Anna Cora Mowatt and the Ill-Starred Lovers – Part I – Gustavus V. Brooke

In keeping with the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I want to come back to Mowatt’s relationship with the famous Irish tragedian Gustavus V. Brooke, (who I mentioned in an earlier blog), and his second wife, Avonia Jones. Mowatt not only had warm friendships with both, she chose to draw a fictional portrait of their early relationship in the last story in Mimic Life – “The Unknown Tragedian.”

Dear Reader, I know I perhaps try your patience with my tendency to attempt to tackle big subjects in these little blog entries, only to announce my elucidation will be continued in a part II or III to appear at a future date when we start to get to the good parts. Therefore, to ward against any false expectations, let me prepare you now by stating from the onset that I will divide the story of these larger than life personalities in three installments – His, Hers, and Theirs. We begin with Mr. Brooke.

Gustavus Vaughn Brooke

By all rights, Anna Cora Mowatt should never have been friends with G.V. Brooke. A quick glance at his reputation – heavy drinker, constantly in debt , a theatrical manager’s nightmare, always breaking professional engagements – makes him sound like exactly the sort of actor she would shun like the plague. In fact, those are some of the very problems that caused the rift between the Mowatts and W.H. Crisp, Anna Cora’s partner for her first tour of the U.S. The difficulties between Crisp, Mowatt, and her husband James became so intense that the two performers refused to speak to each other offstage. Mr. Mowatt was considering legal action against the veteran player.

Unlike Crisp, Mowatt always seemed to be fond of Brooke. She played opposite him a number of times – first when she had just arrived in London, then under Walter Watts’ management at the Marylebone and Olympic, and finally for a tour of Ireland to recoup their ruined finances after the disaster of Watts’ arrest. I think it might have been the appearances at the Marylebone and Olympic that really cemented their friendship. Although Brooke had made his mark on the London theatrical scene with his portrayal of “Othello,” and was much in demand, they, along with E.L. Davenport and Watts’ assemblage of other theatrical notables such as the Wigans, and T.P. Cooke made up an “all-star” ensemble cast who mounted dazzling productions of both Shakespeare and other classics as well as brand new shows written specifically for them by literary figures such as G.H. Lewes, Wilkie Collins, and Henry Spicer.

A theatrical manager who didn’t have the corporate sponsorship that the Globe Life Insurance Company was unwittingly providing for the Marylebone and the Olympic would have never had the up-front money to try this particular innovation of Walter Watts’. Instead of hiring actors by the show like every other London manager, and frugally limiting himself to as few star performers per production as necessary, Watts hired his stars by the season and then put all of them in everything. This, however, required actors with a certain generous, democratic mind-set like the Americans Mowatt and Davenport, who advocated doing away with the so-called “star system” that gave preferential billing by the type of role, or like G. V. Brooke who was willing to “flip the script” on the role that had made him famous and play Iago opposite Davenport’s Othello just for the artistic and intellectual challenge.

Perhaps it was this willingness to set ego aside that assuaged some of Brooke’s less palatable qualities for Mowatt. He was, by all reports, an extremely sincere and likeable person. Gustavus Brooke’s generosity was more legendary than any of his other character flaws combined. Not only was he liberal professionally and financially (to a flaw) with his fellow performers, but his acts of charity were unstinting. Even when creditors were hounding him day and night, he gave performances to benefit the poor and routinely donated a portion of his income to towards buying blankets for the homeless at each municipality he visited.

In Ireland in the 1840s, he was so popular, not only for his talent, but because of his good works, that when he entered a town, people would crowd around his carriage, un-hook his horses and draw his vehicle themselves. His autobiographer reports that Irish mothers in the 1840s taught their children to pray, “Lord save Ma, Pa, and Gustavus Brooke.” 1

It is my opinion that other than Mowatt, Watts’ sudden downfall had the most negative impact on the subsequent career trajectory of Brooke. Watts was only within Brooke’s orbit for a short time, but provided him with much needed financial stability and artistic challenge at a critical juncture. Watts very literally kept Brooke out of debtor’s prison on the eve of some of his greatest triumphs on the London stage. Brooke fit in well with Mowatt, E.L. Davenport, and the rest of the “all-star” ensemble at the Marylebone and later the Olympic Theater. Reviews from productions show that the tragedian was taking risks, growing artistically, and becoming much more than the Macready imitator he had been when he first hit the Dublin stages as a teenager.

Brooke was a bad manager of his finances, tended to trust the wrong people, drink excessively, and make bad career moves, so I’m not completely certain of a rosy outcome for my proposed alternate history, however, if Watts had not been arrested; it is possible the Olympic could have become an economically and artistically secure home-base for the tragedian eliminating the need for some of the more high-risk endeavors he undertook to try to repair the damages from his increasingly frequent financial disasters.

In his last, most ill-starred quest to re-store his annihilated bank account and professional reputation, Brooke sailed for Melbourne, Australia aboard the S.S. London on January 1, 1866. Ten days later, the ship was hit by a violent storm at sea. The steam engines failed and the ship began to sink. Brooke helped man the pumps for days. Although following the rule of “women and children first,” the sailors in charge of filling the London’s few lifeboats offered the celebrity a place. Brooke refused and went down with his ship. Notes he put in bottles for his wife, Avonia, washed ashore weeks later.

Despite his flaws and shortcomings, there was something about Gustavus Brooke that won people like Anna Cora Mowatt over and made them love him deeply. Brooke had talent, personality, spirit, generosity, and devoted friends. What he never seemed to have was consistency, impulse-control, foresight, or a single ounce of pure luck.

1. Lawrence, William J. Life of Gustavus Brooke, Tragedian. Belfast: W & G Baird, 1892. Page: 139.