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Tallis’ Drawing Room Table Book of

Theatrical Portraits, Memoirs and Anecdotes

1851

MRS. MOWATT

 

Political contentions are a great fountain of injustice. It is a principle in strategy, that any manoeuvre, however paltry, is allowable to win a battle, and in party warfare, any stigma that can depreciate an opponent. Hence it is only very lately that America has begun to receive a fair estimate from England. Admitting, as we were forced to do, her great material civilization, we have constantly denied that she had any pretensions to refinement, had any sympathy with art or poetry, or any special class they influenced. 'We have said this, though aware that it is more than fifty years ago she sent a native painter to become the president of our Academy, though in sculpture she claims the fame of a Power and a Greenhough, and in literature a host of names, from Franklin down to Longfellow, which have become as household words with us.

This injustice, however, is beginning to abate; and among the means of its extinction, next of course to increased intercourse, and the fraternal influences which mustTitle Page of Tallis' Dramatic Magazine, 1851 flow out of the great Industrial Exposition, we class such evidence as is afforded by the subject of this memoir, who embodies in her own person so many answers to these charges, A woman of cultivation, and no ordinary refinement, a poet and an artist in a most difficult profession, her case would have much weight were it only allowed to be exceptional ; but convinced, on the contrary, that it rather presents to us a type of a large section of American society, we are proportionately gratified in acknowledging its significance. The story of Mrs. Mowatt's life is highly eventful and affecting, and after detailing its leading features, we shall proceed, as in other instances, to estimate her genius.

Mrs. Mowatt is the daughter of Samuel G. Ogden, Esq, a merchant of New York, and of Eliza Lewis, the grand- daughter of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Hence it will be seen that even in origin she is not wanting in distinction. She was born at Bordeaux during a visit to that city, made by her parents we believe in the year 1824, though we are aware this is a point upon which we have no right to be precise — the birth of heroines and ancient heroes being always involved in mystery. She is one of a numerous family, not less than twelve sisters and six brothers, fourteen of whom are living; and, certainly, if we are allowed to take her as a type of such a group, we cannot but think that her parents deserve a medal from their country. It was in the bosom of this circle that her innate dramatic faculty received its first excitement. Amongst her home amusements was the performance of private plays, at the hands of her brothers and sisters, and her own début was at the age of five, when, arrayed in wig and gown, she was placed in a high chair, as one of the " grave and potent seignors," in the trial scene of Othello, On her parents' return to New York, this taste for private theatricals was not abandoned by her family ; and, though strange as the case may seem, that she never entered a theatre till within a twelvemonth of her marriage, her dramatic faculty at home became so conspicuous, that, she grew to be both heroine and director of its amusements. Her's alone were the tasks of adaptation and production, and it is easy to surmise the range of reading it must have led to, and the sympathies it aroused. Of an ardent buoyant temperament, and an ideal cast of mind, we can conceive her favourite authors, and first desires to embody them.

It was during this interval that Mr. James Mowatt, a barrister of New York, and a man in prosperous circumstances, became acquainted with her family, and a frequent visitor to her house ; and it would seem that his first impression of the gay impulsive child was of a nature that soon ripened into a sincere and deep attachment. His position and cultivation enabled him to interfere in, and direct her course of study, and the services thus rendered, and the intimacy induced, could scarcely fail of awaking a return of his own feelings. An engagement was the result, and in her fifteenth year she married him ; a common age in America for the commencement of the term of womanhood. Removing to her husband's residence in the neighbourhood of New York, she was now surrounded with every luxury that his affluence could command, and passed several happy years, not merely in social ease, but in the enlargement of her artistic and intellectual pleasures. She applied to the study of various languages, as well as of music and of painting, and received the best instruction that the New World could afford. And as it will be supposed that all this culture in the case of a creative faculty could not fail of some result, its fruit was a poem in five cantos, published under a feigned name, which, however, was not so fortunate as to conciliate the critics, and which, together with another one that encountered the same fate, she was content to dismiss to the oblivion assigned to them.

Her health failing at this period, and showing symptoms of consumption, she was at once ordered to travel, and accordingly visited Europe in company with her husband, and passed a winter and spring in Paris ; where, whilst partaking of its gaieties, she had still the self-control to proceed with a course of study ; and it was here that she sat down to her first effort for the stage. It was a play in five acts, entitled Gulzara, or the Persian Slave, which, however, being intended in the first instance for private representation, was necessarily restricted both in its action and expression. It was performed on her return home by amateurs at her own residence, and its publication served to repay her for the fate of her first poetic efforts. It was in verse, and pronounced to be of a high dramatic order.

During this period, Mr. Mowatt had been seized with an affection of the eyes, which compelled him to relinquish his profession, and soon after it was his misfortune to embark in some speculations, which proved signally disastrous. He lost nearly all his property, and at a moment when incapable of making an effort to regain it. This blow to his young wife, reared and settled in the lap of affluence, may be easily conceived. For the first time in her life she was awoke to a sense of need, and to a necessity of labour ; but a blow which, in the end, served to develop slumbering faculties, and to endow her with self-reliance, must be regarded as a blessing, however harsh in its first infliction. Mrs. Mowatt proved immediately her claim to her lost fortunes, by the energy and talent with which she resolved upon regaining them.

Having often been called upon in private to give poetic recitations, her success on such occasions now suggested a resource to her— she resolved to offer them to the public in the shape of dramatic readings, and for the scene of her debut, she wisely resolved on Boston, as the sphere of a more literary and cultivated public. This experiment, as it deserved to be, proved triumphantly successful, its talent not requiring the support of its necessity. It was repeated at New York, Philadelphia, and other cities, with scarcely less advantage. The effort, however, was arduous, and so overtasked her strength, as to result in an illness, that she was not free from for some years.

Portrait of Anna Cora Mowatt from Tallis' Dramatic MagazineMrs. Mowatt now exhibited a new phase in her career. Her husband partly regaining his health, had embarked in business as a publisher, and it was obvious that she had talents that could materially assist him. He proposed a series of works, both original and adapted, and in respect to their production, she had proved that her own powers were almost as various as his scheme. Her ready acquiescence, notwithstanding her weak health, and resolve, by every effort, to re-establish his broken fortunes, was another instance of her devotion, and disregard of self, not less honourable to her heart, than the genius it inspired. She accordingly set to work, and in a short space of time poured forth every variety of contribution he required ; — sketches, tales and poetry, domestic guide books, and translations from lives of Goethe and Madame D'Arblay, down to books on crochet-work and knitting ; from German criticism and fiction down to etiquette and cookery ; from the poetic to the practical ; from the antique down to the daily ; her pen ran the round of a publisher's demands, and yielded various results, that were both popular and profitable. These efforts were not concluded without her rising in self-defense into original compositions, and accordingly, she now produced her first novel, under the title of The Fortune Hunter, which was given to the world as the work of Mrs. Helen Berkley . This tale was very successful, and circulated largely, and was followed by another, entitled Evelyn, which was even more remunerative, both in fame and receipt, ten thousand copies being sold of its first edition only.

Sad to say, all these exertions, successful as they were, and tasking as they did her mind and spirit to the utmost, were still unequal to their end. Her husband's speculation failed, and swept off, in its ruin, the last remnant of his property ; whilst to complete his prostration, his malady returned, and again rendered him incapable of repairing his misfortunes. Thus another, and stronger call was made on the powers of his best friend ; again was she required, by her own unaided efforts, to rescue both from destitution, and the spirit with which she responded, fully merited the success that at length permanently repaid her. Mrs. Mowatt was now about to pass into a new sphere, to complete the circle of her capacity, by illustrating an art which as she was naturally formed for, all her previous experience had most likely served but to develop. Mrs. Mowatt became an actress ; the heroine of refined comedy, and of young and romantic passion.

Having produced a new work for the stage, entitled Fashion, which had met with the best fortune, she was induced, three months afterwards, to try the experiment of her personal powers ; and accordingly made her début in July, 1845, in that great favourite of modern audiences— the dreamy and capricious, but sore-tried and true Pauline— a character, perhaps, for whose grace, romance, and passion, she was more highly qualified than any representative it has ever had, save Helen Faucit. Need we say that her success was instantaneous and complete, and her future pursuit and fortunes were decided from that hour. From Pauline she rose into the grander heroines of Shakespeare, followed by those of Knowles and Sheridan ; and, at every new embodiment, confirmed her first impression. After completing a most profitable engagement at New York, she made a tour of the Union, and received, in every city, the most flattering recognition of the verdict that had been pronounced on her. It was on her return to New York, and when about to proceed on a second circuit of the States, that she witnessed the acting of Mr. Davenport, and seeing it was of a character that harmonized greatly with her own, she induced her husband to make him an offer to accompany her on her tour, and sustain the heroes of her repertoire, in order to avoid the impaired effect and fatal incongruity which she had so often been exposed to in her professional associates. The policy of this engagement will be felt at once by any person who has ever witnessed her performances; their grace and delicacy being obviously at the mercy of any actor who chose to encounter them with either violence or coarseness. This arrangement, as we have said elsewhere, was productive of mutual benefit; and at length Mrs. Mowatt, in common with all Americans of any superior power, felt the ambition to visit England, and court the verdict of its first tribunal ; and as Mr. Davenport partook her feeling, that course was resolved on. Previously, however, to her departure, she found time to make her last and best contribution to the drama, in the charming play of Armand, which was produced at New York in September, 1847, and met with a success equally signal and deserved. Into the merits of this production we have not space to enter; so must content ourselves with saying, that both in the conception of the heroine, and in the general treatment of the subject, she has evinced a dramatic and poetic capability that warrants us in believing her greatest triumphs are to come.

Her subsequent career has been told in that of Mr. Davenport. She made her début with him at Manchester, on reaching the English shores, and afterwards in London, at the Princess's Theatre, in the character of Julia, in The Hunchback; and it is needless to repeat the immediate and decisive impression she produced. From thence she passed to the Olympic Theatre, under the management of Mr. Spicer ; and from thence to the Marylebone Theatre, where, in conjunction with Mr. Davenport, she became the sole attraction, during a season of great prosperity. She here appeared in some new characters, which did not abate from her reputation, and produced her play of Armand, which considerably enlarged it. She now added a creative, to her sympathetic claims, and gave to her powers an appropriate and graceful culmination. She next proceeded to the New Olympic Theatre, in conjunction with Mr. Davenport, where she became the heroine of several new plays, the Ariadne of Corneille, translated by Mr. Oxenford, being one of her most important, when a severe attack of illness, succeeding the closing of the theatre, compelled her for a considerable period to leave the stage.

Such is this lady's history; and we regret that our space limits us in endeavouring to estimate her claims. Mrs. Mowatt, like Mr, Davenport, has a serio-comic genius ; but we think, upon the whole, more inclining to the latter. Nature has not adapted her for the higher walks of tragedy, nor even that of its youthful heroines, in denying her the force which their due expression calls for. She wants strength for Juliet's passion, or even Julia's, in The Hunchback; nor is her face of that marked character that could atone for this defect, by affording a reflex of the mind, whereon the throes and changes of a great passion could be pictured. It is essentially bright and cheerful --made up of rounded outlines, and gay, laughter-loving features, that, when forced into gloom or passion, become more painful than expressive. Thus, whilst she has a tenderness and pathos that render her Imogen and Viola scarcely equaled in our memory, there is such an entire adaptation of her whole person, look, and spirit, to the blander sphere of comedy, that we cannot but feel it is her true one. It is marked by an enjoyment that shows at once it is most natural to her, however, her tears and gentleness may charm us to the contrary. But her comedy has its distinction— we think it peculiarly Shakespearian, owing to that thrill of poetic feeling which winds through all its passages. That mixed exposition of the ideal and the true, which stamps all Shakspere's writings as the -profoundest insight into man, receives the happiest illustration in the genius of Mrs. Mowatt. Sensibility and mirth are ever neighbours to each other : and our fair artist well interprets what our best poet has so well divined. In the comedy of modern life she has unquestionable merit ; but if it impress us the less forcibly, it is on account of its lower grade, which limits her expression. It is in Beatrice and Rosalind that she must be witnessed, to be estimated — equaled by some in art and surpassed in force by many, she alone has that poetic fervour which imparts to thein their truth and makes our laughter ever ready to tremble into tears.

B. B. (Baylis Bernard)

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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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