Without doubt, the most famous parlor theatrical in the history of literature is the “operatic tragedy” of Roderick and his lady love performed by the March sisters for their mother one Christmas Eve during the years of U.S. Civil War as described in Chapter Two of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved “Little Women.” The episode was based on experiences drawn from Alcott’s childhood. Like Anna Cora Mowatt, Louisa May Alcott got her start as an author writing parlor theatricals. For both women, their juvenile forays into world of playwriting proved to have significant impact on their later careers.
Compared to the volume of academic publications on Mowatt, which tends to be a bit scarce and skimpy, Alcott scholarship is vast and vibrant. There are a wealth of works which examine her early forays into theatrical writing. I will not try to survey the breadth of what is available except to recommend writings on the subject of Alcott and parlor theatricals by Karen Halttunen. While I am making recommendations, “Confidence Men and Painted Women,” (Yale University Press, 1982) also by Halttunen, contains an excellent chapter discussing how Mowatt’s “Fashion” reflected a fascination with theatricality in polite society of the day. I have not yet had opportunity to quote directly from this work in one of these blog entries, but it significantly shapes my thinking on the intersectionality between theatre and society in that era.
Alcott was thirteen years younger than Mowatt. “Little Women” was published two years before Mowatt’s death. One could say that the two women represented two different generations of U.S. literary culture. Mowatt reflected pre-War sensibilities. Alcott’s work was informed and enriched by having lived through the Civil War.
I’m telling you this now, but I warn you – you’re seconds away from forgetting such fine nuances.
The primary contrast between the circumstances surrounding the parlor theatricals that Louisa May Alcott wrote as a child and the writing of Anna Cora Mowatt’s “Gulzara” was economic. And that contrast was so ridiculously stark that when I explain it to you, you may laugh so hard that your nose will bleed. Seriously, if you’re drinking a hot beverage, put it aside. I wouldn’t want you to ruin your screen if you happen to sputter, “B—b—wha..?!!” as I tell you the following absolutely true but ludicrously unbelievable story…
Let me remind you before I commence my description of the circumstances under which Anna Cora Mowatt wrote and mounted her “home production” of “Gulzara,” that she was very, very, very wealthy at this time. These events occurred before the unfortunate circumstances under which James Mowatt lost most of their money… the first time that happened. The Ogdens, her family, were members of the U.S.’s top 10% income bracket. People such as the Vanderbilts were their peers. Therefore be braced for a couple paragraphs that if they were lifted out of a novel, you might sit back, shake your head and say, “No. I’m afraid not. That’s just a little too Bridgerton. It almost has the feel of historical accuracy… but then you had to put pink flamingos and tangerine carnations all over everything… So, no… Just stop.”
Okay, with the understanding that this narrative is going to sound a bit fantastic, here is the true story of the making of Anna Cora Mowatt’s “simple” parlor theatrical. While she was on a year and a half long vacation in Europe, Mowatt took drama classes in Paris at a private school run by the sisters of the legendary French actress Rachel of the renowned Comedie Francais. Instruction included both lessons in acting and playwriting. Mowatt composed several short scenes that were performed by her classmates and began work on “Gulzara.” The drama originally had six acts instead of five. She and James decided that the play should be performed at their mansion, Melrose, at a party to celebrate their return to the U.S. Anna Cora commissioned a well-known French scenic artist from the Comedie Francais – as one does — to paint six backdrops for the production. She had individual costumes designed and hand-sewn for each of her players by a Parisian couturier. The Mowatts then paid to have all this lovely stuff packed up and shipped back to New York.
Anna Cora, two of her sisters, a niece, a teen-aged sister-in-law, and an old school friend rehearsed diligently for several weeks on her return to the U.S. The girls supplemented their store of French props and costumes with some items borrowed from a neighbor, Mr. William Simpson, who just happened to be the manager of the Park, one of New York’s most highly regarded theaters. Mr. Simpson was happy to oblige, even though the cost of the Mowatts’ little production probably equaled the budget of one of his Broadway shows at this point. The small orchestra that James Mowatt had hired to play at the ball after the show would also provide appropriate tunes to introduce, underscore, and conclude the performance.
On the night of the party, along with circle of (very wealthy) family and friends, many of the brightest lights of the New York literary scene were in attendance. Park Benjamin, editor of “The New World” was there. He would later publish the script for “Gulzara” in his journal. Many of the critics who would give the play glowing reviews when it appeared in print were also present. Epes Sargent was the assistant editor for “The New World.” He was not at the performance, but was favorably impressed by the script and wrote a positive review. This was the beginning of personal and professional relationship that would be essential to Mowatt throughout her career. Sargent was the person who encouraged Mowatt to write “Fashion.”
Mr. Simpson, who loaned the girls props and costumes, would produce Anna Cora’s comedy “Fashion,” giving her a place in the history books as the first woman playwright to have a Broadway hit. He would also produce her second hit “Armand.” Mowatt would debut as an actress in her neighbor, Mr. Simpson’s Park Theater.
As I warned, the story of “Gulzara” is full of expenditures far, far, far, far out of the range of average citizens, an unreasonable amount of celebrity name-dropping, and twists of fate that strain credulity to the breaking point even in the minds of the writers of fanfiction. “Little Women” does take place during the War years, but believe me, American mothers were not turning to their daughters and saying, “Sorry, Seraphina, but you’re going to have to keep it to three acts and settle for a string quartet and a domestic designer. We’ve just got to economize, honey.”
To bring us back to a more plausible presentation of how an average, theatrically-inclined teenager might write and stage a play for her family and friends during the 1840s-60s, let us turn to a fictional account that is probably loosely based on an amalgam of personal experiences – Alcott’s “Little Women.” The play takes place at Christmas. The choice of the sisters to time their productions to coincide with a holiday or important family celebration is typical. There are several magazine illustrations from this time period showing families giving plays as part of Christmas festivities or other parties. Anna Cora Mowatt’s family usually staged plays to celebrate her parents’ birthdays every year.
Music is provided by Beth, playing the family’s piano. According to manuals such as “The Sociable,” musical accompaniment for parlor theatricals was optional. Singing a cappella was perfectly acceptable. Small orchestras were not mandatory.
Like “Gulzara,” the March sisters’ production featured an all-female cast. The novel describes the distribution of roles as follows;
No gentlemen were admitted; so Jo played male parts to her heart’s content, and took immense satisfaction in a pair of russet-leather boots given her by a friend, who knew a lady who knew an actor. These boots, an old foil, and a slashed doublet once used by an artist for some picture, were Jo’s chief treasures, and appeared on all occasions. The smallness of the company made it necessary for the two principal actors to take several parts apiece; and they certainly deserved some credit for the hard work they did in learning three or four different parts, whisking in and out of various costumes, and managing the stage besides. It was excellent drill for their memories, a harmless amusement, and employed many hours which otherwise would have been idle, lonely, or spent in less profitable society.1
Rather than having backdrops painted in Paris or borrowed from a conveniently located Broadway mogul, the March sisters made do with re-furbished household items as recommended in the instructions included in “The Sociable.”
Very clever were some of their productions,—pasteboard guitars, antique lamps made of old-fashioned butter-boats covered with silver paper, gorgeous robes of old cotton, glittering with tin spangles from a pickle factory, and armor covered with the same useful diamond-shaped bits, left in sheets when the lids of tin preserve-pots were cut out. The furniture was used to being turned topsy-turvy, and the big chamber was the scene of many innocent revels.2
Jo March’s script seems to have been a great deal less sophisticated than “Gulzara.” Then again, her text had not been composed in a prestigious drama workshop under the direction of the sisters of a famous actress. The sisters’ audience consisted of their mother and a few friends, not a room full of New York’s beau monde, including editors of leading literary journals and drama critics. We do not have the full text for the tragedy of Roderigo – or even a title. We only have the following description of the plot as it was acted out the night of the performance and a few samples of dialogue:
On Christmas night, a dozen girls piled on to the bed which was the dress-circle, and sat before the blue and yellow chintz curtains in a most flattering state of expectancy. There was a good deal of rustling and whispering behind the curtain, a trifle of lamp-smoke, and an occasional giggle from Amy, who was apt to get hysterical in the excitement of the moment. Presently a bell sounded, the curtains flew apart, and the Operatic Tragedy began.
“A gloomy wood,” according to the one play-bill, was represented by a few shrubs in pots, green baize on the floor, and a cave in the distance. This cave was made with a clothes-horse for a roof, bureaus for walls; and in it was a small furnace in full blast, with a black pot on it, and an old witch bending over it. The stage was dark, and the glow of the furnace had a fine effect, especially as real steam issued from the kettle when the witch took off the cover. A moment was allowed for the first thrill to subside; then Hugo, the villain, stalked in with a clanking sword at his side, a slouched hat, black beard, mysterious cloak, and the boots. After pacing to and fro in much agitation, he struck his forehead, and burst out in a wild strain, singing of his hatred to Roderigo, his love for Zara, and his pleasing resolution to kill the one and win the other. The gruff tones of Hugo’s voice, with an occasional shout when his feelings overcame him, were very impressive, and the audience applauded the moment he paused for breath. Bowing with the air of one accustomed to public praise, he stole to the cavern, and ordered Hagar to come forth with a commanding “What ho, minion! I need thee!”
Out came Meg, with gray horse-hair hanging about her face, a red and black robe, a staff, and cabalistic signs upon her cloak. Hugo demanded a potion to make Zara adore him, and one to destroy Roderigo. Hagar, in a fine dramatic melody, promised both, and proceeded to call up the spirit who would bring the love philter:—
“Hither, hither, from thy home,
Airy sprite, I bid thee come!
Born of roses, fed on dew,
Charms and potions canst thou brew?
Bring me here, with elfin speed,
The fragrant philter which I need;
Make it sweet and swift and strong,
Spirit, answer now my song!”
A soft strain of music sounded, and then at the back of the cave appeared a little figure in cloudy white, with glittering wings, golden hair, and a garland of roses on its head. Waving a wand, it sang,—
“Hither I come,
From my airy home,
Afar in the silver moon.
Take the magic spell,
And use it well,
Or its power will vanish soon!”
And, dropping a small, gilded bottle at the witch’s feet, the spirit vanished. Another chant from Hagar produced another apparition,—not a lovely one; for, with a bang, an ugly black imp appeared, and, having croaked a reply, tossed a dark bottle at Hugo, and disappeared with a mocking laugh. Having warbled his thanks and put the potions in his boots, Hugo departed; and Hagar informed the audience that, as he had killed a few of her friends in times past, she has cursed him, and intends to thwart his plans, and be revenged on him. Then the curtain fell, and the audience reposed and ate candy while discussing the merits of the play.
A good deal of hammering went on before the curtain rose again; but when it became evident what a masterpiece of stage-carpentering had been got up, no one murmured at the delay. It was truly superb! A tower rose to the ceiling; half-way up appeared a window, with a lamp burning at it, and behind the white curtain appeared Zara in a lovely blue and silver dress, waiting for Roderigo. He came in gorgeous array, with plumed cap, red cloak, chestnut love-locks, a guitar, and the boots, of course. Kneeling at the foot of the tower, he sang a serenade in melting tones. Zara replied, and, after a musical dialogue, consented to fly. Then came the grand effect of the play. Roderigo produced a rope-ladder, with five steps to it, threw up one end, and invited Zara to descend. Timidly she crept from her lattice, put her hand on Roderigo’s shoulder, and was about to leap gracefully down, when, “Alas! alas for Zara!” she forgot her train,—it caught in the window; the tower tottered, leaned forward, fell with a crash, and buried the unhappy lovers in the ruins!
A universal shriek arose as the russet boots waved wildly from the wreck, and a golden head emerged, exclaiming, “I told you so! I told you so!” With wonderful presence of mind, Don Pedro, the cruel sire, rushed in, dragged out his daughter, with a hasty aside,—
“Don’t laugh! Act as if it was all right!”—and, ordering Roderigo up, banished him from the kingdom with wrath and scorn. Though decidedly shaken by the fall of the tower upon him, Roderigo defied the old gentleman, and refused to stir. This dauntless example fired Zara: she also defied her sire, and he ordered them both to the deepest dungeons of the castle. A stout little retainer came in with chains, and led them away, looking very much frightened, and evidently forgetting the speech he ought to have made.
Act third was the castle hall; and here Hagar appeared, having come to free the lovers and finish Hugo. She hears him coming, and hides; sees him put the potions into two cups of wine, and bid the timid little servant “Bear them to the captives in their cells, and tell them I shall come anon.” The servant takes Hugo aside to tell him something, and Hagar changes the cups for two others which are harmless. Ferdinando, the “minion,” carries them away, and Hagar puts back the cup which holds the poison meant for Roderigo. Hugo, getting thirsty after a long warble, drinks it, loses his wits, and, after a good deal of clutching and stamping, falls flat and dies; while Hagar informs him what she has done in a song of exquisite power and melody.
This was a truly thrilling scene, though some persons might have thought that the sudden tumbling down of a quantity of long hair rather marred the effect of the villain’s death. He was called before the curtain, and with great propriety appeared, leading Hagar, whose singing was considered more wonderful than all the rest of the performance put together.
Act fourth displayed the despairing Roderigo on the point of stabbing himself, because he has been told that Zara has deserted him. Just as the dagger is at his heart, a lovely song is sung under his window, informing him that Zara is true, but in danger, and he can save her, if he will. A key is thrown in, which unlocks the door, and in a spasm of rapture he tears off his chains, and rushes away to find and rescue his lady-love.
Act fifth opened with a stormy scene between Zara and Don Pedro. He wishes her to go into a convent, but she won’t hear of it; and, after a touching appeal, is about to faint, when Roderigo dashes in and demands her hand. Don Pedro refuses, because he is not rich. They shout and gesticulate tremendously, but cannot agree, and Roderigo is about to bear away the exhausted Zara, when the timid servant enters with a letter and a bag from Hagar, who has mysteriously disappeared. The latter informs the party that she bequeaths untold wealth to the young pair, and an awful doom to Don Pedro, if he doesn’t make them happy. The bag is opened, and several quarts of tin money shower down upon the stage, till it is quite glorified with the glitter. This entirely softens the “stern sire”: he consents without a murmur, all join in a joyful chorus, and the curtain falls upon the lovers kneeling to receive Don Pedro’s blessing in attitudes of the most romantic grace.
Tumultuous applause followed, but received an unexpected check; for the cot-bed, on which the “dress-circle” was built, suddenly shut up, and extinguished the enthusiastic audience. Roderigo and Don Pedro flew to the rescue, and all were taken out unhurt, though many were speechless with laughter. The excitement had hardly subsided, when Hannah appeared, with “Mrs. March’s compliments, and would the ladies walk down to supper.”
This was a surprise, even to the actors; and, when they saw the table, they looked at one another in rapturous amazement. It was like Marmee to get up a little treat for them; but anything so fine as this was unheard-of since the departed days of plenty. There was ice-cream,—actually two dishes of it, pink and white,—and cake and fruit and distracting French bonbons, and, in the middle of the table, four great bouquets of hot-house flowers!
It quite took their breath away; and they stared first at the table and then at their mother, who looked as if she enjoyed it immensely.3
Like “Gulzara,” Jo’s play is in the full five act format. The text is a true melodrama in the traditional sense. Today when we call something “melodramatic,” we mean it has exaggerated emotional qualities. Originally, this designation indicated the inclusion of music. The show’s mix of adventure, romance, and exotic historical settings with touch of fantasy shows the possible blend of influences of popular melodramas of the day such as George Colman’s “The Iron Chest,” Epes Sargent’s “Velasco,” Sheridan’s “Pizarro,” and Daniel Terry’s musical adaptation of “Guy Mannering.” There’s a good dash of Shakespeare in there, too. It wouldn’t be true to the 19th century if a bit of the Bard was missing.
Although I have been mocking how fabulously wealthy they were, Anna Cora Mowatt’s cast of young ladies were also real teen-aged girls and had the same sort of problems with giggling and stage-fright that the fictional March sisters did. Mowatt tells the following story in her autobiography about her cast rehearsing screaming and fainting for their show that reveals them to be more human than I have allowed them to seem so far;
Screaming musically and fainting gracefully, we at first pronounced impossible accomplishments — heights of histrionic excellence not to be reached! To avoid alarming the rest of the family, we practiced these portions of our art in an old barn at a distance from the house. Each one in turn would give a long, loud shriek, and the clearest sound was to be imitated by the character who had to scream. Then the fainting must be practiced. We could fall upon beds of hay, but dared not trust ourselves to sink into each other’s arms, for fear of a fall indeed. Amid shouts of laughter, we were one day making experiments in the most effective manner of becoming insensible, when an unexpected peal of merriment, mingling with ours, sounded above our heads! We looked up and beheld in the haylofts an assemblage of laborers, who had been enjoying unperceived our dramatic exercises, and could no longer restrain their mirth. With one accord our whole party took flight, and were seen in the barn no more.4
Despite my satirical attitude, James Mowatt would, from his grave, no doubt argue that overpriced parlor theatrical production of “Gulzara” was the best investment of his money possible at that moment. His wife was beautiful, gifted, and brilliant. However women were not taken seriously as playwrights in the U.S. in 1840. Upper class ladies did not become actresses. If Anna Cora Mowatt had submitted a manuscript or turned up for an audition, she would have raised eyebrows and been firmly shown the door. People had to see first before they believed in her talent.
A gamble that James Mowatt might not have even dimly realized he was making at the moment paid dividends for the rest of his and his young wife’s life. The beautiful young girl who had written a surprisingly good parlor theatrical turned out to also be able to write surprisingly good plays and novels. Her acting skills on a small stage translated to big stages.
Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s idealistic Transcendentalist father, allowed his children to stage parlor theatricals of moral tales in hopes of improving their characters. According to some tellings of her life story, Louisa was supposed to have rebelliously written pirate melodramas and other more exciting material for her siblings to perform. Parlor theatricals were a training ground for her as a writer as they were for Mowatt. Drama provides a venue for getting immediate feedback from readers. Louisa May Alcott’s writing skills thrived despite not having the opportunities to attend seminars with associates of the Comedie Francais like Mowatt did or having her work viewed by Park Benjamin and evaluated by Epes Sargent. Of course, it did take until 1868 for the public to realize the Alcott had talent… and that was as a novelist. Her gifts as a playwright were never recognized.
If you are beginning to feel a little galled by the contrast between these two stories, think of it this way; were it not for the success of rich, lucky, well-connected Anna Cora Mowatt and others like her, editors would have been been less likely to gamble on poor, hard-working, nobody Louisa May Alcott. The default assumption was that women were bad writers. Young ladies needed to get husbands, not careers. Women were a nuisance in the job market that needed to be cleared to make way for more deserving male candidates. Anything that made literary decision-makers waver in these fatal pre-judgements long enough to give a female novice a break was golden. Attitudes did not change overnight, but books, newspapers, magazines, and tickets to plays sold because of works written by women like Anna Cora Mowatt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and E.D.E.N. Southworth provided evidence of profitability that was hard to ignore. These ladies opened doors women like Louisa May Alcott would walk through.
I hope you have found the comparison of Mowatt and Alcott’s experiences with parlor theatricals informative. However, if you are an aspiring novelist who has come to this blog seeking inspiration for how a person living in the U.S. of the 1840s-60s might have staged a one of these performances and what the results of the production might have been, I strongly suggest you look to the instruction manuals such as “The Sociable” and “Parlor Charades and Proverbs.” Also, although both are fictional, I can attest that both accounts provided by Louisa May Alcott in “Little Women” and Anna Cora Mowatt in “Evelyn; a Heart Unmasked” correspond well to the manuals, newspaper accounts, and descriptions by diarists of such occasions. Both give vivid and detailed portrayals of these types of home performances. However, I caution you to completely disregard the only testimony I have presented to you of a parlor theatrical that is based on the true-to-life experiences of a real person who actually lived in the U.S. at that time.
Anna Cora Mowatt’s story – fact-based though it is — was not the norm. If you try to re-tell it as fiction, no one will ever believe you.
1. Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1868). Page 21.
3. Ibid, pages 21-26.
4. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Reed, and Fields: Boston, 1856) pages 133-134.