December 22, 1849 marked the beginning of a truly awful fourteen month period filled with tragedy, dramatic reversals of fortune, and unexpected shocks for Anna Cora Mowatt. It all began with what started out as a magnificent party.
Walter Watts was turning over management of the Marylebone Theater to Edward Sterling. Sterling was an actor who had started out as a bank teller. He was also an experienced stage manager. There are indications that Watts intended to keep some financial and artistic control over the Marylebone. In other words, Watts seemed to be launching what would look to modern eyes like a franchise.
To celebrate the end of his successful three-year tenure as the Marylebone’s manager, Watts threw a mid-afternoon party on the theater’s large stage. There was a banquet with lots of champagne for the cast, crew, and invited guests from London’s social and literary elite. Alfred Smith, who today we would call a stand-up comedian, performed a routine he wrote for the occasion that had everyone in stitches. The stage was cleared for dancing. Imagine a ballroom scene from “The King and I” or “Gone With the Wind” with swirling crinolines and gentlemen in white bow ties.
Around 3:00 in the afternoon, the festivities were beginning to break up and the first disaster in Anna Cora Mowatt’s horrible year struck from out of nowhere. A chorus girl paused by the footlights to talk to a friend. When she turned, the edge of her horsehair petticoat dipped into one of the gas jets and burst into flame.
Despite the girl’s heart-rending screams as her garments burned in a fiery cage around her, for what seemed later to Mowatt like an unpardonably long time no one went to the young woman’s aid. Instead, they froze or ran away.
At that time, theatrical fires were common and deadly. Everything in a theater – costumes, lead-painted props, cotton-backed curtains, painted scenery – almost seemed designed on purpose to act as an accelerant. There were no windows and few exits. In case of fire, a theater was a death-trap. Party-goers, seeing the flames and not know the cause, probably assumed that they too were about to die in a conflagration.
Mrs. Renshaw, a low-wage wardrobe assistant, bravely tackled the young girl and used her own garments to smother the flames. Mowatt was so impressed by Mrs. Renshaw’s clear-headedness that she hired the woman as her personal assistant, kept her at her side for a good portion of the rest of the woman’s life, and based a few fictional characters on her.
Mowatt and Watts poured their own money into seeing the chorus girl got the proper medical attention and took up a collection for her that received generous donations from the wealthy guests who attended that ill-fated party on the stage of the Marylebone. However, these good deeds could not erase the inauspicious auguries signaled by the accident. One journalist later called the party, “The Feast of Balthazar.”
In all professions, misfortune befalls members of that occupation and yet the profession itself continues undisturbed. In Theatre, the profession continues with fancy costume, makeup, laughter, and applause. Therefore, to deal with the painful cognitive dissonance of having to suffer tragedy and yet forge forward with our jobs, we theatrical folk have developed proverbs that we have set to music and turned into shows. It doesn’t always ease the pain, though, when you’re the one who is aching inside and must abruptly put that pain on hold to smile and dance in order to fulfill the requirements of your job.
Not everyone can pull off a “The show must go on” mind-set – or pull it off multiple times in quick succession. Just a week after the accident on the stage of the Marylebone Theater, Anna Cora Mowatt is standing on the stage of the new Olympic Theater, delivering a comic monologue written for her by Alfred Smith to the celebrate the grand opening of that house.
Her husband, James Mowatt, is gravely ill. He has gone to Trinidad to recover, but his letters are not encouraging. In her autobiography, she reports that for the first time in her life, she is having problems with her memory. She is forgetting lines. In February she has to withdraw from a play in which she was scheduled to star. She does not mention knowing this, but sometime in February, things suddenly take a turn for the worse for Walter Watts. He abruptly quits his job in “the City.”
On March 6, 1850, Walter Watts is arrested for embezzlement and forgery. The Marylebone and Olympic Theaters are closed. Anna Cora Mowatt falls into what at the time is called a “brain fever.” Biographer Mildred Butler writing in 1966 will call this illness meningitis. Other biographers will call the episode a nervous breakdown. Mowatt will remain insensible for four months during which time Watts’ trial will drag on. James Mowatt will return from Trinidad during this time, but will be refused entry to his wife’s sickroom.
Although Watts’ lawyers mount a brilliant defense, he is found guilty and sentenced to ten years transportation on July 13, 1850. Instead, he commits suicide by hanging himself in Newgate prison. An eyewitness reports seeing a locket around the man’s neck. Rumor quickly translates this into Walter Watts dying with a picture of Anna Cora Mowatt next to his heart and a scandal is born.
Four months later, James Mowatt, now near death, admits to his wife that he invested all their savings with Walter Watts. They are once more nearly penniless. She must immediately return to work. Despite the fact that he is dying and she is barely recovered from whatever her brain fever was, she must go on tour in Ireland, accompanied by the faithful Mrs. Renshaw.
James Mowatt dies February 15, 1851 while she is on tour in Ireland.
Fourteen months before, she was a star, the toast of London, feted and petted. Now she is a widow. Scandal swirls around her once blemish-less name. Her finances are in tatters. With the faithful Renshaw as companion, she will make enough money from a tour of Ireland and the provinces to bury her husband and make her way back home to America.
If I was Anna Cora Mowatt’s psychologist in 1855 – because after going through a year like that, I think she could have used a psychologist – and she told me she was thinking of writing a book about her experiences in the theatre, sections of which would be set in London of 1848-50, I would have put on my best don’t-alarm-the-patient-psychologist-voice and said, “I think that is a positive development.” After congratulating her on her bravery and the progress she has been making, I would have cautioned, “You do realize this project is going to bring up a lot of memories and strong emotions, though, right? You do have my number in case you start to feel overwhelmed. Let’s go ahead and schedule some extra sessions while you’re working…”
Of course, Victorians didn’t have psychologists. After Anna Cora Mowatt finished “Mimic Life”– which I think is her finest work — she said she didn’t know if the book was readable at all. The only strong memory she had of the writing process was crying a great deal as she wrote it and read drafts aloud to friends and relatives.
As soon as “Mimic Life” was published, reviewers recognized that the text was not merely an enjoyable read, but an important piece of Victorian theatre history and work of advocacy for the profession as this critique emphasizes:
Mrs. Mowatt Ritchie deserves the everlasting gratitude of all the professors and friends of the dramatic art. She has done more, as an actress and authoress, to redeem the stage from popular odium, than any of her contemporaries, to say the least. As a successful actor and writer of plays, she has won abundant laurels; but the transitory triumphs of the theatre are but as the glittering of stage tinsel, compared with the pure gold and real pearls that enrich her volumes of real life gathered from scenes before and behind the curtain. Her “Autobiography of and Actress” is a charming book; but this “Mimic Life, “ is every way superior. It is written with great power and beauty and pathos; and evidently sketched more from memory than imagination. It contains three stories of the most absorbing interest: Stella; The Prompter’s Daughter; and the Unknown Tragedian. We will not venture upon an analysis of either of these highly dramatic productions; but in commending them to universal perusal, we would use the strongest, the sweetest, and the most admiring words in our vocabulary of praise. No one can close this volume without a kindlier feeling towards actors; a higher estimate of the dramatic art; a livelier sympathy with all the sons and daughters of toil.1
Any critic, however, seeking to formulate a coherent analysis of the work must find a way of coming to grips with the fact that Mowatt choses to kill off almost all the important female characters in the work. Although the Stella is clearly based on her own experiences as an actress, Stella dies. Although Mowatt is openly engaging in advocacy for theatrical workers like Tina Trueheart and her mother, their stories end with their deaths.
When I wrote about “Mimic Life” in Chapter four of The Lady Actress, I chalked these decisions up to a Victorian discomfort with prospect of a life of endless uncontrolled transformation. Jeffery H. Richards pinned the trouble down to an avoidance of change of sexual status in “Chasity and the Stage in Mowatt’s Stella.”2 In focusing on these nuanced metaphorical interpretations of Mowatt’s narrative decision-making process, I think we academics may have unintentionally given less attention than may be due to more purely biographical reasons that may have strongly guided her choice to abruptly end the lives of her heroines that cannot necessarily be generalized to all Victorian writers.
Even if the Christmas pantomime in “Prompter’s Daughter” is only partially based on Walter Watts’ “Harlequin Fairy-Land” in the same way that Tina Trueheart herself was probably only in some measure derived from the experiences of Susan Roberts, the chorus girl who was in the near-fatal accident at the Marylebone Theater, Mowatt was pulling from a well of painful memories to write “Mimic Life.”
By 1856, Mowatt had moved on with her life. She had retired from the stage. She had re-married. In 1853, She had done what she could to firmly put any rumors about those years in England to bed in her excellent autobiography.
Who knows what emotions writing this fictional work stirred? Lingering grief? Remorse? Unexpressed anger? Survivor’s guilt? Deep sorrow? Regret? Shame? Perhaps in the end, Stella, Tina and her mother died because of the memories that Mowatt still found difficult to live with years after that terrible fourteen months of hell in 1850.
1. “Mimic Life by Mrs. Ritchie.” Thibodaux Minerva, Saturday, January 19, 1856. Col 5.
2. Richards, Jeffery H. “Chasity and the Stage in Mowatt’s Stella.” Studies in American Fiction. Johns Hopkins University Press . Volume 24, Number 1, Spring 1996