19th Century Actor Autobiographies
By George Iles, Editor
Public Domain Books
[Charlotte Cushman, a native of Boston, died in that city in 1876. No actress ever excelled her as Meg Merrilies, Queen Katherine, and Lady Macbeth. On the morning following her death, Mr. William Winter wrote in the New York Tribune:–
... Charlotte Cushman was not a great actress merely, but she was a great woman. She did not possess the dramatic faculty apart from other faculties and conquer by that alone: but having that faculty in almost unlimited fulness, she poured forth through its channel such resources of character, intellect, moral strength, soul, and personal magnetism as marked her for a genius of the first order, while they made her an irresistible force in art. When she came upon the stage she filled it with the brilliant vitality of her presence. Every movement that she made was winningly characteristic. Her least gesture was eloquence, Her voice, which was soft or silvery, or deep or mellow, according as emotion affected it, used now and then to tremble, and partly to break, with tones that were pathetic beyond description. These were denotements of the fiery soul that smouldered beneath her grave exterior, and gave iridescence to every form of art that she embodied. Sometimes her whole being seemed to become petrified in a silent suspense more thrilling than any action, as if her imagination were suddenly inthralled by the tumult and awe of its own vast perceptions.”
Her frlend, Emma Stebbins, the sculptor, edited a memorial volume, “Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of Her Life,” published in 1878. By permission of the publishers and owners of the copyright, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston, the pages that follow are offered.–ED.]
As a Child a Mimic and Singer
On one occasion [wrote Miss Cushman] when Henry Ware, pastor of the old Boston Meeting House, was taking tea with my mother, he sat at table talking, with his chin resting in his two hands, and his elbows on the table. I was suddenly startled by my mother exclaiming, “Charlotte, take your elbows off the table and your chin out of your hands; it is not a pretty position for a young lady!” I was sitting in exact imitation of the parson, even assuming the expression of his face.
Besides singing everything, I exercised my imitative powers in all directions, and often found myself instinctively mimicking the tones, movement, and expression of those about me. I’m afraid I was what the French call un enfant terrible–in the vernacular, an awful child! full of irresistible life and impulsive will; living fully in the present, looking neither before nor after; as ready to execute as to conceive; full of imagination–a faculty too often thwarted and warped by the fears of parents and friends that it means insincerity and falsehood, when it is in reality but the spontaneous exercise of faculties as yet unknown even to the possessor, and misunderstood by those so-called trainers of infancy.
This imitative faculty in especial I inherited from my grandmother Babbit, born Mary Saunders, of Gloucester, Cape Ann. Her faculty of imitation was very remarkable. I remember sitting at her feet on a little stool and hearing her sing a song of the period, in which she delighted me by the most perfect imitation of every creature belonging to the farmyard.
First Visits to the Theatre
My uncle, Augustus Babbit, who led a seafaring life and was lost at sea, took great interest in me; he offered me prizes for proficiency in my studies, especially music and writing. He first took me to the theatre on one of his return voyages, which was always a holiday time for me. My first play was “Coriolanus,” with Macready, and my second “The Gamester,” with Cooper and Mrs. Powell as Mr. and Mrs. Beverley. All the English actors and actresses of that time were of the Siddons and Kemble school, and I cannot but think these early impressions must have been powerful toward the formation of a style of acting afterward slowly eliminated through the various stages of my artistic career.
My uncle had great taste and love for the dramatic profession, and became acquainted with Mr. and Mrs. William Pelby, for whom the original Tremont Theatre was built. My uncle being one of the stockholders, through him my mother became acquainted with these people, and thus we had many opportunities of seeing and knowing something of the fraternity.
About this time I became noted in school as a reader, where before I had only been remarkable for my arithmetic, the medal for which could never be taken from me. I remember on one occasion reading a scene from Howard Payne’s tragedy of “Brutus,” in which Brutus speaks, and the immediate result was my elevation to the head of the class to the evident disgust of my competitors, who grumbled out, “No wonder she can read, she goes to the theatre!” I had been before this very shy and reserved, not to say stupid, about reading in school, afraid of the sound of my own voice, and very unwilling to trust it; but the greater familiarity with the theatre seemed suddenly to unloose my tongue, and give birth as it were to a faculty which has been the ruling passion ever since.
Plays Lady Macbeth, Her First Part
With the Maeders I went [in 1836, when twenty years of age] to New Orleans, and sang until, owing perhaps to my youth, to change of climate, or to a too great strain upon the upper register of my voice, which, as his wife’s voice was a contralto, it was more to Mr. Maeder’s interest to use, than the lower one, I found my voice suddenly failing me. In my unhappiness I went to ask counsel and advice of Mr. Caldwell, the manager of the chief New Orleans theatre, He at once said to me, “You ought to be an actress, and not a singer." He advised me to study some parts, and presented me to Mr. Barton, the tragedian of the theatre, whom he asked to hear me, and to take an interest in me.
He was very kind, as indeed they both were; and Mr. Barton, after a short time, was sufficiently impressed with my powers to propose to Mr. Caldwell that I should act Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth, on the occasion of his (Barton’s) benefit. Upon this is was decided that I should give up singing and take to acting. My contract with Mr. Maeder was annulled, it being the end of the season. So enraptured was I with the idea of acting this part, and so fearful of anything preventing me, that I did not tell the manager I had no dresses, until it was too late for me to be prevented from acting it; and the day before the performance, after rehearsal, I told him. He immediately sat down and wrote a note of introduction for me to the tragedienne of the French Theatre, which then employed some of the best among French artists for its company. This note was to ask her to help me to costumes for the role of Lady Macbeth, I was a tall, thin, lanky girl at that time, about five feet six inches in height. The Frenchwoman, Madame Closel, was a short, fat person of not more than four feet ten inches, her waist full twice the size of mine, with a very large bust; but her shape did not prevent her being a very great actress. The ludicrousness of her clothes being made to fit me struck her at once. She roared with laughter; but she was very good-natured, saw my distress, and set to work to see to how she could help it. By dint of piecing out the skirt of one dress it was made to answer for an underskirt, and then another dress was taken in in every direction to do duty as an overdress, and so make up the costume. And thus I essayed for the first time the part of Lady Macbeth, fortunately to the satisfaction of the audience, the manager, and all the members of the company.
To a Young Actress [Part of a Letter]
... I should advise you to get to work; all ideal study of acting, without the trial or opportunity of trying our efforts and conceivings upon others, is, in my mind, lost time. Study while you act. Your conception of character can be formed while you read your part, and only practice can tell you whether you are right. You would, after a year of study in your own room, come out unbenefited, save in as far as self-communion ever must make us better and stronger; but this is not what you want just now. Action is needed. Your vitality must in some measure work itself off. You must suffer, labour, and wait, before you will be able to grasp the true and the beautiful. You dream of it now; the intensity of life that is in you, the spirit of poetry which makes itself heard by you in indistinct language, needs work to relieve itself and be made clear. I feel diffident about giving advice to you, for you know your own nature better than any one else can, but I should say to you, get to work in the best way you can.
All your country work will be wretched; you will faint by the way; but you must rouse your great strength and struggle on, bearing patiently your cross on the way to your crown! God bless you and prosper your undertakings. I know the country theatres well enough to know how utterly alone you will be in such companies; but keep up a good heart; we have only to do well what is given us to do, to find heaven.
I think if you have to wait for a while it will do you no harm. You seem to me quite frantic for immediate work; but teach yourself quiet and repose in the time you are waiting. With half your strength I could bear to wait and labour with myself to conquer fretting. The greatest power in the world is shown in conquest over self. More life will be worked out of you by fretting than all the stage-playing in the world. God bless you, my poor child. You have indeed troubles enough; but you have a strong and earnest spirit, and you have the true religion of labour in your heart. Therefore I have no fears for you, let what will come. Let me hear from you at your leisure, and be sure you have no warmer friend than I am and wish to be,...
I was exceedingly pleased to hear such an account of your first appearance. You were quite right in all that was done, and I am rejoiced at your success. Go on; persevere. You will be sure to do what is right, for your heart is in the right place, your head is sound, your reading has been good. Your mind is so much better and stronger than any other person’s whom I have known enter the profession, that your career is plain before you.
But I will advise you to remain in your own native town for a season, or at least the winter. You say you are afraid of remaining among people who know you. Don’t have this feeling at all. You will have to be more particular in what you do, and the very feeling that you cannot be indifferent to your audience will make you take more pains. Beside this, you will be at home, which is much better for a time; for then at first you do not have to contend with a strange home as well as with a strange profession. I could talk to you a volume upon this matter, but it is difficult to write. At all events I hope you will take my counsel and remain at home this winter. It is the most wretched thing imaginable to go from home a novice into such a theatre as any of those in the principal towns.
Only go on and work hard, and you will be sure to make a good position. With regard to your faults, what shall I say? Why, that you will try hard to overcome them. I don’t think they would be perceived save by those who perhaps imagine that your attachment for me has induced you to join the profession. I have no mannerisms, I hope; therefore any imitation of me can only be in the earnest desire to do what you can do, as well as you can. Write to me often; ask of me what you will; my counsel is worth little, but you shall command it if you need it.
To a Young Mother
[FROM A LETTER]
... All that you say about your finding your own best expression in and through the little life which is confided to you is good and true, and I am so happy to see how you feel on the subject. I think a mother who devotes herself to her child, in watching its culture and keeping it from baleful influences, is educating and cultivating herself at the same time. No artist work is so high, so noble, so grand, so enduring, so important for all time, as the making of character in a child, You have your own work to do, the largest possible expression. No statue, no painting, no acting, can reach it, and it embodies each and all the arts, Clay of God’s fashioning is given into your hands to mould to perfectness. Is this not something grand to think of? No matter about yourself–only make yourself worthy of God’s sacred trust, and you will be doing His work–and that is all that human beings ought to care to live for. Am I right?
Early Griefs. Art Her Only Spouse
[FROM A LETTER TO A FRIEND]
There was a time, in my life of girlhood, when I thought I had been called upon to bear the very hardest thing that can come to a Woman. A very short time served to show me, in the harder battle of life Which was before me, that this had been but a spring storm, which was simply to help me to a clearer, better, richer, and more productive summer. If I had been spared this early trial, I should never have been so earnest and faithful in my art; I should have still been casting about for the “counterpart,” and not given my entire self to my work, wherein and alone I have reached any excellence I have ever attained, and through which alone I have received my reward. God helped me in my art isolation, and rewarded me for recognising him and helping myself. This passed on; and this happened at a period in my life when most women (or children, rather) are looking to but one end in life–an end no doubt wisest and best for the largest number, but which would not have been wisest and best for my work, and so for God’s work, for I know he does not fail to set me his work to do, and helps me to do it, and helps others to help me. (Do you see this tracing back, and then forward, to an eternity of good, and do you see how better and better one can become in recognising one’s self as a minister of the Almighty to faithfully carry out our part of His great plan according to our strength and ability?) 0 believe we cannot live one moment for ourselves, one moment of selfish repining, and not be failing him at that moment, hiding the God-spark in us, letting the flesh conquer the spirit, the evil dominate the good.
Then after this first spring storm and hurricane of young disappointment came a lull–during which I actively pursued what became a passion,–my art. Then I lost my younger brother, upon whom I had begun to build most hopefully, as I had reason. He was by far the cleverest of my mother’s children. He had been born into greater poverty than the others; he received his young impressions through a different atmosphere; he was keener, more artistic, more impulsive, more generous, more full of genius. I lost him by a cruel accident, and again the world seem to liquefy beneath my feet, and the waters went over my soul. It became necessary that I should suffer bodily to cure my heart-bleed. I placed myself professionally where I found and knew all my mortifications in my profession, which seemed for the time to strew ashes over the loss of my child-brother (for he was my child, and loved me best in all the world), thus conquering my art, which, God knows, has never failed me–never failed to bring me rich reward–never failed to bring me comfort. I conquered my grief and myself. Labour saved me then and always, and so I proved the eternal goodness of God. I digress too much; but you will see how, in looking back to my own early disappointments, I can recognise all the good which came out of them, and can ask you to lay away all repinings with our darling, and hope (as we must) in God’s wisdom and goodness, and ask him to help us to a clearer vision and truer knowledge of his dealings with us; to teach us to believe that we are lifted up to him better through our losses than our gains. May it not be that heaven is nearer, the passage from earth less hard, and life less seductive to us, in consequence of the painless passing of this cherub to its true home, lent us but for a moment, to show how pure must be our lives to fit us for such companionship? And thus, although in one sense it would be well for us to put away the sadness of this thought if it would be likely to enervate us, in another sense, if we consider it rightly, if we look upon it worthily, we have an angel in God’s house to help us to higher and purer thinkings, to nobler aspirations, to more sublime sacrifices than we have ever known before.
Farewell to New York
[In 1874 Miss Cushman bade farewell to New York at Booth’s Theatre, after a performance as Lady Macbeth. William Cullen Bryant presented an ode in her honour. In the course of her response Miss Cushman said:]
Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks, but I thank you. Gentlemen, the heart has no speech; its only language is a tear or a pressure of the hand, and words very feebly convey or interpret its emotions. Yet I would beg you to believe that in the three little words I now speak, ’I thank you,’ there are heart depths which I should fail to express better, though I should use a thousand other words. I thank you, gentlemen, for the great honour you have offered me. I thank you, not only for myself, but for my whole profession, to which, through and by me, you have paid this very grateful compliment. If the few words I am about to say savour of egotism or vainglory, you will, I am sure, pardon me, inasmuch as I am here only to speak of myself. You would seem to compliment me upon an honourable life. As I look back upon that life, it seems to me that it would have been impossible for me to have led any other. In this I have, perhaps, been mercifully helped more than are many of my more beautiful sisters in art. I was, by a press of circumstances, thrown at an early age into a profession for which I had received no special education or training; but I had already, though so young, been brought face to face with necessity. I found life sadly real and intensely earnest, and in my ignorance of other ways of study, I resolved to take therefrom my text and my watchword. To be thoroughly in earnest, intensely in earnest in all my thoughts and in all my actions, whether in my profession or out of it, became my one single idea. And I honestly believe herein lies the secret of my success in life. I do not believe that any great success in any art can he achieved without it....