PART VII: THE CLIMB UP AND ELLEN TREE
In 1776, the United States broke decisively from Great Britain. However, in the 1840s, the theatre world of the U.S. was undeniably still a colony of the London stage, humbly obeying its every decree in fads and trends, and making only token displays of independence. Faded stars from the British Isles ruled as kings and queens in playhouses of the East coast. The titles of English plays dominated playbills. In order to achieve the highest level of success as a star of the stage in the eye of U.S. critics, a performer had to endure the trial by fire that was playing a tour in London. Despite the disdain the English press held for American actors, in 1845, Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman were shining examples of performers who had survived this daunting task. Although less known to theater history today, Ira Aldridge was an African-American actor who also achieved great critical and popular success in England.
Talk of Anna Cora Mowatt making a pilgrimage to London right after she set foot on stage in the role of Pauline. You may remember that Edgar Alan Poe said the following a mere two months after her debut;
A lady so well-connected, and so well established in the public eye by her literary reputation, could have had no difficulty in coming upon the stage in her own fashion, and almost on her own terms. The Park, as the place of her debut, was, of course, unobjectionable, although in a negative sense. She lost no caste by coming out here, but the fact cannot be disputed that she would have gained much by first appearing in London, and presenting herself to her countrymen and countrywomen with the éclat of a foreign reputation. We say this, with a bitter sense of our national degradation, and subserviency to British opinion:–we say it, moreover, with a consciousness that Mrs. Mowatt should not have done this thing however much it would have furthered her interests.1
Poe is suggesting here that it might have been better for Mowatt’s reputation as an artist for her to choose to debut in England. This recommendation underlines the parent/child relationship between the English and U.S. theatre worlds but doesn’t take into account several practical concerns of Mowatt’s situation of which Poe wasn’t aware. First, he obviously didn’t know about the wretched state of the Mowatts’ personal finances which probably couldn’t have supported a trip to England in early 1845. Second, given the frosty skepticism with which Anna Cora and E.L. Davenport were meet when they did make it to London, I shudder to think what sort of reception Mowatt might have gotten had she gone when her grasp of even basic stage conventions was shaky and she was dealing with the added burden of William Crisp’s drinking problems.
In the fall of 1846, though, with a year of touring adding to her confidence and bank account, Anna Cora Mowatt and her husband, James, began to give serious thought to an English tour. Instead of discussing her goals and plans at this critical juncture, Mowatt uses this section of her autobiography to relate some theatrical anecdotes. In absence of commentary from her, I cannot be specific about how much agency she exercised in the planning and decision-making process of any of the steps I am going to lay out in this entry. There are a number of people who were advising and aiding her in the management of her career at this point. There are extant letters that show James Mowatt, a former high-powered New York lawyer, acting as his wife’s manager. Correspondence reveals that he handled details such as insisting that Davenport and her names appear at the top of playbills and insuring that recalcitrant theater managers give them favorable terms for benefit performances. The Mowatts’ former partner from their publishing days, Epes Sargent, was now an editor for The Boston Transcript. It is abundantly clear from the positive coverage radiating from that paper that he acted as Anna Cora’s guardian angel in the press. E.L. Davenport entered into partnership with the Mowatts with ten years of experience on the U.S. theatre scene to his credit. I have no indications as to how much the couple discussed their plans with him, but they were all on friendly terms. Business decisions the Mowatts made had a direct impact on Davenport’s career. It was in his best interest to see the couple made smart moves. Even John W.S. Hows, the drama critic from the Albion who was Anna Cora’s elocution tutor, might have been advising her on the practical considerations of mounting a London tour.
Whatever was the lineup of persons involved, the tactics deployed by “Team Mowatt” during the fall of 1846 through the spring of 1847 are more aggressively strategic than the genteel image of herself that Anna Cora usually paints. The first stage in preparing for an English tour had been securing Mowatt a suitable partner. The second had been to engage a British tutor to correct what would be perceived in London as flaws in her elocution and stage technique as well to prepare her to take on Shakespearean roles. The third stage that I will discuss in this entry is a promotional campaign to establish Mowatt as a performer of sufficient rank to be noticed by English managers and critics.
One of the early avenues of attack involved contact with the Eminent One himself, William Charles Macready. In her autobiography, Mowatt notes that her husband wrote to the great actor for advice;
Mr. Mowatt consulted with Mr. Macready. Mr. Macready thought it impolitic for my first appearance to be made in London. The provincial theatres, he said, were the seminaries of the London institutions. If an actor obtained decided celebrity in the provinces, he would, as a matter of course, receive advantageous offers from London managers. Mr. Macready proposed that I should play a round of engagements in the English provinces, and wait until my abilities had been fully tested and I had received a summons to London.2
Mowatt tells us about the contact with Macready at the end of her chapter covering the events of 1847. She does not inform us that parts of Macready’s reply had already been leaked to the press in the fall of 1846 resulting in unsourced items like this;
Mr. Macready, it is stated in a communication to the Boston Transcript, has sent assurances to Mrs. Mowatt, that if she will visit England the whole weight of his influence shall be exerted to make her career prosperous.3
Notice that the source of the leak is Epes Sargent’s Boston Transcript and that the report transforms James Mowatt’s solicitation of advice into an apparently spontaneous invitation from Macready.
While many newspaper readers may have been duly impressed, this audacious bit of publicity sparked some skepticism. The New York Atlas warned;
Macready, says the Boston Transcript, has sent assurances to Mrs. Mowatt, that if she will visit England, the whole weight of his influence shall be exerted to make her career prosperous. Mrs. Mowatt should be assured that his weight will not be a dead weight, and he will not serve her as he did the talent he employed in his own theatre.3
The Times-Picayune scoffed baldly;
Mr. Macready, it is stated in a communication to the Boston Transcript, has sent assurances to Mrs. Mowatt that if she will visit England the whole weight of his influence shall be exerted to make her career prosperous. We have serious doubts about this.4
Since Macready was an ocean away and made no denials, the assertion stood. However this incident marks the beginning of a history of writers from the Time-Picayune casting a rather jaundiced eye on all incoming information connected to Mowatt – particularly if the source has any Boston earmarks.
The next leg of the Team Mowatt’s promotional campaign was focused on enhancing Anna Cora’s status by drawing attention to comparisons between her and Mrs. Charles Kean, also known by the stage name the actress had assumed before her marriage, Ellen Tree.
Mr. and Mrs. Kean were touring the U.S. under the auspices of Ludlow and Smith’s agency, just as Mowatt and Davenport were. Ludlow and Smith’s “stock company” that year included luminaries such as Edwin Forrest, James W. Wallack, and James Murdoch. The Keans were on a parallel schedule to Mowatt and Davenport. Through the fall of 1846 through spring of 1847, in cities large enough to support at least two suitable venues, the British stars appeared in playhouses across town or even across the street from the U.S. duo. In smaller cities, one team would be wrapping up a two week tour when the other would arrive. The Keans’ stock-in-trade was exactly the same sort of romantic melodramatic fare that Mowatt and Davenport were developing as their specialty as well. Head-to-head comparisons between the two partnerships like the following were inevitable;
We witnessed the performance of this lady, at the St. Charles, on Thursday, in the character of Mrs. Haller, in the Stranger, and to say that we were pleased would be but a poor expression of our feelings – we were charmed – and to see such performances, would almost revive our youthful enthusiasm for scenic representations. Professional excellence is much more rarely attained by female than by male performers. We, perhaps, are unusually fastidious in our tastes as regards the former, but we think the general error with them is too much acting – too much of the tragedy air, tone and action, and not enough of nature. It is the natural ease and chasteness in Ellen Tree (Mrs. Kean) which constitutes the great charm of her acting and which ease and chasteness Mrs. Mowatt possesses in an eminent degree. We consider her and Mrs. Kean as the two most pleasing performers we ever saw upon the stage.6
Rather than being intimidated by the prospect of a rivalry with these veteran players, the younger Americans seemed ready to take the fight to the Brits. In the fall, as their reviews became more positive, Mowatt and Davenport added more titles to their schedule that exactly duplicated the Keans’ repertoire. Since the catalogue of plays popular with the public at this time was rather limited, I took the doubling for coincidence at first. However, when in February of 1847, Mowatt added Talford’s Ion to her list of roles; I was certain something much stronger than mere happenstance was at play.
“Ion” had been originally been written as a closet drama by lawyer Thomas Noon Talfourd. William Macready spotted the play’s potential as a starring vehicle. He premièred the tragedy at Covent Garden in 1836 at a benefit performance with himself in the title role to great popular and critical acclaim. Ellen Tree appeared as Clemanthe in this production. A few years later, she starred in a new version of the show at the Haymarket that re-imagined Ion as a breeches role. Charlotte Cushman and other actresses would headline in productions of Talfourd’s drama with much success in the 1840s-60s. Ellen Tree was the first woman to play Ion. This became one of her signature roles. Talfourd himself said of Tree’s portrayal of Ion during her tour of the U.S. in 1846 in a forward to the play written by Mowatt’s friend, Epes Sargent;
In regard to Miss Ellen Tree, who, in this country, “illustrated the hero, and made the story of his sufferings and his virtues familiar to transatlantic ears,” Mr. Talfourd says: “Who is there who does not feel proud of the just appreciation, by the great American people, of one who is not only the exquisite representative of a range of delightful characters, but of all that is most graceful and refined in English womanhood, or fail to cherish a wish for her fame and happiness, as if she were a particular friend or relation of his own?”7
Just as in 2021, no actor can step into the title role of “Hamilton” and avoid comparisons to Lin Manuel-Miranda, in 1846, Anna Cora Mowatt could not don on Ion’s sandals without knowing her work would be contrasted with Ellen Terry’s interpretation of that character.
Any lingering doubts I had that Team Mowatt was strategically fanning the flames of a Mowatt/Tree rivalry vanished when I came across the so-called “Letter from an Englishman to His Friend.” Originally published in the Knickerbocker Magazine, this essay claims to be a missive composed by a visitor comparing the two actresses. It is too long to reproduce here, but the following passage should suffice to give the overall flavor of the composition;
Any jury of critics would, I think, have conceded that the Mrs. Haller of Mrs. Mowatt last week was far superior to that of Mrs. Kean the night after. In the last scene of the play of the Stranger, it will be remembered that the domestic distress rises to a most painful pitch. A wife who, in a moment of delusion, misapprehension and weakness, has deserted her husband for a villain, accidentally encounters, after years of solitary penitence and suffering, the man she has injured. The anguish on both sides is poignant and natural. But how is it typified by Mrs. Kean? By perpetual sobs and applications of her handkerchief to her eyes. She is evidently striving by mechanical signs and sounds to convey to her audience an expression of the passion of grief. Far different and more impressive is Mrs. Mowatt’s acting in this scene. – Her sorrow is all the mightier because you see that it is suppressed. Her penitence has that dignity that she has no wish to work upon her husband’s feelings by hysterical displays of sentimental sorrow. But when the outburst of genuine grief comes at last, all the more irresistible because it has been pent up; and when she flings herself at his feet, with the prayer that he will let her see her children, she reaches the climax of a representation, which, in beauty, chastity, and tragic effect, I have never seen equaled. There are occasional crudities in the performance of Mrs. Mowatt. If a passage does not suit her taste she is apt to slur it, while Mrs. Kean would have given it an importance which it might not intrinsically possess. Herein Mrs. M. shows a lack of training, if not of discretion. A performer had better cut a passage at once, rather than do it injustice in the delivery. But in scenes of high passion and tragic intensity, Mrs. Mowatt shows a reach of genius which her more experience rival does not possess. The latter used to play “Jane Shore,” but her success in it was very indifferent. It is said to be Mrs. Mowatt’s greatest personation, after Juliet; and the character is one requiring an eminent degree, those quick sympathies and that imaginative power for which she deservedly had credit. In “Ion” I do not believe Mrs. Mowatt could ever attain the excellence of Mrs. Kean. There is little genuine passion in the character. It is cold and statue-like, not combustible like Juliet. It requires the well-drilled artist to deal with such a part; for all the effects of which it is capable are of the head rather than the heart.
The personal qualifications of these actresses may, perhaps, be balanced against each other. – Mrs. Mowatt has the stronger and sweeter voice, but her figure conveys the idea of fragility; an objection which cannot be urged against that of Mrs. Kean. Both are exceedingly lady-like and easy upon the stage; but with Mrs. Kean every movement is pre-arranged; with Mrs. Mowatt it is as natural as the stooping of a bird. The self-possession of the latter is indeed very remarkable. She always seems on the most amicable terms with her audience, as if she had that “perfect love,” which the Scriptures describe as “casting out fear.” She does not appear to dream that there are such beings in the world as carping critics and malicious spectators. All her hearers are, in her estimation, her indulgent friends; and she takes liberties with them with a grace that is irresistible. It is creditable to the American public that while they have showered their dollars upon the Keans, they have at the same time shown so thorough an appreciation of their own charming and gifted actress. May we see her soon in England. Of her success there can be no doubt. In London an ounce of genius will outweigh a tone of talent.8
It is possible that the essay could have been a letter composed by an avid theater-goer. However, if you read the entire piece, you’ll see that this aficionado was someone who was thoroughly familiar with both actresses’ personal biographies and professional resumes and just happened to see fit to brief his friend on both in the course of this missive as well. The fact that the writer strikes a hopeful note about a European tour for Mowatt could be mere coincidence. Taking the polished composition, carefully rehearsed rhetoric, and strongly ingrained bias for Mowatt into consideration, I think there is a better chance that this composition is a thinly disguised promotional piece written by someone with Mowatt’s interests in mind.
The following letter shows that even Anna Cora’s father, Samuel Ogden, was being called into service at this time to aid in this publicity campaign;
Friday Morning, 26 February 1847
Dear Sir —
I received a letter this morning from Mr. Mowatt speaking of Mrs. Mowatt’s brilliant success in New Orleans, where she has added Ion to her other characters.
He sent me the accompanying paper (New Orleans Commercial Bulletin) in which there is a very handsome notice of Mrs. Mowatt’s personation of Mrs. Haller. He says it is written by the Senior Editor of the paper which holds a rank there upon a par with the Courier and Enquirer here. He is quite anxious that the article should be copied in the latter paper if practicable; I do not know whether it is so, but rely upon your friendly feelings for my Daughter, to make the attempt with the Editors, if you think there is a chance of their publishing it. For this purpose I send you the entire paper, which perhaps it would be best to hand to the Editor.9
Remember that Samuel Ogden was not merely a proud father, but a wealthy businessman with many powerful friends. His correspondent here was Samuel Buckley Ruggles, a lawyer with influential New York political connections. The review from the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin favorably comparing Mowatt’s interpretation of Mrs. Haller with Ellen Tree’s not only appeared in the Courier, it was reprinted in several papers throughout the Northeast. This is the review I quoted at the beginning of this section.
I think that in the fall of 1846, Team Mowatt found they needed both a stronger and more specific type of response from the press than they were currently receiving. The managers of London theaters weren’t going to get excited about hiring an American actress who merely had great potential or who might someday rival Charlotte Cushman. Mowatt needed press clippings that ranked her favorably in comparison to an English actress of known reputation. It can be argued exactly how high Mr. and Mrs. Keans’ popularity stood with the British theater-going public at that time (as with many performers, the couple’s career had its ebbs and flows), but the pair were respected fixtures of the London stage whose names and standing would be familiar to anyone in a position to make a gamble on engaging an unknown actress from the U.S.
From fall of 1846 to spring of 1847, I believe that James Mowatt, working with Epes Sargent and an unknown number of other confederates, launched a covert and aggressive media campaign that utilized Ellen Tree as a measuring stick to aid him in selling Anna Cora Mowatt to British theater managers. I am not certain the extent to which Anna Cora was aware of this promotional strategy. She was, however, at the least playing an active part by agreeing to take on roles that put her in direct competition for critical attention with Mrs. Kean.
In the previous entry, I discussed how Mowatt took months off to study and take lessons, methodically improving her mastery of the craft of acting. Critics also noted that E.L. Davenport made similar rapid improvement to his stage technique after signing with the Mowatts. Although less idealistic, I think this publicity campaign aimed at smoothing the way for a London tour spear-headed by James Mowatt shows the same sort of focused, disciplined, hard-nosed, business-like approach that gave this partnership so much success in their early years in the theatre.
To my dismay, I find that I have reached the end of the entry and run out of time to relate the story of the last performance of “Lady of Lyons” Mowatt and Davenport gave before sailing to London – as is the theme of this series. Return next week to hear about adventures of Pauline and Claude in the frontier city of old Cincinnati!
1. Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Drama.” The Broadway Journal. July 19, 1845. Page 29, col. 1.
2. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage. (Ticknor, Field, and Reed: Boston, 1856) Pages 269.
3. “Mrs. Mowatt.” The Sun. October 15, 1846. Page 2.
4. “Movements.” New York Atlas. November 8, 1846. Page 2, col. 4.
5. Times-Picayune. October 23, 1846. Page 3.
6. “Mrs. Mowatt.” Boston Courier. March 5, 1847, Page 1, col. 7.
7. Sargent, Epes. The Modern Standard Drama; a Collection of the Most Popular Acting Plays, with Critical Remarks, also the Stage Business, Costumes, etc. (Berford: New York, 1846,) Page vii.
8. “The American and English Actress.” The Boston Bee. February 4, 1847. Page 2, col. 3.
9. Blesis, Marius. Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. 1938. University of Virginia, PhD dissertation. Page 212.