Play or starve: American theatre outside NYC

11 Mar


The 1840s memoirs of New York actress, Anna Cora Mowatt, remind us once again of the extent to which most generalisations about popular culture are Gothamcentric – that is, the extent to which they are formed by what was happening in metropolises such as NYC, London, Paris, and Berlin.

Listen to what theatrical historian, John Hanners, has to say about Anna Cora Mowatt, who as a renowned New York actress decided to tour provincial America in 1845. Mowatt had fallen on hard times because of bad financial decisions by her husband, Hanners says, and looked to a pronvincial tour to cash in on her metropolitan success. In doing so, she encountered ‘an alien culture unlike any she had known in New York’:

For one thing, ‘no one told her how hard the life would be. Provincial stock company actos often rehearsed from eight in the morning until that evening’s curtain; a constant change of bill was necessary to satisfy hungry and easily jaded audiences and actors often opened a play after a single rehearsal. In the midst of this chaotic atmosphere, Mrs Mowatt… managed to memorize fifteen major roles, one of which… she learned in less than twenty-four hours. She fell desperately ill, dozed off onstage, and put up with drunken actors working alongside her. The misery was unrelenting. She mistakenly swallowed a bottle of ink instead of her prop poison, struggled with shoddy, ill-fitting costumes, and wildly improvised when other actors forgot their lines…

‘The dizzying pace nearly killed her before Mrs Mowatt learned what dozens of lesser lights before her already knew – the life of the 19thC popular entertainer outside the relatively safe enclaves of New York, Boston and Philadelphia was a hardscrabble existence’.


Image above is of Anna Cora Mowatt performing as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, from UNT’s Dept of Communication Studies site.

John Hanners, “It Was Play or Starve”: 19thC American Popular Theatre (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1993), p. 1


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