Mimic Life

              

Mimic Life

Or,         

Before and Behind the Curtain.

A Series of Narratives,


by Anna Cora Ritchie

(Formerly Mrs. Mowatt)


Publisher: Ticknor and Fields (Boston)

Publication Date: January,1856Illustration for "Prompter's Daughter"


Brief Synopsis:

Mimic Life is composed of three novellas – Stella, The Prompter’s Daughter, and The Unknown Tragedian.  The synopsis of each is as follows:


(From Marius Blesi’s 1938 Dissertation “The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt”)

Stella:

Stella Rosenvelt’s father had died suddenly, and a sheriff’s sale forced Stella and her mother out of their “stately mansion in one of the most fashionable localities in Boston.”  Stella’s brother, Ernest, was an actor.  When Stella decided to go on the stage and made known her decision to her serving maid, Mattie, the latter was horrified: “O Miss Stella! I shall think you demented!”  Stella’s mother, who was living in a boarding house, could not believe that her daughter would want to sully herself by going on the stage.

Stella next consulted Mr. Oakland, “her former tutor and ever-dear friend.” …Mr. Oakland advised her to study Shakespeare’s heroines, and she began to study them immediately, prefatory to going on the stage.  Both her brother and Mr. Oakland failed to dissuade her from her choice.  On a day when Stella thought she was ready, she and Mattie called on the manager of one of Boston’s best theatres.  Mr. Grimshaw, the manager, gave her no encouragement and succeeded only in frightening her.  On returning home, however, she read in the paper of the death of Miss Lydia Talbot, a “stock star” of a popular Boston theatre.  Immediately Stella and Mattie hastened to the playhouse, and finally Stella persuaded Mr. Belton, the manager, to give her a trial.  She had only ten days to study until she made her debut in Virginia, opposite Mr. Tennent, the well-known star.

Stella’s first rehearsal, the day before her debut, was frankly discouraging, even though Mrs. Fairfax – whose face “was one of the most benign that goodness and intellect ever illumined” – insisted that Stella be not down-hearted at the jibes of the company.

The second rehearsal, on the morning of the debut, went off better.  For the first time, Tennent acted with her, and his contemptuous remarks and haughty demeanor did not help soothe Stella’s jangled nerves.  She instinctively felt the look of distrust that some of her fellow-actors gave her.

Finally her hour of triumph or failure arrived. Mr. Oakland wished her luck, and cautioned her to “be natural; do not aim at too much; don’t try to act, but to feel; don’t declaim, but talk.”  All the hubbub of back-stage activity served only to bring about an attack of stage-fright for Stella that only Mrs. Fairfax could break. The curtain went up.  Stella was determined to conquer.  She did.  And the crowd applauded its approval of her.  But even Stella was not deluded by this one night of praise.

Stella immediately rehearsed for other parts; Pauline, Desdemona, and Evadne. One day, the company listened to a Mr. Edwin Percy read to them (in the green-room) his poetical drama, Love’s Triumphs. All but Stella scoffed at the play; she, oftentimes, “lifted her handkerchief to hide a starting tear.”  The play, in spite of the actors’ protests, was put into rehearsal, and Mrs. Pottle was given the part of the queen – to the despair of Mr. Percy!

Percy and Stella fall hopelessly in love with each other, he with her because she was a struggling and pure young actress, and she with him because he was a struggling and pure young playwright.  But Love’s Triumphs proved a failure, and Percy, in despair, was comforted by Stella.  A few nights later, Stella attempted the role of Beatrice, and failed miserably.  The cheery words of solace that Mrs. Fairfax gave her were futile.  Even Edwin Percy’s encouragement proved of little help.

Then some evenings afterward, during a performance of Romeo and Juliet, the drunken father of the little basket carrier, Perdita, was killed by the fall of the curtain weight.

The incident so unnerved Stella that she had difficulty finishing the evening’s performance.  Her next appearance on stage was in Hamlet, and while enacting the role of Ophelia, went completely mad under the nervous strain.  Taken home by Edwin Percy, poor Stella was pronounced by the physician to have “brain fever, produced by injudicious mental stimulus.”  Her relatives and theatre friends gathered around her as she lay dying.1

The Prompter’s Daughter:

The second story, “The Prompter’s Daughter” opens in the property-room of a London Theatre. Sue and Robin Trueheart are the proud parents of an infant daughter, Tina. Robin is a hunchback, and he has as his duty the thankless work of being prompter of the theatre.

The tale is a rather sad narrative of the way children grow up in the theatre.  Little Tina, from her days of infancy, is pressed into service, first as Dot’s baby in Dickens’ Cricket on the Hearth, then as Cora’s child in Pizarro, and finally as the Count’s child in The Stranger.  At the age of six, Tina made a great hit with the audiences as the young Duke of York in Richard III.  Other roles proved successful: Prince Arthur in King John, Albert in William Tell, and Ariel in The Tempest.

It was in the last-named play that Tina was horribly injured.  While she was floating through the air, by means of wires, the pulleys jammed, and left the child “suspended immediately over one of the side-lights used to illumine the back portion of the stage.”  Had it not been for the quick thinking of her father, Robin, who got a ladder and rescued her by severing the wires with an ax, Tina would have burned to death.  As it was, the little girl’s burns were severe.  For one year she was unable to act.

However, when she returned to the theatre – as a special favor to the manager – to enact the role of the Fairy Queen in a Christmas play, her strength was not equal to the occasion, and soon afterward she died.  The shock proved too great for Susan, and quickly “Mother and child were re-united!”2

The Unknown Tragedian:

Elma Ruthven was a pretty girl of twenty years who disliked the acting profession of her parents, Arthur and Mary Ruthven. When the story begins, Mrs. Ruthven is quite ill, but is determined to make her farewell appearance before the

Rehearsal for a Pantomime, 1896, Empire Theater

London state in the character she made famous; Mrs. Malaprop.  Against the advice of her physician, the grand old lady of the theatre went through her performance, but died from exhaustion several days later.  Before she died she expressed a wish to her daughter that she marry Gerald Mortimer, “the great tragedian.”  He was very much in love with Elma, but she had given her heart to Leonard Edmonton.

The story, for nearly one hundred pages, purports to be a psychological study of two people caught in the web of circumstance: Elma, dutifully striving to carry out her parents’ wish that she marry Gerald whom she does not love; and Gerald, loving her, but knowing that she will never love him.  One day Elma and Leonard are together in the theatre; she tells him that she can never marry him because of her vow to her father to marry Gerald.  The tragedian overheard the conversation, and the following night, in the tragedy of Bertram, he mortally stabbed himself.3



Major Themes:

Theatrical professionals deserve the same respect granted to other professions

Jealousy is corrosive

Work is redemptivePreperations for a Pantomime, 1856

True love is sacrificial


Characters:

Stella:

Stella Rosenvelt: a young actress

Mrs. Rosenvelt: Stella’s mother

Ernest Rosenvelt: Stella’s brother, a young tragedian

Mattie: Stella’s maid

Mr. Oakland: teacher of elocution who serves as Stella’s advisor, tutor, and friend

Mr. Grimshaw:  sleazy manager of a popular Boston theater

Mr. Belton:  manager of a Boston theater who hires Stella

Mrs. Fairfax: experienced actress of the company, friend to Stella

Mrs. Pottle:  a comical elderly lady who plays bit parts in the company

Perdita: young chorus girl who makes extra money by making deliveries for the actors of the company

Floy: her brother

Edwin Percy: young playwright, falls in love with Stella

Mr. Tennent: visiting star tragedian at the theater where Stella works

Miss Malvina Doran: young actress, rival to Stella

Mr. Finch: stage manager

Fisk: impudent call boy of the theater

The Prompter’s Daughter:

Robin Trueheart: prompter of the theatrical company, father to Tina

Sue Trueheart: minor player of the company, mother to Tina

Tina Trueheart: gifted child actress

Mr. Higgins: Manager of the theater

Mr. Tuttle: the unscrupulous stage-manager

Miss Armory: Tina’s Sunday-school teacher

Mr. Upton: Veteran tragedian who plays opposite Tina in several productions

The Unknown Tragedian:

Elma Ruthven: daughter of two performers who reluctantly becomes an actress

Arthur Ruthven: tragedian, father of ElmaPrompter, Punch Magazine, 1843

Mary Ruthven: comedienne, mother of Elma

Gerald Mortimer: young successful tragedian, in love with Elma

Leonard Edmonton: divinity student, falls in love with Elma

Lord Oranmore: relative and friend of Gerald Mortimer

Publication History:

Many critics greeted Mimic Life as a sequel in fictional form to Mowatt’s 1854 Autobiography. Reviewers had commented positively on her choice not to include the sort of green room gossip that they complained typically filled theatrical memoirs in herLogo of Ticknor and Fields Publishing, 1867 recounting of her theatrical career. Unlike her sometimes co-star George Vandenhoff, Mowatt diplomatically avoided naming names or going into detail when relating incidents that reflected badly on those she had worked with during her years on the stage.  In Mimic Life, though, despite the fact that the work was a plea for greater tolerance and respect for the theatrical profession, the author did not hesitate to give light to the petty jealousies and daily injustices that she had witnessed during her time on the boards.  To this day, readers speculate on which fictional persons and events in Mimic Life had real-life parallels in Mowatt’s experiences.

Mimic Life was published in January of 1856. Mowatt had been out of the public limelight for nearly two years following a media blitz in 1854 that consisted of her retirement from the stage, the publication of her Autobiography, and her highly publicized marriage to William Foushee Ritchie all packed into the first six months of that year.  After two years of silence, the public was again ready for news of their long-absent darling.  Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Paper glowingly titled their announcement of Mimic Life’s publication “A Welcome New Book” in a bold-face, all-caps font.4

Ticknor and Reed, the book’s publisher, anticipating sales as brisk as Mowatt’s Autobiography of an Actress had achieved, began teasing the book’s impending arrival mid-summer 1855. Mimic Life appeared on the Boston publisher’s Christmas list of forthcoming publications alongside Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and a collection of stories from Grace Greenway.  Advance copies of the book were released in December to selected newspaper reviewers, generating a crop of highly positive reviews for Ticknor and Reed to quote in their ads for Mimic Life’s January release.

The book-buying public responded eagerly according to this report from The Charlotte Democrat;

Mrs. Anna Cora Ritchie’s (wife of the Editor of the Richmond Enquirer) new work, “Mimic Life,” it is stated, has sold at the rate of a thousand copies a day, for the ten days it has been in the market.5


Reception:

Most of the critical reaction to Mimic Life -- particularly that of those reviewers who received advance copies of the book in December -- was overwhelmingly positive. Many of the reviews read along the lines of the following;

This volume may be regarded as a sequel to the charming “Autobiography of an Actress,” from the same pen written whileRehearsal for Pantomime, 1868, Lyceum Theater, London she was Mrs. Mowatt. It of course abounds with reminiscences of events of which she was cognizant, or in which she bore a part, during the nine years of professional life in which she was an ornament of the stage.  Those remembrances are thrown into the form of fictions, to avoid what would otherwise be regarded as an unwarrantable invasion of private life; and they reveal much of that with which the public has never been familiar, the daily life, sentiments, ideas, perplexities, and misfortunes, of that class who wear out their own existence for the amusement or instruction of others; a profession aptly described as ‘mimic life,’ by the gifted authoress, whose dramatic representations the world has admired.  The narratives are three in number and they are entitled, “Stella,” “The Prompter’s Daughter,” and the “Unknown Tragedian;” and the assurance is given that they are truthful stories.  Whoever thinks illy of the stage and those who act upon it, will find on perusing this volume, that there may be virtue where they have not been accustomed to search for it; and that the smile of apparent gaiety is not unfrequently like the gleam of sunshine upon the glaring ice, flashing over a countenance beneath which there are darkness and anguish.  Mrs. Mowatt’s writings are always pleasant reading.6

Other critics took an approach similar to that of the Southern Literary Messenger’s John Reuben Thompson, who, though lavish with his praise of the author’s work and style, betrays a more dubious attitude towards her project of defending the honor of theatrical professionals;

Mrs. Ritchie has added largely to an already enviable literary reputation by this delightful collection of "Narratives," in which the graceful and the tender meet and mingle in the most charming and touching manner. Having herself won on the stage a renown scarcely below that of the highest names in histrionic annals, she manifests a pardonable esprit-de-corps, in her retirement, by seeking to dignify the actor's profession and to enlist public sympathy for the trials that wait upon dramatic life. Whatever may be thought of the design, and there is little charity, we fear, in this censorious world for the followers of the theatrical calling, there can be but one opinion as to its execution, and the sweet creations of the gifted writer cannot fail of endearing themselves to all who read of their ambitions and triumphs and sorrows. We do not recall a brighter picture in the range of modern literature than Tina Truehart, and if it be not drawn from the life, it shows with what pure and lovely images the limner's imagination is stored. The style of "Mimic Life" is almost faultless, indicating far greater care than any of Mrs. Ritchie's previous compositions, and giving promise of a fame as high in the walks of Belles Lettres as Mrs. Mowatt achieved in her interpretations of Shakespeare.7

A.B. Peabody, in his critique for the North American Review, points out that in constructing this particular “defense” of the stage, Mowatt has paradoxically made the theatre a locus of corruption and misery for her characters;

“The Lights and Shadows of the Stage” would have been a not inappropriate alias for this title. Mrs. Ritchie vindicates the capacity of her late profession, not only to preserve uncontaminated, but to nurture and cherish, glorious types of moral beauty no less than of genius; and at the same time lets us into the source and process of the debasing and corrupting influences to which many of its members have yielded.

The stories are all tragedies, unless we except the last, in which the heroine is made happy by the suicide of her accepted, but unloved lover, who adopts this ultra-heroic mode of abdicating in favor of his successful rival. The interest of each of the tales is even painfully intense; and they are all characterized by pure and lofty sentiment, and wrought out in a style of exquisite grace and beauty.8

Rehearsal for a Pantomime, 1881, LondonBecause the anti-theatrical prejudice that Mowatt was combatting in this book and many of her other works was real and still active in many sections of the U.S. at this time despite growing acceptance of theatre, there were scattered examples in the press of pushback against Mimic Life’s popularity.  The most strident of these oppositional voices was expressed in the Buffalo Christian Advocate in March, 1855.

With no other criterion of the stage than what the womanly delicacy of Mrs. Ritchie permits her to disclose of life behind the scenes, we must believe that the theater is a most dangerous school for those who are in its service.  The coarse nature and vulgar manners which pertain to nearly all her stage characters, the petty jealousies and rivalries of actors, the spirit of envy and detraction, the eagerness after applause and the artifices used to secure the mead of popularity, the gross familiarities of the green-room, the loose morality of the rehearsal – where the omission of indecent words by a novice raises a jeer from prompter, manger, and actors – the presumptuous advances of mangers towards their employees, and of star actors towards their subordinates – showing that poverty and necessity are held akin to vice in the scale of the theater – the daily routine of excitement, of deception, of coarse wit and unbecoming revelry – things such as these which Mrs. Ritchie incidentally discloses, and which she could ignore only by merging the woman in the artiste convince us that the theater in its best estate is under an inevitable law of deterioration most dangerous to all concerned in it.  We honor those who have clean escaped its corruptions; we tremble for those who are yet exposed to them.9

Although such a conservative view did reflect reservations that many in the U.S. still held about theatre and its practitioners, this review, unlike an earlier debate between Boston newspapers about the true identity of the character of Stella, was not picked up for reprint by other news outlets throughout the country.  The average occupant of one of the rapidly expanding urban centers in the U.S. still might not welcome the idea of an actor marrying their sister or daughter.  However, by 1856, theatre-going was becoming more of a socially acceptable entertainment option for city dwellers of all ages, both sexes, and all income brackets.  Mimic Life provided a glimpse behind the footlights into a world that had captured the interest of a book-reading public who, unlike their parents and grandparents, could quite possibly also be theatre patrons.


External Links

Read the novel online here: https://archive.org/details/mimiclifeorbefor00ritcrich

Audiobook available here: https://librivox.org/mimic-life-by-anna-cora-mowatt-ritchie/

Further discussion on this book:

                Anna Cora Mowatt and the Tragic Fate of Stella https://www.tla.wapshottpress.org/2020/04/06/anna-cora-mowatt-and-the-tragic-fate-of-stella/

                Anna Cora Mowatt and the Ill-Starred Lovers: Part I – Gustavus Brooke https://www.tla.wapshottpress.org/2020/03/16/anna-cora-mowatt-and-the-ill-starred-lovers-part-i-gustavus-v-brooke/

Anna Cora Mowatt and the Ill-Starred Lovers: Part II – Avonia Jones https://www.tla.wapshottpress.org/2020/03/23/acm-and-the-ill-starred-lovers-part-ii-avonia-jones/

Anna Cora Mowatt and the Ill-Starred Lovers: Part III https://www.tla.wapshottpress.org/2020/03/30/anna-cora-mowatt-and-the-ill-starred-lovers-part-iii/

 

Notes

 

1.    Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1938. Pages 318-320.

2.    Ibid. Page 323.

3.    Ibid. Pages 324-325.

4.    “Now Ready.” Frank Leslies’ Illustrated Paper. December 29, 1855. Page 15.

5.    “Quick Sales.” The Charlotte Democrat: North Carolina. Jan. 15, 1856. Page 1, col. 4.

6.    “New Books.” Worcester Palladium. December 26. Page 3, col.2.

7.    Thompson, John Reuben. “Notices of New Works.” Southern Literary Messenger. Vol. 22. Issue 1. Jan. 1856.  Page 79.

8.    Peabody, A.P. “Mimic Life.” North American Review. Vol. 82 (April, 1856.). Page 580

9.    “The Theater as a School.”  Buffalo Christian Advocate. Vol. VII, Number 324.  Thursday, March 20, 1856. Page 1, col.1.


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For more in-depth information and analysis
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