PART XI: A PROFITABLE PERIOD OF UNEMPLOYMENT
After debuting at the Princess Theater in the winter of 1848, Anna Cora Mowatt and E.L. Davenport spent a couple months in London without working at any playhouse. This does not mean that they were not busy, though. This was a very eventful period for them during which they were actively making important connections. Mowatt even turned down a few job offers from some very high-profile theater managers. Rather than glossing over this interregnum period and speeding on to the partners’ next production of “Lady of Lyons,” I want to make use of this hiatus before diving into the next, very active phase of the duo’s career to introduce a few people and places that enter the story here and will have continued significance throughout their stay in Europe.
When speaking of Victorian theatre in the 1840s, historians frequently dismiss this decade as one of little audience enthusiasm and low attendance because of hard financial times in London. It is true that times were challenging. Newspaper reviews often document reports of half-filled houses. However, after the Patent Act of 1843, suddenly a plethora of minor theaters sprung up to cut into a market share once held exclusively by Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and the Haymarket. Venues that had previously been limited to music hall and vaudeville-type productions were now free to stage full Shakespearean and classical productions if they so choose. This freedom to select from a wider range of materials had the capacity to entirely change the audience demographics to which such playhouses appealed. Potential patrons who considered musical hall disreputable could be tempted to part with a shilling to see a passable production of works of the Bard. Actors who had chafed under restrictive contracts in the 1830s were in the 1840s striking out by the dozens to try their hand at becoming managers of their own companies.
Although risky, show business – then as now – was glamorous and could be quite profitable. Theatrical entrepreneurship was at a height during this time. I would suggest that London still had roughly the same pool of habitual theater-goers with consistent tastes during this period. Audiences seemed smaller because they were spread out over a larger number of venues. The decade may have seemed like a poor one for theatre because there were an unusually high number of playhouses being launched. It was inevitable that a certain percentage of these venues would not succeed.
One of the emerging minor theaters of the mid-1840s was Henry Spicer’s Olympic. It’s a bit of a cruel joke to label the venue as “new,” because, frankly, the building was a shambling, rat-infested fire-trap at this point in its history. The theater had previously been leased by the fabulous Madame Vestris and her husband Charles Matthews in the late 1830s. The Olympic enjoyed great popularity during this period.
During her first visit to Europe, Anna Cora Mowatt had seen Madame Vestris at the Olympic. Of her, she said;
With Madame Vestris we were all of us charmed. I now understood why she was not appreciated in America. This is her sphere — she is the planet round which her satellites move. Drawing light from her, they shine themselves, and thus add to her lustre. She is nothing alone — she must have a certain entourage to develop and set forth her powers. One could discern a woman’s taste and woman’s hand in all the most minute arrangements of this theatre. There was just enough light to give proper effect; the scenery and dresses were historically appropriate; every character of the play, even down to the postilions and waiters, was well sustained. The illusion was thus rendered perfect.1
Mowatt described the Olympic in 1839 as appearing as follows;
The theatre is very small, but a perfect bijou. The only light (excepting those on the stage) proceeds from one large chandelier suspended from the ceiling. Here, as at the entrance of every other place of public amusement, her majesty’s officers are stationed, and prevent disturbance.2
After her run at the Princess, Mowatt spent most of February without a job. According to an item in Spirit of the Times back in New York, she turned down an initial offer from Spicer because a matching contract for Davenport was not included.3 In her autobiography, Mowatt says she also turned down an invitation from William Macready to join his company as the leading actress;
Our engagement at the Princesses’ was to be followed by the appearance of Mr. Macready. A proposition was made to us by Mr. Henry Wallack, stage manager, that we should consent to a reengagement, and act in conjunction with Mr. Macready in the plays which he produced. This arrangement would have afforded me invaluable opportunities of improvement in my vocation. But my personations had been confined to the Juliets, Rosalinds, Desdemonas. Mr. Macready required the support of a Lady Macbeth, Queen Constance, Queen Katharine. These were embodiments which I had not the temerity to attempt — at least not until I had devoted to them the study of months, or rather years. I was obliged reluctantly to forego the proposed distinction. Mrs. Kemble filled the place for which I, confessedly, had not the indispensable qualifications.4
Although the only record of this invitation is from Mowatt, I believe that it did take place. Macready had parted ways with Helene Faucit around this time. Mowatt specialized in the same sort of character roles as Faucit and was much the same physical type.
To have chosen a young, relatively unknown American as his leading lady would have been a bold, audaciously creative choice for Macready. The London critics would have howled. However, Macready was planning to go on tour in the U.S. as the Keans and Fanny Kemble had done. British artists were taking home enormous profits from American box offices. Macready’s diaries reveal that the actor had thoughts of buying property and retiring in the Northeast prior to the events of 1849.
Mowatt was an American sweetheart. She had friends in the press and an ex-lawyer husband who was becoming quite skilled at managing public relations. Having Mowatt by his side might have done much to diffuse the publicity problems that Macready’s feud with Edwin Forrest had stirred up for him in the States. There are stories of both Mowatt and Davenport personally soothing audiences on the brink of riot back into their seats. If William Macready had managed to hire Anna Cora Mowatt as his leading lady, there might have been no Astor Place Riot. In short, while Mowatt might have seemed a baffling choice to Macready’s critics in London, she could have been a brilliant one in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.
On Mowatt’s part, although Macready’s offer was a spectacular opportunity, I can also understand why she said no. As she indicates in the excerpt from her autobiography, accepting the offer would have meant quickly preparing several major Shakespearean roles that were not in her repertoire. In addition, she would have the challenge of meeting the standards of William Macready, who was a perfectionist and had a fearsome reputation of being quite demanding of his co-workers. Her next trial would be to brave heightened scrutiny from a London press already disenchanted with American actors. Critics from Mowatt’s Manchester and the Princess Theater performances already had her caught in the trap of inevitably falling into one of the twin pits of either being a typical, overdramatic, American “ranter” like they believed Forrest or Cushman to be, or a bland, “insipid” performer who was no better than a run-of-the-mill English actor. Lastly, if Mowatt accepted Macready’s offer, she would be taking on some “sacred cow” Shakespearean roles. In this era where the dramas of the Bard were in almost constant rotation, few British actresses had ever satisfied the critics with their interpretations of some of these “heavy tragedy” roles. Although Helene Faucit was a darling of the critics, she had been savaged for her interpretation of Lady MacBeth.
Looking at all these drawbacks and reading the parsimonious praise she was given in her reviews from her performances at the Princess, I can’t blame Mowatt for passing on Macready’s offer. Although, knowing what the events of 1850 had in store for her, it probably would have been the better option.
Even if the contract with Macready didn’t go through, his acquaintance did lead to other benefits. As Mowatt explained;
At a dinner party given by Mr. Macready, we became acquainted with Mr. Oxenford, the theatrical critic of this influential journal. A species of half-friendship sprang out of the introduction, and lasted several years. Mr. Oxenford said to me one day, “Would you like to know how the Daily Times chanced to notice you after giving you the go-by through your first engagement?”
I replied, that there were few subjects upon which my curiosity had been so much excited; consequently, the information would he particularly interesting.
“You are indebted to a friend,” he answered.
“To what friend?”
“To the Earl of Carlisle.”
Mr. Oxenford then told me that he had always lacked faith in America’s ability to produce theatrical genius of high order — making Miss Cushman an exception to this sweeping skepticism. When he heard of the new American artists in England, he thought it “too great a bore” to go and see them. A note from the Earl of Carlisle induced him to visit the theatre on my benefit night. The contents of this note he did not repeat, but I presume it requested for us an impartial criticism. Henry Clay’s letter to the Earl of Carlisle, with one of my own, were, I believe, enclosed in the earl’s missive to the editor of the Times. It was, then, to our own beloved and distinguished countryman — not wholly to a foreign nobleman — that we owed our indebtedness for this important service.5
Not only was John Oxenford an influential critic, he was a prolific and respected playwright. It is true that the positive and thoughtful reviews he wrote of Davenport and Mowatt’s performances would improve their standing in the London theatrical community and help them shed the onus of being dismissed as typical, low-quality “foreign imports.” However, I think his greatest aid to Mowatt’s career – that unfortunately was not fully realized – was in the form of the two plays Oxenford translated and adapted for her, “Virginia” and “Ariadne.” Both of these roles were great critical successes for her. Had her London career lasted long enough for her fame to be sufficiently established with enough firmness to weather the scandal of Watts’ arrest, I think Mowatt’s work in Oxenford’s plays would have placed her among the top rank of international stars of that day.
A busy social life was producing other benefits for the partners. Through the Mowatts’ Swedenborgian connections, they became acquainted with writer/publishers William and Mary Howitt. The Howitts helped them gain entry into London’s literary set, introducing them to such literary luminaries as novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell and poet, Camilla Toumlin. Another important contact was W.J. Fox, Member of Parliament, and drama critic for the Examiner.
Despite being temporarily out of work, Mowatt and Davenport were in high spirits. The Mowatts moved into an apartment in upper Baker’s Street. Davenport wrote to his friend, Tom Ford in Feb. of 1848;
You of course have heard of our very pleasant advent here. Thus far we are delighted. It will take us some little time to get our posts well bedded in the soil of their beef-eating, porter-guzzling hearts, but when we do, “git out o’ the way, old Dan Tucker.” We live in hope that when we do return our friends at home will not be very much ashamed of us. We feel that even now we have improved in our style. Tell Ayling I have seen nothing here of my size, age, looks, and weight that I fear. I hope to see him here in the spring, and by that time I shall have been through the provinces, and can give him any information he may require, though I fear he won’t find anything that will alarm him. Gilbert is at the same house we are playing at, and he is held in high esteem. There were three of us the other night in one piece, and we did go it strong, each proud of each other. I see with sorrow the vile use to which the Federal is being put — to what it will come under T.’s direction we can’t say.6
Mowatt doesn’t give us any clues in her autobiography as to how she first came into contact with the next significant individual, the Olympic’s manager, author and bon vivant, Henry Spicer. The playwright was a dear friend of Charles Dickens and therefore might have encountered the Mowatts socially via William Macready who was also part of his network of acquaintances. As a member of London’s literary scene with a deep interest in Spiritualism, Spicer might have easily been at one of the Howitts’ dinner parties. It is also very probable that James Mowatt might have simply made a direct business contact with the manager of the Olympic. Additionally, all of the above might have been true. It seems that Henry Spicer and the Mowatts were almost destined to meet.
Unlike the typical struggling author/playwright, William Henry Spicer was well-born, well-connected, and fairly wealthy. His grandfather was a baronet. To avoid making it look like his plays were being produced at the venue simply because he was the boss, Spicer’s identity as the owner of the Olympic’s lease was supposed to be secret. Mr. Davidson, his partner, was listed as the official manager. However, in the winter of 1848, Spicer’s identity as leasee was a rather badly kept secret since he had just been in a very public battle over G.V. Brooke’s contract with the manager of the Haymarket.
Edward Stirling was Spicer’s stage manager, a strong supporting actor in the company, and a prolific playwright himself. Dickens scholars often marvel at how atypically indulgent the author was with the unauthorized adaptations of his serialized novels staged at the Olympic that were penned by Stirling during this period. Stirling even adapted unfinished works – a liberty that usually enraged Dickens. The close friendship between Dickens and Spicer probably explains the author’s degree of tolerance. In an excellent article detailing Spicer’s life and connection to Dickens, “Henry Spicer, Forster, and Dickens,” Kathleen Tillotson talks of the playwright’s close connection to the author;
Henry Spicer never lacked friends; his ten years’ friendship with Dickens ended only with the latter’s death in 1870. The latest of the surviving letters, a few months earlier, begins ‘My Dear Spicer’ (almost his most intimate form of address to any man friend) and warmly invites him to Gad’s Hill the following weekend.7
More fraught was Spicer’s relationship to Dickens’ self-appointed watchdog in the press, John Forster, drama critic of the Examiner. In Tillotson’s article, the author describes how through a series of misattributions, Spicer came to blame Forster for Macready’s rejection of a re-write of his play, “The Lords of Ellingham.” Forster, the critic, had acted as a go-between from playwright to actor/manager. Although the play had eventually ended up being produced, I think that — without going into any of the details of what transpired — it is easy to imagine what kind of animosity can arise in this kind of incestuous situation. Forster gave the play a rather snarky review. Spicer was enraged.
Although they would eventually forgive if not forget, in the winter of 1848, the critic and the playwright/manager are still actively feuding. Forster nitpicked productions at the Olympics and actively encouraged Dickens to crack down on unauthorized adaptations of his works such as the ones Edward Stirling was cranking out by the dozen. Instead, Dickens kept winking a blind eye at the charming productions mounted by his good friend Spicer.
Speaking of feuds, although they will not enter as active characters in the story of the production of “The Lady of Lyons” at the Olympic, there are a few more people whom I feel I should mention whose presence was exerting pressures on Mowatt and Davenport as they made their way in the London theater world of 1848. I think that Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton and his ex-wife, Lady Rosina Bulwer-Lytton had a great influence on how people interacted with Anna Cora Mowatt. Bulwer-Lytton was, of course, the author of the play. That fact is actually of secondary importance in this particular context. Right now, I’m talking about THE DIVORCE.
In 1848, the Bulwer-Lyttons had been divorced for around a decade. It was a separation that had grown more bitter and increasingly violent with each passing year. I have written about Mowatt’s connection to the long running, public feud between this couple. However, I have not yet published these entries. It is an ugly, depressing story that does not reflect well on anyone involved – although Mowatt seems to have been an innocent bystander who got caught up in the muck. She was introduced to Lady Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 on her first trip to Europe and befriended by Rosina. When Anna Cora was working as a writer, she used her conversations with Lady Bulwer-Lytton as the basis for an article published under the pseudonym of “Helen Berkeley.” The article was one of a series that described her encounters with notable persons. This piece, printed in Epes Sargent’s “New Monthly Magazine,” frankly described abuses Rosina Bulwer-Lytton had suffered at the hands of her husband.8 When Mowatt became famous, the article was reprinted under her own name in U.S. and London newspapers.
I don’t want to over-exaggerate Mowatt’s importance to the Bulwer-Lyttons. Some pretty terrible things were going on between Sir Edward and Lady Rosina at this time. Their focus was elsewhere. The problems of an American actress trying to make a name for herself in London were probably not a priority for either of them. However, the article that Mowatt wrote put her firmly in Rosina’s camp. “Sketch of Lady Bulwer” was a slap in the face of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He was an extremely powerful and important person in the world of English theatre. Movers and shakers like Charles Dickens and William Macready had used Sir Edward to push through crucial legislation like the Patent Act and bills concerning copyright. Bulwer-Lytton was also a favorite cash cow when it came to setting up charitable foundations and fund-raising.
It is my opinion that Mowatt’s advocacy for Rosina Bulwer-Lytton is the reason why there are no mentions of her in any of Charles Dickens’ diaries or letters and only minimal talk of her from Macready. Privately, each of the two might have liked her very much. (There are good indications that she and Macready interacted socially several times and that he had a positive estimation of her. Dickens is a more dubious case. He probably had no particular attachment to her. However, his and Mowatt’s social circles had too much overlap for the two of them to have never met.) Publically, however, because of Bulwer-Lytton’s preciously unique usefulness as a member of the House of Lords sympathetic to causes dear to the hearts of those laboring in the fields of Theatre and Literature with little hope of ever being granted a title by the Queen, Macready, Dickens, and others of London’s literati literally could not afford to offend Sir Edward.
And now, in March of 1848, Anna Cora Mowatt was contracted to play the title role in Bulwer-Lytton’s “Lady of Lyon’s” at Charles Dickens’ good friend, Henry Spicer’s Olympic theater with John Forster, another close ally of Dickens who was feuding with Spicer but also aligned with Macready and closely tied to Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton himself, set to review the play. What could possibly go wrong? Find out next week!
1. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Page 79.
2. Ibid, pages 79-80.
3. Cited in Blesis, Marius. Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. 1938. University of Virginia, PhD dissertation. Page 234.
4. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Page 286-287.
5. Ibid, 284-285.
6. Cited in Edgett, Edwin Francis. Edward Loomis Davenport: A Biography. (The Dunlap Society: New York, 1901.) Page 24
7. Tillotson, Kathleen. “Henry Spicer, Forster, and Dickens.” Dickensian; Summer 1988; vol. 84, num. 415. Page 74.
8. “Sketch of Lady Bulwer.” Berkeley, Helen. Sargent’s New Monthly Magazine of Literature, Fashion, and the Fine Arts. Vol 1. Page 145.