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.