PART VI: DAVENPORT TRANSFORMED
In sorting through newspaper clippings announcing or discussing Anna Cora Mowatt’s appearances in the theaters of various cities during her career as an actress, it is not unusual to find instances in which her acting partner is mistakenly identified as her husband or her brother. This type of error occurred most frequently while she and E.L. Davenport were in England. However examples of similar mistakes can be found confusing Mowatt’s relationship to most of her other leading men as well. The reason for this mis-perception in the press was probably that although it was standard procedure for actors in the U.S. in the early 19th century to tour, it was rather unusual for a featured player to travel with a partner who was not a spouse or a family member. Maintaining a partner was an added expense and – as the Mowatts’ experience with William Crisp had proved – a potential liability. Because of the difficulties of travel and the long months on the road required, a touring partner became a sort of a family member – pleasant or unpleasant. Fortunately, in E.L. Davenport, Anna Cora finally found exactly the person who perfectly suited her needs… after just a tiny bit of adjustment.
Anna Cora Mowatt was in the very rare position being a novice who started at the top of her profession instead of working her way up or being born into a theatrical family. This was a decidedly mixed blessing. After a year in the business, the Mowatts were still trying to get a feel for how to proceed in this high-risk venture and on whom they should rely. Additionally, playwrights of this era wrote for male performers. There were few scripts that could be sustained without a strong male co-star. Audiences might beg to see Mowatt as Pauline. However, as the Mowatts had found to their dismay, if the company did not have a competent actor available to fill the role of Claude Melnotte, viewers had some agonizingly long scenes to sit through before their heroine made an appearance. Therefore, unlike the performers who could go it alone, Mowatt needed a trustworthy touring partner.
As ideal as E.L. Davenport would prove to be, he wasn’t everyone’s first choice. Critics and fans had been trying to pair Mowatt with popular leading actors ever since William Crisp showed up drunk for the performance of “Lady of Lyons” that awful night in Philadelphia just after her debut. William Wheatley was a Chestnut Street Theatre favorite. When Crisp decamped ignominiously to New York leaving Wheatley to finish the run in Philadelphia with Mowatt, there was immediate buzz in the press suggesting that a swap should be made.
After Crisp put in a series of dismal performances in New Orleans a few months later, the Daily Tropic lobbied that he be replaced by rising star James E. Murdoch;
We make a suggestion which, if carried out, will meet, we are convinced, the public wish, and gratify a very large portion of our play-goers. Mrs. Mowatt, it is well known, has secured a host of ardent admirers in the North by what is represented as her very successful debut on the stage, and she has been greeted here by plaudits, well calculated to stimulate her highest ambition for the future. But to sustain in New Orleans, the reputation she has gained in other cities, it is, in our humble opinion, and in that of her numerous friends, absolutely necessary that she be better supported in the second principal part of her plays. Such a wish we hear everywhere expressed. Public opinion has already pronounced emphatically in Mr. Murdoch’s favor. If an arrangement can be made, by which Mrs. Mowatt and Mr. Murdoch can personate together the two principle parts in plays such as the Lady of Lyons, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Venice Preserved, the Hunchback, the Stranger, &c., the public feeling would be gratified. If circumstances prevent such a consummation in either of the Theatres in this part of the city, might not the French Theatre be obtained, and ample arrangements made for such a purpose? We are sure that Mrs. Mowatt as Pauline, Juliet and Desdemona, and Mr. Murdoch as Claude Melnotte, Romeo, and Othello, would attract overwhelming houses. We throw out the suggestion for consideration. Being thus sustained, the critical world will be better able to appreciate Mrs. M’s dramatic capabilities than at present.1
In a previous blog, I talked about Mowatt’s engagement at the Park Theatre with George Vandenhoff in the spring of 1846. Although this match-up of stars was hotly anticipated by the New York critics, it just didn’t seem to generate the sort of chemistry on stage or off anyone had predicted. After her engagement with Vandenhoff, Mowatt worked a few weeks opposite an actor named Leonard, but again without spectacular results. The Mowatts took most of the rest of that summer off to rest and consider their options.
Meanwhile, E.L. Davenport was having the same sort of problem that would plague him throughout his career. Reviewers, managers, and audiences persisted in thinking of him as a character actor. Although versatile and multi-talented, he failed to attract the sort of critical notice and devoted fan-base that would set him apart as a headliner.
Also interfering with Davenport’s acceptance as suitable partner for the lady-like Mowatt was the fact that he had just completed an engagement that summer as a leading actor for the Bowery Theater. The Bowery catered to a more downscale audience demographic than the Park Theater. Irish, German, and Chinese immigrants patronized this venue. The crowds were reputed to be far more rowdy. In fact, there are so many odd tales of serious misbehavior (including actual crimes and sexual misconduct) surrounding the Bowery Theater, its audience – the so-called Bowery B’hoys, and its manager, Thomas Hamblin, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. From looking at newspaper accounts from that time, I think it is safe to conclude the following: a) there were segments of the audience at that theatre who tended to be unruly; b) the manager tolerated a higher degree of chaos than was usually permitted at the Park; and c) the more affluent patrons of theaters like the Park and Niblo’s felt superior to the Bowery Theater and everyone associated with it.
In short, the Bowery Theater had a rather daunting reputation in New York in 1846. However, this was only one of many venues where Davenport had worked. As I said, he had been engaged by Niblo’s the previous summer and had worked at almost all the major playhouses in the Northeast since his debut at the Tremont Theatre in Rhode Island at age twenty-five. That New York critics tarred him with the label of “Bowery actor” after one season at that venue is a testament to how great prejudice against that venue ran.
In 1839, Davenport had been one of the lead actors in the première performance of Epes Sargent’s play “Velasco.” That drama had opened at the Tremont Theater in Boston. The production had starred respected English actress Ellen Tree (later Mrs. Charles Kean.) Sargent’s word tended to weigh very heavily with the Mowatts in literary and artistic matters. I would wager that he might have had a hand in tipping the scales in Davenport’s favor when it came time for the decision to be made and a contract to be offered.
Davenport and Mowatt inaugurated their partnership in the fall of 1846 with a few low-stakes appearances in Saratoga and Buffalo before opening in New England’s major playhouses. At first, their results were a bit lackluster. Of Mrs. Mowatt, the New York Atlas said;
We cannot, at present run into rhapsody upon her performances, which show many excellencies and many blemishes; but “time works wonders.”2
Of her new partner, this critic sniffed;
Mr. Davenport, a promising actor, formerly of the Bowery, has been playing the leading business with her. He is not as yet qualified to represent the important characters in which he has appeared on the boards of the theatre of the Union – “Old Drury.”3
(The “Old Drury” was a nickname for the Park Theater.) This state of affairs would not stand, however. The Mowatts had a plan and were in the midst of operationalizing it. As another New York paper astutely observed;
Mrs. Mowatt’s Mariana is one of her happiest impersonations. We think her elocution is much improved since her last engagement at the Park; and her acting, though not without blemishes, is subdued, graceful and effective. She seems too, to become more conversant with the business of the stage. Next to Miss Cushman, she is undoubtedly the greatest American actress; and when she shall have spent such time in study and practice as will suffice to enable her to carry out fully her judicious conceptions of her parts, she will have few superiors.4
Of Davenport, the writer observed;
We are pleased to see that this gentleman is daily improving. He has faults of style to correct, but he seems determined to get rid of them.5
After ridding themselves of William Crisp and taking some time off in the summer of ’46, the Mowatts’ entire approach to Anna Cora’s acting career had changed. At this point, she had a repertoire of around twenty-five of the standard, leading lady roles of the period mastered and road-tested. That autumn, she finally ceased her punishing pace of memorizing and mounting up to three new characters per month. She now turned her focus to perfecting her mastery of her craft.
Mowatt began taking private lessons from J.W.S. Hows, an English emigre, a professor of elocution, and the drama critic for The Albion. Instead of quickly memorizing multiple roles, she was doing intense, in-depth studies of Shakespearean characters such as Juliet and Beatrice as well as working on her general stage technique.
Instead of continuing to flirt with rising stars with their own independent career agendas — like Vandenhoff, Wheatley, and Murdoch — the Mowatts wisely decided on Davenport, who needed them as much as they needed him. Rather than accommodating themselves to the demands of a powerful co-star, the Mowatts took on a talented performer and provided him with the exposure he needed to become a star.
I have not uncovered documentation that would establish whether or not Davenport also studied with Hows, was tutored by Mowatt, or simply mimicked his partner’s style, but reviewers note a rapid improvement in his vocal delivery and stage technique over the next few months as he worked to come up to speed on Anna Cora’s catalogue of preferred scripts. For the rest of his career, observers would comment on Davenport’s “courtly” manner on and off stage. Even British commentators would call his elocution flawless. To me, these comments –particularly the last — seem to indicate that he trained with the Englishman, Hows.
The first newspaper mention that I can find of Mowatt and Davenport appearing together in “Lady of Lyons” occurred November 3, 1846. The production was part of a series of appearances by the pair at Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. Mowatt reprised the role of Pauline. Davenport stared as Claude Melnotte. I could find no reviews of this show. Boston audiences had seen both actors in productions of Bulwer’s play before. More exciting to the critics were the two other productions that bookended this drama – “The Hunchback” by Knowles and Kotzebue’s “The Stranger.” The heroines of both these melodramas were newer additions to Mowatt’s catalogue of roles and more novel to Boston audiences.
“The Hunchback” featured a particularly strong cast. In addition to Davenport and Mowatt as the romantic duo of Thomas Clifford and Julia, the production featured George Vandenhoff in the lead role of Julia’s guardian, Master Clifford, and William Crisp in the comic relief role of Modus. Despite her personal and professional differences with these performers in the past, it would seem Mowatt was burning no bridges.
The fruits of Mowatt’s (and very probably Davenport’s) work on voice, diction, and character analysis with J.W.S. Hows are apparent in this review of “The Stranger” from a critic from the New York Herald visiting Boston during the run of shows that included “The Lady of Lyons” and “Much Ado About Nothing;”
The play was the “Stranger” – Mrs. Mowatt the penitent Wife – the audience fashionable and numerous – Mr. Davenport the injured husband. I have often seen this much abused, but always absorbing and affective domestic tragedy; but never did I know it to be produce a sensation so deep – a delusion so painfully real. – The exquisite drawing room manners of Mrs. M. combined with her powerful tragic genius, her musical voice and expressive features, made the representation one of the most truthful and complete ever witnessed. The audience were roused to the highest pitch of sympathy. – Ladies were heard to sob hysterically; and when the curtain fell, there was a furious tornado of applause. – The Beatrice of Mrs. M has also made a great hit. It would be unfair to omit remarking that she is admirably sustained by Mr. Davenport, who is making rapid strides to excellence in his profession.6
The Boston press, who always leaned towards generosity with their native son, were a good deal more effusive about the change they observed Mowatt’s new leading man in the first six months of their partnership;
Kotzebue’s play of the Stranger gave Mrs. Mowatt an opportunity of displaying, as Mrs. Haller, that intensity of feeling, that thrilling depth of pathos, and that artistic keeping and harmony of delineation which stamp her performances with the seal of excellence. Her high imaginative and perceptive faculties kindled into those of the audience, and hence on the meagre sketch furnished by the German author she based a beautiful and thrilling creation of her own. It is by this creative power which she possesses in an eminent degree that this gifted lady nobly and triumphantly vindicates the claim of her profession to take equal rank with the kindred ARTS. Mr. Davenport’s “Stranger” placed him at once on the top wave of popularity and the audience seemed by their plaudits to accord him a high and enviable rank in his profession. The character in his hands became a harmonious whole – yet full of affecting and effective touches. In the management of his voice, his expression, his carriage, and his delivery, he completely fulfilled our ideas of the character. The last scene between himself and Mrs. Mowatt was the finest thing of the kind we remember to have seen on the stage.7
The winter of 1846-47 is a turning point for Mowatt and Davenport. Their on-stage chemistry gels nicely in shows like “The Stranger” and “Lady of Lyons.” Their hard work on the basics of stage technique begins to pay off. During this time, reviewers seem to cease to view Mowatt as a mere curiosity who may or may not ever live up to her potential as an actress. They began to take her seriously as one of the top female performers on the U.S. stage. E.L. Davenport successfully makes the upgrade in the eyes of the critics from a second tier character actor to leading man status. In the spring of 1847, more and more reviewers would gradually transition from dismissing him as an adequate second fiddle to Mowatt to considering him as a top tier performer in his own rights.
Did these two actors, however, need to go to this much trouble and do so much hard work so quickly? The Mowatts’ initial goal had been for Anna Cora to make a living from acting. She was doing so. Even with less than ideal leading man, William Crisp, she had survived her first year on the road. Mowatt was now being booked and promoted by Ludlow and Smith. Why continue to study, polish, master more challenging roles, and push to burnish one’s professional reputation and that of one’s partner when Mowatt could have just settled for touring the country seeking to maximize her box office appeal?
It is true that one obvious answer might be Anna Cora Mowatt’s devotion to her craft. However, I believe there was another factor at play. In the fall of 1846, there are definite signs that the Mowatts had a new destination in their sights – London.
What England had to offer that Davenport and the Mowatts craved and the steps they would take to make their way to those distant shores I will discuss next week!
1. “Mrs. Mowatt and Mr. Murdoch.” Daily Tropic: New Orleans. Wednesday, February 18, 1846. Page 2, col. 1.
2. “Theatricals.” New York Atlas. October 4, 1846. Page 2.
4. “Theatrical.” New York Herald. October 2, 1846. Page 3.
6. “Theatrical and Musical.” New York Herald. Tuesday, November 3, 1846. Page 2, col. 6.
7. “Local Intelligence.” Boston Daily Times. October 29, 1846. Page 2, col. 3