Part VI: Actress versus Actress
[This multi-part series of entries examines Anna Cora Mowatt’s experience playing the lead role in Thomas Noon Talfourd’s “Ion.” If you are unfamiliar with the play, a full cast recording of this classic drama is available at Librivox]
I became interested in taking a closer look at Anna Cora Mowatt’s portrayal of the lead role in Thomas Talfourd’s “Ion” while I was writing a series of blog entries about her experiences playing Shakespeare’s Juliet. In my reading, I noticed a particular pattern of omissions. As years passed after her death, the fact that the actress had played breeches roles was de-emphasized or completely edited out of the story of her career by those writing about her in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Mowatt achieved her greatest popular and critical successes in the U.S. playing young women – Pauline in Bulwer-Lytton’s “Lady of Lyons” and Parthenia in “Ingomar; The Barbarian.” In England, although her turn as Edith in Henry Spicer’s “Lords of Ellington” opposite G.V. Brooke wasn’t embraced with too much enthusiasm by the critics, the show seemed to have been a commercial success. Mowatt had a string of respectable hits at the Marylebone Theatre in productions such as the title role of John Oxenford’s “Virginia” and as Blanche in her own “Armand.”
Unlike Charlotte Cushman, Mowatt was not known for her portrayals of male roles. However Ion, a role originally written for a male performer, was an established part of her repertoire in the U.S. from the second year of her career until her retirement. This character received good reviews from critics and grew to be as well-beloved by audiences as other favorites such as her interpretations of Julia from Knowles’ “The Hunchback” or Mrs. Haller from Kotzebue’s “The Stranger.”
Mowatt also played the part of King Charles II in J.R. Planché’s “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady” on several occasions during her tours of the U.S. This one-act romantic comedy frequently served as an afterpiece to round out an evening’s program for one of Mowatt’s performances. The actress usually portrayed the female lead, the Duchess de Torrenueva. However in a few instances, Mowatt took on the character of the mischievous teen-aged Spanish monarch. This part was a conventional type of light comedic Victorian-era breeches role of a naïve, young male character. Playbills from the time will attest that this role was typically played by an actress.
Additionally, Shakepeare’s Rosalind was a regular fixture in Mowatt’s repertoire from 1847 until her retirement. Although Rosalind is a female character, she disguises herself as a young man named Ganymede for much of the production. Therefore it is a role with a breeches part “built in.” Mowatt debuted her interpretation of Rosalind in England. Productions of “As You Like It” featuring her in this role were a regular part of her tours when she returned to America.
Therefore, although breeches roles were not what a Victorian theatre practitioner might define as Anna Cora Mowatt’s particular “line of business,” she did inarguably play this type of role on a regular basis. She performed this type of part often enough that a devoted fan of Mowatt’s in cities she visited frequently such as Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans, Charleston, or New York at the height of her popularity in the U.S. from 1852 to the spring of 1854 would have been likely to have seen her play a breeches role at least once.
In his 1938 dissertation, “The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt,” Marius Blesi meticulously records her many performances of “Ion” alongside Mowatt’s other productions. He even includes an excerpt from a letter from the actress to Epes Sargent’s brother in which she talks about how much she enjoys the costuming for this role. However, the author never makes note of the fact that this part is a male role. He also does not include Mowatt’s turn as King Charles in Planché’s “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady” in his otherwise exhaustive listings.
Blesi does, however, make the following comparison between Mowatt and her primary competitor for the title of queen of the U.S. Stage – Charlotte Cushman;
The English audiences felt that Mrs. Mowatt excelled in roles that called for delicacy, grace, and genuine exaltation of the imaginative faculty. She was never a tragedy queen like Charlotte Cushman. The latter had no beauty, but was “gaunt of figure and homely of feature.” Her acting sent people home ill, for she threw so much energy and electrification into her performances of Lady Macbeth, Nancy Sykes, and Meg Merrilies. “Not a particle of girlishness was ever seen in her face or displayed in her manners and deportment,” said J.R. Ireland.1
This brief paragraph goes to lengths to paint an unflattering picture of Cushman. Blesi repeats some harsh comments about the actress’ appearance and includes a hyperbolic statement about the effect of her acting. He tries to tie both of these to a negative conclusion about her comparative level of talent. Contrary to the impression this paragraph attempts to create, as you read in my last blog entry on Cushman’s portrayal of Ion, English reviewers also had plenty of praise for this actress’ capacity for what Blesi might term “delicacy, grace, and genuine exaltation of the imaginative faculty.”
Blesi seems to be exaggerating to create a contrast between the two actresses in favor of Mowatt. In previous paragraphs he had been putting forth an argument that Mowatt’s reputation in England was primarily as a light comedic actress. This is somewhat true. Mowatt certainly did not have Cushman’s reputation as a top-tier tragedienne specializing in what Victorian-era theatre practitioners would call “heavy tragedy” roles such as Lady Macbeth. However, many of the roles for which she received positive reviews while at the Marylebone were in dramas with tragic endings. Her critically praised work in the two tragedies John Oxenford wrote for her, “Virginia” and “Ariadne” certainly weren’t comic roles.
By creating this false contest between a comedienne and a tragedienne then unfairly placing his thumb on the scales for Mowatt, Blesi distorts the truth about both actresses. The slight to Cushman is obvious. The author is also shortchanging Mowatt out of the complete range of her achievements in England. The actress scored hits in both comic and tragic roles with English critics and audiences. Mowatt’s career was cut short by the Watts scandal, though. She never equaled Charlotte Cushman’s triumphs on the London stage.
Compare Blesi’s contrast between the two actresses to the following evaluation that dates from a high watermark of Mowatt’s popularity before she left the U.S. for England in 1847. This quote comes from an article in New Orleans’ Times-Picayune promoting Edith Wheatley Mason. It employs a statement made by J.W.S. Hows at the Albion to compare the two actresses;
Miss Cushman, as the embodiment of the majestic and sublime in tragedy, and Mrs. Mowatt, as the delicately finished actress in characters of pure pathos, may each fill their appropriate sphere; but the high-bred woman of fashion, in comedy, and the dignified and intellectual heroine of tragedy, may find in Mrs. Mason their fitting representative.2
The comparison derived from Hows is more accurate about the nature of the two performers’ areas of expertise. Crowning Cushman as the queen of tragedy and Mowatt the reigning princess of pathos may allow for more overlap in each performer’s area of specialty. However this more blurry line of demarcation is a better reflection of what each did best than a simple tragedienne/comedienne divide. Cushman made her mark with audiences and critics in technically challenging characterizations from emotion-packed dramas of their day as well weighty Shakespearean roles. Mowatt achieved success in mid-century historic tragedies and romantic comedies. Mowatt and Cushman had very different motivations that initiated their stage careers. The professional training that prepared each for her work as a performer differed significantly. Each brought a different type of physicality to her roles. Their areas of specialty were not the same. Hows’ quote demonstrates that it is not necessary to put these two performers in a competition that requires a writer to call one actress ugly, un-feminine, and scary in order to give the accomplishments of each proper weight. Why then, did Marius Blesi feel compelled to do so?
The omission that I wish to draw your attention to, though, is that Blesi does not list Cushman’s performance of Romeo among her successes on the English stage. The author could have clarified his argument in this paragraph by listing so-called “heavy tragedy” roles in Shakespearian and classical dramas played by Cushman instead of including characters in popular contemporary plays like Nancy Sykes and Meg Merillies. However he does not mention Romeo or any of Cushman’s other male roles at any other point in his book where he evokes her name.
Mowatt’s breeches roles do a similar disappearing act under the pens of other writers. For example, Mowatt’s performance as Ion seems to have been erased from the memory of this commentator writing in 1891;
Some thirty years ago Anna Cora Mowatt won a great reputation in our Northern cities in a certain class of stage characters – those in which refined sentiment and the softer passion required delineation. I heard her in New York in her most celebrated character, that of Pauline, in Bulwer’s play of the “Lady of Lyons.” The conflict between love and pride through which the heroine passes, the numerous love scenes in which she participated, exactly suited the style of acting of Mrs. Mowatt and were admirably portrayed by her. The bold and somewhat masculine characters in which one of her great dramatic contemporaries, Charlotte S. Cushman, excelled would not have suited her. She was best adapted to such characters as Juliet and Pauline and would have failed as a Rosalind or Meg Merrilles.3
Today we can fact-check this sort of broad claim for accuracy in seconds on our phones, but in 1891, it would have been a cumbersome task for this writer to go through back issues of thirty years of dusty newspapers and discover — contrary to their fading recollections — that Mowatt had scored triumphs in New York playing not only Rosalind but also Ion – a male role that was played by “her great dramatic contemporary,” Charlotte S. Cushman.
I think this writer is not merely being careless. Like Marius Blesi, the commentator is probably unconsciously warping memories of history to establish Mowatt as a not-Cushman. By 1891, with the popularization of Freudian theory, reviewers had become more self-conscious about their enjoyment of actresses playing breeches roles outside music halls or Christmas pantomime performances. After her death in 1876, theatre historians began to look on Charlotte Cushman’s legacy with an increasingly jaded eye. Mowatt provided an alternative that some writers latched on to as an example of a contemporary who achieved success without engaging in the types of behaviors they disapproved of in Cushman. Twice-married Mowatt, whose writings attested to the profoundness of her religious convictions, must have seemed quite safely heterosexual. Biographical sketches of her dating from the turn of the century tend to praise her femininity and lady-like deportment rather than focusing on the quality of her intellect. During her lifetime, Mowatt was often compared to male authors such as Edgar Alan Poe. At the turn of the century, it became much more common to see her used by writers as a foil for discussing the career of the more “masculine” Charlotte Cushman.
Eric Wollencott Barnes’ 1954 otherwise well-researched biography of Mowatt, The Lady of Fashion: The Life and Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt, contains one of the most adamant statements I have encountered anywhere that Mowatt never played a breeches role. Despite the fact that the copy that I own of his book comes with a picture of Mowatt in her “Ganymede” costume from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” Barnes, speaking in the imagined voice of Mowatt, proclaims;
She did not presume for a moment to think that, because Miss Cushman had won the reluctant approval of British playgoers, she could do the same. She had none of Miss Cushman’s powerful physical equipment, and certainly none of “Captain Charlotte’s” blunt manner and awe-inspiring determination which enabled her to roll over obstacles as though they did not exist. If [Anna Cora] were to make any impression on the British it would be for different reasons. She could never (would never) play “breeches” parts. Miss Cushman had acted Romeo with a virility which charmed by its novelty: the critics had proclaimed her performance more convincing than Charles Kean’s. But [Anna Cora] was all woman. Whatever gifts she had were emphasized by her essential femininity. She hoped this would be recognized.4
Barnes draws heavily from Blesi throughout his book, so it’s possible that he was paraphrasing the paragraph from “Life and Letters” to create Mowatt’s thoughts about what English reaction to her acting might be out of Blesi’s summary of what English reaction to her time there was. “Ion” would have been a rather obscure play by 1954. The role wasn’t one of Mowatt’s major successes. Forgetting about it could just be a bit of scholarly sloppiness.
However Barnes goes to as great an effort as Blesi to drive home that there is a divergence between “feminine” Mowatt and “virile” Cushman. Although he isn’t as openly insulting as Blesi, note the ways Barnes undercuts Cushman’s achievements: she only receives reluctant approval. Her manner is blunt. The primary appeal of her portrayal of Romeo was mere novelty. I’m not certain if this is what Barnes is referencing, but “Captain Charlotte” was the title of a farce by Edward Stirling published in 1843. The plot of the comedy centers on milliner who cross-dresses as an army officer in order to entrap a lover. If this is the allusion Barnes is making, it’s a rather rarified one for a historian who seems to have forgotten that in one of the very few contemporaneous illustrations we have of Anna Cora Mowatt’s stage career, she’s wandering around the Forest of Arden dressed as a boy…
All snark aside, I am drawing attention to these passages in these books not to parade my pedantry, but because these sorts of scholarly attacks on Charlotte Cushman were not rare occurrences in the late 19th and early 20th century. This pitting of Mowatt against Cushman was probably not just a case of overly zealous researchers promoting their person of interest against a landmark figure of the era. It is unfortunately not difficult to find other examples of leading ladies of the 1800s being over-hyped by turn of the century theatre historians to Cushman’s detriment. These false comparisons were an insidious technique that has been used to un-tell the story Cushman’s remarkable career.
These inaccurate comparisons of Mowatt and Cushman’s experiences playing male roles are a subtle but an egregious example of how an imprecise representation of the facts can distort our view of history. Without saying a word about assumptions they may be making about the sexual preferences of either person or why they may be viewing mid-19th century enthusiasm for breeches roles as aberrant and morally suspect, writers created a false dichotomy between the two actresses. A new narrative is established in which the “beautiful” and “feminine” Mowatt never takes on male roles like the “ugly” and “masculine” Cushman does. Mowatt is associated with comedy – drama’s happy face. Cushman belongs to tragedy – the face of death and sorrow. Audiences love Mowatt. Cushman’s performances literally make viewers sick.
As a reader, after listening to this story, who do you admire and want to emulate? What theatrical practice should you avoid?
Telling a distorted story of someone’s life and career can be worse than not telling their story at all. Theatre historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have both failed to tell Charlotte Cushman’s story and miss-told it as well. As frequently as she is left completely out of accounts of 19th century theatre, it is unfortunately equally possible to find writers who caricature her as the sort of unappealing ogre that she seems to be in these excerpts from books about Mowatt.
In creating a warped vision of the past, such authors have also failed to give us a complete picture of the full range of Anna Cora Mowatt’s experiences as an actress. Breeches roles might not have been her specialty, but they were part of her journey. As I will cover in the next entries, “Ion” served some important functions in her career. Her interpretation of this role spoke to audiences. At least one reviewer found deep resonances between the actress’ biography and the personality of the Argive youth;
We had expected great things from Mrs. Mowatt’s personation of Ion, and our expectations were more than realized. The poet-hero of the play was never more beautifully represented. There is something in this highly poetic creation of Talfourd’s which is near akin to this talented woman’s own inner sense. She is herself an Ion wanting only the circumstances which surrounded him of Argos to unfold and develop her character. Hence she was enabled to present the enthusiastic boy as the poet’s soul had created him in all his unearthly loveliness and heroism.5
Return for the next few entries where I explore the practical and personal functions that this “unfeminine” role that vanished from the memories of her biographers served in the professional and artistic life of Anna Cora Mowatt.
- Blesi, Marius. “The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt.” Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1938. Page 266.
- “The Reappearance of Mrs. Mason.” Times-Picayune: New Orleans. Jan. 8, 1847. Page 2, col. 4
- “Some Celebrated Actors.” The Times: Richmond, VA, August 23, 1891. Page 9, col. 1.
- Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. Page 189.
- “Theatre.” The Courier- Journal: Louisville, Kentucky. Wednesday, April 12, 1854. Page 3.