Part XIX: The Grand Tour
Anna Cora Mowatt was part of the U.S.’s first generation of stage celebrities which included greats such as Edwin Booth, Charlotte Cushman, Edwin Forrest, Laura Keane, and Julia Dean. Although she was nearly the youngest of this group, she was the first to retire in a grand style. Within the span of six months, she released a best-selling autobiography, completed a sold-out tour of several major U.S. cities, and then married the publisher of a newspaper who himself was a national celebrity in political circles. Today, we are constantly assaulted by non-stop torrents of useless information about the lives of celebrities from media outlets. In 1854, celebrities from the theatre world were still a new phenomenon in the U.S. No one was quite prepared for the type of frenzied media blitz that would result from Anna Cora Mowatt’s decision to leave the stage for private life.
Mowatt probably intended a farewell tour that imitated the very leisurely pace set by English theatrical legend, William Charles Macready, who had started his prolonged exit from the stage in 1849. His visits to playhouses in the British Isles took well over two years. Because of illness, her start date was pushed back several times. When she finally felt ready to perform, her physician, the renowned Dr. Valentine Mott, advised against scheduling in venues north of the Mason-Dixon Line in the winter months to avoid strain on her still-fragile respiratory system. After playing a few warm-up engagements in Richmond, Mowatt got her tour underway in earnest in Charleston on February 20 with a performance of “Much Ado About Nothing.” This engagement was a model of what I believe the actress intended the rest of the tour to be. She stayed until March 8th, running through the bulk of her repertoire. She played “Lady of Lyons” with Malinda Jones starring as her Claude Melnotte one last time. Mowatt even added one final, new role to her line-up. She closed the tour by playing the title role in “Corinne; the Improvitrice.” Unfortunately, I cannot locate a script for this intriguing text.
Reviewers were lavish in their praise for Mowatt throughout her stay in Charleston. Attendance was enthusiastic as the following description details;
The farewell appearance and performances of Mrs. Anna Cora Mowatt, on Monday evening, for the special benefit of the Charleston Theatrical Association, presented an occasion of interest that will long be remembered by those who were the fortunate possessors of seats in the crowded theatre. We have never, indeed, seen such as collection of interested countenances as were presented by the array of beauty and fashion there assembled. An uncommonly large portion of the eager attendance was of the fair sex, as has been the case generally during Mrs. Mowatt’s engagement, and a pleasing and well deserved tribute was thus paid to genius and worth, allied with female charms. Every available nook and corner was called into requisition, for seats, chairs, stools, &c., and the musicians even yielded the orchestra, which was filled chiefly by ladies. The excitement indeed, reached a pitch of intensity not often witnessed in such matters among our usually staid and composed community, and what is unusual with us, some speculation was effected in seats at good figures, by enterprising young operators, who reached the box office among the earlier applicants. We learn, indeed, that $100 was offered and refused for a private box.1
Bear in mind as you read this, that the writer is noting the presence of an unusual number of women because theatrical audiences were still predominantly male. Only a decade prior, a woman conscious of maintaining her reputation would not have set foot in a theater. Anti-theatrical prejudice was still so strong that there were still laws on the books in parts of the South criminalizing actors as vagrants. Also, $100 for a theater ticket is a lot to pay in 1854. The sum is roughly the equivalent of around $3,000 in today’s money.
The reviewer continues;
As to the performances themselves, we need say little. Mrs. Mowatt, as Julia, (the play it will be recollected, being the “Hunchback” of Knowles,) aspired to, and reached a standard of excellence and exquisite fidelity, which left criticism behind in the unconsciousness and intensity of enjoyment. It was nature, and the actress and the stage alike were forgotten at times in the instantaneous realization of nature and truth. She evidently summoned all her powers, both mental and physical, and the more affecting passages displayed such mastery of passions and emotions as none could withstand, however habituated to the imitative pageantries of the stage, or however unused to the melting mood.
Mr. Oxley as Master Walter caught the inspiration of the occasion, and proved himself fully equal to its emergencies. Tolerable acting, even under the circumstances, would have marred the effect; good acting would have been endurable; but he, going beyond this, gave the inimitable Julia such support, dramatically, as was required for a full development of the charms and points of the piece.
At the fall of the curtain, amid rapturous applause, Mrs. Mowatt appeared in front, accompanied by Mr. Oxley, and took her farewell of an admiring audience in words whose thrilling interest and intensely effective force we cannot hope to recall or reproduce, apart from the magic intonations, that sent them to the hearer’s hearts. She spoke in substance and nearly in words as follows:
Ladies and Gentlemen: — In bidding you a last farewell, I beg to offer you my heartfelt thanks for the many kindnesses which I have received at your hands – not merely during this season when my professional career was drawing to a close, but when years ago I stood upon this very stage a novice, needing all indulgence.
If I might venture to make a parting request, I would ask you to bear in mind that our country is destined to have a drama of her own – as she has other institutions of her own – and I would beg you to remember that it is with you, the patrons of the Drama, to elevate and purify the stage, by encouraging all that is good and true and by discountenancing all that has a vicious tendency.
Your city is fortunate in possessing an Association of honorable gentleman, who have done so much to foster the drama – not for the sake of their personal profit, but to offer an intellectual recreation to the public. That association is very fortunate in having selected such a manager as Mr. Sloan – and he is most fortunate in having enrolled amongst his company members whose public and private worth entitle them to the respect of all good men. Surely under such influences, the drama must find a secure abiding place and a prosperous home. The motto inscribed upon the old Charleston theatre was “to improve and to delight!” May “to improve and delight” be ever your motto.
The moment has come when I must bid you a final farewell, and I do so with the wish that my memory may be half so warmly cherished by my Charleston friends as theirs will ever be by me.2
I think this engagement went exactly as Mowatt wished. She had excellent backup from her co-stars. She was able to share the stage with long-time colleagues and use the occasion of her farewell to throw a spotlight on a theatrical organization whose aims she supported.
Next, Mowatt moved to what was supposed to be a quick, one-night appearance at the St. Charles Street Theater in Baltimore. The actress’ fans mobbed the box office. Speculators scooped up a large portion of the available tickets, reselling them at a premium. An extra performance had to be added to accommodate the hundreds of disappointed patrons who were turned away.
Papers across the nations were filled with advertisements and glowing reviews for Mowatt’s autobiography. Sales in March had reached over fifteen thousand books. Stores published promises to restock quickly.
Mowatt’s next stop was the Chestnut St. Theater in Philadelphia. Again, she was met by enthusiastic crowds. However, as I have discussed previously, Mowatt was not a favorite with Philadelphia reviewers. Those who had been previously had been so vocal about her flaws did not bother to write about her farewell tour. (If I was Mowatt, I suppose I might not have ruptured myself to see that they had press passes, either.)
There was one unpleasant incident that marred this leg of her journey. One reporter describes it as follows;
At the Chesnut street (Philadelphia) theatre Saturday night, some scoundrel in the gallery threw a quantity of sand and gravel upon the stage. A pebble struck Mrs. Mowatt full upon the forehead, causing such intense pain that she narrowly escaped swooning. Mrs. Mowatt went on with the piece, but her memory seemed at fault.3
I’m not certain if it had anything to do with this incident, but Mowatt did not extend her stay Philadelphia. She ended the week with a performance of “Armand” at the Foster Theater.
The actress’ next destination was Cleveland. No disrespect to that metropolis, but I’m a bit puzzled that city made the list for her farewell tour. Her time was limited. I’m not aware that she had any previous history with the playhouse there or individuals in that vicinity. However, to Cleveland she went. Newspapers in Buffalo seeing that Cleveland had made the cut, became hopeful that their city would as well. Washington, D.C. grew indignant that it hadn’t.
Cleveland audiences crowded into the Athenaeum for each performance. The reviewer for the Plain Dealer said of the actress;
Mrs. Mowatt is perhaps the most beautiful and graceful woman ever upon the American stage. Her figure is a trifle above the medium height, and full of ease and pliancy. Her face is not handsome in the namby-pamby sense – but is surpassingly radiant with genius and goodness. Her acting does not take by storm, leaping over ramparts of your judgement – but captivates you by easy and regular approaches. Nature is literally her model. We do not remember a single instance of rant or stage fury in all her Parthenia. The great effects were attained by a low thrill of the voice – a gleam of the eye – a gentle wafture of the hand – a soft smile upon the lips.4
Despite the difficulties I covered in a previous entry that Mowatt previously had with J.W. Bates, the owner of a pair of theaters in Cincinnati and Louisville, the actress finally got her chance fulfill her promise to Senator Henry Clay to perform in his hometown. The crowds were over-flowing. The critics were blissful;
Mrs. Mowatt’s personation of Jolanthe, in the touching drama of “King Rene’s Daughter,” was intensely beautiful – the dreamy echo of the poet’s thought. Although her graceful and impassioned representation of Pauline subsequently drew rapturous applause from the thronged and brilliant audience, we are sure the memory of Jolanthe lingered sweetly in every heart and still lingers, like some low, loved melody, heard once and remembered ever. The conception is of the very essence of poetry, and its expression by Mrs. M. flows directly from the conception, as fresh and pure and redolent of inspiration as a new creation.
Mrs. Mowatt has hitherto delighted and transported the lovers of art – last night she thrilled the worshippers of genius. Others may think of Pauline and Lady Teazle or Julia, we shall never forget the lovely and gifted embodiment of King Rene’s Daughter.5
At the end of the run of performances Mowatt was presented with a silver pitcher by the theater’s actor/manager, Mr. Tilton, who had served as her co-star for the week.
Mr. Tilton said: — Mrs. Mowatt: — I have been requested by the company under my control to present you this testimonial, not only as a token of respect for your professional talents, but of their admiration for you as a woman. The fall of the curtain tonight closes your theatrical career in this city. You are on the eve of leaving us. You are about to enter another sphere of life; and, believe me, when I say that it is with feelings of deep regret that we part with you. Probably we shall never see you more; but time cannot efface you from our memories. Many among us have known you through all the trials and troubles that throng the path of an actress, and though we may no longer be permitted to share them, still we shall ever, with pleasure and pride, record your happiness and prosperity. May your future life be as bright and untarnished as this beautiful memorial I now place in your hands.
Mrs. Mowatt acknowledged the compliment in the following remarks: — Ladies and Gentlemen – My associates in the theatrical profession: — You have presented me with a token of esteem and affection which I value more highly than you can yourselves imagine. I value it because, knowing you, I know that the esteem and affection of the givers are worth possessing. If born in a different sphere, I have felt it no disgrace to belong to your profession. I have known, too, many among your number who have adorned the stage not merely by their talents, which the good and evil may alike possess, by their virtues. In bidding you farewell, I thank you for the able support which has been afforded me during my present engagement, especially by Mr. Tilton, your stage manager. I am the debtor of all the theatre, from the highest to the humblest, for the kind, energetic, and harmonious manner in which they have carried out my wishes. We must now part, and perhaps I shall meet some of you no more; but you will not, cannot be forgotten. And I beg you to believe that when my theatrical career has drawn to a close, (as it shortly must do,) I shall look back upon this evening as one of the proudest and brightest of my professional recollections.
To you, also, ladies and gentlemen, (the audience,) I now bid a last farewell, thanking you for all kindness and many warm greetings. Long may your theatre prosper, and long may it possess a company who so richly deserve the patronage of the good and the wise.6
There is no mention of Mr. Bates taking any part in proceedings.
Mowatt apparently made a visit to his other theater in Cincinnati. I have no record of that visit except this report from a Pittsburgh paper;
During the performance of “Fashion” at the Theatre in Cincinnati, on Wednesday night last, Mrs. Mowatt fainted on the stage from exhaustion and over-exertion. The curtain was immediately dropped, but in a few minutes, the play proceeded, and the accomplished actress finished her part in her wonted excellent and artistic style.7
The tour was obviously taking a toll on Mowatt. However, April was already over. Her wedding with Ritchie was set for the first week in June and she had all of her performance destinations in the Northeast to go. There was no time in the calendar to schedule a break.
Fatigue of another sort was beginning to set in with the press after four consecutive months of wall-to-wall advertisements, autobiography excerpts, and updates. “Mrs. Mowatt is reading Shakespeare at Cincinnati,” the Boston Daily Mail informed their readers sardonically. “The Bearded Lady is also there.”8
Buffalo did get their turn after lucky Cleveland got a bonus performance of “Ingomar” on May 6th. “Ingomar,” “Love,” “The Hunchback,” “Ion,” “The Stranger,” “Armand,” “The School for Scandal,” and “King Rene’s Daughter,” were all scheduled to play at the Metropolitan Theatre for the week of Mowatt’s stay. Buffalo had always been a popular out-of-town proving ground for the actress. Given her long history with the city, I’m not surprised she made a point of visiting the playhouse.
Critics swooned; “Her impersonation of the gentle “Parthenia” was as lovely as a picture and as delicious as a poem.”9 Of her portrayal of Talfourd’s Ion, they sighed contentedly;
This is one of her very best renditions, and one which never fails to charm the audience. Mrs. Mowatt invests the character with a singular beauty, presenting its less striking as well as most palpable points with a power which astonishes as well as enamors. The lovers of the drama never had the cup of their enjoyment presented by a sweeter Hebe, or one whom they more fervently rejoiced to honor.10
Theatre enthusiasts of the city offered Mowatt a complementary benefit. The nearby city of Rochester begged a visit. The actress was forced to politely decline both since the wedding was now only three weeks away. She still had not-to-be missed performance dates in New York and Boston.
Publishers Ticknor, Reed, and Field proudly announced that the eighteen thousandth copy of her autobiography had been issued.11
As Mowatt had firmly informed the citizens of Buffalo and Rochester — proceed to the city of New York she must, so proceed to New York she did. On May 17th, she opened at Niblo’s Garden. The scene was as follows;
Mrs. Anna Cora Mowatt commenced a farewell engagement of three nights at Niblo’s Garden last evening, and played Parthenia, in Mrs. Lovell’s drama of “Ingomar.” Every seat in the house was filled previous to the rising of the curtain, and many persons were sent away for lack of room. Niblo’s theatre has now seats for three thousand five hundred persons; last night these seats were all occupied, and many persons found standing places in the aisles and spacious lobbies. The audience was a highly fashionable one, and the display of female beauty unprecedented.
When Mrs. Mowatt appeared, she was greeted with a perfect storm of applause, and although she repeatedly acknowledged the welcome, the pattering of kid gloves was sustained until she, apparently overcome, was supported to the back of the stage in the arms of one of the actresses.
We do not purpose to go into a criticism upon the performance. The play was got up in a hurry, and played in a hurry, by strange actors, who apparently were picked up in a hurry. Mrs. Mowatt’s Parthenia is a pleasing performance, presenting no marked beauties, but as a whole, was very clever. The audience of last night were in an excellent humor, and evidently came to do honor to Mrs. Mowatt more than to see a play.12
My favorite description of the mob scene at Niblo’s during this run of performances comes from the usually staid and formal J.W.S. Hows of the Albion. In typical high literary style, he compares the legions of weeping women in the audience at Mowatt’s farewell to the figures that support Athena’s temple in Athens;
In the Temple of the Caryatides … on Thursday last I had the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Anna Cora Mowatt – the play being “Adrienne, the Actress.” In order to accomplish this worthy achievement I underwent, I flatter myself, a greater amount of inconvenience and rough usage than usually falls to the lot of my long-suffering kind. It is not pleasant to squeeze your way into the lobby, an hour before the time of the performance, simply for the consideration of a seat or the scramble for one; not pleasant, but necessary, for the house is in a state of siege. I do not understand the policy of not being permitted to secure seats during the day time. It seems to me an extreme – almost an abuse – of the democratic principle. The best seats in a theatre will always be occupied by the earliest comer, and it might as well be the earliest comer to the Box Office as to the Boxes. Mr. Niblo thinks differently. He “goes in” for the entirely democratic, and therefore abolishes the box-book, and erects a score of bath rooms (playfully called private boxes) for the “unterrified.”
However, a man can afford to be inconvenienced on occasions like the present. Mrs. Mowat does not take her farewell of the state every day, and (the Gods be thanked) Theatres are not usually crowded to suffocation, even though there be Caryatides on the right hand and Caryatides on the left; Caryatides above and Caryatides below.
Of Mrs. Mowatt as Adrienne, I have but little to say; that little entirely commendatory. It is a character that might in some respects (with all due respect) have been written for her. There are several pointed allusions in it to her own life history; and these, you may be sure, “did the business.” The merest infant in the house had undoubtedly read the Autobiography. I am neither wrong nor ungallant in saying that three-fourths of the audience went to see the authoress, rather than the actress. Had Mrs. Mowatt delivered a lecture on Animal Magnetism and the doctrine of Swedenborg, the attendance would have been the same. I throw out the hint respectfully and hopefully.
As for the company who assisted Mrs. Mowatt, I can but recall one at this moment who did not appear to be utterly bad. The exception is Mr. C. Barton Hill, a gentleman with method and a tolerable voice. Mr. Hill unfortunately labors under a difficulty, similar to that which Demosthenes conquered on the sea-shore. With this exception he is certainly an endurable actor.13
Dear Reader, we are in very fever pitch of Mowatt’s farewell tour and haven’t the proper time to interrogate such matters, but in this quote, J.W. S. Hows, Mowatt’s elocution tutor, who had known her for years, tells us that the play “Adrienne, the Actress” has parallels to her life that he recognized and he assumes that most of the audience does as well after reading her autobiography. “Adrienne” is not the story of a younger woman married to an older man. “Adrienne’s” plot centers on the tragic consequences that befall an actress who falls in love with a dashing fellow who is concealing his true identity. It seems J.W.S Hows is making a reference to Walter Watts. Have no doubt that I will return to this quote in future blogs.
With time running out and pre-wedding publicity ramping up, Mowatt careened into Boston at near gale force on May 22. She opened at the Howard Athenaeum with “Much Ado About Nothing.” The theater where she was not going to be playing staged a parody of her signature hit titled “The Lady of Lions” starring a character called Claude Meddlenot. The following mild-mannered notice about Mowatt’s appearances appeared in the Transcript;
The Howard was well-filled last evening by a fashionable and enthusiastic audience, upon the occasion of Mrs. Mowatt’s appearance as Beatrice. The comedy passed off with much applause. This evening, the Hunchback is announced, with an excellent cast… Mr. Marshall is receiving much commendation for his admirable impersonations. He most ably supports Mrs. Mowatt in the leading characters.14
Now, fate decided to throw a wild card into the mix. On May 24th, Thomas Ritchie, Jr., William Foushee’s brother, died. This brother was a controversial figure who had killed anti-slavery activist, John Hampden Pleasants, in a duel some years before. Ritchie had been drinking himself to death ever since and had the bad luck or bad timing to die just before his younger brother’s wedding. Thomas Ritchie, Jr.’s death led to a rash of misreporting. Stories erroneously claimed that either William Foushee was dead or that Thomas Ritchie, Sr. had expired. In any case, suddenly the whole nation was asking – Was the wedding off?
As speculation flew and proprieties were debated, Mowatt’s performances continued. On June 3rd, she closed at the Howard with a performance of “Ingomar” and a final goodbye to her devoted fans and colleagues. The event was documented, of course, by the Transcript;
The Howard Athenaeum was filled last evening by a fashionable audience upon the occasion of the last appearance of Mrs. Mowatt. After the play, she appeared before the curtain, and was greeted with hearty and prolonged applause. She made an address in nearly the following words:
Ladies and Gentlemen: I appear before you for the last time and to utter a last farewell. How can I do so without being moved by the recollection of the first occasion when I stood before a Boston audience, and by them was tenderly ushered into that professional life which I now lay aside; happy in the consciousness that its obligations are fulfilled, its trials over. When the imperative voice of duty summoned me from the sphere of home to test what faculties I possessed, to labor and struggle in a public arena, I chose your city, by a species of instinct, for the scene of my first efforts. I chose it because it has been called, and who shall deny that it is rightly designated? The “Athens of America.” Because where there is true taste, high refinement, and a comprehensive love of Art, there is always more leniency towards the feeble and uncertain efforts of the novice-artist. That I made no error in my selection was proved by your greeting, which I so well remember, by your forbearance towards the imperfections of my youth and inexperience, by your hearty approval of those abilities (humble as they must have been) that were then manifested.
In appearing before you as a public reader, the experiment I made was a novel and perhaps a bold one; for it was at that time almost without precedent in this country. But that I was a woman, standing alone and unsupported – that I was unheralded and almost unknown, did not prevent your giving me an impartial hearing. You did not attempt to sexualize mental gifts to say the lips of man should interpret the poets, but the lips of woman must be sealed! I may address to you the words that Corinne uttered to her Roman countrymen:
“You, O generous nation,
Banish not woman from the fane of Glory!
Ye bid me to its portals – not by you
Are deathless talents sacrificed, or dimmed
By worthless jealousies! Your voice is prompt,
Aye, to applaud young Genius’ upward flight –
Genius, the conqueror, who disdains the spoil –
The victor with no victims!”
It is for this – for that first warm greeting that, I have now most deeply to thank you; for the events of that night gave their coloring to my whole future career. And now that my long day of trail has drawn to a close, I come back to you, my first public friends, to make my last professional efforts before you, and to tell you that you will ever remain first, in my grateful memory.
In bidding you adieu, I cannot but express a hope that the Drama will ever be cherished by you, and that by you it may be wholly freed from abuses which have shadowed its lustre and impaired its usefulness. There must be a starting point for all reform, and what your city has already effected towards that reform proves that in commencing here, its onward progress is assured.
It was here that our theatres were first purged from their worst evils – here that it was proved that the Drama could flourish separated from those evils which are no more a legitimate part of the stage itself than a temporary disease is a part of an afflicted mortal. What an instrument of good the Drama was designed to be – what a might instrument it can be made, it is in your power to prove. I, who have loved it perhaps too well, have no dearer wish, in laying aside the mantle of the actress, than to impress this truth upon you.
And now for the last time, farewell! May you sustain and cheer many who will follow me as you have cheered me, and though some may more worthily fill the place I cease to occupy, I pray you to still let me dwell in your remembrance.15
With these words, Anna Cora Mowatt closed her long history on the Boston stage. Despite illness, delays, difficulties, and pleadings from disappointed fans, she had managed to complete her farewell tour. Newspaper accounts revealed that the wedding would still take place on June 7th as previously announced. Mowatt’s Swedenborgian beliefs did not demand that the dead be accommodated with an elaborated period of mourning. Although many of Ritchie’s family would not now attend, the groom was still very much alive and ceremony would take place as scheduled.
And so the final curtain rung down on Mowatt’s career as an actress…
…Well, not quite. This was just June 2. There was still time to squeeze in one more show before the wedding!! Next week, one final, last minute, packed to the rafters, tearful performance of “Lady of Lyons” at Niblo’s!
1. “Theatrical.” Charleston Courier. Wednesday Morning, March 8, 1854. Page 2, col. 2
3. Buffalo Morning Express. March 24, 1854, Page 2, col. 4.
4. “Mrs. Mowatt – Parthenia.” Cleveland Weekly Plain Dealer. March 29, 1854. Page 2, col. 5.
5. “Theatre.” Courier- Journal: Louisville, Kentucky. April 15, 1854. Page 3, col. 1.
6. “Dramatic and Musical Matters.” New York Herald. April 24, 1854, Page 2, col. 5.
7. Daily Union: Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Monday, May 1, 1854, Page 3, col. 1.
8. Boston Daily Mail. Monday, May 8, 1854. Page 2, col. 2.
9. Buffalo Morning Express. May 9, 1854. Page 3, col. 1.
10. Buffalo Morning Express. May 10, 1854. Page 3, col. 1.
11. “New Publications.” Daily Republic: Buffalo, New York. May 8, 1854. Page 2, col. 2.
12. “Niblo’s Garden – Mrs. Mowatt.” New York Daily Herald. May 17, 1854. Page 4, col. 4.
13. “Drama.” Albion or British, Colonial and Foreign Weekly Gazette. May 20, 1854. Page 8, col. 3.
14. “The Howard Athenaeum.” Boston Evening Transcript. May 24, 1854. Page 2, col. 2.
15. “Mrs. Mowatt’s Farewell.” Boston Evening Transcript. June 3, 1854. Page 2, col. 4.