Armand; or the Peer and the Peasant

              

Armand; or the Peer and the Peasant

Originally “Armand; Child of the People”

Although almost completely obscure today, this romantic melodrama was arguably a bigger hit for actress/playwright Anna Cora Mowatt than her theatre history-making comedy “Fashion” (1845.) Wisely cashing in on the craze for settings and characters made popular by Alexander Dumas’ “Musketeer” novels still being published in serial form when the play debuted, this drama focuses on the adventures of sweet, beautiful, peasant maiden Blanche, who discovers she may be the illegitimate daughter of the scheming Duke de Richelieu.  Her sweetheart, the noble Armand, must prove that he is clever, bold, and courageous enough to defend her honor – Even if that means confronting the lecherous King Louis XV himself!

CharactersPlaybill for Armand, 1847

Louis XV, King of France
Duke de Richelieu
Duke D'Antin, an old Noble
Armand, an Artisan.
Le Sage, Attendant of the Duke D'Antin.
Victor, the King' s favorite Page (this was a “breeches” role, played by a young woman)
Blanche, a beautiful young peasant girl
Dame Babette.
Jaqueline, daughter of Dame Babette.
Jacot, a peasant
Etienne, a peasant

Original New York and London Casts



NEW YORK.
Park, Sept. 29, 1847
LONDON. 
Marylebone,  Jan. 18, 1849.
Louis XV Mr. Hield. Mr. H. T. Craven.
Duke de Richelieu Mr. Barry Mr. James Johnstone.
Duke D'Antin
Mr. Dougherty
Mr. J. W. Ray.
Armand    
Mr. E.L. Davenport 
Mr. E.L. Davenport.
Le Sage 
Mr. McDougal 
Mr. G. Cooke.
Victor   Miss Denin. 
Miss S. Viilars.
Jacot    
Mr. Rae  
Mr. Green.
Etienne   
Miss Gallot. 
Miss Bowen.
Blanche
Mrs. Mowatt. Mrs. Mowatt.
Babette 
Mrs. Vernon.  
Mrs. Johnstone.
Jacqueline  
Miss Kate Horn.  
Miss M. Oliver

                                         

Production History

“Armand” was written two years after Anna Cora Mowatt’s debut as a playwright and actress.  She wrote it at the request of Mr. Simpson, owner of the Park Theater in New York, who, based on the popularity of “Fashion” and her fame as a performer, had so much faith in the new play’s success that the he wrote a Benefit Performance of Armand, 1849contract naming the time and date of its première before a single line of the drama was ever put down on paper.

Mowatt often complained about how dull the role of “Gertrude” in “Fashion” was to enact. She wrote the role of “Blanche” in “Armand” to suit her specific strengths as an actress.  The title role she tailored for her new acting partner, E.L. Davenport .  The critic for The Era would grumble that although lovely to listen to, “Armand’s” dialogue was not at all realistic.  Characters in the play often seemed to say things merely to prompt other characters to make wonderful speeches. This was probably because the drama was hurriedly composed with specific performers and stage effects in mind.

Alexandre Dumas’  first two “Three Musketeer” books had been published in 1844 and 1845. The last book, Le Vicomte Bragelonne, which contains The Man in the Iron Mask as a subplot was coming out in serial form as “Armand” was being written and performed.  Plotlines about this particular period in French history were quite en vogue at this time

“Armand” was popular with theater-goers on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to glowing reviews and extended runs, another piece of evidence we have of this play’s success is that actors and actresses other than Mowatt and Davenport used it for “benefit” performances.  On these nights, performers made arrangements with management to receive part of the money from ticket sales.  Therefore, it was imperative to choose a play that was guaranteed to draw as large a crowd as possible. “Armand” was a popular choice in the U.S. through the 1860’s.

Walter Watts, manager of the Marylebone Theater, made his presentation of an expensive, engraved silver vase to Anna Cora Mowatt at a performance of “Armand” held for her benefit. This show was part of the play’s extended run.  The original run had gone a very respectable twenty-one nights.  The vase would later become one of the elements used to bolster speculation about a relationship between the manager and the actress in the wake of the scandal surrounding Watt’s death.

“Armand” was the last play that Mowatt wrote.  She did publish a collection of dialogues called “Charades” in The Clergyman’s Wife.  However, the preface makes it clear that these are in the form of a game and not meant to be performed as a drama.

Critical Reaction

Mowatt wrote “Armand” after a year of working as an actress.  The financial and critical success of the play demonstrate how much she learned in this time about crafting a play that simultaneously showcased her strengths as a performer and appealed to the tastes of a contemporary audience.  The Albion, usually quite stingy with praise, effused;

Mrs. Mowatt sustained the heroine with more than her wonted power, especially in the concluding acts; she looked lovely, and became the gorgeous costume she wore in the last act, in a truly regal style.1

The following critique in the New York Herald of a performance at Park Theater in New York paints a picture of the audience’s enthusiastic reaction:

Mrs. Mowatt gave great interest to the character of Blanche and played it with great effect.  There was much simplicity and occasional archness in her manner.  She read many of the passages of the play beautifully and her scene with her lover in the second act was a fine display of impassioned tenderness.  In her closing scenes with the king she gave great force to her bursts of indignation.

At the close of the piece Mrs. Mowatt was called before the curtain, and appeared accompanied by Mr. Davenport; she was received with cheers and other demonstrations of applause, and garlands and bouquets were thrown in abundance at her feet.2

This review from the Boston Daily Times highlights how each act in which Blanche appears brings out a different emotional coloring that Mowatt excelled in portraying:

The character of Blanche is well drawn and most admirably represented by Mrs. Mowatt.  Her innocent gaiety and playfulness in the second act, her sadness as the woes of life deepen around her, her impetuous declarations of love in the fourth act, and her vehement denunciations of the profligate monarch in the last, are fine examples of histrionic power, and truthful and natural beyond a cavil.  Her personation of this character has added another bright leaf to the coronal of her renown.3

After the London debut of “Armand” in 1849, the London Illustrated News concluded;

Mrs. Mowatt, as the heroine, appeared to greater advantage, we think, than in anything in which we have yet seen her.  Nothing could exceed the graceful gentleness and animation of her acting; and, in the last scene, her interview with the King was especially effective, drawing down thunders of applause.4

About the overall power of the play to appeal to the U.S. public, the New York Herald tells us:

It should not be forgotten that Mrs. Mowatt is an American; that her play now belongs to the literature of this country… There are, indeed but few dramas presented to the public which are so unexceptionable, and so peculiarly adapted to the tastes and sentiments of the current age.  The most exalted sentiments are rehearsed in pleasing language.—Vice is reproved in terms, while they offend not, are to the point. And even the highest moral sentiments are inculcated in so attractive a form that even the sacred desk might appropriately afford a theatre from whence to promulgate them.  No parent but might with the utmost propriety place his children in the way of receiving the lessons which are here taught, and no patriot but might listen with satisfaction to the teachings of political truths which are contained in the language of The Child of the People. No address is made to the baser feelings. No glossing over of reprehensible acts; no soft names given to shameless malconduct; but with the boldness of virtue is virtue advocated; and with a whip of censure roundly applied is wanton wickedness condemned.  There is no fear for the future reputation of “Armand.”  It has the stamp of genius, and the mark of true merit.5

Resources

Online Copies of the play can be found at the Internet Archive and Hathi Trust

A dramatic reading of the play is available at Librivox

Further Reading on this Play

Anna Cora Mowatt, Armand, and the Fast Man -- how Walter Watts may have calculated an appeal to young single men into his decision to stage "Armand" in London

Anna Cora Mowatt, Armand, and the Museum Crowd -- the literary appeal of "Armand" and why that was an important selling point for the U.S. theatrical market in 1847

Anna Cora Mowatt, Armand, and Uncle Sam -- a discussion of the appeal politics played in the original U.S. production and the censorship the script received from the Lord Chamberlain's office before it could be cleared for its debut on the London stage.

Anna Cora Mowatt, Armand, and the Silver Vase -- discussion of the connection between the silver vase presented to Mowatt at a benefit performance of "Armand" and the Watts Scandal

Anna Cora Mowatt and a Pair of "Breeches" -- the role of Victor in "Armand" is discussed as one of the two breeches roles that Mowatt wrote during her career as a playwright

Notes

1.       “New Works.” The Albion. October 2, 1847.Page 480, col. 3.

2.       “Theatrical and Musical.” The New York Herald. Monday, October 2, 1847. Page 3, col. 3.

3.       “Local Intelligence.” Boston Daily Times. October 27, 1847, Page 2.

4.       “Marylebone.”  London Illustrated News. January 20, 1849.

5.       “Theatrical and Musical.” New York Herald. Friday, Oct. 1, 1847. Page 3, col. 3.


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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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