Anna Cora Mowatt Essay - Critical Essays

Mowatt, Anna Cora


Anna Cora Mowatt 1819–1870

(Also Anna Cora Ogden, Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie, Anna Ritchie, Anna Cora Ritchie; wrote under the pseudonyms Helen Berkley, Isabel, Henry C. Browning, and Charles A. Lee, M.D.) American dramatist, novelist, actress, essayist, and poet.

Anna Cora Mowatt, coming from a socially prominent family, was the first upper-middle-class woman to make a public career in the theater, and her successes helped to legitimize acting as an occupation for women. Imaginative and articulate, Mowatt wrote about her stage career in a popular autobiography, and elaborated on the world of the theater in fictional stories. Her best play, Fashion; or Life in New York (1845), has been successfully revived in the modern era. Mowatt is generally regarded as a significant contributor to the development of American drama.

Biographical Information

Born on March 5, 1819, in France, Anna Cora Ogden (Mowatt) was one of fourteen children born to Samuel Governeur Ogden and Eliza Lewis, both descendants of old colonial families. When Mowatt was seven, her family moved to the United States and settled in New York. Mowatt did not distinguish herself as a student in the private schools where she was educated. However, her interest in and talent for the theater were manifest early in the writing and performing of creative home theatricals. When Mowatt was fifteen, she eloped with James Mowatt, a well-off New York lawyer. They settled on an estate in Melrose, Long Island. Two years later, in 1836, Mowatt published an historical romance in verse (originally entitled Pelayo; or The Cavern of Covadonga) under the name of Isabel. Poor reviews of the work moved Mowatt to reply (also in verse) with Reviewers Reviewed: A Satire, printed privately in 1837. Mowatt subsequently became ill with tuberculosis, and went abroad to recover. In London and Paris Mowatt saw performances by the great European actresses of the day and on her return to the United States was inspired to write her first play. This play, entitled Gulzara; or the Persian Slave, was published in the well-known New World magazine in 1841. Shortly thereafter, Mowatt's husband became ill, lost much of his eyesight, and thus his income. Then, in a financial downturn, he also lost his fortune. Mowatt turned to writing and performing to support herself

and her husband. She began, somewhat cautiously, to give public readings of poems and stories, and was received with great acclaim. She also wrote a variety of non-fiction works under various pseudonyms as well as novels and essays under the pseudonym of Helen Berkley. One of these novels, The Fortune Hunter; or the Adventures of a Man about Town (1844), won a prize from New World, and prompted one of this magazine's contributors to encourage Mowatt to try play writing. The result, a satirical comedy entitled Fashion; or Life in New York (1845), became her best known play. Fashion was produced in New York and played for three weeks (a long run for that time). A few months after the production of Fashion, Mowatt herself took to the stage, became a well-regarded actress, and remained so for the next eight years. In 1851, Mowatt's husband died. Three years later, Mowatt ended her acting career and married William Ritchie, the editor of the Richmond Enquirer. Mowatt continued to write, publishing first an autobiographical account of her years in the theater, entitled The Autobiography of an Actress (1854), and then a collection of fictional stories dealing with the same milieu, entitled Mimic Life; or Before and Behind the Curtain (1856). Unhappy in her second marriage, Mowatt moved abroad in 1861, and spent the rest of her life in Italy and England. She wrote several more novels and sketches, although they did not achieve the popularity of her earlier works. Mowatt died at the age of fifty-one in Twickingham, England.

Major Works

Mowatt's most important work is her five-act comedy, Fashion, written explicitly as an actors-play rather than as a literary endeavor. The first American social comedy, Fashion is an engaging satire of nineteenth-century high society in the city of New York. The play pokes good-natured fun at the pretensions, hypocrisy, and shallow materialism of a cast of parvenus as they make their way in society and imitate French fashions. Although Fashion has a conventional plot line and stereotyped characters, it is marked by quick action and sharp, witty dialogue. It opened in New York in 1845 to immediate praise and popularity. It subsequently played in Philadelphia and in London (in 1850). The plot turns and humorous characters have proven durable, allowing for successful revivals in 1924 and 1959. Mowatt's most significant work after Fashion is her Autobiography of an Actress, which offers a lively depiction of life in the theater and the development of her career. It contains humorous and detailed narratives as well as astute social and cultural analysis. Told in a distinctive voice, the autobiography is a valuable portrait of the challenges faced by women in the nineteenth-century and of the conceptions of public and private life. It also serves as an early example of the self-consciousness that characterizes modern autobiography. The collection of tales in Mimic Life extends Mowatt's examination of the world of the theater in a fictional context. These tales emphasize the moral tensions and dilemmas that accompanied a theatrical career for a woman in the nineteenth-century, and they portray the minor figures in theatrical productions as dignified and hard-working. Taken with her autobiography, the tales round out a rich historical portrait of a complex social world. Mowatt's other work was well received in her day and was generally successful commercially, but it never achieved a level of recognition or significance equal to that of Fashion or the Autobiography.

Critical Reception

Mowatt achieved popularity as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her novel The Fortune Hunter; or the Adventures of a Man about Town won a prize from New World magazine. Her essays written under the pseudonym of Helen Berkley were republished in London and translated into German. Moreover, her autobiography sold extremely well, and was admired by many, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mowatt was also a leading figure in the nineteenth-century theater, being well-known in both the United States and England. Furthermore, her dramatic talents and knowledge of the theater helped to make her successful as a playwright. Mowatt's status and esteem in high society helped to change the prevailing notion that the theater was inherently immoral and corrupting, particularly for women. Mowatt's success as a playwright, especially with Fashion, challenged those critics who claimed that women could not write plays. Contemporary critics regard Mowatt as the woman with the greatest impact on early American drama, and Fashion as the best nineteenth-century comedy. As the most anthologized play of the nineteenth-century, Fashion holds a firm place in the canon of nineteenth-century American drama. Historians of the theater have found Mowatt's autobiography and stories about the theater to be valuable sources for details of the daily lives of people who lived and worked behind the curtain. Feminist historians, on the other hand, find Mowatt to be a valuable and articulate example of an unconventional woman, sensitive to the problems of working women and women in the theater.

Principal Works

Gulzara; or the Persian Slave (drama) 1841

The Fortune Hunter; or the Adventures of a Man about Town (novel) 1844

Fashion; or Life in New York (drama) 1845

Armand; or The Peer and the Peasant (drama) 1847

The Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage (autobiography) 1854

Mimic Life; or Before and Behind the Curtain (novellas) 1856

Fairy Fingers (novel) 1865


Mary Howitt

SOURCE: "Memoir of Anna Cora Mowatt," in Howitt's Journal, Vol. III, No. 63, March 11, 1848, pp. 167-70.

[In the following excerpt, Howitt offers an appreciative memoir of the start of Mowatt's writing career and of the public reception of Fashion.]

Partly in consequence of Mr. Mowatt's residence in Europe, and partly from an affection of the eyes, he gave up his profession of barrister, and was subsequently induced to embark to a large extent in commercial speculations, when unfortunately one of those terrible crises occurring which convulse the whole mercantile world, he, together with thousands of others, found himself on the brink of ruin.

A time...

(The entire section is 4298 words.)

David W. Thompson

SOURCE: "Early Actress-Readers: Mowatt, Kemble, and Cushman," in Performance of Literature in Historical Perspectives, edited by David W. Thompson, University Press of America, 1983, pp. 629-50.

[In the following excerpt, Thompson discusses Mowatt's contributions to the tradition of dramatic reading and characterizes her performing style.]

Chautauqua marked the climax and not the beginning of the great American interest in public readings of literature. That interest swelled into a passion in the pair of decades just before and after 1900, but that expansion had been prepared for by two earlier developments. One was the patient and wide-spread lecturing on and...

(The entire section is 2013 words.)

Patti P. Gillespie

SOURCE: "Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie's Fairy Fingers: From Eugène Scribe's?" in Text and Performance Quarterly, Vol. 2, April, 1989, 125-34.

[In the following essay, Gillespie analyzes the textual similarities between Mowatt's novel Fairy Fingers and a contemporary French play of the same name, arguing that Mowatt borrowed her plot from the French play.]

On March 29, 1858, Les Doigts de fée (in English, Fairy Fingers) opened at the Comédie française to dismal reviews. Undeterred, French audiences flocked to see this latest play by Eugène Scribe, and publishers immediately offered it to the reading public.1 Once again...

(The entire section is 4609 words.)

Doris Abramson

SOURCE: "'The New Path': Nineteenth-Century American Women Playwrights," in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, Associated University Presses, 1990, pp. 38-51.

[In the following excerpt, Abramson discusses Mowatt's Fashion as the foremost woman 's play of the nineteenth-century.]

In 1891, Laurence Hutton had this to say about native American drama:

The American drama—such as it is—may be divided into several classes, including the Indian Drama, and the plays of Frontier Life, which are often identical; the Revolutionary and war plays; the Yankee, or character plays, like The Gilded...

(The entire section is 2563 words.)

Lois J. Fowler and David H. Fowler

SOURCE: Revelations of the Self: American Women in Autobiography, State University of New York Press, 1990, pp. xvi-xx, 1-2.

[In the following excerpt, the Fowlers introduce Mowatt's autobiography in the context of nineteenth-century culture.]

In 1854 there appeared a book entitled Autobiography of an Actress, or Eight Years on the Stage, by Anna Cora Mowatt, issued by the well-known Boston firm of Ticknor and Fields. The publishers, highly pleased with their record-breaking sales of Harriet Beecher Stowe's recent Uncle Tom 's Cabin, had good reason to suppose that their new female author, a popular actress, would bring them more profits. In the preceding...

(The entire section is 3259 words.)

James M. Hutchisson

SOURCE: "Poe, Anna Cora Mowatt, and T. Tennyson Twinkle," in Studies in the American Renaissance, 1993, pp. 245–54.

[In the following essay, Hutchisson analyzes Mowatt's acquaintanceship with Edgar Allan Poe and argues that one of her characters in Fashion was a parodic representation of Poe.]

In Anna Cora Mowatt's drawing-room comedy Fashion; or, Life in New York, which premiered at the Park Theatre in New York on 25 March 1845, there appears a minor character named T. Tennyson Twinkle, a diminutive poet who has recently achieved celebrity with a popular poem and who is romantically involved with wealthy older women. Twinkle, who appears only in the...

(The entire section is 4564 words.)

Jeffrey H. Richards

SOURCE: "Chastity and the Stage in Mowatt's 'Stella,'" in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 87–100.

[In the following essay, Richards examines the themes of chastity and the moral dangers of the theater in Mowatt's novella "Stella."]

At the end of her brief but illustrious theatrical career, the actress and playwright Anna Cora Mowatt returned to a genre she had worked earlier in her life, fiction, in order to convey some ideas she had about stage life. Her collection of three long stories, Mimic Life; or, Before and Behind the Curtain, appeared in 1856, approximately a year and a half after she had married William Foushee Ritchie,...

(The entire section is 5716 words.)

Further Reading

Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and the Theater of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1954, 402 p.

A full-length study of Mowatt and her theatrical career as both actress and playwright.

Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, 1938.

A full-length study of Mowatt's life and work.

Matthews, Brander and Laurence Hutton. Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and the United States. New York: Cassell and Company, 1886, 319 p.


(The entire section is 183 words.)