PART IX: A CHILLY RECEPTION IN MANCHESTER
Edwin Forrest was the first U.S. stage actor to attain international fame. The unfortunate flip side of this achievement was that his scandals and rivalries also made news on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1845, Forrest’s feud with William Macready reached a jagged crescendo when the American actor hissed the Eminent One’s performance of Hamlet’s mad scene at a theatre in Edinburgh. Were that not faux pas enough, Forrest wrote a letter to The Times confirming he had done so because he found the dance that Macready had added to the scene too effeminate. Of course, the dance itself was not the real problem. This melee was one of many clashes in an increasingly bitter and eventually violent series of interactions between the actors and their fans that would eventually climax with the Astor Place Riots in May of 1849. The rudeness of Forrest’s hiss and his letter to the Times in 1845 was sufficient to lay waste to any popularity the actor had left with the British populace or press. U.S. performers would have to deal with Forrest’s toxic legacy for years… decades… Well, frankly, to this day, the Brits are none too fond of U.S. stage actors.
At any rate, when they arrived in Liverpool in late November of 1847, Anna Cora Mowatt and E.L. Davenport were met with a welcome as frosty as their voyage across the North Atlantic had been. Because of Forrest’s misbehavior, U.S. actors were quite firmly out of vogue. In addition, Team Mowatt would find that the aggressive publicity campaign which James Mowatt had spearheaded to get the attention of English theater managers would have some unexpected negative side-effects now that they were on the other side of the Atlantic. Comparing Anna Cora to Mrs. Charles Kean in the U.S. gave English correspondents a point of reference they could understand. However, standing on British soil, it quickly became apparent that to long-time fans of Ellen Tree, the enthusiastically favorable appraisals of Mowatt they had forwarded smacked of the same sort of upstart arrogance that had soured the English press and public on Edwin Forrest.
Team Mowatt’s usual finesse in utilizing social networks to gently coax a positive response from the press misfired badly in Manchester as well. Among the contacts James Mowatt had made in advance of their arrival had been fellow believers from the local Swedenborgian New Church. These new friends warned the couple of the stern and inflexible nature of the resident drama critics. Members of the congregation attempted to ease the way for the Mowatts by forwarding laudatory reviews of Anna Cora and relaying offers of personal interviews with the actress. [Both of these strategies are tactics that the Mowatts deployed on potentially hostile critics in the U.S.] The efforts only served to aggravate the reviewers. The critics reacted by either flatly refusing contact or by printing excerpts from the advance material they were given prefaced by commentary such as the following from the Manchester Guardian;
The lady about whom high expectations have been raised by the encomiums of the American critics, makes her début in England at our own Theatre Royal on Monday next, and she is to appear in a round of well-known characters during her engagement here. The variety of Mrs. Mowatt’s literary productions prove her to be a lady of highly cultivated mind, and as she is understood never to have seen any of the parts in which she is to appear performed by any other actress, we shall at least have the charm of originality in what she does: Monday night will prove whether she combines therewith the high histrionic powers for which American critics have given her credit. . . . Either Mrs. Mowatt’s dramatic talents are of a high order or American criticism is deeply tainted with exaggeration.1
Bracketing it with similarly dubious remarks, the Manchester & Salford Advertiser quoted a review of a “Lady of Lyons” printed in The American Review that I’ve somehow managed to miss in this series so far. I want to include it here first to show how high expectations for Mowatt’s performance were being set in advance of her English debut. I also wish to include this review on its own merits for the remarkable amount of descriptive detail the writer records about Anna Cora and her performance as Pauline;
In the most important intellectual requisite of acting, we therefore think Mrs. Mowatt to be pre-eminently gifted; and from the extreme ductility of her imagination, she is capable of indefinite improvement in her profession, and of embodying, eventually, almost all varieties of character. To this great mental advantage she joins the singular advantages of person. Her form is slight, graceful, and flexible, and her face fine and pure, with that strangeness in the expression which Bacon deemed essential to all beauty. In personal appearance she is altogether the most ideal-looking woman we ever saw on the stage. Her voice well justifies the impression which would be received from her appearance. In its general tone the perfection of clear sweetness, and is capable of great variety of modulation. She does not seem herself as aware of all its capabilities, or fully to have mastered its expression. In passages of anguish, fear, horror, pride, supplication, she often brings out tones, which seem the very echoes of heat’s emotions, and which indicate the most remarkable powers of vocal expression. In the last act of the Bride of Lammermoor, and, especially, in the fourth act of Romeo and Juliet, these latent capacities of voice are developed with wonderful effect. The exquisite beauty and purity of her voice, however, are best evinced in the expression of sentiment and pathos – in the clear bird-like carol of tone with which she gives utterance to inward content and blissfulness – in the expression of affection gushing from it in wild snatches of music – in the sportive and sparkling utterance of thought and feelings steeped in the heart’s most gladdening sunshine – in that wide-wandering remoteness of tone which gives a kind of unearthly significance to objects viewed through the mystical light of imagination. A few remarks on some of the characters in which Mrs. Mowatt appears will, we hope, justify the high estimation we have expressed of her capacity, by a reference to facts gathered from a scrutiny in her acting of each. – One of her most pleasing and popular personations is Pauline, in Bulwer’s Lady of Lyons. In this we do not think she has even a rival. No actress that we have ever seen, English or American, approaches her in this character. Her conception of it is fresh and original, and in its embodiment she supplies even the deficiencies of the author, who is not much skilled in characterization. Though we, by no means, think that her Pauline is a fair measure of her powers, her representation of the part more than exhausts its whole capacity of effectiveness. She has seized, with the intuitive quickness of imagination, what Bulwer aimed to produce in the delineation of Pauline, and converted his intention into a living, breathing reality. In the third, fourth, and fifth acts of the play, her action is characterized by great force, refinement and variety. In the expression of that confusion of the mind and motives produce by a conflict of antagonist passions, each maddening the brain and tugging at the heart-strings, her whole action is masterly and original. – Scorn, contempt, love, hatred, shame, fear, hope, pride, humility, despair, meet and part, and trace each other in tumultuous succession; every emotion as it sweeps abruptly across her heart, mirrored in her face, speaking in the gesture – giving significance to every movement of her frame. The whole personation, commencing with the vain, proud, romantic girl – conducting her through shame and mortification to the very verge of despair and death – her heart, after its first mad burst of rage, becoming the more beautiful and noble, the more it is crushed, and finally ending, after her long ordeal of sorrow, in happiness and love – is more powerful and effective. The character, as Mrs. Mowatt performs it, gives considerable play to a variety of emotions, ranging from the most graceful sentiment of deep passion, and also full of ravishing beauties. In the second act, she displays that singular power of expression insight in the world of imagination, which, in its various modifications by circumstances and character, lends a charm to all her personations. When Claude describes his imaginary gardens by the Lake of Como, she sees them as realities before her eyes – is blind to everything else; her face has that fine indefiniteness of look which represents the triumph of the sensuous imagination over the sense – the bloom and fragrance of the flowers, and the musical gush of the waterfalls, are the only objects before her mind — and her whole soul seems absorbed in a soft and delicious dream. The effect is most exquisite, and it is so perfect that its meaning cannot but flash on the dullest and least imaginative auditor.2
Although this essay was quite lovely in its original context, it was not helpful in Manchester. The end effect of the advance publicity push in that city was the worst of both worlds for Anna Cora Mowatt. Expectations for the quality of Mowatt’s acting were set extremely high while those relaying those expectations were telling potential audience members that those claims were probably gross exaggerations. It was not a set-up designed to drive ticket sales and create mindsets that would produce sterling reviews.
The sea voyage was difficult for Anna Cora. As a small child, she and her family had been in a terrible wreck at sea in which one of her brothers had been lost. She never traveled well by boat.
After taking a little time to recover from the trip in Liverpool, the party continued on to Manchester. Theatrical conventions of the day provided for only one dress rehearsal with the full company before a performance. Staging was highly conventionalized at this time. Roughly the same type of blocking was used in all productions of a given script. Visiting lead actors were expected to have their lines down and bulk of their blocking set in advance. Performers used the run-through to familiarize themselves with the general layout of the stage on which they were playing and coordinate minor differences of staging with their host company.
Mowatt and Davenport’s Manchester hosts seemed none too thrilled at their presence. Anna Cora described the rehearsal as follows;
Our only rehearsal took place on the day of performance. We could not but notice the half sneer that flitted across the faces of the English actors during that rehearsal. They were incredulous as to our abilities, and, perhaps, not without some cause. Now and then there was a contemptuous intonation in their voices that seemed to rebuke us for presumption. Their shafts “hit, but hurt not.” Our American independence was an aegis, from which the arrows fell without producing any effect but merriment. No hand of welcome was extended — no word of encouragement was spoken to the intruding “Yankees.” We were surrounded by an atmosphere of impenetrable frigidity. And yet there were, no doubt, kind hearts among the doubters. But the “stars” were transatlantic, and their light was unacknowledged in that hemisphere. Even the subordinates of the theatre gave it as their private opinion that these new luminaries would be extinguished without trouble. 3
The night of the play, Mowatt and Davenport were met by an audience who were initially also quite stony. To me, this is a bit of a surprise. It would have been very much worth James Mowatt’s time and money to spread enough free tickets out among his contacts at the New Church to see to it that his wife’s opening night audience was liberally sprinkled with friendly faces in a jovial mood and generous with their applause. For whatever reason, though, the show got off to a cold and formal start, as Mowatt describes;
At night, when the curtain rose upon Pauline, the greeting of the audience said plainly, “Let us see what you can do!” and it said nothing more. Claude received the same gracious though promiseless permission. But even that greeting assured us of that downright generous trait in John Bull which makes him the fairest of umpires, even where he is a party to the contest. Once make it plain that he is beaten, as in the case, of the trial with the New York yacht, and he will huzza for the victor as vociferously as he would have done for himself had he been on the winning side.
Before the fall of the curtain on the fourth act, it was decided that the “stars” were not to be “put out.” At the fall on the fifth, they had taken an honorable place in the theatrical firmament, and were allowed to shine with undisputed light.
The heartiness of the call before the curtain, at the conclusion of the play, atoned for the shyness of our reception. Mr. Davenport thanked the audience in a speech eloquent with genuine feeling.4
The drama critic for the Manchester Guardian was impressed enough with both the performance and Davenport’s impromptu thanks to have jotted the speech down (or received a copy) and included it as part of the review of the drama;
We did not see the first two acts of the play, but we saw sufficient to form a highly favorable opinion of both actors. In the third act, where Pauline discovers in the homely cottage of the mother the cheat Claude has practised upon her, there was much powerful acting on the part of both. . . . Both actors were called before the curtain at the close of the play, and, having received the cordial tribute of applause, Mrs. Mowatt glided off, significantly pointing to Mr. Davenport as equally deserving of the tribute with herself. As if touched with the friendliness of the reception, Mr. Davenport addressed the audience in terms of grateful acknowledgment. “Ladies and gentlemen: It is with no ordinary feelings that I appear before you, respectfully to offer Mrs. Mowatt’s acknowledgments, and permit me to add my own, for the hearty manner in which you have received our first efforts before a British public. Though strangers among you, the fair report which reached us in our own land of the generous appreciation of the drama here (especially by a Manchester audience); of their warm reception of those who seek to maintain its purity; of their well-known hospitality to the children of a sister country, led us to hope for some indulgence; and allow me to say we are sensible of having to-night received not that indulgence alone, but the most cheering encouragement at your hands. Should we be so fortunate, during the present engagement, as to leave the same impression upon your memories which our own countrymen have permitted us to believe we have left on theirs, we shall hail it as a most auspicious welcome to this motherland of art and science; we shall feel that the good wishes of our friends have not been breathed in vain; and in redoubling our exertions will seek to merit the favor which you seem prepared so liberally to bestow.”5
Although the critic admits to having missed those first two excruciating acts during which the audience sat on their hands, the rest of the review is very good. The writer compares her favorably with Fanny Kemble saying;
Mrs. Mowatt, judging from the accounts of her which the American papers have occasionally furnished, is highly endowed with intellect, the cultivation and exercise of which have by no means been neglected, either in the departments of dramatic or general literature; indeed, in this respect, we know of none of our English actresses who stand a comparison with her except Mrs. Butler. Let us add, that Mrs. Mowatt has a most engaging person, — slight in form, features capable alike of gentle and forcible expression, a voice of silvery sweetness, — and that her bearing is marked by refinement, and then we have said enough to prove that she has qualifications for the stage of a high order.
Mr. Davenport has a manly person, easy deportment, and an elocution very smooth and agreeable.6
Mowatt reports that the rest of the reviews from that night were favorable except for the one in the Examiner. The actress and her biographers, Barnes and Blesis, imply that the negative review in this case might be due to the fact that the critic for this paper had unfortunately been clumsily approached by a well-meaning member of the New Church on her behalf.
It is true that the review of “Lady of Lyons” in the Manchester Daily Examiner and Times is bad. It is not merely bad, but really very, very bad. It reads as follows;
The performers alluded to are from the United States, and if we may find truth in printed books, have found great patronage and approval there. America has yet done little, very little, in the region of art. In that of music she has given no name, — in painting, but one, and even he (Alston) would not take leading rank among the modern artists of Europe. Her actors, at least those who have already visited England, bear a similar stamp of mediocrity. Forrest and Miss Cushman are both deficient in that fine artisitic feeling which is the true symbol of greatness in their peculiar calling. Mrs. Mowatt and Mr. Davenport – with many redeeming points – are inferior to many that we possess at home. The lady is, we understand, a writer of some clever plays and popular novels, both of which, along with the amiability and respectability of her character, having placed her in a higher social circle than the generality of our stage professors are permitted to enjoy. As an actress, candour compels us to say, we have not much faith in her immediate success before a critical audience. She is handsome, and graceful in manner, but lacks that fine perception of character – that quiet, soul-subduing pathos – that fervent passion – “not loud but deep.” – which genius alone is permitted to express. Here and there, in the character of Pauline (Lady of Lyons), she gave a passage as a sensible woman would read fine poetry, — but, on the whole, her style was too much of the melo-dramatic, and she substituted violence for inspiration. Mr. Davenport was equally violent without her refinement of manner, — but he too shewed occasional flashes of earnestness which were not to be mistaken. Still there was nothing that he did throughout the night approaching a high standard of acting. They were much applauded nevertheless, and called for at the fall of the curtain; when the gentleman made a slight address to the audience, thanking them for the kind reception they had met with.7
This is an atypical critique for Mowatt and Davenport. This is not to say that the partners never got bad reviews. Critics who gave them negative notices usually complained that one or the other of the two lacked power or were too bland in their interpretations. It’s hard to find other examples of reviewers classing either Mowatt or Davenport among the so-called “ranters” or scolding them for being “too violent” or for shouting their lines at their audiences in a meaningless manner.
Those accusations are, however, the boilerplate complaints that were leveled by British critics at Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, and other performers from the U.S. I would be tempted to chalk this negative review up to badly-executed advance publicity attempts on the part of the Mowatts and anti-U.S. sentiment stirred up by Forrest were it not for the fact that the other supposedly “good” review of “Lady of Lyon’s” opening night in Manchester is also a little on the bad side as well.
The critic from the Manchester & Salford Advertiser, who printed the review from the American Review, is more positive in overall tone and engages in fewer gratuitous anti-U.S. statements. However, this writer repeats the complaint that both Mowatt and Davenport gave rather mechanical performances throughout, at spots shouting their lines at the audience, and making awkward, oversized gestures;
On Monday night, we went to the theatre with, we must candidly admit, a feeling which quite prepared us to find that Mrs. Mowatt had been made the theme of that spirit of exaggeration which distinguishes the press of the United States, and which led us to expect to find at the very best a kind of female Forrest. When that person came first to England, he was preceded by notices which represented him as a kind of sublimated essence of Kemble and Garrick, with a touch of the elder Kean. Everybody knows how fearfully different was the reality from the picture. We expected as much, or rather as little, from Mrs. Mowatt in the Lady of Lyons. Let us say then, at once, that we were disappointed, and disappointed most agreeably. First we must pay the full compliments that are due to the charms of her personelle. Without being tall, there is a quiet and graceful dignity about her carriage, which, however, is far removed from anything in the shape of assumption or presence. Her figure is well-proportioned, and more elegant than we have often seen among the women of the United States after the first few years of womanhood. Her face is rather soft and sweet than fine, her eyes full, dark, and expressive, her mouth somewhat larger than the models, but her smile lovely and beaming, and her chin round and finely turned. Her voice is beautifully sweet in its low tones, but when raised it has, without becoming shrill, a peculiarity which approaches almost to (what if there be such a word we may call) raucidity. We felt, while we looked upon her face and figure in the “garden scene,” that all our anticipations were disappointed, and that Mrs. Mowatt was indeed somewhat of that which an admirer of hers in the American Review described her to be in our last. Her mode of doing everything where there is anything in the character of love-making to be exhibited, or of the emotions of confiding love and warm undoubting affection, is perfection. She throws her whole soul into the feeling and language of the author, and becomes the very ideal of all that is lovely and loving. But we cannot speak in the same strain of the passages in which the emotions of grief, and anguish, and wounded pride. There it was only what any other person upon any stage would be. It is the old traditional way of representing these passions that has prevailed since the earliest days of the histrionic art. Deep emotion represented by violent gesture and elevated voice, a breaking heart by an unbroken shout. Unfortunately for Mrs. Mowatt in this respect, we prefer nature. Just as much as we admired her natural and beautiful acting in the garden, did we regret her unnatural acting in (for instance) the last scene. While three gentlemen are discussing at a table all those legal matters which are supposed to occupy them, a young lady in the middle of the room is shouting at the top of her voice a series of speeches which (oddly enough) they do not hear. This is one of those things of which Horace speaks when he says, that when you show him he incredulously detests. There is a quality which is very rarely remembered by actresses, but which should be the chief study of their lives to acquire and cultivate – the modesty of nature. The feelings of the heart when deeply moved are not like the petty griefs of a child, which find their expression in the ebullition of noisy clamor and senseless violence. But a woman, and a woman that loves, does not rave when she sends a message which sounds as a voice from the tomb to him who has for years possessed her heart and whom now she forsakes rather than let her father perish. There is a silent agony beautifully personified by the ancient poet when he changed the orphaned rival of Apollo’s mother into a fountain of gushing water – as one of our own land has said in some comparison,
“Like Niobe, all tears.”
Of this psychological habitude the transatlantic stage is completely ignorant. We have never found it among the native performers which it has sent over to us – Forrest, or Cushman, or any of the minor stars which have for a moment flashed upon our hemisphere and then disappeared forever. It has been almost utterly eradicated from all our own actors who have for any period trod the boards of the United States. Even Miss Ellen Tree has not retained that delicacy and softness which used to distinguish her. Mr. Davenport played Claude very neatly in parts, but there was occasionally a burst into violence which should be corrected. 8
Similar complaints from two critics raise the probability that Mowatt and Davenport might not have given their best performance of “Lady of Lyons” in Manchester that night. After all, they were both still recovering from a long, difficult sea voyage beset by November gales. The dress rehearsal with the company of the Theatre Royal had been tense. The audience for the first three acts was un-responsive. Desperation was probably starting to set in by the beginning of Act IV. This was a high-stakes performance for them. The consequences of a flop on the opening night of their English tour would have been disastrous. The two could have been over-acting in an atypical manner in hopes of rousing the sluggish crowd.
The fact that the critic from the Advertiser says that even veteran English actors returning from U.S. tours tended to shout and over-gesture suggests that perhaps not simply American tastes, but maybe even the acoustics of U.S. playhouses differed significantly from this fine new theater in Manchester. If this was the case, it probably took more than one quick dress rehearsal for performers to re-adjust and scale back habits they had learned.
Although the testimony of these two critics strongly suggests that the opening night performance of “Lady of Lyons” was not the best that Mowatt and Davenport ever gave, the show turned out to be good enough to accomplish the goals it needed to achieve. The rest of the partners’ run in that city received increasingly enthusiastic reviews from the local press – with the notable exception of the writer from the Examiner. This critic never warmed to the duo, but didn’t publish anything nearly as venomous as his first salvo. Crowd size was a bit disappointing at the Theatre Royal, however the manager and their co-workers became more collegial after the success of the opening night. Most importantly, a correspondent for London’s The Era filed the following item on “Lady of Lyon’s” opening night to be printed in that paper’s theater section;
On Monday, Mrs. Mowatt and Mr. Davenport, from the American theatres, made a most successful debut in the “Lady of Lyons.” The lady possesses every qualification requisite for the stage – a good voice, graceful figure, and is exceedingly interesting in personal attractions. Her style of acting is more elegant than striking, but as she proceeds, gradually wins your admiration. Mr. Davenport is a very good-looking, unassuming gentleman, plays with great judgement, and displays talent of no mean order. At the conclusion of the play they were loudly called for, and, on their appearance, the audience rose, and welcomed them most enthusiastically. After bowing their acknowledgements, Mr. Davenport delivered a very neat address.9
Although the report is a little generic in tone and talks more about how the actors looked than how they performed on stage, it reached its reached its intended audience and achieved the desired effect. Despite storms at sea, bungled public relations efforts, hostile co-workers, comatose audiences, wretched reviews, and Edwin Forrest’s abominable bad manners, Mowatt and Davenport received an immediate invitation from the manager of the Princess Theater to begin work there in six weeks’ time.
London at last! Read next weeks’ blog to see how the partners fare as they debut in the great city.
1. Cited in Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion. (Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1954) Pages 188.
2. “Theatre Royal.” Manchester & Salford Advertiser. Saturday, Dec. 4, 1847. Page 5, col. 5.
3. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 269.
4. Ibid, pages 269-270.
5. Cited in Edgett, Edwin Francis. Edward Loomis Davenport: A Biography. (The Dunlap Society: New York, 1901.) Page 21-22.
6. Cited in Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 271.
7. “Mrs. Mowatt and Mr. Davenport.” Manchester Times. Saturday, Dec. 11, 1847. Page 6, col. 4.
8. “Theatre Royal. Mrs. Mowatt” Manchester & Salford Advertiser. Saturday, Dec. 11, 1847. Page 5, col. 2.
9. “Manchester – Theatre Royal.” The Era. December 12, 1847. Page 12, col.