THE DARING NOVICE
[This week I’m begining a multi-part series examining Anna Cora Mowatt’s experiences playing the part of Pauline in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “Lady of Lyons” from her debut to her retirement from the stage. A full cast recording of this classic melodrama is available at Librivox]
More than any part that she wrote for herself or that was written or re-written for her, Anna Cora Mowatt came to be identified with the role of Pauline in “Lady of Lyons” – a play authored by a man who she personally disliked and who may have equally despised her. Pauline was her debut role. Mowatt would master dozens of far more challenging parts over the course of her decade-long career as an actress. However, until the day she retired from the stage, audiences begged to see her once again assume the character with whom they had initially fallen in love – proud Pauline, the lovely Lady of Lyons.
The leading lady in Bulwer-Lytton’s melodrama was a very good choice for Mowatt’s first professional appearance. Although she appears in every scene, Pauline is a much smaller and less strenuous role than the male lead, Claude Melnotte. She has few long speeches to memorize. There are always other characters on stage with her in her scenes. Therefore if the actress should – Heaven forbid! – flub her lines – the other performers can cover. Pauline has some very pretty costumes to wear at the beginning of the show and thus has a chance to look glamorous. The character starts as being haughty, but has a change of heart and falls in love. If the performer can pull off this emotional switch-up, they can win the hearts of the audience.
The simplicity of the role of Pauline was crucial to the success of Mowatt’s debut since the circumstance under which she carried it off were a bit reminiscent of the classic Actor’s Nightmare. On March 24, 1845, “Fashion” debuted at the Park Theatre. As was an unfortunate pattern with the Mowatts, misfortune followed on the heels of this triumph. James Mowatt’s publishing company failed mid-April. Most of the profits from “Fashion” were swallowed up in paying off creditors. By June, the Mowatts decided that Anna Cora would go on stage, partnering with veteran actor William Crisp at the Park Theater. This left her only a month to prepare. Because of standard professional practices of this period, she rehearsed only once with the full company before her debut.
It makes me a little queasy to think about that.
Mowatt did rehearse for three weeks with her lead William Crisp. I am not going to engage in the sort of hyperbole that her biographers often do and try to claim that Mowatt had no training. She had attended a private girl’s school. It is probable that elocution was part of the curriculum and that she presented declamations as part of her classwork. Such assignments would have been standard for this time period. We know from her autobiography that she acted and recited poetry in family theatricals. Mowatt also took classes in Drama in Paris at a school run by sisters of the actress Rachel. She took elocution lessons from a private tutor in preparation for her short career as a Public Reader.
From biographies of performers, I would judge that the average professional actor of this era had less formal training in technique in the abstract and more practical, on-the-job experience to prepare them for their careers as was the case of Mary Warner, whose first stage appearance dated back to playing a baby in the arms of her mother who was a strolling player. Fanny Vining, too, came from a theatrical family. Her father was renowned Irish actor, Jack Johnstone. Vining remembered making her debut at age three, playing a little boy;
I remember now how very grand and quite at home I felt. The chief role was taken by an actor whose name was Hunt… When he stooped to kiss me, knowing it was my first appearance, he said in a low voice, “Are you afraid, little darling?” When, to his horror and amusement, I chirped out aloud, “No, I thank you, sir; Are you?”1
Fanny’s son, Harry Davenport, would play his father, E.L.’s son in “Damon and Pythias” at age five.
“In that Chestnut St. theater, in Philadelphia, many years ago,” relates Davenport, “when I spoke my first lines,” “I want to be a soldier like Phythias,” what I really wanted to say was, “I want to be an actor, like my daddy.”2
And, of course, that wish came true. Performers like Edward Sterling and E.L. Davenport, who rose to the top ranks of the profession but weren’t born into acting families, served apprenticeships in provincial companies before graduating to the London and New York stages. Even in the fantasy world of the movies, though, it isn’t normal to have one dress rehearsal with the company and then make your Broadway debut. Dear Reader, that’s just nuts.
Once more, I have to take a moment and let my eyes uncross while I contemplate the unbelievable stress to which Anna Cora Mowatt was subject on that night.
The cast, at least, were familiar to her. She had just written a hit comedy for them. William Crisp, her leading man for “Lady of Lyons,” had landed the plum role of Count Jolimaitre in “Fashion.” Before the Mowatt’s publishing firm collapsed, he had already been in contact with the couple. Anna Cora started work on comedy starring the Irish-born comedian. She briefly describes this abandoned project as follows in her autobiography;
Before I had contemplated the possibility of becoming an actress, I had partly engaged to write another comedy for the Park Theatre. The managers desired that the hero should be a young instead of an old man, as in Fashion. The part was to be adapted to the abilities of their leading juvenile comedian, Mr. C__ . This gentleman’s performance of the Count, in Fashion, had won him much well-deserved applause. Mr. C __ was consulted concerning the character which I purposed writing for him, and paid us several visits. The play was abandoned, in consequence of my determination to enter the profession; and this change was at once communicated to him.3
Mowatt biographer Eric Wollencott Barnes claims that she gave up writing because a bad case of writer’s block prevented her from getting past the first act. Be that as it may, in addition to the Mowatt’s business failing at this time, Samuel Ogden, Anna Cora’s father, had become embroiled in legal difficulties with William Astor over real estate titles. Ogden would be tied up in lawsuits for the next decade. These legal difficulties would render him unable to bail his daughter out of her financial woes. William Simpson, the manager of the Park Theater, who had commissioned the comedy starring Crisp, probably offered her more money to go on stage. Lead actors usually got paid significantly more than playwrights. Even if she was a flop, Simpson was gambling that the publicity generated by a society figure/authoress starring in one of his productions would lure the curious into his theater for a week or two.
It is interesting to speculate how different U.S. theatre history might have been if the Mowatts’ publishing company had stayed afloat until at least until June of 1845 and Anna Cora had felt calm enough to finish that comedy for William Crisp. She was a talented writer. “Fashion,” “Armand,” and even “Gulzara” all attest to her ability to create interesting characters and situations with broad appeal to audiences of her day. James Mowatt had already been in contact with touring company magnates Smith and Ludlow promising;
…Of one thing you should be certain, that should Mrs. Mowatt, or any other writer produce two such comedies a year, it will effectively put a stop to foreign stars taking all the profits which are made by our theatre, and leaving the theatres almost in a state of bankruptcy…4
If Anna Cora Mowatt had written two or three plays a year instead of becoming an actress, not all of these works would have been successful. Even if she stopped writing in the winter of 1851 when James Mowatt died, her total output would have been at least ten plays instead of only three. None of those potential works would have been likely to be a history-making first on the scale of “Fashion.” It’s likely that the bulk of her plays would be as obscure as “Armand” is today. However, it’s mind-boggling to think of the impact that Anna Cora Mowatt might have made on U.S. literary history if she had retired with a catalogue of ten to twenty Broadway hits to her credit instead of one. How might perceptions of women in comedy changed if starting in 1845 she had successfully cranked out a couple starring vehicles for comedians like Crisp a year as James Mowatt had boasted she could? How might U.S. theatre history be different if there was a strong native playwright reliably churning out box office gold at this early period?
Setting this creative speculation aside, history proceeded as it written. In June of 1845, Anna Cora Mowatt instituted an intensive program of preparing herself for her first appearance on the stage. In addition to her rehearsals with William Crisp, she availed herself of her photographic memory to quickly absorb her lines. Added to this, she prepared herself physically by spending hours each day wearing a long train and heavy skirt to accustom herself to the weight of her costume. She took fencing lessons and even did weight training with dumbbells to strengthen the muscles in her chest and arms. She filled any spare time with the voice and diction exercises she had already mastered in preparation for her performances as a Public Reader.
On June 12, Mowatt stepped on to the stage of the Park Theater to rehearse with the full cast of “The Lady of Lyons” for the first and only time before her debut. Although there were many familiar faces among those assembled, from the description she gives in her autobiography, they seemed a good deal less than supportive;
Once more I stood upon the dimly-lighted, gloomy stage, not now in the position of an author, to observe, to criticize, to suggest, but to be observed, to be criticized, very possibly — nay, very probably — to be ridiculed, if I betrayed the slightest ignorance of what I attempted. There is always a half-malicious curiosity amongst actors to witness the shortcomings of a novice. They invariably experience strong inclinations to prophesy failure. No wonder; for they know best the nice subtleties of their own art — the unexpected barriers that start up between the neophyte and his goal.5
To be fair to the company of “The Lady of Lyons,” what Mowatt was attempting was just plain cuckoo for Co-Co-Pops crazy. If I was a cast member told that a playwright with near-to-zero stage experience was, after three weeks’ notice and one dress rehearsal, going to assume the lead of a show… Yeah, in all likelihood, I’d be standing in the wings with popcorn at hand, gleefully waiting to watch the train-wreck. It’s just not an idea that sounds like it’s going to turn into anything pretty. Horrible, embarrassing disasters usually begin with scenarios like this one – not brilliant successes.
However, as she frequently did, Mowatt defied expectations and managed not just to survive the rehearsal, but to impress these hard-nosed professionals;
During the rehearsal of the third act, I was startled by a sudden burst of applause. It came from a crowd of actors at the side scenes — an involuntary and most unusual tribute. To say that it produced no effect upon me would be affectation. For a moment my equanimity was pleasurably destroyed. I had tasted the first drop in the honeyed cup of success.6
Buoyed by this unexpected tribute from her colleagues, Mowatt was about to draw her first easy breath in three weeks when J. Skerrett, who had played Zeke in “Fashion,” reminded her that she still had bigger challenges to face down;
From many lips I received the delightful assurance that, if I was not frightened at night, I should achieve a great triumph.
“I shall not be frightened,” I answered confidently.
“Not be frightened! ” reiterated Mr. Skerrett, (he was at that time the low comedian of the Park Theatre;) “don’t ‘ lay any such flattering unction to your soul.’ When night comes, you will be frightened half out of your senses – — you don’t know what stage fright is!”
“I have a talisman to keep off stage fright — the motive that brings me upon the stage.”
“We shall see!” was his incredulous answer. 7
To find out how the New York audiences receive Mowatt’s opening night performance as Pauline and how she deals with her first crippling attack of stage fright, come back for next week’s blog!
1. “Actors and Actresses: A Pleasant Hour’s Chat with Mrs. E.L. Davenport, at Her Home.” Daily Inter-Ocean, December 22. Page 7.
2. “Harry Davenport Was Stage, Screen Veteran.” Canton Sunday Telegram. April 13, 1940.
3. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 216.
4. Cited in Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion. (Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1954) Pages 118.
5. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 219-220.
6. Ibid, 221.