Anna Cora Mowatt and “All That Glitters is Not Gold”

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of Maddison Morton's "All That Glitters Is Not Gold."

Part II: Glittering in England

[A full cast recording of this play is available at Librivox ]

“All that Glitters is Not Gold” was not the biggest hit for its playwright or most popular role played by its lead actress.  Despite the show’s respectable run and frequent revivals in both England and the U.S., it was not lavished with praise by contemporary critics.  It is, therefore, easy to see why this play has become one of the thousands of forgotten works of the era.  In my opinion, though, listening to this light-hearted comedy gives a better picture of the sort of typical fare mid-19th century audiences were lining up to see than does completing an exercise in which one attempts to “write their own melodrama” based on a limited and misleading list of stock characteristics.

[Yes, I am still complaining about that activity I found posted online in a syllabus for a Theatre History class.  And yes, it is exactly the sort of thing I used to do with my classes. Exactly.  That’s why it bothers me so much.  I know that such exercises are a fun and effective way to cement concepts in the minds of bored young scholars.  Such tactics are dangerous when the idea you are planting is off the mark.  Students will remember the goofy play they wrote (and in my class – were required to act out in their most silly and outrageous manner) long after they have dismissed and forgotten the hours of brilliant lectures you delivered.]

I prefer representing mid-century Victorian theatrical tastes with a comedy like “All that Glitters” because, even though this show is adamantly a product of its time, the writing contains tropes and characters that would grow in importance in twentieth century cinema.  Affirming this link allows students to trace connections to our theatrical ancestors better than an exercise that emphasizes the more extreme and outdated conventions of sensation melodramas in a manner that underlines how cliché, outmoded, and at a remove from modern entertainment the theatre of the Victorian era was.

Another reason I wished to look at this play was because of the significance playing the heroine held for Anna Cora Mowatt. Though Martha Gibbs was not the actress’s most acclaimed role, I feel the character does capture a very critical aspect of the charm she had for audiences. The character has many attributes consistent with others that she chose or were written expressly for her.  I feel that “All That Glitters” shares enough characteristics with the modern romantic comedies for contemporary readers to be able to see her career in a new light and perhaps be better able to understand the qualities she shares with today’s rom-com actresses.

I hope you have now had time to listen to “All That Glitters is Gold.”  If so, you already know that the comedy centers on the romantic adventures of the Plum family.  According to contemporary sources, the script took inspiration from two French comedies.  At that time, copyright laws were much looser. Even major playwrights did not blush to acknowledge copying plotlines and characters from foreign texts.  This spirit of international cooperation did stop short of sharing any profits with their co-authors across the waters, though.  I could not find copies of either of the French comedies the Mortons drew from to create “All That Glitters” and therefore cannot offer a first-hand opinion on how faithful the playwrights remained to the original material.

J. Maddison Morton, circa 1876
J. Maddison Morton, circa 1876

Martha Gibbs is a noble-hearted orphan girl who winds up working at the Plums’ factory.  She is the object of affection of Stephen Plum, the brother stubbornly set on rejecting his father and younger brother’s upper class pretentions and staying true to their working class roots.  Despite his progressive views, scruples against an employer/employee relationship are still impeding the romance between Stephen and Martha at the beginning of the show.

In the sort of handy coincidence that typifies the script, it also turns out that Martha was the childhood companion of the wealthy Lady Valeria, who is now affianced to the younger Plum brother, Frederick.  (Conveniently, the action takes place on Fred and Valeria’s wedding day, bringing all the relevant parties together.) Poor little rich girl Valeria is also an orphan.  Her sainted mother and Martha’s sainted mother paired the two girls together to love and care for each other, but the untimely death of both mothers has split the daughters asunder.  Valeria is now the ward of her wealthy but unscrupulous aunt, Lady Leatherbridge. This lady is the sort of overblown caricature of a high society matron who would be toned down somewhat to be played almost a century later by Margret Dumont in the Marx Brothers’ movies.  Lady Leatherbridge pressures Valeria into a loveless marriage with Frederick (whom she has barely met) for mercenary reasons, not knowing her niece has fallen for a titled roué named Sir Arthur Lassell.

Groucho Marx and Margret Dumont
Groucho Marx and Margret Dumont

Martha Gibbs only has fellow mill-worker, Toby Twinkle, as a protector.  Toby, an irreverent Harlequin-like character who has clear roots in mid-century Christmas Pantomime traditions, is no respecter of either rank or privilege.  He mocks everyone and everything, seeing himself as equal to all as he demonstrates in this exchange with his employer, Jasper Plum;

Jas: Zounds! be quiet — and mind you give it with a grace — I hope you give ice with a grace. Toby?

Toby: No, sir, I generally give it with a spoon.

Jas: Pshaw! this is the sort of thing I mean.

(Takes tray and presents it with a low bow to Toby)

Toby: (takes ice, and eats it). Thank you.

Jas: Hollo— hollo, sir.

Toby: Well I don’t mind if I do — (takes some cake; eats)
There, that’ll do for the present; and now I’ll go and take a
stroll in the ball-room. [Going.]

Jas: Stop, sir, and take your infernal tray along with you!
(Gives Toby the tray) — and, Toby, be sure you present an
ice to Lady Leatherbridge, spoon and all —

Toby: (r.) What, the old lady with a sort of a yellow
towel tied ever so many times round her head? I’ve given
her nine already; she wanted another just now, but I wouldn’t let her have it. [Going].

Jas: One word more, Toby; if you should have to announce
any one of my guests, Sir Arthur Lassell for instance, mind
you do it properly.

Toby: O, I know! (announcing) Here’s Mr. Sir Arthur Lassell.

Jas: That’s not it at all. (announcing) Sir Arthur Lassell,
you blockhead! Now, go along. (as Toby goes toward c.,
Sir Arthur enters c. from l., meets him, and is about to take
ice off tray. )

Toby: (turning away). Well, I think you might have waited
till I asked you. (turning to, Jaspar, and very loud) Sir Arthur
Lassell, you blockhead!  (Exit c. and L.)1

The character of Toby also serves as a means for preventing the romantic side of this comedy from ever taking itself too seriously.  For example, in one of the most melodramatic moments of the play, Stephen breaks into hysterical laughter in relief after hearing a statement from Martha that confirms his faith in her. Toby immediately commences a comic imitation of him while executing an unwelcome collapse into Lady Leatherbridge’s lap.

Madcap, increasingly whimsical and irreverently absurd comic relief characters like Toby inserted into light-weight romances would be a trend copied by late 19th century imitators such as Gilbert and Sullivan.   “The Pirate of Penzance’s” Pirate King is just one outstanding example from this time period of a fast-talking, sardonic character with little sympathy for lovers stuck in a romance plot who contributes a great deal of humorous value to a romantic comedy.  In the early 20th century, Toby-like Harlequin characters would be triplicated, their absurdist tendencies dialed up to the max, and transmorgrophied into the Marx Brothers.

Richard Temple as the Pirate King in "Pirates of Penzance"
Richard Temple as the Pirate King in “Pirates of Penzance”

Before I go further, I do want to state that “All That Glitters” is a product of its time.  It contains a few examples of problematic cultural language and some instances of oddly offbeat sexism. For example, when he becomes frustrated with the uncouth behavior of his servants, Jasper Plum calls them “Hottentots.” Just as the Marx brothers took aim at the size and weight of society characters played by Margret Dumont in their films, the appearance of Lady Leatherbridge is a target for the impudent Toby Twinkle in this play. A major plot point of the play turns on the romantic lead breaking into the heroine’s bedroom and taking unauthorized peaks into her private journal. All of these actions would raise eyebrows today.

In 1851, the aspect of the play that English reviews found objectionable was that they complained that the Morton brothers had stretched credulity when the writers adapted the plots of the original French scripts to fit the circumstances of nouveau-riche, British cotton-spinning millionaires, though. The critic from The Era opinioned;

The piece is an adaptation from the French by Mr. Morton, the foreign original deriving its quasi success on the score of some egalité principles which found favor with certain of the Gallic “socials.” However this may be, we do not consider the transplanting on the British boards of the drama a matter of high congratulation to either author or manager. The other absence of reality in the incidental business of the piece is a fatal drawback, in which all the imported farce of Compton was conspicuous. No such characters exist, and “move and have their being” as we find in this drama. There is no vraisemblance – there is nothing brought home to reality. In no factory lord in England’s home, we venture to say, would such a series of scenes occur as are depicted in that anything but apropos entitled comic drama of All That Glitters Is Not Gold.2

When the production later traveled to the provinces, the same paper reported in a short piece entitled “A Left-Handed Compliment;”

An influential local journal, in giving Mr. Chambers a friendly lift for his benefit, says, that “the pieces are attractive,” though two of the pieces had not been played here when the critics sent forth his lubrications; and, in speaking of one of the “attractive” pieces, the commentator further states that “the whole thing (piece) is a broad caricature, by playwrights who evidently know nothing of factory owners, Spinners, or cotton Mills,” in allusion to Mr. Morton’s drama of “All That Glitters Is Not Gold.” Save us from our friends, say we. Had Mortons’ piece been a rabid description of the squirearchy instead of that of the cottonocracy, it would have been a true reflection of real life; but to leave corn and to come to cotton is treason in any dramatist to the heavy Pounds, Shillings, and Pence writers of The Frigid Zone.3

I find these complaints very interesting because an aspect of the play that intrigues me are the parallels between “All That Glitters” and Mowatt’s own “Fashion.”  Each has at its heart the struggles of a family of awkward social climbers to fit in with an upper class that mocks, rejects, and exploits them for their pretensions.  Compare, for instance, this speech from Jasper Plum in which he enumerates his accomplishments in rising from his working class origins;

Jas: At length the great, the happy day is arrived; this very
morning my boy Frederick William becomes the husband of the
Lady Valeria Westendleigh, the real daughter of a real Earl!
without a penny, to be sure, but with the reversion of a title to her
children, so that I, Jasper Plum, the head of the house of Plum;
am probably destined to be the grandfather of a peer of the realm!
What a glorious wind-up to forty years’ cotton spinning! 4

To the following scene in which Mrs. Tiffany has some difficulty in getting her sister to cease from reminiscing about her days as a milliner in front of her servants;

Enid Markey as Mrs. Tiffany in a 1959 production of "Fashion"
Enid Markey as Mrs. Tiffany in a 1959 production of “Fashion”

Pru: L. Oh ! I forgot. Dear me, how spruce we do look
here, to be sure, — everything in first rate style now, Betsy.
[Mrs. T. looks at her angrily. ]

Elizabeth, I mean. Who would have thought, when you
and I were sitting behind that little mahogany-colored
counter, in Canal Street, making up flashy hats and caps —

Mrs. Tif: Prudence, what do you mean ? Millinette,
leave the room.

Mil:  Oui, Madame.

[Millinette pretends to arrange the books
upon a side table, but lingers to listen.]

Pru.: But I always predicted it, — I always told you so,
Betsy, — I always said you were destined to rise above your
station !

Mrs. Tif.: Prudence! Prudence! Have I not told you

Pru.: No, Betsy, it was I that told you, when we used
to buy our silks and ribbons of Mr. Antony Tiffany — “talk-
ing Tony” you know we used to call him, and when you
always put on the finest bonnet in our shop to go to his, —
and when you stayed so long smiling and chattering with him,
I always told you that something would grow out of it — and
didn’t it ?

Mrs. Tif.: Millinette, send Seraphina here instantly.
Leave the room.

Mil.: Oui, Madame. (aside). So dis Americaine lady of fashion
vas one milliner ? Oh, vat a fine country for les merchandes
des modes! I shall send for all my relation by de next
packet! [Exit Millinette ]

Mrs. Tif.: Prudence! Never let me hear you mention
this subject again. Forget what we have been, it is enough
to remember that we are of the upper ten thousand!5

The heads of the families in both plays are practically blinded by their social climbing ambitions.  These driving desires for upward mobility serve as a major stumbling block for the collective happiness and well-being of each family unit in both scripts. Martha Gibbs of “All That Glitters” and Gertrude in “Fashion” each act as a touchstone of sincerity, providing a stabilizing counterbalance to the madcap antics of the rest of the casts.

Gertrude and Count Jolimaitre from a 1959 production of "Fashion"
Gertrude and Count Jolimaitre from a 1959 production of “Fashion”

Gertrude and Martha, both orphans, have a more humble and realistic outlook on life than the Plums or the Tiffanys. Forced to become independent at a young age–Gertrude as a tutor and Martha as a factory worker–they are scrupulously honest and trustworthy individuals of deep emotions.

Gertrude wryly expresses her lack of enthusiasm for fashionable society in the following exchange with her admirer, Colonel Howard:

How.: Admirable philosophy! But still this frigid atmosphere
of fashion must be uncongenial to you? Accustomed
to the pleasant companionship of your kind friends
in Geneva, surely you must regret this cold exchange?

Ger.: Do you think so? Can you suppose that I could
possibly prefer a ramble in the woods to a promenade in
Broadway? A wreath of scented wild flowers to a bouquet
of these sickly exotics? The odour of new-mown hay to
the heated air of this crowded conservatory? Or can you
imagine that I could enjoy the quiet conversation of my
Geneva friends, more than the edifying chit-chat of a
fashionable drawing room? But I see you think me totally
destitute of taste?

How.: You have a merry spirit to jest thus at your

Ger.: I have my mania, — as some wise person declares
that all mankind have, — and mine is a love of independence!
In Geneva, my wants were supplied by two kind old
maiden ladies, upon whom I know not that I have any
claim. I had abilities, and desired to use them. I came
here at my own request; for here I am no longer dependent!
Voila tout, as Mrs. Tiffany would say.6

Like any self-respecting heroine dating from the Romantic Period in Literature, Gertrude clearly affirms her vehement preference of the natural over the contrived in the above passage. Beyond this, she aspires not to achieve upward social mobility and blend in with her affluent cousins, but to become financially independent. Unlike Seraphina, who desires to be an idol of the fashionable crowd and therefore would unwittingly render herself at the mercy of fashion, Gertrude looks at financial gain as a road to gaining the sort of the agency which would allow her to be in control of her own destiny.

Jonathan Abel, Rosina Fernhoff, and Will Geer play Col. Howard, Gertrude, and Adam Trueman in a 1959 production of "Fashion"
Jonathan Abel, Rosina Fernhoff, and Will Geer play Col. Howard, Gertrude, and Adam Trueman in a 1959 production of “Fashion”

Throughout “All That Glitters”, Martha Gibbs’ actions show that she is hardworking, stalwart in her defense of friends, and vigorous in her adherence to principles, like Gertrude. However, her pragmatically stoic acceptance of the impossibility of a match between herself and her admiring employer, Stephen Plum, makes her appear to lack self-confidence in scenes like the following:

Mar.: Well, Only to you, only to you. Well then, every night in my bedroom, I write down in a little book everything I can remember of what I’ve said, done, and thought all day — good, bad, or indifferent, down it goes in my diary ; and when I’ve made a clean breast of it, why then I say my prayers.

Val.: Indeed!

Mar.: Next morning, the first thing on waking, I read what I
confessed the night before; for example now, once I was what
you ladies call a flirting girl; at first I wouldn’t write it down; but –
one day it led me to do a false and heartless thing — that very night
down went the whole story in my little book; next morning I
didn’t like to read it — but read it I did, again and again, day after
day, and week after week, and at last when I caught myself watching myself, afraid of having such another page as that to write and
read, oh, then I knew I was cured: and so, I do believe, the poor
motherless, penniless, helpless factory girl has kept herself honest
by keeping her diary honest too! Oh, blessings on every school
in every village of the land, and blessings on the simple words
over the door, “Reading and Writing taught here!” Forgive me,
don’t I talk more than should be?

Val.: No — and have you never been in love, Martha?

Mar. O bless you, I don’t say so. I don’t pretend I’ve never
looked and said “there I could be happy,” but when I know I
can’t get there by the lawful high road, I just shut my eyes, or
look another way.7

Critical turning points in the plot each play rest on the outcome of tests to the character and integrity of each of these young women. Ultimately the happiness of both the Plums and the Tiffanys lies not in their ability to ape the mannerisms of the fashionable elite but rather after they wake up to the fact that they need to return to the principles of sincerity and honesty so bravely embodied by these two characters whom they treated with scorn and derision at the beginning of the play.

The plays end with fashionable deceivers and social-climbing defrauders being exposed and ejected from the family circle. Martha and Gertrude are united with their respective lovers and embraced by their relatives. Chastened by their experiences, the heads of the Plum and Tiffany households decide that it would be best not to attempt to assume a false, new fashionable façade in order to fit in with their social superiors.

Given the adamantly democratic rhetoric underlying the plays, it is no wonder that while each had a moderately successful run in England, both “Fashion” and “All That Glitters Is Not Gold” were much more popular when performed in the United States. Next week, I’ll talk about the debut of “All That Glitters” in America and explore what made this such an ideal role for Anna Cora Mowatt in 1852.

Anna Cora Mowatt and images of Maddison Morton's "All That Glitters Is Not Gold."
Anna Cora Mowatt and images of Maddison Morton’s “All That Glitters Is Not Gold.”


  1. Morton, Thomas and John Maddison Morton. “All That Glitters is Not Gold.” (Clyde, Ohio: A.D. Ames, 1880.) Pages 27-28
  2. “Theatres, &c.” The Era. January 26, 1851. Page 11, col. 2.
  3. “Music and Drama at Manchester.” The Era. March 23, 1851. Page 11, col. 3.
  4. Morton, Thomas and John Maddison Morton. “All That Glitters is Not Gold.” (Clyde, Ohio: A.D. Ames, 1880.) Pages 27-28
  5. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Fashion, or Life in New York(Samuel French: New York, 1849). Pages 5-6.
  6. Ibid. Page 20.
  7. Morton, Thomas and John Maddison Morton. “All That Glitters is Not Gold.” (Clyde, Ohio: A.D. Ames, 1880.) Pages 22-23