In which Mrs. Mowatt takes her turn treading the boards to great acclaim

 

Career as Actress

Anna Cora Mowatt as Rosalind

Anna Cora Mowatt as Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It

Following the success of her play Fashion, Anna Cora Mowatt, in a complete reversal of her earlier distaste for the stage, appeared for the first time as an actress at the Park Theatre, June 13, 1845. Her debut role was Pauline in the popular melodrama Lady of Lyons. For the next eight years, she became one of the foremost popular and critically acclaimed American actresses. She specialized in ingenue roles from Shakespeare, popular melodramas, and her own plays Fashion and Armand. Poe described her onstage appearance:

The great charm of her manner is its naturalness. She looks, speaks, and moves, with a well-controlled impulsiveness, as different as can be conceived from the customary rant and cant, the hack conventionality of the stage. Her voice is rich and voluminous, and although by no means powerful, is so well managed as to seem so. Her utterance is singularly distinct, its sole blemish being the occasional Anglicism of accent, adopted probably from her instructor, Mr. Crisp. Her reading could scarcely be improved. Her action is distinguished by an ease and self-possession which would do credit to a veteran. Her step is the perfection of grace. Often have I watched her for hours with the closest scrutiny, yet never for an instant did I observe her in an attitude of the least awkwardness or even constraint, while many of her seemingly impulsive gestures spoke in loud terms of the woman of genius, of the poet imbued with the profoundest sentiment of the beautiful in motion.  [See: Mr. Poe’s Favorite Actress]

Actor E.L. Davenport joined Mowatt as acting partner in September of 1846. Mowatt wrote her second play, Armand, the Child of the People, with his and her capabilities in mind. Armand is a romantic play set in the time of Louis XV. The King tries to seduce Blanche, the daughter of the Duke of Richelieu. Armand, a soldier, falls in love with Blanche and strives to help her escape the king. Armand's defiance of the King, while hardly in keeping with the customs of the court of Louis XV, was quite in tone with the sentiments of America in 1847.

In 1847, Davenport and Mowatt sailed for London, where they achieved great popular and critical success first at the Princess, then the Marylebone and Royal Olympic Theaters.

Davenport wrote home to one of his friends, "
Well we are still here in John Bull-dom and are all better Yankees than ever...As to young men, I am not vain but I see no one here that I need fear. (Charlotte) Cushman can lick all the tragedy ones and our little Mowatt all juvenile and comedy ones."

A particularly satisfying triumph was the Olympic's production of Much Ado About Nothing. The house was packed for the opening performance, and as, The Times reported: “Mrs. Mowatt was vociferously called for by the audience and was led on by Mr. Davenport, when she received such a shower of bouquets that she was embarrassed to reduce them to portable dimensions.” The critic from the The London Illustrated News on September 29 had this to say:

This lady’s acting is not to be judged by the ordinary rules of art, or by comparison with other artists. We must take it as it proceeds from her own idiosyncrasy which is both peculiar and pleasing.

This was much more creative latitude than English critics usually granted American actors. Even more impressively, John Heraud of the Times declared,“We now know what Shakespeare meant Beatrice to be.”

Anna Cora Mowatt as Beatrice

Mowatt as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

However, Mowatt’s English career was marred by scandal due to her connection with Walter Watts, the manager of the Marylebone and Olympic Theatres.  At first, Watts was a great boon to her career, lavishing her publically with expensive gifts and signing her to long-term contracts. This bubble burst when in March of 1850, Watts was arrested. The manager, it was revealed, was actually a clerk at a London insurance agency who was embezzling funds to support this theatrical pursuits. He committed suicide in Newgate prison wearing a locket containing a portrait that some claimed to be of the actress. The Mowatts, who had been persuaded by Watts to invest heavily in the newly rebuilt Olympic Theatre were not only smeared with scandal, they were bankrupted. Although she was able to recoup some of their losses with a successful tour of Ireland and provincial theatres in England, the London theatrical elite turned their back on Anna Cora. Already seriously ill, James Mowatt died on February 15, 1851.  Depressed, dispirited, and ill with another recurrence of her respiratory condition, Mowatt returned to America, July, 1851. [See: A Touch of Scandal: The Sad Case of Walter Watts]

After recovering, she resumed touring American theatres with productions of Fashion and Shakespearean comedies. During this time, she was vigorously pursued and courted by William Foushee Ritchie, son of Thomas Ritchie and editor of the Richmond Enquirer, the official organ of the Democratic party in Virginia. In December of 1853, Mowatt published her Autobiography of an Actress. On June 3, 1854, she made her last appearance on the public stage.

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Cover for "The Lady Actress"

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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