The actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) was the first great American-born tragedienne, in a career spanning 4 decades.
Charlotte Cushman, who was descended from one of the original Pilgrim families, was born in Boston in 1816. Faced with poverty in her late teens, she determined to become an opera singer, a career for which her remarkable voice—a full contralto and almost full soprano—well suited her. But while performing in New Orleans, she strained her voice by reaching too high, and at the age of 19 her singing career ended.
Undaunted, Cushman decided to become an actress. Her debut as Lady Macbeth in New Orleans in 1835 began a career that lasted for 40 years and encompassed almost 200 roles. After her first success Cushman joined New York theater companies, where at least two plays were performed each evening and the bill was changed each day. Here she served a diligent apprenticeship; yet, after 8 years, she was still in "miserable, frightful uncertainty" about her career.
Then in 1843, William Macready, the great English actor, played Macbeth to her Lady Macbeth. He was so impressed by Cushman's undisciplined talent that he urged her to go to London for training. In appreciation for this fortuitous advice, she later said she had "groped in darkness until she met Mr. Macready and learned his method." By 1845 she was hailed in London as an actress with the "godlike gift" of genius. Three years later she played a command performance before Queen Victoria as Katherine in Henry VIII.
When Cushman returned to the United States in 1849, she found herself not only a celebrated actress but a symbol of the achievement of American culture. She sustained her reputation as the greatest American tragedienne until her retirement in 1875.
Her talent lay in portraying women of great passion and pathos; in such roles her muscular frame and powerful yet controlled voice could overwhelm and sometimes frighten the audience. The mysterious old gypsy Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannering was her most famous role, followed by Lady Macbeth, Queen Katherine, and Nancy in the dramatization of Oliver Twist. So strong was her presence that she won praise in men's roles, playing Romeo, Cardinal Wolsey, and Hamlet.
As early as 1852 Cushman made the first of many farewell appearances. She knew that she was suffering from cancer; the disease plagued her for the next 24 years and was finally the indirect cause of her death from pneumonia in Boston in 1876. Yet until the end she continued to act, and when her strength failed, she gave dramatic readings. Both on and off the stage she was a lady of dignity, passion, and majesty.
The most intimate portrait of Charlotte Cushman was done by her friend Emma Stebbins, Charlotte Cushman, Her Letters and Memories of Her Life (1878). It is extremely sympathetic and somewhat sentimental but provides evidence of Cushman's strength and sensitivity in private and public life. William Winters includes private recollections and accounts of her performances in Other Days (1908) and The Wallet of Time, vol. 1 (1913). Two excellent if brief analyses of Cushman's talent and place appear in Lloyd Morris, Curtain Time (1953), and Garff Wilson, A History of American Acting (1966). □