Perhaps the most incredible thing that I am going to tell you about Anna Cora Mowatt’s play centered around the story of Richelieu’s long-lost daughter, set in eighteenth century France, is that one of the strongest appeals of “Armand; or the Peer and the Peasant” in 1847 New York was good, old, red-white-and-blue, Fourth-of-July, flag-waving, apple-pie U.S. patriotism. On second thought, perhaps it is misleading to use these terms loaded with 20th century associations to describe 19th century feelings about their country. The enthusiasm American Victorians felt for their native land was in many ways fundamentally different than the collection of responses we might today associate with overt displays of nationalistic fervor. After all, even goth idol and general all-around grump, Edgar Alan Poe was very much on-board with the project of finding expression of the spirit of the U.S. in literary form. He said approvingly of Mowatt’s hit comedy, “Fashion;”
We are delighted to find, in the reception of Mrs. Mowatt’s comedy, the clearest indications of a revival of the American drama — that is to say of an earnest disposition to see it revived. That the drama, in general, can go down, is the most untenable of all untenable ideas. Dramatic art is, or should be, a concentralization of all that which is entitled to the appellation of Art. When sculpture shall fail, and painting shall fail, and poetry, and music; — when men shall no longer take pleasure in eloquence, and in grace of motion, and in the beauty of woman, and in truthful representations of character, and in the consciousness of sympathy in their enjoyment of each and all, then and not till then, may we look for that to sink into insignificance, which, and which alone, affords opportunity for the conglomeration of these infinite and imperishable sources of delight.1
Poe goes on later to speak of his country’s struggles to match Europe’s achievements in the field of drama and his hopes that “Fashion” will prove a step in the right direction. The publication in which he printed the essay, The Broadway Journal, had folded by the time “Armand” debuted in 1847. Poe had finally achieved recognition as a poet. He was no longer writing drama reviews, so we have no record of what he thought of Mowatt’s follow-up to “Fashion.”
What we do know is that “Armand” was a solid commercial and critical success for Anna Cora Mowatt and her acting partner, E.L. Davenport on both sides of the Atlantic. Mowatt toured with the show until she retired in 1854. She frequently selected it for benefit performances. This choice indicates that she thought of the drama as a safe bet to draw large audiences.
Playbills from the 1850’s and 60’s give evidence that Mowatt and Davenport were not the only performers achieving success with “Armand.” Reviews and newspaper announcements tell of many productions in both the U.S. and England. The drama was employed to debut promising ingénues, open theatres, or raise funds for veteran players. Mowatt’s protégée, Avonia Jones, starred in an enthusiastically attended and well-reviewed tour of “Armand” in the late 1850’s.
The U.S. Civil War was an event of such mammoth importance in the country’s history that it is difficult to look at events happening in the 1840’s or 50’s as being anything other than a prelude to that conflict. Atrocities committed in the name of the prevailing cultural concept of Manifest Destiny can make us look back with a jaundiced eye at the overweening self-confidence of this period. However, these decades marked a time of unparalleled optimism in the U.S. After a rocky start, it looked like the American experiment in self-governance was sustainable. Although the promise of equality under the law was still an empty one for many classes of U.S. citizens, there was a widespread feeling of hopefulness about the potential for each citizen to live up to their personal capacity for individual achievement regardless of the circumstances of their birth. Looking back on the era, this was a time when U.S. citizens – male and female, rich and poor, even including some born into slavery – accomplished remarkable things during their lifetimes because they held strong convictions of their own inherent self-worth.
This feeling that the working person was every bit as valuable (if not more so) to society as the aristocrat is at the very heart of “Armand.” Mowatt originally gave the play a subtitle that sounds a bit Marxist to us today – “Armand; Child of the People.” She changed it to “Armand; the Peer and the Peasant” at the demand of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office prior to the show’s premiere in England in 1949. All scripts had to pass review by this licensing board before they could be produced on the London stage. The committee found both the title and several passages to be anti-monarchical in character and demanded they be changed or removed. In the published script, these lines are set off by quotation marks.
One excised exchange occurs in the midst of a love scene between Blanche and Armand:
BLANCHE: Ah! when I listen to thee, Armand,
I tremble lest the artisan’s poor garb
Should hide the warrior’s danger-loving heart.
ARMAND: Nay, Blanche, to love my country with my soul
Is not to love the warrior’s perils — nor
His triumphs. — All men, be they high or humble,
Owe to the land that gives them birth a tribute!
And with his talents man may pay the debt,
Or with his industry, or with his blood!”2
Admittedly, this passage might have been banned not for its political sentiments, but because recent assassination attempts against Queen Victoria made the dialogue seem in poor taste. However, Mowatt had laid the ground for the audience to view Armand as the ideal citizen/soldier well in advance of this scene. Even before we see Armand, the author elevates his character above that of the king. When Blanche, in a blind test of her taste, is asked to compare the monarch, whom she unwittingly has met while he was in disguise, to the peasant, she immediately replies;
BLANCHE: Why if he were the King – in truth the King –
I could but say that wayward nature played
On fortune’s favorite a most idle trick!
While to the humble artisan she gave
The aspect, soul, and bearing of a king!
BABETTE: Oh dear, Oh dear! what a young traitor! Its
very fine talk — yet for all that there’s a great difference
between your Armand and the King — I mean the cavalier.
BLANCHE: I grant you that, dear Dame, difference indeed!
How different seemed in each like attributes;
The lightness of the cavalier to me
Seemed senseless levity, while Armand’s mirth
Is the o’erflowing gladness of a heart
At ease. Each had his separate pride — one pride.
The scorn that narrow minds from narrower minds
Inherit. But our Armand’s pride looks down
In scorn upon mean acts alone — disdains
But falsehood — spurns but vice — rebels against
Injustice only — while he arrogates
No merit to his virtues! Men may bow
The knee to royalty, but there’s a more
Enduring, and more sacred homage all
Must feel for what is better than themselves!3
This exchange establishes both Armand’s superior characteristics that place him as a “natural aristocrat” but also Blanche’s finely honed powers of sensitivity that enable her to accurately detect true worth in individuals. We will witness her judgement bearing out over the course of the events of the play where Armand behaves in a consistently noble fashion while King Louis turns out to be not precisely villainous, but rather petty, selfish, and insipid.
In a monologue that escaped the censor’s red pen, Armand discusses his plebian background with the king after turning down a military promotion that would have raised him into the ranks of the nobility:
ARMAND: I know it not; a foundling
By strangers reared, I am the people’s child!
From them I know not that I spring, yet would
Believe so; for I ask no name save that
Myself shall win. I bless the generous fate
That gave no noble blood to swell my veins.
For had I from the hands of accident
Nobility received, I could not prove
My juster title to that high noblesse
No revolutions level and destroy:
The true noblesse of genius and of worth.4
It is perhaps this sort of impassioned declaration of republican rectitude that even in the censored version of the drama that played on the London stage prompted an English reviewer to complain;
The personages speak with a generous enthusiasm as the mouthpieces of her own sentiments and it is not the French peasant, but the American citizen who rates so soundly the vices of a depraved Court, and insists on the “rights of man.”5
In the following expurgated exchange, Armand boldly articulates what is perhaps the most central idea of the play directly into the very teeth of his displeased sovereign;
KING LOUIS: But wherefore, Armand, wilt thou coldly spurn
What others as their dearest birth-right prize?
ARMAND: And why, the trappings and the adjuncts vain
With which the great enshroud themselves, to awe
A gaping multitude, should I not scorn?
Free thought — free will — the birth-right true of all —
Manhood, the universal heritage —
For them, nor for a million times their worth,
I would not barter!7
Armand argues that the ability to exercise free thought and free will is greater than any title aristocracy can bestow. True nobility, he (and the play) argue lies in heroic selflessness and steadfastness of character. These are qualities that are not limited only to one exclusive, economically-determined class.
In her autobiography, Mowatt describes the enthusiastic reception the uncensored version of the script with such passages restored received when she toured Ireland with the show in 1851. Dublin-born tragedian, Gustavus V. Brooke took the role of Armand.
Armand was produced towards the close of the engagement, and never created a more powerful sensation. Mr. Brooke’s delineation of the peasant Armand was interrupted by cheers from the commencement to the close of the play. The galleries fairly seemed inclined to make a descent upon the stage, and carry him off upon their shoulders. At the summons before the curtain, after the most deafening clamors of applause, as I was making my final acknowledgment, the cry rose of “Nine cheers for America!” The pit started to their feet, and lustily gave the cheers with waving hats and handkerchiefs. When the last peal ceased, the orchestra struck up “Hail, Columbia!” and drew down a new response. Our national air was immediately followed by “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning,” which always creates a furor of patriotic delight.7
On both sides of the Atlantic, this melodrama spoke not to the nationalistic impulse towards the entitlement of Jacksonian Manifest Destiny, but the idealistic promises of democratic equality. The same optimistic fervor that brought audiences to their feet to applaud Armand’s patriotic declarations was linked to the deeply held belief in the potential of working people to exert meaningful change in society. This hopeful attitude was at that time inspiring the founding of countless schools, universities, hospitals, religious institutions, and self-help programs, as well as organizing to counter unjust laws such as the Abolitionist and beginnings of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement.
Anna Cora Mowatt, a child of privilege, daughter of wealthy merchant Samuel Gouverneur Ogden, who helped fund Aaron Burr’s ill-fated Miranda Expedition, might seem like an odd candidate to become the mouthpiece of such a message. However she was also the grand-daughter of Francis Lewis, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. She was deeply patriotic, had experienced financial disaster, knew first-hand the value of hard-work, and was firmly convinced of elevating character of education.
In the same way, “Armand,” a melodrama set in France of the 1700s, full of soap-opera plot twists and sit-com minor characters, seems an unusual vehicle to carry a serious message about the nobility of the working class. However, this ability of pieces of dramatic literature set in other places and times to metaphorically capture the spirit of the contemporary body politic is part of the so-called “magic” of theatre. In the 1960’s, Lerner and Lowe’s “Camelot” became closely associated with the Kennedy administration. For some, the Revolutionary War era musical, “Hamilton” captures certain aspects of their feelings and attitudes about socio-cultural issues of the current moment. Through her distillation of the strong undercurrents of socio-political trends of her time into impassioned speeches that she placed into the mouths of her characters, Anna Cora Mowatt was able to touch the hearts of her audience and move them with an intensity that, devoid of its original context, is lost on us today.
1. Edgar Allan Poe. “Prospects of the Drama — Mrs. Mowatt’s Comedy.” Broadway Journal. April 5, 1845, p. 128.
2. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Armand; or the Peer and the Peasant. (New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1851) Page 26.
3. Ibid, p. 19.
4. Ibid, p. 33.
5. Evening Mail: London, January 19, 1849. Page 8, col. 5.
6. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Armand; or the Peer and the Peasant. (New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1851) Page 47.
7. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Boston: Ticknor, Field, and Reed, 1854) Pages 357-358.