Periodically, theatre historians seem to re-discover Charlotte Cushman. A new volume on her life and career was released this summer titled “Lady Romeo; The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity” by Tana Wojczuk. I have not yet read this book, but have listened to several interviews with the author and podcasts about Cushman inspired by interest in the publication. I did go back a re-read “When Romeo Was a Woman” by fellow Performance Studies scholar, Dr. Lisa Merill. All this — somewhat predictably — got me thinking about Anna Cora Mowatt’s experiences in productions of “Romeo and Juliet” as well as the times she had played and written “breeches roles.”
It is easy to see why Cushman must be periodically rediscovered. She does not tally with our idea of the type of person in the sort of situations who should have been successful as a public figure in Victorian society. Her romantic liaisons with the important women in her life were something of an open secret at the time. She rose to international fame playing both male and female roles. Some of her greatest successes were in these “breeches” parts. Audience grew to adore the sensitivity and romance that Cushman, acting male characters, brought to passionate love scenes opposite her favorite acting partner – her sister, Susan.
It just doesn’t sound at all Victorian, does it?
Part of the problem is that we cling to an impression of the early Victorians as being more conservative than they actually were because we’re lumping them together with the late Victorians. We also tend to give too much credence to misconceptions about the period passed on to us by writers from the 1920’s and 30’s (their grandchildren.) There are also a multitude of misconceptions about the period that arise from overgeneralizing – which it almost impossible to avoid when writing about extremely large groups of people. Also, it is essential to bear in mind that the early Victorians were pre-Freudians. Our perceptions on what is or is not appropriate or charged with sexual meaning have changed so radically due to Freud’s influence that it is really hard to swallow this idea, but family members cast as lovers did not read at all the same way to a Victorian audience as it would to a modern one.
As I said in the opening paragraph, there are several good interviews with Wojczuk and podcasts that discuss Cushman. I encourage you to seek them out, but because this material is readily available elsewhere, I am not going to spend a lot of time on her. Where I think I can add to the conversation is to offer Mowatt’s experiences as a baseline by which to contextualize Cushman’s more extraordinary career. Because the early Victorian’s love of women in breeches roles doesn’t translate well to modern theatrical tastes, it seems to be difficult for both questioners and interviewees to grasp what made Cushman unique without resorting to overstatements and distortions. Mowatt, a young, conventionally attractive woman, who rose to fame playing ingénue roles, had a variety of professional experiences that I think can serve as a fair representation of the norm for this era.
Next week I’ll discuss Mowatt’s experience donning tights herself. After that, I’ll look at two plays she penned that include male parts specifically written to be played by women. This week, though, I want to explore her adventures in the many productions of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in which she was cast over her decade-long career.
Mowatt, unlike Cushman, always played Juliet, never Romeo. However, she did act opposite several Romeos who were played by women. Indeed, her pick for her favorite of all her mimic Montagues was female.
Although the books themselves place Cushman in her proper historical context, the abbreviated versions of the story of her career presented in the broadcasts I heard in some cases distort the reality of the era a bit. A few false impressions I think listeners may have gotten from the interviews I listened to were that a) “Romeo and Juliet” was rarely performed b) male performers avoided the role of Romeo and c) Cushman’s work in breeches roles was extraordinary because few other women had ever attempted such gender-switched roles at that time.
First, then as now, “Romeo and Juliet” ranks next to “Hamlet” as the most popular of Shakespeare’s dramas. There were expurgated versions of the play by Theophilus Cibber and David Garrick from the 18th century still being used by playhouses at this time that cut sexual references and softened the tragic ending. Cushman was one of the first performers to insist on a restoration of the full Shakespearian text. However, she was not alone in this preference. William Macready had been performing full, un-cut versions of Shakespeare’s plays for many years. Sam Phelps and Mary Warner had done the same at Sadler’s Wells.
The period I focus on, 1830-1860, was the era of the tragedian. In England, Macready, Kean, and Phelps were by far the top wage earners as well as having the lion’s share of publicity and critical notice. In the U.S., similar positions were held by Edwin Forrest and Edwin Booth. Of these five performers, only Charles Kean, who had a strong partnership with his wife, Ellen Tree, continued to attempt the role of Romeo until he was in his forties.
Judging from textual cues, Romeo is not that much younger than Hamlet. Romeo is probably in his late teens. Hamlet, a university student, might be in his early twenties. However, in addition to the emotional volatility of the role that many critics note, Romeo’s youth is underlined by interactions with other characters who, in almost every scene where he appears, continually tease, scold, and overtly comment on his inexperience. The Danish prince does not have to suffer these sorts of slings and arrows.
This running barrage of Shakespearean jibes in the mouths of everyone from Tybalt to Mercutio and Friar Lawrence (with even a few good zingers from Juliet herself) has the potential to make a fifty-some-year-old actor trying to convince an audience that he’s a seventeen-or-so-year –old Romeo look pretty ridiculous. A character who is so universally ribbed and taunted does not seem at all in keeping with the gravitas of the tragedian. The great Edmund Kean flopped badly as Romeo in the generation prior to the one I’m examining. That failure could have contributed to making the next crop of headliners (with the notable exception of his son, Charles) wary of the role.
The fact that the most popular, highest paid, and most visible male performers of the day “aged out” of playing Romeo at the height of their careers does not mean that male performers avoided the role or did not find success playing the part. Because the play was very popular, productions of it could be found in theaters great and small all over the English-speaking world at this time. Many young tragedians debuted in the role of Romeo. The young lover was one of the most popular characters in John Wilkes Booth’s repertoire. In fact, I think the very last performance he appeared in before his assassination of Lincoln was a presentation of “Romeo and Juliet” opposite Avonia Jones. (There are many peculiar circumstances surrounding this production I will not go into here… Again, if you are a fledgling Theatre History major looking for a promising research topic, I say you can open up a word processing program, type “Peculiar Circumstances” as your title, start writing about Avonia Jones, and not stop until you have a Ph.D., tenure, and at least three very three very lucrative book deals.)
Jones appeared as Juliet many times early in her career. There are conflicting accounts of her days as a young actress — therefore I’m not completely sure whether or not this is true — but Jones may have appeared as Juliet opposite a Romeo played by her father, George Jones, also known as the Count Joannes… who might have been her stepfather. She did, however, definitely play Juliet opposite a Romeo portrayed by her mother, Melinda Jones. (Like I said – there are many fruitful avenues for research that can be approached from any number of theoretical perspectives.)
This brings us finally to Anna Cora Mowatt (who, as far as I have been able to determine, is of no blood relation to any of the Joneses.) Mowatt played Juliet opposite Melinda Jones’ Romeo in Boston at the Howard Athenaeum in the fall of 1851.
However, I have already exceeded my page limit for this blog entry. Mowatt and her adventures with her many Romeos will have to wait until next week…