Anna Cora Mowatt and Ellen Tree’s Ion on Tour

Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836

Part IV: The U.S. Goes Out of Its Tree for Ellen

[This multi-part series of entries examines Anna Cora Mowatt’s experience playing the lead role in Thomas Noon Talfourd’s “Ion.” If you are unfamiliar with the play, a full cast recording of this classic drama is available at Librivox]

In the Victorian era, one sure mark of success on a grand scale in the theatre was the appearance of some truly awful fan poetry in the public press. Frankly, I have grown quite fond of this stuff. Fans still write poetry about the objects of their idolatry today, of course.  However, poetry is no longer a commonplace part of the way the mass media communicates about celebrities. Fan poetry, in my opinion, reflects the childlike joy we experience in partaking of celebrity culture.  Fan poetry runs the gamut from wistful worship to naughty snark. Such texts are fearless, playful, and nakedly obsessive. Perhaps the art form is too revealing of what drives fans to idolize people they have no hope of meeting. For historians, fan poems (and even the poetry the press concoct satirizing the genre) are revealing treasure troves packed with attitudes and impulses that might be too intense to shoe-horn into the prescribed format of a drama review.

In 1836, fans were madly scribbling away couplets in praise of Ellen Tree in the wake of her stunning performance of “Ion” as she commenced her triumphant tour of the United States. The usually non-demonstrative Anglophile U.S. publication, The Albion got the trend started with this reprint of a cheeky British fan-poem that seems to have sought to exhaust all the readily available possibilities for finding words that rhymed with the title character of  Thomas Talfourd’s play;

To Ellen Tree in Ion.

In woman’s garb, howe’er you’re dressed –
In man’s, whate’er you try on—
Oh! Ellen, you look always best—
And so you do in Ion.

To wear the male suit is, I know,
A thing that some cry fie on!
But foolish folks like these should go
To see you play in Ion.

In comic or in tragic parts
You still look chaste as Dian,
But Ellen! You hunt hearts (not harts).
Yes, though you’re dressed for Ion.

Your lovers, lady, still must sue,
Must still adore and sigh on,
Although perplexed to see in you
The gentle Greek youth, Ion.
Oh! Could I write his praise and thine
In Greek as good as Bion’s,
I’d dedicate a lasting line
To like your fame with Ion’s.

I like your acting in Pauline,
A theme I oft shall cry on;
I love you in the Youthful Queen
But don’t I love your Ion!

Your Wife (she is so like my own)
Was quite a lovely lion;
But never love like that was known,
Which binds my heart to Ion.

Your Viola was sweetly pure,
A point one need not lie on;
But yet methinks – I’m not quite sure –
Your leg looked best in Ion.

Your brow, and fair Clemanthe’s brow,
I here one chaplet tie on;
Yes, you’re Clemanthe’s self, for now
You’re married fast to Ion.

United States!” ah me, that word
A rock has thrown me nigh on;
You will not go – the tale’s absurd –
What will become of Ion?

If I were Sergeant Talfourd – if! –
While ocean-waves you fly on,
I’d sing on Albion’s highest cliff
An Io unto Ion,

You’ll charm, along your watery way,
The dolphins, like Arion –
I’m sure you will, if you but play
The charming part of Ion.

But if you go – a subject this
My eyes will not be dry on –
I wish you years of fame and bliss,
A long, long age of Ion.

Yes, fame is yours! For if she cast
Her wreaths, we know not why, on
Some ladies’ heads, ‘tis you at last
She’ll fondly fix her – eye on.

No wonder you’re called Ellen Tree
(Some truth the jest you’ll spy on),
Since you are covered as we see,
With laurels, gained in Ion.1

True to the literary tastes of the era, most of the verse concerning the actress was composed in the florid, pseudo-classical language of the following offering that was re-printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer;

Lines Written After Seeing Miss Ellen Tree’s Performance Last Friday

O’er Hellas’ bards when Thespis flung
Her mantle of the mournful hue,
Entranc’d, the world on each word hung,
And wept that fancy drew so true.

But Greece and Rome too soon expire,
And one by one her priests are gone,
Through Shakespeare now she strikes the lyre,
And rich and varied is the tone.

First joy and mirth usurp the soul,
And then yield place to trembling fears;

Despair now reigns without control,
And pity melts us now to tears.

Horror a while the blood congeals;
Low throbs to murmur’d love the heart;
And every scene the eye reveals,
New feelings to the soul impart.

So loved she what his hands had penn’d,
That from her thone of heavenly blue,
Did Kembles and a Siddon send,
To fill the forms his genius drew.

They too are gone, with former days,
And now, we loving Thespis see;
Leaving her skies, renews his bays,
And glads the world in Ellen Tree.

Secado.2

No less a luminary than ex-president John Quincy Adams is supposed to have fallen victim to Tree-mania.  The following lines are reputed to be an excerpted from a poem penned by him dedicated to the actress;

‘Tis nature’s witchery attracts the smile;
‘Tis her soft sorrows that her tears beguile;
Nature to her fairest gift imparts;
She bids thee fascinate, to win all hearts –
The wife, the queen, the wayward child we see
And fair perfection, all abide with thee.3

The sheer volume of creative outpouring of the U.S. public – spurred by the actress’s talents as well as the ease with which her last name could be rhymed and used as a metaphor – quickly became burdensome to the press.  New Orleans’ Time-Picayune published the following sardonic offer;

The Mobile papers are teeming with poetry addressed to Miss Ellen Tree.  When they want anything in that line, we can furnish them with entire cords of ditties on the same fair subject.  These consignments we will dispose of on moderate terms, as we merely wish to be indemnified for the expense of storage, and for time lost in reading them. 4

The following, truly dreadful poem by an author identifying himself as “Old Nick” appeared the Boston Post in January of 1837.  It not only features a non-stop torrent of tortured arboreal imagery but winds up with some really groan-worthy puns playing on the names of actors Edwin Forrest, James Hackett, and the Chesnut Theater.

Ode to Ellen Tree

Fair Ellen Tree
Though little “limb” for which I long have panted,
I am so glad to find thee safe – transplanted –
I bow to thee!

Oh! I’m relieve’d
To hear thou’st brought thy trunk and “things” with thee!
That soon a mighty deal of thee we’ll see!
Like one reprieved,

From hanging’s doom.
(Till “dead, dead, dead” upon a Tree) I feel
To know the “garden” shall no more conceal
Thy rip’ning bloom!

Like Patriarch Noah,
Becalmed within his little bark. I’ve bless’d
The precious leaf that heralded the rest
I’d find a-shore.

‘Twas kindly done!
When Nature (thought unsavory) grew sage –
To bring with thee thy golden folly-age –
The age of fun!

And now, when blight
Has fallen on our Woods, ‘tis sweet to find
One blooming Tree to balm the passing wind
With fresh delight!

Then let them hew
Our Forrest to the earth – aye barren Hack-it
Yet leave thee, little Tree! Our land will make it
All up with yew!

Then do not wait,
Sweet Tree! From Laurel hill to far Green Bay,
Thy boughs will gather bays; oh, grant they may
Down in “Bay State.”

Sweet Tree! I pine
Thou art so slow to yield thy promised boards;
Why, why not come and mend “our Chesnut boards!”
Ellen! I’m thine.5

It is no wonder that after this sort of outpouring, the Charleston Mercury saw fit to print the following;

As near as we can judge by the pile, we have received a ream and a half of poetry and prose, all about Ellen Tree.  Confident that the publication of all this trash would operate to the disadvantage not only of the fair subject, but of the author and our humble selves, we have seen fit to exclude the entire patch.

P.S. any person in want of wrapping paper, with poetry on it, original at that, and suitable for doing up brown sugar, sperm candies, and soft soap, can apply at this office.

  1. double S. Poetry hove in.6

As I have done in all my other entries discussing breeches roles in the mid-19th century, let me begin by acknowledging part of the reason for the success of Ellen Tree in “Ion” during her U.S. tour was that there’s ample evidence that members of those predominantly male audiences found her attractive in the figure-revealing Grecian costume she wore to play the title role. Several of the poems I have already quoted comment on her appearance.  It is also easy to find items like the following scattered among reviews and notices of her tour appearance dates;

There was a pressure at the Park last night and the night before.  Ellen Tree has been showing her fair limbs – branches we should say, in Ion, and little Yankee Hill kept a large audience in good humor. If not the best, he is the most natural Yankee we ever saw.7

There is, therefore, as in many other examples of this sort of cross-gendered performances, an aspect of voyeuristic pleasure that contributed to the appeal of Tree’s Ion that cannot be discounted when we evaluate the reasons for its success.  Ellen Tree was around thirty-four years old at this time.  She was described as possessing “more of the interesting and intellectual, than of mere physical beauty.” The same writer goes on to say the actress is “rather tall and elegant in figure – has a fine expressive eye –rather a long face – high forehead and graceful action.”8

Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836
Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836

Breeches roles were a firmly established fad at this time on both sides of the Atlantic.  If a theater-goer’s taste ran to seeing actresses in short skirts or men’s clothing, there were plenty of opportunities to do so without having to sit through two and a half hours of Tommy Talfourd’s blank verse.  Other compelling factors had to be in play.

In any hit show, then or now, a number of winning aspects need to work together to generate overall success.  Different facets of a production and a player appeal to different audience demographics. Previously, I discussed how I believe that “Ion’s” anti-monarchical undercurrents boosted the show’s success in England.  Pro-democratic rhetoric was even more welcome in the U.S.  However, as with the titillation factor of “Ion’s” costuming for its lead player, I want to ignore the show’s political messaging in this entry in favor of examining how I feel Tree and the production were quite successfully able to create what might be called “snob appeal.”  By this, I mean that the drama and its star were successful because attendees associated them positively with socio-cultural activities attached to ideas of wealth and the upper-class.

Ad for Ellen Tree in Ion, 1837
Ad for Ellen Tree in Ion, 1837

In the U.S. in the late 1700s and early 1800s, it is clear from the writings of both enthusiasts and those adamantly opposed to the Theatre that the dramatic arts tended to be classed as a type of entertainment appropriate for adult men. Attending the theater was generally classed along with activities such as card-playing, billiards, horse-racing, fine dining, and visiting brothels as of a sort that an adult male with disposable income might seek out in an urban setting. Theatre attendance was not generally regarded as an acceptable activity for children, youths, or reputation-conscious women.  As mid-century approached, though, theater-owners and investors sought to expand their base and upscale their establishments.  The proponents of Theatre in the U.S. began to aggressively re-vamp the image of the dramatic arts, attempting to re-mold the public’s association of plays and playhouses from gambling and vice to literature and opulence.  I think the publicity surrounding Ellen Tree and “Ion” demonstrate early efforts to reform and rebrand U.S. theaters.

I am particularly eager to talk about Ellen Tree’s tour as Ion, not merely because she preceded Anna Cora Mowatt in this role, but because of her significance to Mowatt’s career path.  Although reading “Eight Years on the Stage” makes the depth of Mowatt’s admiration for Fanny Kemble, Sarah Siddons, and the great French tragedienne, Rachel, quite clear, I think Ellen Tree might have had a more profound and direct impact on choices the actress made when determining the course of her stage career than any of these three. Tree was the actress who had set the bar for professional excellence at the time when Mowatt debuted.  Mowatt and E.L. Davenport found themselves in direct competition with Tree and her husband Charles Kean when she toured in 1847-48. Ellen Tree established a standard for personal decorum, intellectual gravity, and a restrained and more naturalistic stage presence that Mowatt would adopt as her earmarks of her own style.

Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836
Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836

It can prove little difficult, however, to isolate what Tree’s reviewers in 1836 are attempting to praise about her.  When not quoting literal poetry, they sometimes fall into almost unintelligible rhapsodic mode as in the following;

Her voice steals upon you as the lute’s sweetest tone, refreshing the spirits and ravishing the heart; the Moon hath borrowed her charms, and the Antelope the soft magic of her eyes.  Had she lived in by-gone days, monuments and obelisks would have been erected to her memory – epitaphs and inscriptions written; and anniversaries and Lupercals celebrated in commemoration of her worth.9

The next reviewer from the Courrier de la Louisiane makes the point that Tree created a compelling portrait of noble innocence as Talfourd’s Ion in a more elegant manner. This writer not only imagines for themselves the image of a reader/theater-goer who will read this review who is well-educated enough to appreciate the literary imagery they deploy to describe Tree and her performance, but is wealthy enough to also be well-traveled and versed in art history;

Do you remember your impressions when, after suffering your regards to rest upon some old picture of the gallery, and after first wondering why you admiring you found your admiration increase, mount to perfect astonishment, to mute wonder, at the effect of Art? Then you have seen Ellen Tree in Ion.

Have you contemplated the statue that enchants the world and edited to mind the story of that sculptor who, enamored of the product of his own chisel, beheld it, in his embrace, warm woke into breathing, beautiful impassioned life? Then you have seen Ellen Tree in Ion.

Have you stood even in thought, within the shrine of St. Peter in Rome, and found the impression of that mighty dome upon the mind, overpowering, felicitous but familiar, on account of the wondrous  fitness and share while it acknowledges the awe, the grandeur and the sublimity of the place and hour? Then you have seen Ellen Tree in Ion.  And lastly, have you, after viewing and admiring a subject of popular commendation, regarding which you had predetermined but with strict cause neither to praise nor censure found yourself placed hors de combat, made an involuntary partisan of, or reduced to the situation of the prophet of old, or the priest in Serle’s “Lord of the Isles,” who, though differently instigated, concludes his apostrophe with the Sibylline –

I bless thee and thou shalt be blessed”?

Why then, like us, you have seen, admired, and praised Ellen Tree in the character of Ion.10

In Baltimore, the reviewer was content to condense the elitist appeal of performer and performance down to a single word and frame their recommendation as a command;

Who that has a taste for the perfect personification of a poet’s conceptions, would not embrace this opportunity of witnessing the performance of the best actress now in America, or out of it? – Reader, you have taste – Go.11

Playbill for "Ion," 1836
Playbill for “Ion,” 1836

Taste here is the operative word.  Although the reformers of U.S. theatre were striving to eventually broaden their base of consumers to include families and reputation-conscious women, paradoxically they would begin to do so by marketing Theatre on the basis of the appeal of its exclusivity. Reviews such as the above make it clear that the ideal audience member for Ellen Tree’s performance of “Ion” is a viewer who has put in the hours to acquire “taste.”  In other words, such an auditor is not simply anyone who can afford the price of admission, but a person of privilege with the education and training to be able to give the correct weight to cultural artifacts such as formal poetry and classical art that were at that time strongly associated with wealth and high social status.

In the following review from New York’s Morning Herald, the writer returns Talfourd’s “Ion” to its original format.  Rather than referring to the show by the tainted and déclassé term “play,” the tragedy is once more a sophisticated and elegant “poem.” The critic extends their use of literary terminology to explain the aesthetics of Tree’s cross-gendered portrayal of the drama’s lead character;

The whole poem is beautifully written, and most effectively wrought up by the author, whose hero finds a most perfect representative in Miss Tree.  This may seem strange to the reader, who may perhaps hardly credit that a woman’s figure, and a woman’s step can fitly answer such a description as the following: —

“Those limbs, which, in their heedless motion, own’d
A stripling’s playful happiness, are strung
As if the iron hardship of the camp
Had given the sturdy nature. And his step
Awakes the echoes of these desolate courts,
As if a warrior, of heroic mould,
Paced them, in armour!’

Yet there seems nothing incongruous in the assumption of this fine character by Miss Tree, delicate of form, light of step, and musical of voice as she is.  For, from the moment she enters the scene till the final fall of the curtain, you only think of one thing – and that is, the high purpose on which she is bend, and the fitness of the pure and stainless instrument chosen by heaven to accomplish it.  It is a beautiful allegory throughout, — the character of Ion, — and you do not think that it is a mere mortal that is before your eyes, evolving the beautiful and highly wrought plot, but you recognize only the works of a Principle, the impersonation of which, as you see it in Miss Tree, awakens the purest and most spiritual, and therefore the most fitting associations.12

In this critique, Tree’s performance itself is a poem.  The writer recommends that the ideal audience member appreciate the actress’ embodiment of the Grecian youth as an extended visual metaphor that underlined and reinforced the play’s overall message about maintaining moral purity in the face of corruption.  (Appreciation of this allegory depends on understanding the belief still prevailing during that era that women were capable of greater spiritual development than men and could effectively serve as “moral compasses” able to instinctively seek out the correct ethical choice in any situation.  I suppose the corrupt decadence the critic is implying that Tree was superimposed against in this situation was the Theatre itself.)

Ellen Tree as Rosalind, 1838
Ellen Tree as Rosalind, 1838

The unspoken implication in this and the other reviews that frame Tree’s performance in “Ion” in terms of the play and player’s relation to categories of high art is that if a viewer is unable to enjoy the production or is offended by it, the problem is probably with that viewer, not the show.  “If you can’t get why Ellen Tree playing Ion is as beautiful as a poem,” these critics are silently telling us, “then maybe it’s because you are not smart, sophisticated, or spiritual enough to appreciate the finer things in life.”

There were not a lot of viewers or critics who were willing to publicly disparage Tree’s performance as Ion. Some were not as wildly enthusiastic as others, but I found very few reviews that could be classified a positively bad. Talfourd’s play debuted in the U.S. with Tree in the lead role.  Theatre-goers had no memory of a Macready performance to contend with as those in London had.  Most American audience members probably assumed that Talfourd had written Ion as a breeches role, not realizing the part had been originally played by a man.  Therefore Tree did not have to contend with “disappointed” viewers who had originally seen her as Clemanthe and Macready in the lead and felt her interpretation of Ion would always be “imperfect.”

Macready as Ion
Macready as Ion

The fact remains, though, that Ion was written by the author to be played by a male performer.  More precisely, the stage adaptation was crafted by William Charles Macready, leading tragedian of his day, a theatrical artist with many years of expertise in discerning and expertly deploying the ingredients necessary to assemble a starring male role that would excite the interest of the theater-going public.  Writers of the time –including Macready – have decried the script’s lack of action. However, Ion – in an array of highlights that would befit any proper Victorian-era leading man in a five-act tragedy – has two fights, a couple love scenes, a dramatically interrupted patricide attempt, and a dramatic death scene that ends the play.  Talfourd’s tragedy is more talk-y and the play’s action more restrained than many of the dramas of the period, but there is no single part written for a woman during this era that approaches the opportunities “Ion” gives to showcase a performer’s range of talents.

Ad for Ellen Tree performance of "Ion," 1837
Ad for Ellen Tree performance of “Ion,” 1837

Because “Ion” gave them such a convenient basis for comparison, critics found themselves evaluating Tree’s performance not only to other actresses but in relation to the leading tragedians of the day as in the following review;

The part of Ion, as enacted by that lady, is admirably fitted to display to the best advantage her theory of her art.  There are two styles of acing, dissimilar and quite distinct.  The one produces its impression by fits and starts, abrupt transitions, jets of passion, and all that goes by the name of stage effect.  It is vehemently clapped, and ambitious actors, of high genius too, enamored of applause, most readily fall into it.  Mr. Forrest is probably the best living representative of this style.  The other scorns this straining after points, as belonging to the trick, and quackery, and concetti of the art, and ground its claim to fame upon the truth, and purity, and finish of the whole performance.  After some study of Miss Tree’s acting, we feel prepared to say now that her very successful engagement is drawing to a close, that of this latter style, the most refined and intellectual one most surely, she is the best exponent that it has ever been our lot to see.  Miss Tree plays neither to the pit, nor gallery, nor boxes.  She merely is the character she personates.  Grace, delicacy, simplicity, a total absence of all exaggeration, and that sort of power which is their combined result, these make up her acting.  The great characteristic of her style, however,  and that wherein she differs from all other performers we have witnessed, is, that her most brilliant effects are wrought by the most quiet and unobtrusive means – and herein lies the broad distinction between her and her gifted contemporary Miss Kemble.  A movement of features rather than a gesture, a genuflection of the voice rather than attitude – with these and the like weapons Miss Tree wins her triumphs.  Now the part of Ion beautifully illustrates just such a style of acting; for Ion is a character molded in obedience to that exquisite canon of Greek philosophy, which lays the principle of repose at the foundation of all true taste.  Ion is on

Whose nature such ethereal aspect wears,
As it would perish at the touch of wrong.”
 

No rough passions ‘have his clear spirit vanquished.”  And when the change comes over him, and the appalling voice of destiny calls to the deed of blood, and wakes the hero in the child, it is in increased depth, not violence, that this change is visible.  Ion, from the first to the last, is ‘gentle Ion’ still.  Such is Miss Tree’s conception of the part.  Those critics who demand more manly nerve and vigor than she gives it, in our opinion pass a superficial judgement, and read not the character correctly.  It is, we think, her best performance.  In symmetry of outline, in purity of elocution, in rhythmical exactness, in all those delicate and varying modulations, the chiaro oscuro of spoken language, it is beyond all praise.  We regard it as we do a fine picture, a fine statue. Or fine music.  On the whole, it is a nearly faultless specimen of Art.13

Edwin Forrest, the actor to whom Tree’s performance as a lead actor in “Ion” is being contrasted, was the top grossing performer in U.S. at the time this review was written and would remain so for a couple decades to come.  Forrest quite definitely was a performer with popular appeal.  He was a muscular man with a commanding voice and an arresting stage presence.  His performances were loud, grand, and dramatic.  He brought crowds to U.S. theaters in droves. Forrest did not, however, have “snob appeal.”  No one went to the trouble of using fine pictures, statues, and music as a metaphor for understanding a Forrest production. Personally, the actor was quite vocal in his support for reactionary right-wing politics. The actor and his sometimes quite rowdy fan-base fit nicely into theatre’s already established place alongside gambling, boxing, and horse-racing in the world of urban entertainment options.

Edwin Forrest as Virginius
Edwin Forrest as Virginius

Of course, Edwin Forrest was not the only tragedian working in the U.S.  In the following column from New Orleans’ Time-Picayune, a drama commentator that the editor identifies only as the “Gentleman in Black” compares Tree to fellow British import, James Wallack;

I think her a first-rate melo-dramatic actress, holding about the same rank among female performers that James Wallack does among those of the other sex.  Without being transcendentally great, she is always good.  Shining rather in the domestic scenes of the drawing room, I look upon her as an artiste who has made nature her study, and who gives to the most common by-play of the drama an interest of which it has long been deprived by those who have aimed rather at making the glaring points the minor but necessary portions their proper effect.  Miss Tree is never idle on the stage.  There is no hold back her powers for the closing acts – she commences acting at the start and never flags until the close.”

“Miss Tree personates character which few actresses have undertaken —“

“Yes, and in this respect she has shown her better judgement.  Conscious that she cannot shine in parts which a Siddons and a Kemble, a Phillips and a Duff have rendered unapproachable, she, like Wallach, has chosen a few characters which are her own.  The actor I have just mentioned can lock people to their seats with his Rolla, his Walter, and his Dick Dashall, while his Hamlet and his Richard will drive the discriminating from the house.  So with Miss Tree – her Rosalind, her Ion, and her Pauline are inimitable, while her Lady Teazle and some other characters are plain matter-of-fact affairs, neither possessing extraordinary merit or vice versa.  I admit that all her delineations are pleasing, chaste, and correct, but not brilliant or startling.”14

For me this quote is interesting in a number of ways — First because it compares a male and female performer straight-forwardly as if gender did not matter.  This is quite an unusual approach for a Victorian era writer. Gender mattered quite profoundly to them.

I am also intrigued by the way the Gentleman in Black analyzes the way Tree makes career choices that will maximize what he sees as the limits of her range and ability to appeal to the public.  The next two women to take up Ion’s toga – Charlotte Cushman and Anna Cora Mowatt – were also actresses who did not fit the mold of that era’s idea of what a leading lady should be.  Charlotte Cushman was not conventionally beautiful and did not have a stage presence that conveyed the cloying sweetness of many ingénue roles of the era.  Mowatt was outsider to the world of theatre who wished to employ a more restrained performance style that would preserve her off-stage identification with her upper-class roots on-stage.  Although each idolized leading ladies like Sarah Siddons and Fanny Kemble, I believe both used Ellen Tree’s career as a model for how they could achieve success on their own terms just as the Gentleman in Black suggested Tree had.  Cushman and Mowatt each duplicated some of the role choices Tree had pioneered before settling into their own signature characterizations.

What the Gentleman in Black seems to be trying to tell us about Ellen Tree is that she was able to compensate for any areas where she lacked in sheer talent by the bold manner in which she chose the roles she played.  To modern ears, this may sound completely unremarkable. Today, when we see a new actress for the first time — or even one thousandth time — on film or television, we usually see her debuting in a role we’ve never seen anyone else perform before and might never see anyone else perform again. During the Victorian era, the catalogue of plays presented at theaters was much more limited.  In order to establish oneself as a leading lady (or man), there was an informally determined roster of roles in which one had to demonstrate competency.  For instance, if one wanted to be considered a tragedienne fit for specializing in what was called “heavy tragedy” at one of London’s patent theaters; an actress had to have at least a Gertrude, Lady Macbeth, Queen Catherine, and Lady Anne who could pass muster. A leading lady in popular mid-century dramas would be expected to have roles such as Julia from Knowles’ “The Hunchback,”  Mrs. Haller from “The Stranger,” Belvideria from “Venice, Preserved,” and Pauline from “Lady of Lyons” at her command.  As an avid fan of musical theatre today is accustomed to seeing multiple productions of the same show and comparing casts, Victorian audiences could sometime be terrifyingly enthusiastic about nitpicking performance choices that varied even minutely from those of their favorites.

Ellen Tree broke out of this cookie cutter evaluation frame by seeking out unusual roles that suited her unique performance style.  She did not go as far in this approach as did her contemporary Madame Vestris. I’m afraid it is too near the end of this entry to go into Lucia Elizabeth Vestis’ breeches role performances and experiences in the U.S. in any detail. Suffice it to say for now that Madame Vestris’ tours never achieved the same level of critical or financial success that Ellen Tree’s did.  There are many differences in the career paths and personal lives of the two actresses that could have created a very different context for their performances for their audiences.

Madame Vestris
Madame Vestris

When William Macready had debuted in the lead role, critics had complained that “Ion” was not as dynamic as other dramas of the day.  When converted to a breeches role, though, the soul-searching monologues of Talfourd’s Greek youth gave Ellen Tree an opportunity to put a character on stage with a psychological complexity that far exceeded anything contemporary writers were creating for actresses of that day.  Bulwer-Lytton’s Pauline from “Lady of Lyons” has nothing approaching either the quantity or quality of lines of Talfourd’s Ion. At the same time, the forceful delivery style that fans expected an actress portraying Lady Macbeth to display was inappropriate for the melancholy, spiritual Argive youth. The restrained, elegant line readings of Tree’s performance not only better suited the actress’ personal strengths as a performer but required the quiet, patient, and attentive audience who theatre reformers preferred over Edwin Forrest’s raucous fan-base.

As is the case with any hit show, the success of “Ion” in Ellen Tree’s U.S. tour in 1836 is the story of the unpredictable alchemy of the peculiar gifts of a performer, the demands of a script, the enthusiasms of an audience, and the demands of the market all harmonizing for a brief moment in time with almost poetic elegance.
Next Entry: Charlotte Cushman tackles “Ion”

Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836
Ellen Tree as Ion, 1836

 

  1. “To Ellen Tree in Ion.” The Albion; British, Colonial, and Foreign Weekly Gazette. November 19, 1836. Page 5, col. 2.
  2. “Lines Written after Seeing Miss Ellen Tree’s Performance Last Friday.” Philadelphia Inquirer. Friday, October 27, 1837. Page 2, col. 1.
  3. Times-Picayune. Friday, August 24, 1838. Page 2, col. 2.
  4. Times-Picayune. February 07, 1838. Page 2.
  5. Old Nick. “Ode to Ellen Tree.” Boston Morning Post. Friday, January 13, 1837. Page 1, col. 4.
  6. Charleston Mercury. January 29, 1838. Page 2, col. 3-4.
  7. New York Herald. May 12, 1837. Page 3.
  8. “Miss Tree’s Debut.” New York Herald. December 13, 1836. Page 2.
  9. The Mississippi Free Trader. Wednesday, May 16, 1838.
  10. “St. Charles Theatre.” Courrier de la Louisiane. January 18, 1838. Page 1, col.1.
  11. “Miss Ellen Tree at the Holliday Street To-night.” The Baltimore Sun. Monday, June 26, 1838.
  12. “Sergeant Talfourd’s Ion.” Boston Courier. March 25, 1837. Page 2, col. 3.
  13. “Park Theatre – Ellen Tree – Ion.” New York Morning Express. May 11, 1837.
  14. “Gentleman in Black.” Times-Picayune. January 19, 1838. Page 2.