Part XX: The Lady of Lions Takes a Final Bow
What would a farewell tour be if the star didn’t sneak in one last, tearful curtain call just for the fans? As one of the U.S.’s first generation of theatrical celebrities, Anna Cora Mowatt’s grand retirement from the stage managed to set what would become a cliché for the countless divas who would follow. Although the speech she gave in front of the crowds gathered at her last performance at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston on June 2, 1854 implied that it was end of her career as an actress, tickets were already on sale for her appearance at Niblo’s on June 3rd. Perhaps plans hadn’t been finalized when she wrote the speech. Or perhaps this bonus performance was the sort of gesture perfected by James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, who would stagger weakly away from the stage aided by companions, only to burst back to life and perform with twice the energy as before. Accounts like the following, written in reference to her first appearance at Niblo’s Garden, indicate that plans for the second, unannounced benefit performance were made during Mowatt’s previous engagement at that New York venue;
On Saturday evening, Niblo’s beautiful house was crowded with the largest audience ever assembled therein, to give a parting greeting to Mrs. Mowatt, who purposed on that occasion to bid farewell to the stage. The outside pressure at the doors was unparalleled, and hundreds of persons were obliged to go away unsatisfied, finding it impossible to get even into the lobbies. During the performances, Mrs. M. was almost constantly applauded, and at the close she was vociferously called for. There was a little delay in her coming, and when she did appear she stated that she had been waited upon by a committee of gentlemen, who had induced her to promise that she would give one more performance before leaving the stage.1
Immediately after Mowatt’s farewell performance in Boston, an official invitation from this committee of prominent gentlemen addressed to the actress was printed in New York papers. This advertisement/invitation appeared on June 3rd – the day of the performance at Niblo’s;
TO MRS. ANNA CORA MOWATT – Madame: Upon the eve of your final retirement from a profession which you have at once adorned by brilliancy of talent, and elevated by loftiness of character, to whose illustration you have brought all womanly graces, and whose instructions you have pointed with all womanly virtues, we feel the peculiar propriety of a request which private friendship and public admiration alike inspire.
We are unwilling to allow a career so triumphant to close even so prosperously, and in a manner so entirely agreeable to your own choice, without asking you to gratify us and your other friends and fellow citizens – for such the people of New York, the home of your family, may justly be called – by accepting a complimentary benefit at such time and place as you may appoint.
Confident that private life upon which you enter under such flattering auspices, will be as happy as your public career has been successful, we indulge the hope that you will grant us this last public opportunity of manifesting our appreciation of the authoress, our admiration of the artist, and our high respect for the woman.
George Bancroft H.H. Ward Benj. D. Silliman
Saml. B. Ruggles W.C. Bryant James Phalen
Robert Le Roy Richard G. White W.H. Paine
Robert Emmet Erastus Brooks A.M. Cozzens
Chas. E. Strong Watts Sherman James W. Gerrad
E. K. Collins Chas. Kuhn, Jr. Theodore Dahon
F. Sheldon, Jr. Francis R. Tillon Royal Phelps.2
Mowatt’s positive reply appears as part of the same advertisement;
GENTLEMEN – I find it difficult to make a fitting reply to your complimentary letter, just received. This difficulty I have never experienced in answering other letters of the same nature. My excuse for not framing into language the emotions which your words of commendation have excited lies in the poet’s assertion, “Full hearts, few words.” Will it not be received? And will you not believe that if I felt less I could say more, and accept the feeling in the place of its expression?
My engagement in Boston terminates June 2. The compliment you design for me I will gratefully accept on the evening of June 3, at Niblo’s Garden. That evening must close my dramatic career, and I rejoice that it will end where it began – in the city which you have rightly termed “the home of my family.”
I am gentlemen, with earnest sincerity, yours, &c.
ANNA CORA MOWATT.3
If the fans in Boston were miffed, there was no time to object. Tickets had already been sold. Mowatt was in New York. The performance was a done deal. They were reading reviews of it in the morning news. The papers had moved on to speculation about whether or not the President and his cabinet would be at the wedding and if the guest list had reached two or four thousand invitees before there was really time to work up a full head of steam. Events were moving very fast in Mowatt-world in early June of 1854.
“Autobiography of an Actress” was already in its eighth edition. Twenty thousand copies had been sold by this date. At $1.25 (the equivalent of around $30 in modern currency) the book carried one of the highest price tags of any of Ticknor, Reed, and Field’s offerings.
The tickets for the Niblo’s performance were quite expensive. Management had doubled the normal prices. Cost of admission ranged from one dollar to ten dollars for a private box. In modern money, that’s $32.50 to reserve a seat in the nosebleed section or up to $325 for a box ticket. Even at those prices, Mowatt’s fans and friends were willing to pay. Several news outlets claim that every seat was sold. The Richmond Dispatch estimated that the proceeds of the house for that night at around $6000 (modern equivalent would be approximately $210,000).4
In the following account of the performance, the writer makes special note not only of the unusual number of women in the audience but also of a notable presence of very wealthy individuals as well. “Knickerbockers” in this context refers to the upper-crust of New York society. Today we might call these individuals “One Percenters.” This description reveals that, much like her debut, Mowatt’s farewell turned into a society event at which the rich and fashionable arrived to see and be seen;
Mrs. Anna Cora Mowatt bade farewell to the stage on Saturday night at Niblo’s. The audience assembled to greet her was very large, and the most exclusively fashionable gathered within a theater for years. About two-thirds were ladies, and their gay dresses and bright smiles made a most enchanting picture. The old Knickerbockers and their descendants were represented in all their glory.5
The following reporter also makes note of the preponderance of women and the wealthy among the large crowd gathered at Niblo’s for Mowatt’s send-off;
The audience assembled on Saturday evening, to take leave of Mrs. Mowatt, was one of the most select and elegant ever assembled in the city. There was a quiet refinement, and an absence of all boisterous applause which made a marked contrast with the previous audiences. We thought we had never seen a more elegant display than when the full blaze of light fell upon from two to three thousand persons, occupying nearly all the seats of Mr. Niblo’s beautiful temple of art. The blending of pink and gold, white and blue dresses, of laces and silks, flowers and fans, rich jewels, and brighter eyes – all lighted up by the brilliancy of the airy and gorgeous theatre – gave a magnificent picture and effect to those who chose to enjoy the scene. — We have never seen a more imposing display, — albeit it was something too formal and frigid to what it would have been, had the tickets of admission been available to a more general audience.6
When writing of the Astor Place Riots, historians like to portray Edwin Forrest as a champion of a multi-ethnic collation of lower income theatre enthusiasts pitted against the “codfish aristocracy” who favored William Macready. These descriptions make it clear that Macready was not the only performer beloved by this demographic. Theatre in the U.S. was becoming geared to cater to a bourgeois market that included reputation-conscious women. Purveyors of the art form were making conscious efforts during the 1840s-50s to move theatre from a category of entertainment primarily for men associated in the popular imagination with gambling and prostitution to one increasingly tied to museums, education, high society, fashion, art, and classical music.
Although she obviously was not alone in the effort, Mowatt was an important figure in this movement to re-brand theatre in the U.S. Because she was a member of the upper class, friends, family, and associates came to see her on occasions such as her farewell. Other young ladies from wealthy families followed in her footsteps to become actresses with varying degrees of success. More importantly, prosperous women began to become regular attendees and financial supporters of the theater as reform efforts from individuals such as Mowatt began to bear fruit.
In her fiction, non-fiction, and public addresses such as the farewell speeches she would give throughout her final tour, Mowatt would stress reform in the theatre not only as the responsibility of the actors and managers, but of audiences as well. These were principles that helped her bottom line as a business-woman. However, when one reads her autobiography, it is clear that the same doctrines of reform she touts in such addresses reflect her core values as well.
As to the performance at Niblo’s on June 3rd itself, according to eyewitness accounts, it might not have been the most impressive in which Mowatt was ever a participant;
The play was “The Lady of Lyons,” the same in which, nine years ago, she made her debut at the Park Theater. Of its performance on the present occasion the less said the better. Except Mrs. M.’s part – and this is by no means her best role – it was cruelly butchered. But the people cared not for the play – They came to bid adieu to the heroine, and all the rest was of little consequence. Mrs. M. was most liberally applauded, and called out two or three times before the close of the piece.7
I appreciate that this author is willing to recognize that Pauline — although her first big role and an audience favorite — is not the greatest of Mowatt’s achievements as an actress. As the actress neared forty years old, though, her fans were showing no signs of tiring of seeing her play teenagers and were still eager to see one more repetition of her interpretation of this beloved character.
Another writer joins the first reviewer in blaming a persistent problem – lack of sufficient back-up from a hastily assembled supporting cast — for the weakness of the performance;
“The Lady of Lyons,” the play in which Mrs. Mowatt first appeared on the stage, about nine years since, was selected for this evening. We do not intend to enter into any criticism of the performance; nor is it necessary here to speak of the numerous beauties of Mrs. Mowatt’s Pauline. That she labored under the disadvantages of being very inefficiently supported, was most painfully evident.8
Another reporter points out Mowatt’s own fatigue as being at least partially at fault for the less than perfect performance;
Mrs. Mowatt – just now the lion of ladies – played the Lady of Lyons with great dignity, earnestness and force. It was a grand display of dramatic power, though, perhaps, the part has been better played when less fatigued. Mrs. Mowatt had made her farewell appearances in Boston on Friday night, and traveled from Boston to New York on the day of her farewell engagement here. She bore herself, however, admirably through the whole play, and her farewell address was so chaste, touching and eloquent, that it drew tears from many eyes, besides her own.9
After having been on the road traveling and performing non-stop for nearly six months while simultaneously planning a wedding and managing the release of her best-selling autobiography, Anna Cora Mowatt had every reason to be showing signs of exhaustion. Still, as these accounts attest, she managed to appear calm and composed – if a bit tearful — as she delivered her last farewell address;
When the curtain fell there was a most urgent a vociferous demand for her. She came forward, evidently very deeply affected, and made a brief, beautiful, and singularly appropriate speech of two or three minutes duration, rehearsing the circumstance of her debut, alluding to the partial kindness always show to her in this City, returning her heartfelt thanks for past favors, and bidding them all (professionally) a final adieu. She also spoke with feeling acknowledgement of the members of the profession she was now leaving. Her speech, which was constantly interrupted by her own emotion and the plaudits of the house, being concluded, she bowed herself away fairly burdened by the floral compliments showered at her feet.10
The next account emphasizes the quiet and respectful hearing the audience gave Mowatt’s address;
Mrs. Mowatt was called before the curtain at the close of the third act, and most vehemently at the close of the fifth, when, with her hands all full of flowers, which had been scattered all around her, she delivered her farewell address amidst either the intensity of silence, which eagerly caught every word that was uttered, or the warm applause which gave a hearty approval to the sentiments expressed. The manner of delivery was alike charming and impressive, from the warm-hearted sincerity of the fair authoress and actress, but no more actress hereafter. 11
Here is a transcription of the speech itself;
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: The hour has come when I must bid you, and my friends in the profession and an art to which I have devoted my best energies for some years a last farewell. It is now nine years since, a trembling debutante, I first stood before you on the boards of the old Park theatre, and in the very character which I have to-night represented for the last time. I was then doubly sustained – by the motive which prompted the attempt, and by the hope that from my own generous countrymen I should receive an inspiring welcome, and an indulgent hearing for that motive’s sake. At your judgement, I did receive the first stamp of dramatic success, and thus my public career was rendered certain. Need I recount how often since then I have been warmly welcomed? Were I to endeavor to sum up and acknowledge all of my causes of gratitude – of which the compliment to-night, and the presence here of so many whose approbation I value, whose esteem I hold most dear, is not the least – I should be bankrupt in thanks. You have, indeed, strewed the pathway of my professional life with flowers. The memory of their sweetness will ever linger around my breast. How great was the debt I owe you, I never felt so deeply as to-night, when the conviction comes home to my heart, that –
“This, my place no more shall know me” –
That in the relation of audience and actress we shall never meet again. It is not easy to bid a cold farewell; and much as I rejoice that the labors which I have imposed upon myself are ended – the trials, which neither have been few nor light, are over – the commands of the “stern law-giver” obeyed – I should be untrue if I said I felt no pain at parting. The pain is only lessened by the hope that I shall not be wholly forgotten by you – that though my star has set forever in your dramatic firmament, you will keep my memory green. To the members of the profession – amongst whom I have known so many worthy of my highest esteem and respect – I tender my grateful acknowledgement for their services, and I beg them to believe that though I now cease to stand among their number, I shall not cease to sympathize with them. I speak with my heart upon my lips when I wish that the happiness you have conferred upon me may be reflected back upon yourselves. Once more, and for the last time, I bid you farewell.12
In this speech, I note that Mowatt summons not only the memory of her first performance at the Park — for which members of the audience may have been present — but the ghost of James Mowatt as well when she references the financial necessity that drove her to seek the stage as a form of employment. On one hand, this is a very touchingly loyal gesture that brings her career full circle. However, when one considers that she makes absolutely no reference to her forthcoming marriage to W.F. Ritchie, the tenacity of her grip on the past is a bit troubling.
On June 3rd 1854, one could calculate the countdown to the time of her second wedding in hours. William Foushee Ritchie was probably standing in the wings of the theater watching her give this speech. Newspapers all over the country had been filled with the details of impending nuptials for months. There was currently a semi-scandal brewing because one paper had disclosed a list of expensive bridal gifts she had received paired with the names of those who had given them. (The list was considered an invasion of the privacy of all involved.) In short, her marriage was no secret. One would assume as she rhetorically brings her past to a close, she would open up a bridge to a brighter future for herself in the same manner that she does for her audience and for Drama. She does not. She merely takes a final bow and wishes us well.
And so Anna Cora Mowatt’s nine years on the stage drew to a close.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Pauline is not a role that, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, has the sort of intrinsic richness and breadth that can give us a viewport on Mowatt’s growth as an artist. There is finite amount a modern researcher can discover from the variety critical responses her performance of that character elicited from reviewers over her tenure on the stage. Despite all the Victorian reviewers’ talk of how much passion and power the role required, Pauline is too small a role without enough major speeches and actions to give her psychological complexity or philosophical nuance that Mowatt could have developed over time.
However, I feel I have gotten a much clearer sense of Mowatt as a performer from tracking her progress through the near-decade of productions of this single character. From reading descriptions of many eyes watching her perform this proud young girl brought low by a deceptive lover, I feel I can picture how her portrayal changed over the years. I think now I have sense of why her acting was appealing but at the same time could seem amateurish. Her style was very quiet – which was against the taste of this era. Her performances could look too effortless. Over the years, her portrayals became filled with more emotion, but never became heavy with artificial technique. Mowatt was not an entirely consistent performer. She needed good co-stars. She could be awkward when uninspired or in poor health. However, the evidence of the descriptions in the reviews of productions of “Lady of Lyons” attests to the fact that her performances steadily gained emotional depth and subtlety of physical expression with each passing year. She never stopped working on her craft even in a role like Pauline in which most U.S. audiences loved her unconditionally.
Without a doubt, a production of “Lady of Lyons” signposted almost every single event of critical biographical importance in Mowatt’s nine-year stage career. I lost count of how many times she performed this role. I think, though, that as a researcher, the most useful aspect of following the path of Paulines is that this trail sometimes took me off the narrative track set by Mowatt in her autobiography. Since this path is reinforced as almost as gospel by her biographers, Barnes and Blesi, it becomes tempting to think there is nothing of value to be discovered that she did not reveal when telling the story of her life.
It will probably come as no surprise that a good portion of what I found that was left out of the autobiography were negative reviews, minor controversies, unflattering business necessities, and material that made overt connections between her and Walter Watts. However what may be more unexpected is that Mowatt also downplayed some of her best critiques as well. In her book, she does not make it clear how close she was to the next level of stardom in England in 1849 before the Watts Scandal broke. She also fails to include material that would reveal what a break-through role Parthenia was for her. Mowatt had reached an entirely new level of fame and accomplishment in 1852. Her career was on an upswing when her marriage to William Foushee Ritchie brought it to a sudden, screeching halt. The success that remained just beyond her grasp may have been as difficult for her to accept as outright failures.
During this research, I also caught many glimpses of the Anna Cora Mowatt who did not conform to the carefully constructed public image she creates when she writes or gives beautiful, lady-like public speeches. Although I believe she was genuinely the gracious, polite, cultivated person she liked to represent herself as being, she was also a smart, focused, and ambitious business woman, who made plans, set strategies and followed through with determination. She was stubborn, brilliantly creative, and detail-oriented. Because the culture of her time did not acknowledge women as leaders, her full potential was not recognized and may have never been fully realized.
Invitations to Mowatt’s wedding included an engraving of the Ogden family crest. This symbol shows a lion standing next to an oak tree with the motto “Et si ostendo non jacto” or “Showing is not boasting.” After members of the press obtained access to copies of the invitations, some began to satirically refer to Mowatt as “The Lady of Lions.” After tracing nine years of her countless Paulines, I think that title was befitting at this time of Mowatt’s life not as a snide joke, but as a melancholy reality. The actress was a survivor of many fierce battles of life. She was scarred, but unbroken; proud, but not boastful of her achievements.
As I have indicated, I have plans to go back and explore in depth some of the non-Pauline roles I by-passed along the way and connections there was insufficient space to discuss in this series of entries. Until then, Dear Reader, we leave Anna Cora Mowatt for now – frozen in time, taking her last bow, perhaps already having second thoughts about the choices she has made and in doubt about the future she faces. In closing, I remind you of the actress’ final, fervent wish to be remembered;
“The pain is only lessened by the hope that I shall not be wholly forgotten by you – that though my star has set forever in your dramatic firmament, you will keep my memory green.”13
1. “Mrs. Mowatt’s Farewell in New York.” Milwaukee Daily Sentinel. May 29, 1854. Page 2, col. 3.
2. New York Herald. Saturday, June 3, 1854. Page 8, Col. 5.
4. “Mrs. Mowatt.” New York Tribune. June 5, 1854. Page 7, col. 1.
5. “Musical and Dramatic.” St. Louis Globe-Daily Democrat: St. Louis, Missouri. Friday, June 9, 1854. Page 2, col. 6.
6. Richmond Dispatch. June 7, 1854, Page 2, col. 2.
7. “Mrs. Mowatt.” New York Tribune. June 5, 1854. Page 7, col. 1.
8. The Washington Sentinel. June 7, 1854. Page 2, col. 3.
9. “Musical and Dramatic.” St. Louis Globe-Daily Democrat: St. Louis, Missouri. Friday, June 9, 1854. Page 2, col. 6.
10. “Mrs. Mowatt.” New York Tribune. June 5, 1854. Page 7, col. 1.
11. “Musical and Dramatic.” St. Louis Globe-Daily Democrat: St. Louis, Missouri. Friday, June 9, 1854. Page 2, col. 6.
12. “Mrs. Mowatt’s Address.” The Washington Sentinel. June 7, 1854. Page 2, col. 3.