrs. Mowatt. Her innocent gaiety and playfulness in the second act, her sadness as the woes of life deepen around her, her impetuous declarations of love in the fourth act, and her vehement denunciations of the profligate monarch in the last, are fine examples of histrionic power, and truthful and natural beyond a cavil. Her personation of this character has added another bright leaf to the coronal of her renown.8
After the London debut of “Armand” in 1849, the London Illustrated News concluded;
Mrs. Mowatt, as the heroine, appeared to greater advantage, we think, than in anything in which we have yet seen her. Nothing could exceed the graceful gentleness and animation of her acting; and, in the last scene, her interview with the King was especially effective, drawing down thunders of applause.9
Thus we can see that although Mowatt was still dealing with the same physical limitations of her own voice and body and the same technical challenges posed by the venues in which she worked, in Blanche, she was able to create a role that succeeded in showcasing her emotional range as an actress and highlighting her personal attractiveness. Blanche’s monologues about love and virtue that seem long-winded and unnecessary today were actually golden opportunities for the actress to shine that male playwrights of the period seldom thought to include for female performers. It’s no wonder that “Armand” was not only a fixture of Mowatt’s touring repertoire but became popular with ingénues for the next two decades on both sides of the Atlantic.
In terms of communicating on-stage “power” in the world of Victorian melodrama, “Fashion’s” Gertrude held only enough potential intensity to barely be considered the equivalent of a reed candle. “Armand’s” Blanche was “da bomb.”
1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Boston: Ticknor, Field, and Reed, 1854) Pages 250.
2. Ibid, page 232.
3. Marylebone, The Era. January 26, 1849. Page 12, col. 1.
4. Ritchie, Anna Cora Mowatt. Plays. (Ticknor& Field: Boston, 1855) page 69.
5. Ibid, page 6.
6. “New Works.” The Albion. October 2, 1847.Page 480, col. 3.
7. “Theatrical and Musical.” The New York Herald. Monday, October 2, 1847. Page 3, col. 3.
8. “Local Intelligence.” Boston Daily Times. October 27, 1847, Page 2.
9. “Marylebone.” London Illustrated News. January 20, 1849.