Lady Romeo: Learning About Nineteenth-Century Actress Charlotte Cushman with Tana Wojczuk
Mike Lueger: Welcome to the Theatre History Podcast, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide.
Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. The nineteenth century was a pivotal era for theatre in the United States. Distinctly American plays began to appear on stage while actors like Ira Aldridge and Edwin Forrest became international celebrities. One of the most fascinating individuals of this time was Charlotte Cushman, arguably the United States' first celebrity actress. She had both a remarkable career and personal life, as Tana Wojczuk chronicles in her new book, Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America's First Celebrity. Tana's an editor at Guernica and teaches at New York University. Tana, thank you so much for joining us.
Tana Wojczuk: Hi, thanks for having me.
Mike: Can you tell us a little bit about Charlotte Cushman, how she got started in her theatrical career?
Tana: Sure. So, like many young women of her era, the theatre was considered a very bad career choice. Women didn't have any career choices other than, obviously, working as a governess occasionally or a washerwoman or seamstress. Very private ways of making money behind closed doors. And women who went on stage and displayed themselves for money as actresses were considered little better than prostitutes.
This was also despite the fact that the theatre was very popular. People flocked to the theatre, and yet these women were considered fallen. But Cushman grew up loving the theatre. She actually had an uncle who was an investor in the Tremont Theatre in Boston, and she was just mad about the theatre. But she didn't even get to go until after her father abandoned the family. So, this was sort of the cataclysm that set her life in motion, and she herself, looking back, really recognized it as such.
Her father was a merchant and, through various shady dealings, got deeper and deeper in debt and had some lawsuits brought against him and eventually just disappeared, leaving the family to try to make good on his debts. So, one of Charlotte's earliest memories is of debt collectors coming and taking the family furniture, and they had to move from place to place. And finally, her mom opened a boarding house, and Charlotte had this little bit of wiggle room, of freedom. They were no longer a well-respected family in the same sense that they were. And so she was able to actually get away with going with her uncle to the theatre. There wasn't a man in the house.
So, that's the birth of how she had this door open to her. And she fell in love with the theatre. She was immensely talented, and it all started there. And her first debut was actually as a singer, and she failed miserably in New Orleans. There are some really nasty things written about her ability as a singer. And then instead of running home, essentially, she took on the role in New Orleans of Lady Macbeth—really challenging, as I'm sure your listeners know, a very challenging role—and blew it out of the water. Her co-star and theatre manager there both thought she was a star in the making, and that's how it all began.
Mike: Now, this is not a profession that's maybe quite as bad as some of the detractors of the theatre in the nineteenth century think that it is. It's still a pretty tough life to be a working actress at this time. What did the career of someone like Cushman look like? What did it entail?
Tana: There were many dangers, first of all, especially as a woman. One of her first bosses was Thomas Hamblin at the Bowery Theatre in New York. This was her first gig in New York. And he was known as a lady killer and rumored to be actually a lady killer, as several of his wives died under mysterious circumstances, although it's likely that those were not murders. But he had a bad reputation. He was certainly abusive and a drunk and not a great boss.
She did not respect him at all. But he respected her somewhat based on her talent. And she was also a large woman, and he liked to cast himself with large women, I don't know why. She was as tall as a man. She was very strong physically. So, that may have given her a little bit of protection. But certainly there was no one out there fighting for her, protecting her, including financially.
She had some early bad experiences with negotiating contracts and things like that, and she had to essentially learn how to do it herself and become her own businesswoman. And beyond that, she also just had to work extremely hard. I think some of her Puritan upbringing, oddly, actually suited her for this career. She was incredibly disciplined and at one point she was traveling back and forth from New York to Philadelphia every other day to perform. She wanted the chance to perform with this other incredibly famous actor, William Macready. And so she did that for several months. So, she almost never took a day off until she retired and went to Rome. And after that, she got a bit of a break, but she worked almost every day.
Mike: So, she has these years, you might almost say in the wilderness. She's this working actress, touring the country. And after a number of years, as you hinted, she starts to rise through the theatrical ranks and eventually achieves this level of international stardom. Can you tell us a bit about how that happened and maybe what you think that says about what celebrity culture was like in the nineteenth century?
Tana: Yes. This was one of the things that most excited me about Cushman's story. It's really the birth of American celebrity at the same time. Walt Whitman was one of her first champions in the press. He was at the time a young theatre reviewer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and also its editor for a short period of time. And he wrote just ecstatically about her and called her an American genius and also castigated the audiences for not appreciating her and for loving what he called third rate—or fifth rate, actually—artistic trash from Europe better than Americans because they assumed that whatever was European was therefore good.
And so he really saw, as did Cushman, that American talent was not going to be recognized in America. That she really had to go prove herself abroad to become famous at home. So, at the urging of William Macready, she went to London and performed first as Lady Macbeth opposite Edwin Forrest, another famous American actor who she really didn't get along with very well. She, privately in letters, she chortled that she got great reviews and he did not. She was really thrilled about that, and then was able to play what became this really signature role of Romeo in England. It was considered a huge risk, but she did this really smart thing where she brought her sister Susan over to play Juliet. And what that did was something really magical. So, Cushman could play the man and the reviewer said she was a better man than most men. She was an excellent swordsman. I don't know where she picked this up. I tried to figure this out. I'm sure she practiced. She was an amazing swordsman.
She was a very convincing man on stage, but she was making love to essentially her sister as Juliet. So she kind of got away with it on both ends. So, it's not a woman having sexual feelings for another woman. It's two sisters. So, of course it's acceptable.
And then later on, she substituted her love interests in for that Juliet role as she went along and had more freedom to do that. So, that was the beginning, and Queen Victoria saw her as Romeo and thought she was excellent as Romeo, although thought she was too masculine-looking. And she toured Europe for a while, actually, with Susan playing Romeo.
Mike: Now you're talking about Romeo and Juliet here and it raises the question for me, what role did Shakespeare, the larger corpus of works by Shakespeare, play in Cushman's career? From your book, it seems like playing those roles validated her as a capital-G, capital-A “Great Artist.”
Tana: Yes. Yeah, this book is also touching on the history of American Shakespeare, which it's a really fascinating history because it's the creation of American culture around this European artifact. And it's encased, sort of like a pearl or something like that. And there was this great debate at the time over whether Americans should put aside Shakespeare, in fact, because it was overshadowing American genius. People like Hawthorne really believe that, and then Melville also for a time…
So the cool thing that Cushman was able to do was make Shakespeare American and yet also use the imprimatur of Shakespeare to become this Great Artist, as you say. So, when she's playing these Shakespearian roles in Europe, it's very delicate because she has to get the right accent. Edwin Forrest was criticized for having this, quote unquote, "lowbrow American accent" by Londoners. Whereas Cushman, I think coming from Boston and having practiced a lot with Macready, had a more refined accent, so she could get away with it. But she also transformed the roles that she played and made them very American. So, her Lady Macbeth was a woman of great ambition. She was not a woman who seduced her husband into doing what she wanted, which had been a previous interpretation of the role. And her Romeo was considered a passionate Italian youth, and she brought the energy that was associated with Americans and American acting into that role, and it was really thrilling for her audiences.
Mike: You also write about the roles that Cushman took on when she wasn't doing Shakespeare. You can't do Shakespeare all the time, but even these—for the nineteenth century—more contemporary roles, she's taking on some really interesting characters and doing things on stage with them that really catch people's attention. Can you tell us a little bit more about a few of those roles?
Tana: She did take on contemporary roles. Occasionally she was even in a comedy, although she said comedies were really not her strong suit, and her co-stars agreed with her. I would say that the most exciting contemporary role that she took on and really transformed was Nancy in Dickens' Oliver Twist. And obviously this is not the musical Oliver!—I kept having those songs running through my head as I was doing this research.
But it's interesting to think contextually because she took on the role of Nancy as one of her earlier roles in America. And this was one of the roles that Whitman really raved about, and he got to see her in New York playing Nancy. And it's a prostitute, and Cushman was really angry when her managers assigned her this role, and she could not say no. And she was angry because she did not want to be associated with prostitutes in any way. And even though this was Dickens, this was a really dangerous role.
So she went into Five Points, and she did essentially method research—what we would now call method acting—and got to see what the life of a prostitute might look like for a few days in this notoriously dangerous and very poor area in New York. And the legend that she herself promoted was that she traded costumes, she traded her clothes, with a dying prostitute on the streets in Five Points, and that became her costume for Nancy.
And onstage, she took the death of Nancy. Nancy's murdered by her husband, and she took that death, which previously was happening off stage, even though Dickens describes it in detail. It's not like he hides it, but on stage it was hidden, and she brought it back on stage, and she made it public and she made it gruesome.
And she made it into theatre, like Greek theatre almost, where Sykes is dragging her around by the hair and she's fighting back. She is fighting for her life. And the audience, some reviewer compared it to a Handel festival chorus, where it just becomes louder and louder and louder. The audience is screaming at him and telling him to let her go and they're just so involved.
And this was part of her genius that I realized, reading all of these reviews and seeing how she puts together almost her dramaturgy of a scene, that, in fact, she created these special unforgettable moments on the stage. And that's what people really took away and remembered even when they were writing their memoirs at the end of their lives. And this was definitely one of them. So, she took, she took a role of a "common prostitute" and made her into a martyr essentially, which was, I think, quite impressive.
Mike: She has all these great successes on the stage in London, in New York. And then at a certain point Charlotte Cushman gives up the stage for a while, and she moves to Italy to begin this new chapter in her life, living with a group of women including Matilda Hayes, who in your book you describe as her offstage wife. What was her time in Italy like? What were she and Hayes and their companions doing in Italy at this time?
Tana: Yes. I was actually lucky to go to Italy on a research fellowship and get to actually walk around the neighborhoods where she was and to retrace her steps. She started out living in a rented apartment in the Corso, which is a very touristy, even back then, a touristy area. Lots of shops, lots of musicians on the streets, and art everywhere.
And she's there with Hayes, who's a translator, and soon joined by a lot of other writers and sculptors and female artists. And there was a tradition of American expatriates coming there to study art, but most of them were men. And this was a really unique gathering of women artists who supported each other. Cushman gave out loans. Many of these women artists lived with her. She later moved up the hill near the Villa de Medici where all these swallows fly around—it's really quite beautiful—to a much larger apartment where other women came and lived with her and stayed with her.
And one of the women who came there was Harriet Hosmer, who's an incredible sculptor, American sculptor, who was just starting out. And they came there to study the greats, to study the classical art. And when Harriet Hosmer's father came to stay with them, they gave him a female nickname so that he was allowed to stay with a group of women, and he apparently didn't mind. So, it was a really special, supportive environment.
That said, there were also love triangles and jealousies, both romantic and platonic. And Cushman definitely had a lot of huge falling out, arguments, with Hayes. Eventually they broke up over both of their close friendships with Harriet Hosmer. So, there were a lot of difficult romantic relationships.
But they went out riding wearing men's clothes. They caused a scandal. William Wetmore Story, who was a sculptor who was living there at the time and a friend of Henry James, was really upset. He thought these scandalous American women were giving the Americans there a bad name. So, they still kicked up a fuss, even "in retirement." But they were able to cultivate their work, their art, women writers, and it was a really unique environment. And she remained in Rome, even when she came out of retirement a few times, for more than a decade.
Mike: Particularly in your description of Cushman's time in Italy, I really found that surprising because I think she's about as close to being out as a queer woman as is possible in the nineteenth century. And I think that really surprised me because I think many of us think of that time period where people are either totally oblivious or extremely hostile to anything other than these normative expressions of sexuality or gender identity. From your research into her life, what's your sense about how well Cushman's audiences and contemporaries understood her personal life and how they felt about it?
Tana: Yeah. This is the question, I think, in many ways. Cushman was undoubtedly a lesbian. That is not up for debate. She had passionate relationships with other women that were more than friendships, and it's well-documented in the letters and in other scholars’ research. But the question about how this was seen publicly is really interesting.
Sharon Marcus, who wrote a book, Between Women, which is about female friendships in the nineteenth century, pointed out that if you look at the public record, queer identity seems invisible. But if you look at private letters, it is not invisible. People were writing about their own love affairs. They're writing about their neighbor's love affairs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, when she met Charlotte Cushman and Matilda Hayes, wrote to her sister, "They dress alike. They go everywhere together. It is a female marriage." And her sister wrote back, "Yes, this is pretty common. Get with the times," essentially. I'm paraphrasing loosely.
It was not unheard of. It was certainly recognized in private. In public, it was not written about. And so I think part of our impression of the nineteenth century as being so heteronormative, I guess, might come from the reliance on those public documents. However, I would say a lot of her female fans were in love with her and wrote passionately to her in these fan letters. And it was a time when the theatre was actually opening up for women. Women could come to these matinees for the first time by themselves; they didn't always have to have a chaperone.
And it was exciting for them to have Cushman there playing men and to crush on her. The press did not openly comment on her sexuality at all, but there was a lot of veiled hatred directed at her in terms of her masculinity. That she looked too masculine, she acted too masculine. But ironically, I think, the fact that she was only ever associated with other women kept the press from being able to say she was loose or had loose morals. She seemed actually a paragon of virtue, in fact, because she never even married.
It's very complicated. I also think that Cushman made space for herself to be more "masculine"—or at least take on these traits associated with men—by being an actress and by being an actress who played men on stage. So, when she puts on her riding pants and goes out riding on a horse, the press is going to report on it, but they're going to associate it with her being like Romeo. They're not necessarily going to say that it's her trying to be a man for real. So, it's complicated.
She was very highly regarded by most critics in the press. But a lot of her male costars also were very scathing about her as to masculine, as epicene, neither man nor woman. Many different nasty words that they called her, which I don't actually think are that nasty, but at the time, I think, were considered quite nasty.
Mike: I really enjoyed reading the book. And one of the things that I found really interesting is the way that you balance this need to create this compelling narrative of Cushman's life with the fact that you're working off of the historical record. You can really only take what it gives you in terms of information or about how Cushman or those around her thought or felt about a particular incident.
One passage in particular, I'm thinking of the top of chapter four, you've got this wonderfully descriptive passage of Cushman making a train journey. And it's sprinkled with quotes with firsthand experiences of train travel in the nineteenth century. But they're not from her. They're from contemporaries of hers who described their own travels by train. And you use that to create the environment that she must have experienced as she traveled.
I'm just wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about how you do that. How do you balance that, “I can only work with what's his in the historical record, but at the same time, I need to tell something that's compelling for twenty-first-century audiences?”
Tana: Yeah. So, that's one of the reasons this book took ten years to write. There's not a lot, Cushman. There are letters, but relative to what many biographers get to work with the more now well-known figures, there isn't a lot. Cushman now is becoming more well known, especially among theatre historians.
But after her death, the Victorian biographers who were in charge of her records and her legacy did not do a great job. Plus a lot of material was burned by her and at her request. So, there's a very patchy record with lots of holes. And so one of the important things that I wanted to do was obviously not invent anything, but to create enough context that you could imagine what might be inside of those holes, and to really invite the reader to fill that in themselves, which is something we do when we read.
So, in filling in the context I'm looking at, I know that she took a train journey. I know that she's written, for example, that she found it very exhausting and innervating to, to do these train rides, especially every other day sometimes. And I do have descriptions, but I want more. I want to know more about what it felt like to take a train at the time. It wasn't like hopping on the subway in New York City or something. So, yeah, looking at what her contemporaries were saying about train travel and what it felt like and what it looked like and the noise that these trains made and putting that into the scene so that you can imagine what it would have been like for her.
Mike: We'll post additional information in our show notes about Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America's First Celebrity. We'll also include links to images and other resources documenting Cushman's life and career.
Tana, thank you so much for joining us.
Tana: Thank you so much.
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