Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Morning of the Débût

Anna Cora Mowatt (1819–1870)
From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner

In June 1846 Edgar Allan Poe published a magazine profile, which was an expanded version of his previous review of Anna Cora Mowatt’s appearance in two plays at the Park Theatre in New York. His revised essay added appraisals of the actress’s well-known literary accomplishments. He dismissed her poetry (“in few of them do I observe even noticeable passages, and I confess that I am surprised and disappointed in my inquiry”) and was ambivalent about her fictional sketches (“lively, easy, conventional, scintillating with a species of sarcastic wit, which might be termed good were it in any respect original”). He found much to like—and dislike—in her famous play Fashion, which seemed to him an echo of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, “as the shell of a locust to the locust that tenants it.” A decade later, in her memoir, Mowatt acknowledged the sting of her “sternest critic” but responded, “the spirits of the performers infused themselves into the empty shell and produced a very effective counterfeit of life.”

But it was Mowatt’s talent as a stage actress that stirred Poe’s unqualified excitement, even though he had very recently excoriated the Park Theatre troupe as “a well-trained company of rats.” He was, it seems, smitten:
Her action is distinguished by an ease and self-possession which would do credit to a veteran. . . . Often have I watched her for hours with the closest scrutiny, yet never for an instant did I observe her in 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 imbued with the profoundest sentiment of the beautiful in motion. . . . A more radiantly beautiful smile it is quite impossible to conceive.
In her autobiography Mowatt explained why, in spite of her success as an author and over the strenuous objections of her friends, she became an actress—and thus transformed the perception of theater among members of the upper class.
I should never have adopted the stage as a matter of expediency alone, however great the temptation. What I did was not done lightly and irresponsibly. 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. . . . My love for the drama was genuine, for it was developed at a period when the theatre was an unknown place and actors a species of mythical creatures. . . . I would become an actress.
After she retired from the stage in 1854, Mowatt returned to her career as a full-time author. Her next book, Mimic Life, which sold more than ten thousand copies, is “a series of narratives” presented as three loosely formed novellas about the theater. The description of an actress’s stage debut in the first novella, “Stella,” includes passages and episodes that are markedly similar to Mowatt’s account of her own debut. (“Fiction has lent but few embellishing touches,” she admitted in a preface.) In the fictionalized version, members of a theater company lend support (or disdain) to Stella Rosenvelt, who prepares to make her debut as Virginia in James Sheridan Knowles’s tragedy Virginius, a standard of nineteenth-century stage repertoire. Among the story’s cast are several characters introduced in earlier vignettes:

Mattie—Stella’s maid and friend
Mr. Oakland—Stella's elocution teacher
Mr. Belton—manager of the theater
Mr. Finch—Belton’s stage manager
Mr. Tennent—a famous “tragedian” who is the star of the play
Mrs. Fairfax, Mr. Martin—members of the company
Fisk—a stagehand who doubles as the company’s “call boy

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It was the morning of Stella’s débût. As she drew back the curtains of her window, the sight of her own name, in huge characters, on a placard opposite, sent an electric shock through her frame. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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