Cushman, Charlotte Saunders (1816–1876)

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Cushman, Charlotte Saunders (1816–1876)

American actress. Born Charlotte Saunders Cushman in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 23, 1816; died in Boston in 1876; elder daughter and the first of five children of Elkanah (a merchant in the West Indies trade) and his second wife Mary Eliza (Babbitt) Cushman.

Destined to be known as America's first great actress, Charlotte Cushman was born into a distinguished Boston family. Her father was a descendant of Robert Cushman, business manager for the group of Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth in 1620. When Charlotte was 13, her childhood ended abruptly with the failure of the family business, which forced her to leave school and take work as a domestic. Intent upon a career as an opera singer, she studied with several teachers, including James G. Maeder, music director of Boston's Tremont Theater, who arranged her first professional appearance as Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro (April 1835). She then joined Maeder on tour, but her voice failed to live up to its early promise. Cushman then turned to acting and made her debut as Lady Macbeth at New Orleans' St. Charles Theatre in April 1836.

Her performance led to a contract at the Bowery Theatre in New York, but a week after her first appearance the theater burned to the ground. She had better luck in her next engagement in Albany and was hired in 1837 by the Park Street Theatre in New York, where she played a variety of roles. Most notable were her portrayals of Meg Merrilees, the Gypsy fortuneteller in the popular Guy Mannering, a dramatization of Sir Walter Scott's Gothic novel, and Romeo, the first of the male roles that would figure so prominently in her repertoire. Early in her career, Cushman became known for the meticulous preparation of her roles. To research the character of Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist (1839), she is said to have traveled to the city's Five Points region to study the speech and mannerisms of the slum dwellers and to collect pieces of tattered clothing for her costume.

In 1842, still relatively unknown, Cushman became manager of Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre, where she became a local favorite, in spite of fellow actor George Vandenhoff, who thought her talent was crude and "uncultivated." During the 1843–44 season, she played Lady Macbeth opposite the English Shakespearean actor William Macready, a role that would later be considered one of her finest. In 1845, Cushman went to London and enjoyed a triumphant debut at the Princess Theatre, starring as Bianca in the tragedy Fazio. The reviews were glowing, comparing her debut to that of Edmund Kean. Even the conservative Times hailed her as "a great acquisition to the London stage" and called her a worthy successor to England's legendary Sarah Siddons. A subsequent tour of the provinces was so successful that Cushman was able to bring her family over to join her. In December 1845, after a triumphant engagement at London's Haymarket Theatre, she played the male lead in Romeo and Juliet opposite her sister Susan Cushman , who was said to be more beautiful than Charlotte but less talented. In 1848, Charlotte performed for Queen Victoria , then returned to America in 1849 for a three-year tour, during which she portrayed Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII and added Hamlet to her repertoire of male roles.

In appearance, Cushman was a commanding presence; tall, with an ample figure, she had rather plain features dominated by a high forehead and piercing eyes. Her enormous physical energy and remarkable vocal versatility lent

themselves to her more flamboyant, tragic roles, and were especially effective in her masculine portrayals. However, even allowing for the declarative style of 19th-century acting, she was thought by some to be over the top at times (to "chew the scenery" in theatrical parlance), though her style is considered to have mellowed somewhat as her career progressed. Cushman did not excel in subtle character portrayals nor in comedy, and critics often accused her of "pointing," or concentrating her energy in a few dramatic scenes, while routinely acting the rest of the play.

Mary Anderson , another American actress, recalled Cushman's performances of the gypsy in Guy Mannering, one of her signature roles: "When in the moonlight of the scene, she dashed from her tent on to the stage, covered with the gray, shadowy garments of the gypsy sibyl, her appearance was ghost-like and startling in the extreme. In her mad rushes on and off stage she was like a cyclone." Anderson went on to describe the climactic scene. "When Dick Hatterick's fatal bullet entered her body, and she came staggering down the stage, her terrible shriek, so wild and piercing, so full of agony and yet of the triumph she had given her life to gain, told the whole story of her love and her revenge."

In 1852, having shrewdly invested her earnings, Cushman announced the first of a number of retirements from the stage and returned to England. Thereafter, her American appearances were limited to several tours and a few benefit performances for the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War. From 1853 to 1870, at her house in London and winter retreat in Rome, she entertained a wide circle of expatriated artists and helped many of them advance their careers. Most accounts of the actress describe her as deeply religious (a Unitarian by upbringing) and overly solicitous, especially toward her family. Her romantic involvements appear to have been limited to a girlhood engagement and a brief love affair in 1836. Aside from some raised eyebrows over her penchant for portraying men, the public held her in high esteem. There are a few published recollections, however, that characterize her as possessive and domineering; one associate recalled that she occasionally slugged performers who particularly annoyed her.

In 1870, after an operation in Switzerland to remove a cancerous tumor, Cushman returned to the States with her close friend sculptor Emma Stebbins and established residences in Boston, Massachusetts, and Newport, Rhode Island. She continued to perform, although ill health and constant pain forced her to abandon traditional acting in favor of dramatic readings, usually consisting of pieces from Shakespeare, Browning, and Tennyson. On November 7, 1874, Cushman gave an emotional farewell performance of Lady Macbeth in New York, which was followed by an outpouring of affection from a crowd of 25,000 well-wishers that had gathered outside her hotel. Her final performance was a reading in Easton, Pennsylvania, in 1875. Charlotte Cushman died in Boston a year later, at age 59. Funeral services were held in Boston's King's Chapel, followed by burial in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. In 1907, as a tribute to her, the first Charlotte Cushman Club was established in Philadelphia as a hotel for traveling actresses. As late as the 1940s, other Cushman clubs continued to flourish in Boston, Chicago, and other American cities.

suggested reading:

Leach, Joseph. Bright Particular Star. New Haven, CT, 1970.

Waters, Clara Erskine Clement. Mrs. Charlotte Cushman. Boston, MA: J.R. Osgood, 1882.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Cushman, Charlotte Saunders (1816–1876)

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