The Lady Actress: The Life and Career of Anna Cora Mowat -By Dr. Kelly S. Taylor

Site Index

 

Childhood and Youth

 

Career as Public Reader


 

Author of Fashion

 

 

Career as Actress

 

Later Years

 

Chronology

 

Digital Bibliography

Click here for Chapter One of The Lady Actress: Recovering the Lost Legacy of a Victorian American Superstar

The Lady Actress:  Chapter One .pdf

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Mrs. Mowatt; an introduction

Introduction

Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie was a mid-nineteenth century American author, public reader, playwright and actress, a well-known and respected figure among her contemporaries in American literary and dramatic circles. Oral Interpretation scholars have called her the first "lady" elocutionist because she was the first female to enter the career of public reader without a previous career on the stage. In 1989, John Gentile, writing a history of prominent solo performers, credited her along with famed actresses Fanny Kemble and Charlotte Cushman with bringing to solo performance a level of prestige previously unknown in America. He claimed that they, as respectable women in a traditionally disrespected career, brought a respectability and an acceptance that allowed women of a later age to enjoy professional platform careers.

Mowatt was also one of the first American women to achieve popular success as a playwright. Mrs. Mercy Warren, Charlotte Lennox and Susan Rowson were among her few forerunners. Her best remembered play, Fashion, was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. The comedy frequently appears in contemporary anthologies of representative American dramas. Theatre historians mark Fashion as one of the first successful efforts to create a distinctively American comedy of manners. Following the success of Fashion, Mowatt reigned as one of the queens of American drama during her eight year acting career.

Off the stage, Mowatt played a wide range of roles -- many of which would seem to contradict each other in light of the particular time, place and social context of her life. She identified herself as both an actress and a respectable member of the American upper class. She worked outside her home to support herself and her husband, but still saw herself as a quite conventional wife and daughter. Mowatt was not sympathetic with the efforts of the early proponents of the Woman's Movement in America. She continually deferred to men and conventional middle-class values. However, when she read the conventional expectations of her peers as defining her desired role of being a lady in a way that would have made her a pariah, Anna Cora Mowatt rejected her perceived limitations.

No one forbade American women of the pre-Civil War period to write and publish poems, novels, non-fiction or even plays. A good number of women did and made a respectable amount of money for their efforts. However, many people were not entirely at ease with the idea of women writers. In a letter to his publisher William Ticknor in January of 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to them as a "d---d mob of scribbling women." The reputedly 'gentle-hearted' Charles Lamb said of English poetess Letitia Elizabeth Landon in 1854, "If she belonged to me, I would lock her up on bread and water till she left off writing poetry. A female poet, or female author of any kind, ranks below an actress, I think."

Anna Cora Mowatt was able to establish discursive authority in the face of such social sanctions because she actively exercised (and even today posthumously exercises) control over the interpretation of her actions. Mowatt was, in the language of modern public relations experts, her own best "spin doctor." Much that we know of Mowatt comes from her own autobiography. In this work and all the other modes of public expression Mowatt used -- non-fiction, fiction, performance, plays, and poetry -- she employed potent rhetorical strategies to present herself, her desires, and her motivations in a way that would mitigate the effects of her society's prejudices without alienating her auditors.

Mowatt played both the rebel and the conservative in her time. By keeping her unconventionality carefully concealed by narrative and rhetorical acumen, Mowatt was able to have her cultural cake and eat it too. She was an independent working woman in a time when upper and middle class writers and speakers often looked on such women with suspicion or scorn. She presented herself to the public in the questionable roles of actress and lady author and still managed to pull off the feat of being generally acclaimed a lady.

 

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For more in-depth information and analysis
 of
Mowatt's life and career, read
The Lady Actress:
Recovering the Lost Legacy of a Victorian American Superstar

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