Anna Cora Mowatt, Walter Watts and The Belle’s Stratagem

Anna Cora Mowatt, Walter Watts, and The Belle Strategem

The cast and crew of the playhouse assemble on the stage of the empty playhouse. As usual, there is a great deal of talking and laughing, but this time, the chatter has a nervous edge to it. There is an air of tension in the theater. Rumors abound. Something is not quite right.

The stage manager calls the group to order and theater’s manager steps forward. He pauses before addressing them, looking at the familiar, expectant faces of friends and colleagues. For most of those present, he knows that the next words he speaks will be the last they will hear from him.

Last week, I left Walter Watts at the end of March of 1850, after his arrest. This week, though, I’d like to re-wind a bit and pick up two incidents that are usually left out of the telling of this story that might help explain some of our main players’ reactions to later events. The first is the closing of the Olympic and the Marylebone theaters on March 8th.

Interior of the Royal Olympic Theater, 1849
Interior of the Royal Olympic Theater, 1849

As I covered in the last blog, the investigation for the missing check for £1400 began on February 19th. By the time he quit his job on March 5th, Watts had emptied his bank account at London and Westminster of everything except a nominal £28. Business, in the meantime, had carried on as usual at the Marylebone and Olympic theaters. Although its proximity to the breaking of the Watts Scandal often erases the memory of its success, G.H. Lewes’ play, “The Noble Heart” premièred at the Olympic in the middle of February. This drama, staring E.L. Davenport, Anna Cora Mowatt, and Gustavus V. Brooke, debuted to positive reviews and cheering crowds. It was held over for additional weeks through the beginning of March. A production of “Merchant of Venice” featuring Brooke as Shylock and Mowatt as Desdemona was running as well and got a similarly warm reception from reviewers and crowds. “Love’s Sacrifice,” which debuted on March 2, 1850, was the last Olympic production during Watts’ tenure as manager to be reviewed. This short critique betrays no sign of chaos afoot:

Love’s Sacrifice, one of Mr. Lovell’s earliest plays, was revived here on Wednesday night, and was successful chiefly from the melodramatic situations with which it abounds and which told exceedingly well with the audience. The acting of Mr. Davenport and Miss Fanny Vining was judicious, natural, and striking, and will tend to increase their popularity; Mr. James Johnstone, as the villain of the piece, gave a representation of consummate hypocrisy which could scarcely be surpassed.1

Anna Cora Mowatt says nothing about the Olympic’s production of “Noble Heart” in her autobiography – which is a bit unusual. Although not a braggart by any means, she does not normally pass up opportunities to name-drop in that work. By-passing a perfectly legitimate opening to mention what seemed to have been a happy working relationship with the partner of George Eliot is a little out of character. Lewes’ preface to the printed script is very complimentary to Watts and the Olympic’s lead actors.2 Lewes re-wrote the part of Juanna especially for to better suit her talents. She does, however, report that during that February, she was under a great deal of stress. Part of Mowatt’s success as an actress was due to the fact that she had a photographic memory that helped make the punishing schedule of mastering new roles manageable. Now, for the first time in her life, she had memory problems so severe that she had to consult the script in between scenes and was even forced at times to rely on the prompter to get her through her lines on stage. The actress attributes her anxiety having received bad news about the state of health of her husband, who was convalescing in Jamaica. In early March, (judging from newspaper ads, it seems like sometime around March 5th) Mowatt’s agitation became so intense that her name had to be withdrawn from all the playbills. Fanny Vinning (Mrs. Davenport) was called upon to replace her in all her roles.3

Actress Fanny Vining Davenport
Actress Fanny Vining Davenport

The Olympic’s next production was to be The Belle’s Stratagem by Hannah Cowley. The comedy was a sequel to Farquhar’s classic The Beaux’ Stratagem. The Restoration farce seemed a perfect vehicle for Mowatt – a light, fluffy comedy centering on a witty, virtuous heroine written by another female author from the century before and offering the opportunity for the sort of gorgeous mise en scene that was Watts’ stock in trade. Tragedian G.V. Brooke would have an opportunity to show off his always unexpected gift for comedy as jealous Sir George Touchwood. E.L. Davenport would be a charming and noble as the male lead, Doricort. Fanny Vining would be clever and lovely as the worldly widow, Mrs. Racket, and the fabulous masquerade ball at the end of the show would send the gallery gods home dazzled and satisfied. One could almost write the reviews without ever seeing the show.

…Which is fortunate, because there were no reviews for this show. Things went terribly wrong for the debut of The Belle’s Stratagem. The few newspaper ads that were posted just give the title with no cast listed. Newspaper reports tell us that an odd and unfortunate thing happened – no patrons filled the premium box seats in the theater that night. Later, it would be claimed that the house was entirely empty. That would be much worse — to the point of being somewhat sinister even — but that was not the initial report. It’s my thought that Watts, understandably preoccupied by what was happening at the offices of the Globe Insurance Company, failed to attend to the necessary business of promoting this production as was his normal routine as manager. The newspaper ads are bare and uninformative so no interest was sparked in carriage trade patrons scanning those columns. Perhaps free tickets didn’t get distributed to the press, so the critics didn’t bother attending. Invitations didn’t get sent out to friends. There was no champagne supper. The usual crowd didn’t get their usual perks and so they didn’t show.

Ad for "The Belle Strategem" 1850
Ad for “The Belle Stratagem” 1850

Watts might have put forth minimum effort on purpose. He apparently wanted to talk to his company. The unusual lack of patronage also gave a justification for the closing of his theaters that he could publish in a press release. On March 8th, after quitting his job at the Globe, instead of just taking his money and running, he gathered his actors for a meeting. The next day, newspapers carried the following account of its aftermath,

The theatre was suddenly closed on Thursday night, in consequence of the want of public patronage. On Wednesday, on the occasion of the performance of The Belle’s Stratagem, there was not one person who paid to the boxes. A meeting of the actors was held on Thursday, when Mr. Watts, the lessee, proposed that they should carry on the theatre till Easter, but the proposition was not acceded to. Mr. Compton has been engaged by Mr. William Farren at the Strand Theatre, and will appear at Easter in a new drama.4

There is no record of how much or how little Watts told the assembled group that night. Several biographical sketches of E.L. Davenport say that he was offered the lease of the Olympic and turned it down. That offer could have come from Watts at this meeting. Anna Cora Mowatt may or may not have attended. Only one actor, Henry Compton, decided to immediately leave the company. All the others, including G.V. Brooke, who was at this time in high demand, decided to hold to their contracts with Watts even though both the Olympic and the Marylebone would be going dark. They seemed to have faith he could quickly clear his name and reopen the theaters.

Actor E. L. Davenport, 1851
Actor E. L. Davenport, 1851

We know the decision to stay loyal to Watts had a negative financial impact on the two highest-paid members of the company. By April, G.V. Brooke was in bankruptcy proceedings. Anna Cora Mowatt, whose husband had invested a large part of her earnings in speculation on profits from the Olympic’s season, would have her life’s savings wiped out. Cast and crew lower down the pay scale may have suffered similar or worse finical hardships.

Gustavus V. Brooke as Shylock, 1851
Gustavus V. Brooke as Shylock, 1851

After the closing of the theaters was announced, The Era was quick to print a “We told you so” column:

It may be late in the day to say, “we expected this;” but, had we foretold anything of the kind, we should have been charged with having discouraged the “liberal efforts of a spirited individual.” Now, however, we can do no harm in saying that Mr. Watts’ reign was, in our opinion, but a question of time, and wholly depended upon the length of his purse. Sincerity has prompted us to condemn much that he has brought forward, and we regret that he has not shown more wisdom than can be seen in his late management. We do not desire to add to his own reproaches, for condemn himself he must by this time; but how could he have expected to succeed? In order to cover his expenses, it was necessary for him to fill his house every night; and what was there to warrant such an expectation? The novelty of a new house and new performers went for little. Mr. Watts never had sufficient attraction, and that was the long and short of his failure. Mr. Brooke came late into the field, and under many disadvantages, particularly that of a broken voice. Several pieces were respectably put on the stage, and decently acted, but what was there to command an audience? The expenses incurred at the outset were outrageous and the least said about them the better. All that we have discovered is that Mr. Watts’ purse is shorter than we thought it to be. The Olympic is still capable of bringing a profit, and we think somebody will, with its many advantages, make it do so. Some say Mr. Farren will have it – some Mr. Spicer – others Mr. and Mrs. Keeley. All however, depends on the management of the house, and mismanagement must naturally fail.5

This condemnation, from March 10, is mild compared to what the writers would work up to just a week later. However, two weeks before, what the paper had actually been printing was this review lauding “Noble Heart:”

The tragedy is splendidly put upon the stage, and the Noble Heart is doubtlessly destined to become very popular. The leading performers were summoned before the curtain and very warmly greeted, as was the author.6

This glowing critique was closely followed by another praising the company’s production of “Merchant of Venice.” Neither featured prognostications of looming failure of lamentations of mismanagement. Papers of this period were not shy about speaking out against managers, either. Walter Watts was no Alfred Bunn or David Osbaldiston. Until his arrest, Watts was not registering prominently on anyone’s radar as a bad manager. I think a truer reaction to the news of the closing of Watts’ theaters is presented in this quote;

The Olympic and the Marylebone have been suddenly closed, and a notice placed upon the doors to state the fact, but afforded no clue to the cause of this abrupt close of what was understood to be a successful undertaking. Scandal, however, like the busy jade she is, trumpeted forth reasons strange and great, but the solution of the mystery came out at the Guildhall Police Court where Mr. Watts, the lessee, was presented in the custody of one of the Forresters, charged with forgery.7

Prior to his arrest, Watts was successful, wealthy, generous, and well-liked. His actors must have felt they had every reason to trust him. After March 17th, though, Watts’ reputation and that of everyone connected to him, suddenly took a downhill plunge. In the evening edition of the paper, The Era printed the following in an “Answers to Correspondents” column:

We cannot publish certain communications we have received touching the Olympic Theatre and its late manager, because, in the first place, we never rely upon correspondence that is not authenticated; and in the second, the particulars are so conflicting, and in some respects so personal, that we should not be justified in giving them a place. Much that is told us we know to be true, but this is hardly a time for making it public. The failure of Mr. Watts – or rather, of the Olympic Theatre – is not, we must admit, the result of fair speculation, because much of his money, or the money, as the case may be, went in sheer extravagance and large sums were lavished, we will not say upon whom, but in a manner freely commented upon, and condemned at the time, and likely to soon be discussed with less reserve. We understand that Mr. Watts believes that a partner – that is, a shareholder in a concern – cannot be sued by other partners or shareholders. As, however, he was a clerk, it is possible that he may be charged, and liable, in that capacity only; while on the other side, his defense has not yet been made, and the Company may not desire to have every transaction made known. We all along regarded his reign simply as a question of time to be regulated by his means – for there was no chance of success. Those who condemn his conduct need look far to see his punishment. As for the luxuries people write to us about – the suppers, the champagne, the fine furniture, the filling of purses with gold, the preferences, the other follies, see how they terminate.8

For individuals feeling restrained not to comment, The Era is saying a great deal here. It is striking how much fury is being unleashed in this paragraph not only on Watts, who only a month before had been a relatively inoffensive manager of a small theater of minor importance but also on Anna Cora Mowatt, the unnamed recipient of the large salary and fine furniture in the fancy dressing room. G.V. Brooke also received some large loans from Watts and will be excoriated by The Era in a future column. The identity of the American actress was not shielded for long by the press and was soon outed in items like the following;

It is strange that Watts, Vestris’ successor at the Olympic, should have gone to ruin on her old rock of extravagance, even taking into account his unaccountable command of the funds of the Globe Assurance-office, where he had but the salary of a second-class clerk. It is understood that he paid a year’s rent in advance for the theatre, £1,500; for fittings up and embellishments, £2400; had a magnificent reception-room, with velvet pile carpets, velvet hangings, &c., and a boudoir communicating with it of still more recherché adornment for Mrs. Mowatt, to whom he allowed eighteen guineas a week, and was losing since the house opened at the rate of £150 a week; but that did not deter him from keeping up appearances like “a very magnificent three-tailed bashaw” at Brighton, with equipages, and all the etceteras pertaining to a gentleman who could allow his wife a separate maintenance on a commensurate scale. How he could have deluded the Globe directors into the permission of his enormous abstractions is the wonder of the gossips; and the most reasonable, though still a very unreasonable explanation, is, that he said the money embarked in his theatrical speculations was the produce of successful transactions on the turf. The Olympic is placarded to be opened by somebody or other at Easter – an intimation of very questionable correctness after Watts’ catastrophe, saying nothing of the fact that there is no English theatre, unless perhaps it be the Adephi, paying its expenses at the present moment.8

The Arabian Nights style imagery the writer employs here to describe Watts’ lifestyle is, I think, to enhance a suggestion of inappropriate opulence and atmosphere of immorality at the Olympic and Watts’ residences as well as underlying innuendos being made hinting at a sexual relationship between Watts and Mowatt. As an outsider and relative newcomer to the London theater scene who had gotten preferential treatment from her employer — who himself did not have deep roots in the theatrical establishment — she became an easy target for gossip with few protectors.

The actress had by this time entered her “long sleep.” E.L. Davenport and his wife had her safely ensconced in their apartment. They kept her hypnotized — or mesmerized — as they would say, during her waking hours throughout the long months of Watts’ hearings. The Davenports had to be aware of the venomous accusations being leveled at Mowatt and the effect such stress might have on her already fragile mental state. Virulence in the press coverage singling out Mowatt might have caused them to fear that were she awake, the actress would perhaps be called upon to testify, possibly doing even greater damage to her reputation in the process, or even that she might be charged herself with being in receipt of stolen funds.

In May, Watts’ gamble that he would be able to beat the charges against him seem to pay off. A jury bought the argument that a shareholder could not be convicted of stealing from the company he owned shares in and convicted Watts of only the theft of the piece of paper that the £1400 check was written on. It seemed he would walk away with only a slap on the wrist. However, the court of public opinion had turned against him. The writer for The Era seethed,

We are bound to treat all men as innocent of crime until proof of their guilt is established, and now that Walter Watts, late lessee of the Olympic and Marylebone Theatres, had been tried for theft and convicted, we no longer refrain from expressing our opinions of the subject of his brief and criminal career. We must not mince the matter; he has robbed his employers; many have suffered the extreme penalty of the law for less than he has done; but he escapes on by a technicality… Here we have a reckless speculator, and a wanton spendthrift, lavishing upon himself, as well as upon individuals whom we will not mention, money which he had stolen; abusing the confidence of those who trusted him, scandalizing society, and disgracing a profession which he pretended to support.10

The Marylebone and the Olympic re-opened with their actors taking benefit performances to try to re-coup lost wages. Actor/Manager William Farren’s bid to take over the Olympic’s lease was now being repulsed according to reports:

Mr. W. Farren had been in treaty for the Olympic, but owing to the large sum demanded by Mr. Watts’ solicitor for the scenery and stage appointments, the negotiations have been broken off for the present.11

For a moment in the early summer of 1850, it seemed that the confidence of the company of the Olympic in their manager’s stratagem was justified. The storm, though vicious and damaging, was going to pass over the little theater. The black clouds would pass and Anna Cora Mowatt would wake from her long dream the belle of the stage once more.

However, Walter Watts’ trials were literally not over yet.

Anna Cora Mowatt, Walter Watts, and The Belle Strategem
Anna Cora Mowatt, Fanny Vining, E.L. Davenport, G.V. Brooke and images of Walter Watts’ arrest in March 1850

1. “Olympic.” Bell’s Weekly Messenger: London. March 2, 1850. Page 8, col. 1.
2. Lewes, G. H. “The Noble Heart; a Tragedy in Three Acts.” (Chapman and Hall, London: 1850.) Page iv.
3. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress, or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field and Reed, Boston: 1854) Pages 338.
4. “Olympic Theatre” John Bull: London. March 9, 1850, Page 156, col 2.
5. “The Olympic Theatre.” The Era. March 10, 1850, Page 11, col. 4.
6. “The Noble Heart.” The Era. February 24, 1850. Page 11.
7. “From Our Private Correspondent.” The Elgin Courant. Friday, March 22, 1850. Page 2, col. 7.
8. “Answers to Correspondents.” The Era: London. March 17, 1850. Page 8, col. 2.
9. “London Theatricals” The Chester Chronicle. March 23, 1850, Page 4, col 3
10. “The Defalcation of W. Watts.” The Era: London. May 12, 1850. Page 9, col. 2.
11. “The Drama.” Brighton Gazette. Thursday, June 27, 1850. Page 3, col. 1.