Part III: Anna Cora Strikes Gold as Martha
[A recording of this play is available at Librivox ]
Martha Gibbs, the pure-hearted heroine of J. Maddison Morton’s “All That Glitters Is Not Gold,” was not the most important role Anna Cora Mowatt would play in the 1850s. Parthenia of the comic melodrama “Ingomar, the Barbarian” would win her more acclaim. However, Martha was a role that came along at a very critical time in Mowatt’s career. Playing this sweet but humble factory girl stabilized the actress’ reputation with audiences in a number of crucial ways at a critical juncture in her career.
As I discussed in my series of articles about Mowatt’s performances in the role of Pauline in Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘The Lady of Lyons,’ the actress’ return to the U.S. in 1851 was more rocky than she and her supporters could have wished. The consistent upwards trajectory of her stage successes in London had been brought to a screeching halt by Walter Watts’ arrest, trial, and death. Her husband and manager, James Mowatt was dead. She had been through a long illness. She was four years older than when she had left the U.S. She had gained weight. All of these factors were serious strikes against her in the eyes of some sectors of the U.S. theater-going public. Winning back the hearts of fans and the minds of the critics wouldn’t be easy. She would have to struggle to regain her spot in the top echelons of the American theatre world.
Anna Cora Mowatt was a fighter, though.
The actress marshaled her resources, leaned heavily on her friends in the press for positive coverage, and was exceedingly strategic in her choice of roles. Kind, honest, hard-working Martha Gibbs was a perfect example of the type of character that Mowatt was selecting during this time.
Mowatt was not the first woman to play Martha in the United States, however. Julia Bennet Barrow debuted in the role at the Broadway Theatre in early March of 1851. Barrow, who still performed under her maiden name, Julia Bennet, was an English actress recently arrived in New York. She was five years younger than Mowatt. “All That Glitters” was a smash hit for Barrow, who went on to become the manager of the Howard Athenaeum a few years later.
Alexina Fisher (later Alexina Fisher Baker) would also make a star turn as Martha Gibbs in 1851. Fisher was two years younger than Mowatt. The actress had garnered praise for good looks and accomplishments as a singer as well as for her interpretations of ingénue roles like Martha. Fisher was a relative by marriage to the illustrious Drew family of actors of Philadelphia and their even more famous offspring, the Barrymores, who would go on to be stars of the silver screen.
Although she did not play Martha Gibbs at the time of the play’s debut, Julia Dean was one of Mowatt’s primary competitors at this time. Eleven years younger than Mowatt, the vivacious Miss Dean duplicated most of the older actress’ repertoire of comic and dramatic roles. There was national press coverage when Mowatt allowed Dean to play the role of Blanche in her play “Armand” without paying the usual royalty fees. Mowatt had designed the character of Blanche to showcase her own strengths onstage. Her generous gesture was obviously meant to undercut rumors of a rivalry between Dean and herself.
Conversely, though, we can see Mowatt’s willingness to grant Dean’s request to play Blanche not just as generosity or the denial of a rivalry, but as a sign of confidence and as a dismissal of any anxiety about that competition on her part. As was true of her decision to take on an ingénue role like Martha Gibbs at age thirty-five, Mowatt was aware that critics and audiences were comparing her performances to those of younger actresses who were growing in popularity. In granting permission to Dean to play the showcase role of Blanche, Mowatt was politely signaling that she believed she was still in her prime as an actress and could hold her own with the rising generation of starlets.
Although, as I have mentioned previously, “All That Glitters” contains a few lines and plot elements that will probably strike modern audiences as sexist or culturally insensitive, in the 1850s, the play was a solid example of family-friendly entertainment. Toby Twinkle might thumb his nose at conventional behavior to elicit a laugh, but truthful and self-sacrificing heroine Martha Gibbs was a paragon of middle-class values. Virtue scores a solid victory over vice at the end of Morton’s play.
The script was a perfect example of the type of light-hearted, non-controversial entertainment that theater enthusiasts in the United States who were conscious of their reputation could feel comfortable attending. The role of Martha and the acceptability of the script to audiences leery of scandal kept the play in line with Mowatt’s established standing as an advocate for theatre reform.
“All That Glitters” enjoyed a long run at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York after its premiere at the Broadway Theatre in 1851. Because of Barnum’s later association with the genre of circus performance and his American Museum’s reputation for sometimes exhibiting questionable or outright fraudulent oddities, people tend to forget that the establishment also hosted full theatrical productions.
The museum circuit in the United States was composed of a collection of theaters in-all-but-name in the mid-19th century that catered to a reputation-conscious clientele. They existed primarily in conservative cities like Boston and were often paired with established theaters. In Mowatt’s novel “Twin Roses” an American character explains these venues to English visitors in this way;
Museum was only another name given to a theatre by means of which a certain narrow prejudice was “whipped round the post” of conscience. That the same plays were represented in one as in the other – the same actors were in the personators. The audiences of the Museum were high-toned and appreciative. They were chiefly composed of the religious portion of the community who eschew theatres. Even Quakers flock to the museums.1
In addition to presenting shows, these Victorian-era theater/museums had other features that would be quite familiar to us today as the type of events routinely hosted by modern museums. Just as Barnum’s American Museum did, they contained exhibits of cultural artifacts. These venues quite frequently doubled as lecture halls for academic and religious speakers, reinforcing their uplifting pedagogical, spiritual, and civic goals for the communities they served. The museums emphasized the literary and educational qualities of the dramatic material they presented. The performance spaces of the museums strictly observed the guidelines recommended by proponents of theatre reform – which included rigorously enforced prohibitions against everything from patrons spitting tobacco on the floors to prostitutes soliciting clients in the galleries.
Although she was a staunch advocate of the spirit behind such reforms, Mowatt seldom appeared in venues labeling themselves as museums rather than theaters. Other than the somewhat sardonic tone she assumes when describing the lifestyle of an actor playing the museum circuit in “Twin Roses,” she took no other opportunity to comment on the practice. I would extrapolate from the tenor of her observations within that novel that she found the double standards practiced by the attendees more than a little hypocritical.
In February of 1852, Mowatt began a series of performances at the Howard Athenaeum that would prove pivotal to the remainder of her career. Boston was always a good city for the actress. She had many friends in the press. Her Bostonian fan base was large and loyal, dating back to her days as a public reader. Wyzeman Marshall’s company at the Howard Athenaeum was particularly strong that season and in good graces with the critics. As you may remember from my series of essays on her “Pauline” performances , Mowatt had made a well-received visit in the fall of 1851 to the venue. It’s no wonder that when she was ready to debut new material, Anna Cora returned to her friends in Boston at the Howard Athenaeum.
That winter, Boston audiences had already fallen head over heels for Marshall and Mowatt’s portrayal of the leads in Maria Lovell’s offbeat romantic comic melodrama, “Ingomar, the Barbarian.” To follow up the heavy tragedy of Talford’s “Ion,” the company presented the premiere of “All That Glitters” as a benefit night for Mowatt on the 27th of February. Wyzeman Marshall again played the romantic lead. This time he took on the role of Stephen Plum opposite Mowatt’s Martha Gibbs.
The lion’s share of the reviewers’ comments went to “Ingomar” for Mowatt’s run of performances in Boston. The show proved so popular that Wyzeman Marshall took a brief leave of absence from his own theater to perform the play at neighboring playhouses with Mowatt. The role of Parthenia was to become an overwhelming audience favorite for her for the remainder of her career. Her performance in this part, combined with her strong turn in the tragic role of Ion and her display of her gift for comedy in “All That Glitters” boosted her back to the top ranks of U.S. actresses.
A reviewer from the Times Picayune said the following of her performance as Martha Gibbs when Mowatt played the St. Charles Street Theater in New Orleans a few weeks later;
Most actresses convert the factory girl, living in a garret and spinning cotton for her bread, into a much finer lady, more delicately fingered and daintily bred than the Lady Valeria or any other lady. Mrs. Mowatt represents her as a girl with a good heart and some breeding, but in all general features a factory girl working for her bread. Her earlier acquaintance with Lady Valeria had not been able to infuse into her all the admirable traits of an educated and accomplished woman, and she did not show them.2
Part of Mowatt’s appeal as an actress on the U.S. stage stemmed from the fact that she had been born into a well-to-do family. From early childhood, she had been trained to behave like a proper, upper-class lady. Therefore when she played noble or wealthy women onstage, her performances had a ring of authenticity that set her apart from the majority of her contemporaries who typically came from middle or lower class backgrounds. This sweet, yet refined, seemingly effortless, lady-like demeanor charmed and fascinated audiences.
Although the concept of “de-glamming” was alien to Victorian-era audiences, in addition to her excellent comic timing, this strategy also probably accounts for part of the success of Mowatt’s portrayal of Martha Gibbs and why this particular role might have posed an attractive challenge for her.
When modern actresses choose to ‘de-glam’ themselves, the primary intent is usually to play against type and thus showcase their range and talent as a performer. By playing downtrodden women who audiences may perceive as vulgar or unappealing on stage, actresses can seek to demonstrate their capacity to eschew their own egos and commit to realistically presenting the hard realities of their character. Although there are many obvious pitfalls in the often very self-serving practice of de-glamming, this type of commitment from performers can communicate important messages about identity and appearance as audiences are constantly bombarded with images of perfect, air-brushed women in popular culture. Theater should be a space where female performers can explore different aspects of human nature and reveal something other than their perfect looks.
The Times-Picayune review seems to indicate that Anna Cora Mowatt was using the role of factory girl Martha Gibbs to distance herself a bit from the well-bred and lady-like persona she had carefully nurtured both on and off stage. It wasn’t as radical a move as if she had, for example, chosen to play the prostitute Nancy Sykes in a production of “Oliver Twist.” However, the golden cage of charming, passionate, but inoffensive, affluent young ladies her audiences preferred her to play may have been becoming a bit boring and restrictive to Mowatt. Playing a working class character in a more realistic manner might have been the actress’s way of pushing at those invisible boundaries. She may have wished to teach her fans that she could exceed their expectations about the type of roles she could play without alienating them.
Of course, unlike most instances of true de-glamming, Martha Gibbs exists not in a gritty tragedy, but as the heroine of a proto-romantic comedy. In the 19th century, critics and theatre historians did not group dramatic works into subject matter genres in the same way we do today. The primary manner of classification was by length. Most plays of the period were either full-length five-act dramas or short one-acts. Because of laws governing where plays could be performed before the passage of the Patent Act in 1843, another very important way of classifying content was by how much and what kind of intrinsic music it contained. For example, a “burletta” was a short comic play with a lot of songs – a mini-musical. As I have often mentioned, melodramas got their name because they had to include melodies.
Romantic comedy was a genre that began to develop during this time. These plays were different in style and tone from the stylish and biting Comedy of Manners that preceded them or Shakespeare’s melancholy and wise dramas about merry mix ups with lovers that ended happily that were still popular with Victorian-era audiences. Plays like “All That Glitters” were early examples of what we now call romantic comedy. These scripts were influenced by both the sentimentality of melodrama and the impudence of the Christmas pantomime. Such plays contained sweet and noble ingénues like Martha Gibbs side by side with Harlequinesque jokers such as Toby Twinkle. The subject matter of these shows mixes the pursuit of thwarted love with jokes about class struggle, women’s rights, contemporary politics, and other topical concerns of the audience.
Critics complained that such scripts were neither fish nor fowl — not funny enough to be comedies, but too silly to be taken seriously as romances. However, since these proto-rom-coms could easily fit into their standard slots of one-act/five-act, comedy/tragedy, musicals or dramas, Victorian-era writers did not create a new classification and affix a unique label to these plays. Therefore we do not tend to trace romantic comedy’s origins back to this time period. This is, in my opinion, a great shame. I think that a lot of the embedded values in the characters and tropes of this genre would be much more easily decoded if we traced its roots all the way back to the early 1800s instead of the early 1980s.
Although Martha is, as I just stated, a character type borrowed from melodrama, listen to this description of her and mark how perfectly her traits and plotline matches up with all the classic characteristics of the typical romantic comedy heroine:
Martha Gibbs is an orphan. She comes from a lower-class background. She is intelligent and resourceful, but her poverty prevents her from being able to fully take advantage of her talents. Martha is passionate and impulsive, but also kind and caring. She has to combat accusations of promiscuity because of her outgoing personality.
She is in love with her employer’s son, Stephen Plum, whom she considers to be unattainable because of the differences in their social classes. Other characters in the story consider him too good for her. In order for her to prove herself worthy of Stephen, Jasper Plum arranges for her to live as a high society lady with the family for three months. Because of her inexperience and differing values, she makes several “mistakes” that lead to a crisis in the plot, but her honesty and loyalty ultimately proves her worthy to join the family and win the love of her dream partner.
Add a Christmas tree, a photogenic setting, and “All That Glitters” could be a Hallmark movie, couldn’t it?
After nearly two centuries, the genre has become more than a little threadbare. However, when Anna Cora Mowatt and Maddison Morton were writing their funny romances like “Fashion” and “All That Glitters,” that poked fun at contemporary concerns about class and gender, they were exploring new ground in a format that was then fresh, audience-engaging, and entertaining. It is a bit of an adjustment to think about a genre as well-worn as the romantic comedy in this manner, but what I’m suggesting is that that taking on the role of Martha was in part Mowatt’s way of showing that she was still “hip,” “with it,” and “knew what the kids liked” in 1852.
In the fall of 1851, Anna Cora Mowatt was at a crisis point in her career. Rumors of scandal had followed her from London. There were mutterings in the press that she had aged out of the ingénue roles that had once made her a star and complaints about how the weight she had gained ruined her once sylph-like look on stage. During her four years in London, a bevy of new, younger actresses had stolen the favor of the U.S. audiences who had once flocked to see her. Because American stars toured not with one hit show but with a repertoire of nearly a week’s worth of plays, Mowatt needed not just a single powerhouse performance, but a whole bravura block of work to put before the public that would prove she wasn’t a washed-up has-been.
Parthenia, Ion, and Martha Gibbs, were all part of a carefully balanced formula that demonstrated the actress’s talent, range, and ability to consistently draw large audiences to playhouses up and down the East Coast. This skillfully composed package succeeded so well that by spring of 1852, a Boston paper would proclaim;
Mrs. Mowatt is a rising star. She is a glorious one. And what is better, is all American. She is today, in many respects, the queen of the American stage.3
Although overshadowed by unexpected triumph of the odd, sentimental melodrama “Ingomar,” and the technical challenges posed by tackling Talford’s “Ion,” I feel Mowatt’s success in the role of Martha Gibbs was a key component in re-establishing her star credentials with U.S. audiences. Although it has an old-fashioned feel to us today, “All That Glitters” was a hot new comedy with broad-based audience appeal in 1852. In taking the script on, Mowatt was demonstrating that she was willing to move with the times. She showed that she did not have to rely only on classic scripts and roles that had already met with audiences’ approval. At thirty-five, she was still confident enough in her powers as a performer to put her interpretation of an ingénue role out for critical evaluation beside the performances of younger actresses.
Mowatt also demonstrated that she was unafraid to leave her comfort zone and portray a working class character instead of relying on the ability to play aristocratic or the noble-born ladies that her privileged background afforded her. The role of Martha requires a light touch — calling for the actress to be able to both handle comic lines and deliver a strong emotional performance without becoming so overwrought that those moments feel forced and sappy. Reviews and public response show that Mowatt was up to this challenge.
In a larger view, I feel that shows like ‘All That Glitters’ and Mowatt’s ‘Fashion’ should encourage us to broaden our perspective of 19th century drama. Such comedies should not be forced to lie down on the Procrustean bed of sensation melodrama. These proto-romantic comedies were a distinct genre with its own unique narrative patterns, tropes, stock characters, and situations. When we blandly assume that Victorian era theatre was limited to a strict diet of melodrama, we lose sight of the wide variety of writing that actually took place during that time. We fail to appreciate the rich tapestry of historical and cultural influences that came to bear on the dramatic productions of the day. Probably most significant of all, we fail to realize the extent to which the entertainment we still consume today is shaped by the echoes of the drama so loved by the Victorians.
In the fall of 1851, Anna Cora Mowatt returned to the U.S. haunted by scandal. She was still grieving the loss of her husband and processing the events that comprised the Watts Scandal. Her physical health was fragile and her finances were in ruins. If you flip through your mental file folders devoted to tabloid accounts, you can probably come up with several examples of contemporary actresses or entertainers in similar situations who found a very cold reception when they tried to mount a comeback after having hit rock bottom. Critics and public opinion of 19th century could be even more harsh and judgmental. However, by spring of 1852, Mowatt had not only survived but was thriving. She was once more a queen of the U.S. stage. The strategic choice to play Martha Gibbs was just one step in her breathtakingly swift climb back to the top.
- Ritchie, Anna Cora. Twin Roses, a Narrative. (Ticknor and Fields: Boston, 1857.) Page 162.
- “Amusements.” New Orleans: The Daily Times-Picayune, March 07, 1853. Page 1, col. 4.
- “Mrs. Mowatt.” Boston Daily Bee. March 2, 1852. Page 1, col. 1.