(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.