Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “The Drama (part I),” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 184-188


[page 184, continued:]


[Broadway Journal, July 19, 1845.]

MRS. MOWATT,(1) at Niblo’s has been the great theatrical attraction of the week. She has been very successful, drew large and fashionable as well as intellectual audiences, and elicited boisterous applause, with much of a kind less equivocal.

She has erred, we think, in making this arrangement — that is to say, she has somewhat injured the prestige of her name, first in appearing at a summer theatre, and secondly in appearing again at all, after so brief an interval. Mrs. Mowatt owes it to herself to maintain a certain dignity; and, although this certain dignity be preposterous, in fact in the fiction of the world’s view it is all important. A lady so well-connected, and so well established in the public eye by her literary reputation, could have had no difficulty in coming upon the stage in her own fashion, and almost on her own terms. The Park, as the place of her début, was, of course, unobjectionable, although in a negative sense. She lost no caste by coming out here, but the fact cannot be disputed that she would have gained much by first appearing in London, and presenting herself to her countrymen and countrywomen [page 185:] with the éclat of a foreign reputation. We say this with a bitter sense of our national degradation, and subserviency to British opinion: — we say it, moreover, with a consciousness that Mrs. Mowatt should not have done this thing however much it would have furthered her interests.

On another point she has beyond doubt acted unwisely. Mr. Crisp is in many respects an excellent actor, but he is by no means of that degree of eminence which we should have desired in the supporter of Mrs. Mowatt. With Mr. Forrest she would have had advantages which can never be afforded her by Mr. Crisp.

We have no sympathies with the prejudices which would entirely have dissuaded Mrs. Mowatt from the stage. There is no cant more contemptible than that which habitually decries the theatrical profession — a profession which, in itself, embraces all that can elevate and ennoble, and absolutely nothing to degrade. If some — if many — or if even nearly all of its members are dissolute, this is an evil arising not from the profession itself, but from the unhappy circumstances which surround it. With these circumstances Mrs. Mowatt has, at present, no concern. With talents, enthusiasm, and energy, she will both honor the stage and derive from it honor. In the mere name of actress she can surely find nothing to dread — nothing, or she would be unworthy of the profession — not the profession unworthy her. The theatre is ennobled by its high facilities for the development of genius — facilities not afforded elsewhere in equal degree. By the spirit of genius, we say, it is ennobled — it is sanctified — beyond the sneer of the fool or the cant of the hypocrite. The actor of talent is poor at heart, indeed, [page 186:] if he do not look with contempt upon the mediocrity even of a king. The writer of this article is himself the son of an actress — has invariably made it his boast — and no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of the descent from a woman who, although well-born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty.

At Niblo’s, as at the Park, Mrs. Mowatt made her first appearance as Pauline, in “The Lady of Lyons;” and this is the only character she has yet sustained. On the play itself we have lately seen some strictures which seem to us unjust. We regard it as one of the most successful dramatic efforts of modern times. It is popular, and justly so. It could not fail to be popular so long as the people have a heart. It abounds with sentiments which stir the soul as the sound of a trumpet. It proceeds rapidly, and consequentially: the interest not for one moment being permitted to flag. Its incidents are admirably conceived, and wrought into execution with great skill. Its dramatis personæ throughout, have the high merit of being natural, although, except in the case of Pauline, there is no marked individuality. She is a creation which would have done no dishonor to Shakspeare — and she excites in us the most profound emotion. It has been sillily objected to her that she is weak, mercenary, and at points ignoble. She is — and what then? We are not dealing with Clarissa Harlowe. Bulwer wished to paint a woman, and has done so. The principal defect of the play lies in the heroine’s consenting to wed Beauseant, while aware of the existence and even of the continued love of Claude. As the plot runs, there is a question in Pauline’s soul between a comparatively trivial, because mere worldly, [page 187:] injury to her father, and utter ruin and despair inflicted upon her husband. Here there should have been not an instant’s hesitation. The audience have no sympathy with any. Nothing on earth should have induced the wife to give up the living Melnotte. Only the assurance of his death could have justified her in sacrificing herself to Beauseant. As it is we hate her for the sacrifice. The effect is repulsive — at war with the whole genius of the play.

Of Mrs. Mowatt, and of her acting, we have to speak only in terms of enthusiastic admiration. We have never had the pleasure of seeing her before — and we presume that there are many of our readers who have never seen her. Her figure is slight — even fragile — but eminently graceful. Her face is a remarkably fine one, and of that precise character best adapted to the stage. The forehead is the least prepossessing feature, although it is by no means an unintellectual one. The eyes are grey, brilliant and expressive, without being full. The nose is well formed, with the Roman curve, and strongly indicative of energy; this quality is also shown in the prominence of the chin. The mouth is somewhat large, with brilliant and even teeth, and flexible lips, capable of the most effective variations of expression. A more radiantly beautiful smile we never remember having seen. Mrs. Mowatt has also the personal advantage of a profusion of rich auburn hair.

Her manner on the stage is distinguished by an ease and self-possession which would do credit to a veteran. Her step is very graceful and assured — indeed all her movements evince the practised elocutionist. We watched her with the closest scrutiny throughout the whole play, and not for one instant did we observe [page 188:] 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 deeply imbued with the truest sentiment of the beauty of motion.

Her voice is rich and voluminous, and although by no means powerful, is so well managed as to seem so. Her utterance is singularly distinct — its sole blemish being an occasional Anglicism of accent, adopted probably from her instructor. Her reading could scarcely be improved. In this respect no actress in America is her equal — for she reads not theatrically, but with the emphasis of Nature. Indeed the great charm of the whole acting of Mrs. Mowatt is its naturalism [[naturalness]]. She moves, looks, and speaks with a well-controlled impulsiveness as different as can be conceived from the customary rant and cant — the hack conventionality of the stage. If she does not suffer herself to be badgered out of this good path it will lead her inevitably to the highest distinction — a very proud triumph will assuredly he hers.

Mr. Crisp makes a respectable Melnotte, but little more. His action and general manner in this part are not, we think, sufficiently calm. Claude is not so much impetuous and impulsive, as the man of profound passions and deliberate purposes. Where he takes the character of the Prince, Mr. Crisp very improperly makes him assume the coxcombical airs of the Count in “Fashion.” He should be made to sneer — but no more. His true dignity should never be left out of sight. In light comedy Mr. Crisp is, indeed, a very admirable actor.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 184:]

1.  See The Literati, Vol. XV. — ED.





[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (The Drama (part I))