Mowatt, Anna Cora (1819–1870)
Mowatt, Anna Cora (1819–1870)
Author of Fashion, the first American comedy of manners, who also defied convention as the first woman of her privileged class to become a professional actress. Name variations: Mrs. William Fouchee Ritchie; "Lily." Born Anna Cora Ogden on September 12, 1819, in Bordeaux, France; died on July 27, 1870, in St. Margaret's Wood, Twickenham, England; daughter of Samuel Gouverneur Ogden (a merchant and member of distinguished New York family) and Eliza (Lewis) Ogden; educated by extensive home reading and attendance at select academies for young ladies in New York; married James Mowatt, in October 1834 (died 1851); married William Fouchee Ritchie (a newspaper editor of Richmond, Virginia), in 1854.
With family, returned from France to New York City (1826); appeared in and directed numerous family theatricals; attended her first professional theatrical performance, Fanny Kemble in The Hunchback (1831); secretly married James Mowatt (1834); made her debut as elocutionist, Boston (1841); had her play Fashion produced at Park Theater, New York (March 1845); made her debut as actress at Park Theater, New York, in Bulwer-Lytton's The Lady of Lyons (June 1845); pursued highly successful career as starring actress in the U.S. and England (1845–54); was a charter and active member of the Mount Vernon Association to preserve George Washington's home.
Pelayo or the Cavern of Cavadonga; Gulzara or the Persian Slave; The Gypsey Wanderer or the Stolen Child; Evelyn or a Heart Unmasked; Fashion; Armand; Fairy Fingers; (autobiography) Mimic Life: The Autobiography of an Actress.
"Long after [the War of 1812], the American theater remained in many ways subject to the English theater, and the story of its growth and development is the story of its struggle for artistic independence, a struggle less bloody but far more prolonged than the struggle for political independence," writes theater historian Barnard Hewitt. One unlikely warrior in that struggle was a delicate but spirited woman whose beauty and talent were attested to even by that demanding New York drama critic Edgar Allan Poe. Anna Cora Mowatt, daughter of a wealthy and cultivated New York family, burst upon the theater world in the mid-19th century as both playwright and starring actress.
The first play published in what would become the United States had been Androboros, a Biographical Farce in Three Acts, written by Robert Hunter, governor of New York. Printed in 1714, Androboros was a savage and salty satire on the goings-on of the Provincial Council and the lieutenant governor. It seems never to have been produced. In 1716, the first American theater building of which we have any record was constructed in Williamsburg, Virginia, but for many years throughout the colonies, traveling players were often obliged to perform wherever space allowed—in courtrooms, warehouses, and "convenient" rooms.
It was not until 1752 that the Comedians of London, the first professional company to appear in the colonies, opened in a new and well-equipped theater in—again—Williamsburg with a performance of The Merchant of Venice. The cavalier spirit was clearly alive and well in the Old Dominion. Finely dressed folk in carriages and on horseback descended upon the new theater, thrilled as the energetic Shylock cried, "The pound of flesh is mine; 'tis dearly bought, and I will have it!" and applauded vigorously. The Comedians settled in for an 11-month run before moving on to other American cities.
Those cities were frequently less welcoming than the Virginians. The Quakers of Philadelphia considered theatrical performances an evil influence, and the Puritans of New England were strongly disapproving. Many respectable New Yorkers also frowned. Yet the number of theaters increased throughout the 18th century. Actors themselves remained suspect. No lady of good breeding would have considered exhibiting herself upon a public stage. Only a few Americans of any background, and no woman among them, were as yet writing plays. It was nearly a century after the Comedians' Williamsburg appearance when a daughter of the New World aristocracy—Knickerbocracy, as the editor of the New York Mirror called it—broke the mold.
Mowatt was born Anna Cora Ogden in 1819. Her father Samuel Gouverneur Ogden was a member of a distinguished New York family with a long and notable history in Colonial and Revolutionary America, and her mother Eliza Lewis Ogden was a granddaughter of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. She herself, the ninth of her parents' fourteen children, was born in Bordeaux, France, where her father had business. She spent the early years of her childhood at La Castagne, which one historian has described as "a small but elegant late Renaissance château of twenty-two rooms." The "small" château seems to have been as crowded with books as with children. Anna, or Lily, as her family called her, later claimed to have read through Shakespeare "many times over" by her tenth birthday. At age four, she made her debut in a family theatrical performance as a judge in Othello, clad in a red robe and white wig while admonished not to laugh.
Such family presentations continued when the Ogdens returned in 1826 to their native New York. By her early teens, Mowatt had become the impresario, stage manager, and director of these presentations. Always a voracious reader and prolific scribbler, she was also a play doctor, revising well-known plays to suit the ages and abilities of her acting company. Playwriting itself came next, as she dramatized incidents from American history for her ardently patriotic family.
At 14, she directed and starred in a production of Voltaire's Alzire performed for a large audience of family and friends. Characteristically bold despite her slight stature, Mowatt headed a sibling delegation to request the necessary Spanish and Moorish attire from Edmund Simpson, manager of the Park Theater, who, though not a member of the Ogdens' social circle, lived opposite them and was "gentlemanly."
Soon Mowatt saw her first professional play. The English actress Fanny Kemble , appearing in The Hunchback, a popular melodrama, hypnotized her. Any thought that the theater must necessarily be a place of "sin and wickedness" was banished from her mind forever. She would later be an outspoken champion of both plays and actors.
Her success is not the result of elaborate thought but creative genius.
—"Old Drury," The Charleston Courier
For now, however, Anna was playing in her own real-life drama. James Mowatt, a cultivated New York lawyer twice her age, had begun to court her. Despite Samuel Ogden's opposition, James' suit was successful. Fifteen-year-old Anna, wearing a white muslin dress which she had created in six nights of secret, frantic sewing, met her groom at St. John's Park and was married by the pastor of New York's French church, l'Eglise de Saint Esprit. The pastor, who had himself eloped, was the only cleric willing to perform the ceremony. While he was startled at first, Samuel Ogden soon accepted his new son-in-law.
James Mowatt's immediate concern was for the intellectual development of his young bride, and he read with her extensively in French and English. Both husband and wife were greatly attracted to the views of the Swedish mystic Swedenborg and would remain disciples. Mowatt had often written verses for family occasions. Now she composed an epic poem of 130 stanzas entitled "Pelayo or the Cavern of Cavadonga." "Pelayo" was published by Harpers' under the pen name "Isabel" and gained considerable attention—not all favorable—from reviewers. Anna promptly retorted with the lampoon "Reviewers Reviewed."
The young Mowatts' life at their estate Melrose was apparently idyllic but brief. Their prosperity was interrupted by illness for Anna, who had always been frail—she was probably tubercular—and threatened blindness for James. A stay in Europe was prescribed. Undergoing a somewhat arduous recuperation there, Mowatt went often to the theater, learned German, improved her music and read and studied extensively. Returning to America, she wrote and produced Gulzara or the Slave Girl for her usual enthusiastic private audience at Melrose. But in late 1841, James Mowatt, a victim of unfortunate real-estate investments, discovered that he was bankrupt. Beautiful Melrose must be sold.
For the first time, Mowatt considered becoming a professional actress; widely read in poetry and drama, she had a beautiful speaking voice and fine enunciation. Although she professed to admire feminine beauty quite different from her own, she could scarcely deny that others found her lovely and that she could hold an audience. Her husband, though concerned for her health, had no doubt of her ability. But dared she risk her own and her family's reputation? Even for Mowatt the leap was great, but there was a half step. She would give poetry readings. And Boston, the cultural center of the Republic with its Transcendentalists, would be the first site.
The Boston Atlas, in announcing the upcoming "entertainment," frankly admitted Mrs. Mowatt's motivation: "We learn that she resorts to this employment of her talents and acquirements with a view to rendering them productive of pecuniary emolument, in consequence of reverses to which her family has been subjected." The "pecuniary emolument" was forthcoming. Boston audiences were captivated by the slight woman in her white muslin dress reciting "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," "Woodman, Spare that Tree" and other popular poetry. "I read as often as possible from American poets," declared Mowatt, ever the patriot.
With her successful Boston appearance and others in Providence and New York, a new art was born. For the rest of the 19th century, elocutionists reciting popular and classical verse would draw large and enthusiastic audiences. But Mowatt's health and financial problems were not ended. Too frail to continue a strenuous series of recitations, she turned to writing—poems, essays for such popular magazines as The Ladies Companion and Godey's, novels, including Evelyn or a Heart Unmasked, and practical handbooks such as Housekeeping Made Easy, Ball-Room Etiquette and Etiquette of Matrimony. She also wrote a Life of Goethe, under a masculine pseudonym, since a lady could not openly write about a man. James Mowatt established an independent publishing company to profit more fully from his wife's literary prodigality.
The climax of three busy writing years came when a friend suggested that Anna compose a play about contemporary New York society which, with the city's growth, was changing rapidly. It was a subject Mowatt knew well. In less than a month, she wrote Fashion, a good-natured satire on the pretensions of her city's newly rich. The fake noble Count Jolimaitre, the poet T. Tennyson Twinkle, the native ingenue Serafina, the ambitious, not-quite-so-rich-as-they-seem parents, the Tiffanies—these and others were contrasted with the honest old farmer Adam Trueman who represented the sterling values which the Tiffanies had abandoned.
Mowatt had scored again. Fashion, accepted by the Park Theater for production in March 1845, was probably the earliest example of an American comedy of manners. Anna Cora Mowatt became the first American woman to write for the professional stage. Now she was introduced to a world which neither her impresario's role in home theatricals nor public poetry readings had prepared her—the other side of that great green curtain which traditionally separated theatrical productions from the unromantic details of production.
"The play was at once announced and put in rehearsal," Mowatt would recall in The Autobiography of an Actress. "The day before its representation I became anxious to witness one of these rehearsals, that I might form some idea of the chances of success.… The whole front of the building was so dark that we had to feel our
way, stumbling over benches and chairs, until we succeeded in gaining our seats." She continues:
The stage was lighted by a single branch of gas, shooting up to the height of several feet in the centre of the footlights. It sent forth a dim, blue, spectral light, that gave a phantom-like appearance to surrounding objects. On the right of the stage was the prompter's table—on the left, the manager's table. Beneath the ghostly light sat a pale-faced prompter, with the manuscript of "Fashion" in his hand. At his side stood the "call boy," a child of about ten years of age. He held a long strip of paper, somewhat resembling the tailors' bills of young spendthrifts, as they are represented on the stage.…
The rehearsal of "Fashion" had begun. It was singular to see these kings and queens of the stage, whom I had been accustomed to behold decked in gold-embroidered robes and jewelled crowns, glittering in the full blaze of the footlights—now moving about in this "visible darkness," some of the men in "shocking bad hats" and rough overcoats, and the ladies in modern bonnets in place of tiaras or wreaths of flowers, and mantles and warm cloaks instead of peasant petticoats or brocade trains. I found it difficult to recognize the romantic heroes and injured heroines in whose sufferings I had so often sympathized.
Edgar Allan Poe, drama critic of the Broadway Journal, used Fashion as the subject of an essay crying out for a new American theater:
It will no longer do to copy, even with absolute accuracy, the whole tome of even so ingenious and really spirited a thing as the School for Scandal. It was comparatively good in its day, but it would be positively bad at the present day, and imitations of it are inadmissible at any day.
Bearing in mind the spirit of these observations, we may say that Fashion is theatrical but not dramatic. It is a pretty well arranged selection from the usual routine of stage characters, and stage manoeuvres, but there is not one particle of any nature beyond green-room nature, about it. No such events ever happened in fact, or ever could happen, as happen in Fashion. … Our fault-finding is on the score of deficiency in verisimilitude—in natural art—that is to say, on art based on the natural laws of man's heart and understanding.…
We must discard all models. The Elizabethan theater should be abandoned. We need thought of our own—principles of dramatic action drawn not from the "old dramatists" but from the fountain of a Nature that can never grow old.
It must be understood that we are not considering Mrs. Mowatt's comedy in particular, but the modern drama in general.… Fashion, upon the whole was well received by a large, fashionable and critical audience.… Compared with the generality of modern dramas, it is a good play—compared with most American dramas it is a very good one—estimated by the natural principles of dramatic art, it is altogether unworthy of notice.
Mowatt's audiences were more easily satisfied. She herself had not set out to reform the American theater. Besides, she was now occupied with making another decision. Managers were begging her to go upon the stage.
"I pondered long and seriously upon the consequences of entering the profession," she admitted. "Was it right? Was it wrong? were questions of highest moment. My respect for the opinions of 'Mrs. Grundy' had slowly melted away since I discovered that with that respectable representative of the world in general success sanctified all things; nothing was reprehensible but failure.… I reviewed my whole past life, and saw, that, from earliest childhood, my tastes, studies, pursuits, had all combined to fit me for this end.… I would become an ac tress." "Tears, entreaties, threats, supplicating letters" from relatives and friends could not hold her back. She set about exercising her voice, using dumbbells to strengthen her arms, taking fencing lessons and wearing the trailing skirts which her parts would require.
In June 1845, Mowatt made her debut at the Park Theater as the leading lady—there was no point in beginning anywhere but at the top, she had decided—in a popular melodrama, Bulwer-Lytton's The Lady of Lyons. "Mrs. Mowatt's debut as Pauline last night was one of the most triumphant we ever witnessed," wrote one critic. Even Poe found her talented and beautiful. Anna's acting career was launched.
She played leading roles at New York's Niblo's Gardens and went on to Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Boston. She spent December of 1845 in Charleston, South Carolina, doing a repertory of 16 plays, including 6 in which she had not appeared before. Fortunately, her memory was prodigious. In 1846, she toured the South and Midwest. "In the annals of the stage of all countries there is no single instance of a mere novice playing so many times before so many different audiences and winning so much merited praise as did Mrs. Mowatt during the first twelve months of her career as an actress," declared a critic.
Mowatt was not content. For so many years English plays and English actors had dominated the American theater, while American actors, though gradually making their way at home, had met with a chilly reception overseas. Only the American Charlotte Cushman with her Hamlet had won grudging acceptance from Londoners. Mowatt sailed for Liverpool in 1846, determined to charm the British lion. The venture had its difficulties but also its glowing successes. The London season of 1848–49 was, in fact, the climax of Anna's career.
But her life was changing again. Early in 1851 James Mowatt died and was buried in England. Anna returned to the United States to tour. In 1854, the same year she published her autobiography, she retired from the stage and married William Fouchee Ritchie, a Richmond, Virginia, newspaper editor. In Richmond, as always, she continued her own writing. She also became a charter and active member of the Mount Vernon Association, led by Ann Pamela Cunningham , which was dedicated to the purchase and preservation of George Washington's home.
For reasons Mowatt was unwilling to reveal, her new marriage was not a happy one. In 1864, suffering poor health, she returned to Europe, wintering in Florence with its congenial climate and people. Financial problems continued to plague her, and she dreamed of recouping her fortunes by writing or even acting once again. Among her last writings were articles for the newly founded San Francisco Chronicle. She died quietly in St. Margaret's Wood, Twickenham, in July 1870, and was buried beside James Mowatt.
Anna Cora Mowatt was perhaps not a great actress but there seems no doubt that she delighted audiences with her "thrilling" voice, her beauty and stage presence, and often with novel interpretations of roles. She was especially praised for her performances as Shakespeare's young heroines Beatrice and Rosalind (and was wise enough not to attempt the tragic roles).
The mid-18th century was an age of artificial acting. Actors came down to the footlights to deliver their principal lines, making "points" to their audiences. During such speeches, everyone else on stage was unmoving, creating an almost choreographed effect. Stage crosses were made only diagonally in strict patterns. Rehearsals were few, with the actors often still holding their books the night before an opening, and the star system prevailed. In this theater, Mowatt seems to have played with a more natural and unaffected style than was customary.
Her comedy Fashion is included in anthologies of the early American theater and has had several 20th-century productions. It was "devised and staged" with music at the Yale Drama School as recently as 1964 and produced in a musical version Off-Broadway. The Autobiography of an Actress remains an entertaining account of life in a well-to-do and close-knit New York family as well as of the theatrical world which Mowatt dared to enter and to champion.
Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and the Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. NY: Scribner, 1954.
Hewitt, Barnard. Theatre U.S.A. 1665 to 1957. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1959.
Hughes, Glenn. A History of the American Theatre, 1700 to 1950. NY: Samuel French, 1951.
Mowatt, Anna Cora. The Autobiography of an Actress. Boston, MA: Ticknor and Fields, 1854.
American Literature Series. American Plays. NY: American Book, 1935.
Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, Ph.D. thesis, 1938.
Butler, Mildred Allen. Actress In Spite of Herself: The Life of Anna Cora Mowatt. NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1966.
McCaslin, Nellie. Leading Lady. Studio City, CA: Players Press, 1933.
Margery Evernden , Professor Emerita, English Department, University of Pittsburgh, and freelance writer