In the summer of 1845, the paths of Edgar Allan Poe and Anna Cora Mowatt crisscrossed for a few brief, memorable months. Both were experiencing success in careers that they ultimately would not be known for. Poe was the editor and owner of The Broadway Journal. Anna Cora Mowatt had just made her debut as actress. Each had made a literary mark that would give them lasting fame earlier that same year. Poe published “The Raven” in late January. Mowatt’s play “Fashion” had debuted in March.
have no video of Mowatt.
There is only one extant photograph of her. It was taken after she had
from the stage and had been through a long illness. However, we do have
vivid descriptions of her as she appeared on stage.
Her manner on the stage is distinguished by an ease and self-possession which do credit to a veteran. Her step is very graceful and assured – indeed all her movements evince the practiced elocutionist. We watched her with the closest scrutiny and not for one instant did we observe in her 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 deeply imbued with the truest sentiment of the beauty of motion.
is rich and
voluminous, and though by no means powerful, so well managed as to seem
utterance is singularly distinct – its sole blemish being an occasional
Anglicism of accent, adopted probably from her instructor. In
respect, no actress in
Poe would next speak of Mowatt on July 26. The play at Niblo's this time was "The Bride of Lammermoor." Once more, the writer was enchanted with the actress, but was in the throes of a pain familiar to all book-lovers, a bad adaptation of a beloved novel -- or in this case, a bad adaptation of a beloved opera:
If in all
the literature of fiction, there is a character for
which Mrs. Mowatt is peculiarly adapted, it is Lucy Ashton. If the
of Fashion knew her own strength,
she would confine herself,
nearly altogether, to depicting in letters as well as on stage, the
sentiments and more profound passions. Her sympathy with the latter is
evidently more intense. In the utterance of the truly generous – of the
noble – of the unaffectedly passionate – we see her bosom heave – her
grow pale – her limbs tremble – her chiseled lip quiver – and nature’s
rush impetuously to the eye. Nor is it the freshness of the heart which
provide for her the greenest laurels. It is this enthusiasm – this well
feelings – which should be made to prove to her an exhaustless source
As actress it is to her a mine of wealth – worth all the dawdling
in the world. Mrs. Mowatt as she now stands,
as able to give lessons in stage routine to
any actor or
Feeling this – being well assured, from first seeing Mrs. Mowatt as Pauline, that her forte lay in the depicting of passion, we were anxious to see her in Juliet (a part which will yet render her immortal) and were delighted when we saw her announced for Lucy Ashton. But alas! It was Scott’s Lucy and not the Opera Lucy of which we dreamed. The play, as we saw it on Tuesday, is miserably ineffective – and the remembrance of that most passionate and romantic of novels, will intrude itself to render the defects of the dramatization more palpable. We even fancied that we could perceive the depressing influence of this remembrance in the countenance of Mrs. Mowatt. With a bosom full of emotion she seemed to suffer from the total insufficiency of the words of the dramatist to give utterance to her thought. But what was done was done to admiration. The actress lost no opportunity. The appeal to the mother was very noble acting. The signing of the contract and the wild shriek at the entrance of Edgar would have done honor to anyone. The apathetic and mute despair at the end of the play, and during the interview with Ravenswood in the mother’s presence – the dumb uncomprehending wretchedness – the half-conscious rendering up of the broken gold – the laboring anxiety for the relief of words – the final maddening confession, heartbreaking, and death in the lover’s arms – were the teachings not of Mr. Crisp, but of Nature herself – speaking in tones that could not be misunderstood. The audience grew pale, and were betrayed into silence and tears – and if anyone went away sneering that night, it is at least quite certain that he felt ashamed of the sneer.4
Poe also found something to like about Mowatt's peformance in another play on the bill that he thought very bad:
In Juliana – because Juliana is a role altogether out of nature – we did not expect Mrs. Mowat to do much – for not much is there for anyone to do. So far as gracefully dashing demeanor goes, she nevertheless accomplished something – and
Oh what a
deal of scorn looks beautiful
pages of The Broadway
Journal recorded one last review of Mowatt at Niblo
Gardens dated August 2, 1845.
At Niblo’s Mrs. Mowatt concluded her engagement on the 26th ult. Her last appearance was as the Duchess in “Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady,” and Katherine, in “Katherine and Petruchio.” The former of the pieces is one of the best things of its kind. It has all the neat epigrammatic spirit of the French Vaudeville – the ingenuity of its construction is remarkable – its incidents are vivid yet natural – its characters are well- sustained – its sentiments are occasionally noble – and, upon the whole, we know nothing of the same nature which combines so much of truthfulness with so much of pure jeu d’esprit. Not its least merit is its unity to effect.Nothing, we thing, could be better than Mrs. Mowatt’s personation of the Duchess. The part, to be sure, affords little opportunity for histrionic display – but the astonishment at first merged at Ruy Gomez’ audacity – this astonishment at first merged in indignation – then gradually becoming admiration – and this suddenly converted into love – were points so admirably managed by the fair actress, as to leave nothing to desire. The beautiful lips of Mrs. Mowatt have, we fear, a singular facility in the expression of contempt.6
In case reading Poe's reviews of Anna Cora Mowatt might have persuaded a reader that he was a tender-hearted critic, here's a sampling of the words he had for her supporting cast:
In Ruy Gomez Mr. Crisp was intolerable. He entirely misconceives the character. The Spaniard, as designed by Planche, is a dashing ardent, chivalric cavalier, urged to the extreme of audacity by the madness of his passion, but preserving through all a true dignity, and the most uncompromising respect for the lady of his love. Mr. Crisp makes him an impudent trickster – at times even a vulgar chuckling mountebank – occasionally a simpering buffoon. The Marquis of Santa Cruz was well represented by Nickerson. Miss Taylor spoke and stepped more like a chambermaid than like a prince.7Not even William Shakespeare was spared a sideswipe:
Even of the “Katherine and Petruchio” as Shakespeare conceived it, we have no exalted opinion. The whole design of the play is not only unnatural but an errant impossibility. The heart of no woman could ever have been reached by brute violence. But, as this drama originally stood, it contained many redeeming traits of nature and truth. These, it was the opinion of Cibber, interfered with the spirit of the thing, and accordingly, he left them out – or if one or two were suffered to remain, our modern mangers unsparingly uprooted them.8
Poe, however ended the review with a sweet farewell for his favorite actress:
In taking leave of Mrs. Mowatt for the present, we have only again to record our opinion that, if she be true to herself, she is destined to attain a very high theatrical rank.9This was, however, the last documented contact between the two. The Broadway Journal folded in 1846. As he had recommended in his first review, Mowatt was playing to applauding crowds in England by 1847. She was touring Europe at the time of Poe's mysterious death in 1849.
4. Edgar Allan Poe. "The Drama." Broadway Journal. July 26, 1845, p. 189.
6. Edgar Allan Poe. "The Drama." Broadway Journal. August 2, 1845, p. 210.
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