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Charlotte Cushman

      The Pilgrim Fathers figure in American pedigrees almost as frequently and persistently as Norman William and his followers appear at the trunk of our family-trees. Certainly, the Mayflower must have carried very many heads of houses across the Atlantic. It was not in the Mayflower, however, but in the Fortune, a smaller vessel, of fifty-five tons, that Robert Cushman, Nonconformist, the founder of the Cushman family in America, sailed from England, for the better enjoyment of liberty of conscience and freedom of religion. In the seventh generation from Robert Cushman appeared Elkanah Cushman, who took to wife Mary Eliza, daughter of Erasmus Babbit, Jr., lawyer, musician, and captain in the army. Of this marriage was born Charlotte Saunders Cushman, in Richmond Street, Boston, July 23, 1816, and other children.

      Charlotte Cushman says of herself: "I was born a tom-boy." She had a passion for climbing trees and for breaking open dolls' heads. She could not make dolls' clothes, but she could manufacture their furniture--could do anything with tools. "I was very destructive to toys and clothes, tyrannical to brothers and sister, but very social, and a great favorite with other children. Imitation was a prevailing trait." The first play she ever saw was "Coriolanus," with Macready in the leading part; her second play was "The Gamester." She became noted in her school for her skill in reading aloud. Her competitors grumbled: "No wonder she can read; she goes to the theatre!" Until then she had been shy and reserved, not to say stupid, about reading aloud in school, afraid of the sound of her own voice, and unwilling to trust it; but acquaintance with the theatre loosened her tongue, as she describes it, and gave opportunity and expression to a faculty which became the ruling passion of her life. At home, as a child, she took part in an operetta founded upon the story of "Bluebeard," and played Selim, the lover, with great applause, in a large attic chamber of her father's house before an enthusiastic audience of young people.

      Elkanah Cushman had been for some years a successful merchant, a member of the firm of Topliffe and Cushman, Long Wharf, Boston. But failure befell him, "attributable," writes Charlotte Cushman's biographer, Miss Stebbins, "to the infidelity of those whom he trusted as supercargoes." The family removed from Boston to Charlestown. Charlotte was placed at a public school, remaining there until she was thirteen only. Elkanah Cushman died, leaving his widow and five children with very slender means. Mrs. Cushman opened a boarding-house in Boston, and struggled hard to ward off further misfortune. It was discovered that Charlotte possessed a noble voice of almost two registers, "a full contralto and almost a full soprano; but the low voice was the natural one." The fortunes of the family seemed to rest upon the due cultivation of Charlotte's voice and upon her future as a singer. "My mother," she writes, "at great self-sacrifice gave me what opportunities for instruction she could obtain for me; and then my father's friend, Mr. R. D. Shepherd, of Shepherdstown, Va., gave me two years of the best culture that could be obtained in Boston at that time, under John Paddon, an English organist and teacher of singing." When the English singer, Mrs. Wood--better known, perhaps, as Miss Paton--visited Boston in 1835 or 1836, she needed the support of a contralto voice. Charlotte Cushman was sent for, and rehearsed duets with Mrs. Wood. The young beginner was advised to prepare herself for the operatic stage; she was assured that such a voice would "lead her to any height of fortune she coveted." She became the articled pupil of Mr. Maeder, the husband of Clara Fisher, actress and vocalist, and the musical director of Mr. and Mrs. Wood. Instructed by Maeder, Miss Cushman undertook the parts of the Countess in "The Marriage of Figaro" and Lucy Bertram in the opera of "Guy Mannering." These were her first appearances upon the stage.

Charlotte Cushman as Mrs. Haller.

      Mrs. Maeder's voice was a contralto; it became necessary, therefore, to assign soprano parts to Miss Cushman. Undue stress was thus laid upon her upper notes. She was very young, and she felt the change of climate when she went on with the Maeders to New Orleans. It is likely that her powers as a singer had been tried too soon and too severely; her operatic career was brought to a sudden close. Her voice failed her; her upper notes departed, never to return; she was left with a weakened and limited contralto register. Alarmed and wretched, she sought counsel of Mr. Caldwell, the manager of the chief New Orleans theatre. "You ought to be an actress, and not a singer," he said, and advised her to take lessons of Mr. Barton, his leading tragedian. Her articles of apprenticeship to Maeder were cancelled. Soon she was ready to appear as Lady Macbeth on the occasion of Barton's benefit.

      The season ended, she sailed for Philadelphia on her way to New York. Presently she had entered into a three years' engagement with Mr. Hamblin, the manager of the Bowery Theatre, at a salary of twenty-five dollars a week for the first year, thirty-five for the second year, and forty-five for the third. Mr. Hamblin had received excellent accounts of the actress from his friend, Mr. Barton, of New Orleans, and had heard her rehearse scenes from "Macbeth," "Jane Shore," "Venice Preserved," "The Stranger," etc. To enable her to obtain a suitable wardrobe, he became security for her with his tradespeople, deducting five dollars a week from her salary until the debt was satisfied. All promised well; independence seemed secure at last. Mrs. Cushman was sent for from Boston; she gave up her boarding-house and hastened to her daughter. Miss Cushman writes: "I got a situation for my eldest brother in a store in New York. I left my only sister in charge of a half-sister in Boston, and I took my youngest brother with me." But rheumatic fever seized the actress; she was able to act for a few nights only, and her dream of good fortune came to a disastrous close. "The Bowery Theatre was burned to the ground, with all my wardrobe, all my debt upon it, and my three years' contract ending in smoke." Grievously distressed, but not disheartened, with her family dependent upon her exertions, she accepted an engagement at the principal theatre in Albany, where she remained five months, acting all the leading characters. In September, 1837, she entered into an engagement, which endured for three years, with the manager of the Park Theatre, New York. She was required to fulfil the duties of "walking lady" and "general utility" at a salary of twenty dollars a week.

      During this period of her career she performed very many characters, and toiled assiduously at her profession. It was then the custom to afford the public a great variety of performances, to change the plays nightly, and to present two and sometimes three plays upon the same evening. The actors were forever busy studying new parts, and, when they were not performing, they were rehearsing. "It was a time of hard work," writes Miss Stebbins, "of ceaseless activity, and of hard-won and scantily accorded appreciation." Miss Cushman had no choice of parts; she was not the chief actress of the company; she sustained without question all the characters the management assigned to her. Her appearance as Meg Merrilies (she acquired subsequently great favor by her performance of this character) was due to an incident--the illness of Mrs. Chippendale, the actress who usually supported the part. It was in the year 1840; the veteran Braham was to appear as Henry Bertram. A Meg Merrilies had to be improvised. The obscure "utility" actress was called upon to take Mrs. Chippendale's place. She might read the part if she could not commit it to memory but personate Meg Merrilies after some sort she must. She had never especially noticed the part; but as she stood at the side scene, book in hand, awaiting her moment of entrance, her ear caught the dialogue going on upon the stage between two of the gypsies, "conveying the impression that Meg was no longer to be feared or respected--that she was no longer in her right mind." This furnished her with a clew to the character, and led her to present it upon the stage as the weird and startling figure which afterward became so famous. Of course, the first performance was but a sketch of her later portrayals of Meg Merrilies, yet she made a profound impression. "I had not thought that I had done anything remarkable," she wrote, "and when a knock came at my dressing-room door, and I heard Braham's voice, my first thought was, 'Now what have I done? He is surely displeased with me about something.' Imagine my gratification, when Mr. Braham said, 'Miss Cushman, I have come to thank you for the most veritable sensation I have experienced for a long time. I give you my word, when I saw you in that first scene I felt a cold chill run all over me. Where have you learned to do anything like that?'"

      During her visits to England, Miss Cushman personated Meg Merrilies more often than any other character. In America she was also famous for her performance of Nancy, in a melodrama founded upon "Oliver Twist;" but this part she did not bring with her across the Atlantic. She had first played Nancy during her "general utility" days at the Park Theatre, when the energy and pathos of her acting powerfully affected her audience, and the tradition of her success in the part long "lingered in the memory of managers, and caused them, ever and anon, as their business interests prompted, to bring great pressure to bear upon her for a reproduction of it." Mr. George Vandenhoff describes Nancy as Miss Cushman's "greatest part; fearfully natural, dreadfully intense, horribly real."

      In the winter of 1842 Miss Cushman undertook the management of the Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, which was then in rather a fallen state. Under her energetic rule, however, the establishment recovered its popularity. "She displayed at that day," writes Mr. George Vandenhoff--who "starred at the Walnut Street Theatre for six nights to small audiences"--"a rude, strong, uncultivated talent. It was not till after she had seen and acted with Mr. Macready--which she did the next season--that she really brought artistic study and finish to her performances." Macready arrived in New York in the autumn of 1843. He notes: "The Miss Cushman, who acted Lady Macbeth, interested me much. She has to learn her art, but she showed mind and sympathy with me--a novelty so refreshing to me on the stage." She discerned the opportunity for study and improvement presented by Macready's visit, and underwent the fatigue of acting on alternate nights in Philadelphia and New York during the term of his engagement at the Park Theatre. Her own success was very great. She wrote to her mother of her great reception: of her being called out after the play; of the "hats and handkerchiefs waved to me; flowers sent to me," etc. In October, 1844, she sailed for England in the packet-ship Garrick. She had little money with her. A farewell benefit taken in Boston, her native city, had not proved very productive, and she had been obliged "to make arrangements for the maintenance of her family during her absence." And with characteristic prudence she left behind her a certain sum, to be in readiness for her, in case failure in England should drive her promptly back to America.

      No engagement in London had been offered her; but she received, upon her arrival, a letter from Macready, proposing that she should join a company then being formed to give representations in Paris. She thought it prudent to decline this proposal, however, so as to avoid entering into anything like rivalry with Miss Helen Faucit, the leading actress of the troupe. She visited Paris for a few days, but only to sit with the audience of the best French theatres. She returned to her dull lodgings in Covent Garden, "awaiting her destiny." She was fond, in after years, of referring to the struggles and poverty, the hopes and the despair, of her first sojourn in London. Her means were nearly exhausted. Sally, the dresser, used to relate: "Miss Cushman lived on a mutton-chop a day, and I always bought the baker's dozen of muffins for the sake of the extra one, and we ate them all, no matter how stale they were, and we never suffered from want of appetite in those days." She found herself reduced to her last sovereign, when Mr. Maddox, the manager of the Princess's Theatre, came to her with a proposal. The watchful Sally reported that he had been walking up and down the street for some time early in the morning, too early for a visit. "He is anxious," said Miss Cushman. "I can make my own terms." He wished her to appear with Forrest, the American tragedian, then visiting the London stage for the second and last time. She stipulated that she should have her opportunity first, and "alone." If successful, she was willing to appear in support of Forrest. So it was agreed.

      Her first appearance upon the English stage was made on February 14, 1845; she assumed the character of Bianca, in Dean Milman's rather dull tragedy of "Fazio." Her triumph was indisputable. Her intensity and vehemence completely carried away the house. As the pit rose at Kean's Shylock, so it rose at Charlotte Cushman's Bianca. She wrote to her mother in America: "All my success put together, since I have been upon the stage, would not come near my success in London." The critics described, as the crowning effort of her performance, the energy and pathos and abandonment of her appeal to Aldabella, when the wife sacrifices her pride, and sinks, "huddled into a heap," at the feet of her rival, imploring her to save the life of Fazio. Miss Cushman, speaking of her first performance in London, was wont to relate how she was so completely overcome, not only by the excitement of the scene, but by the nervous agitation of the occasion, that she lost for the moment her self-command, and was especially grateful for the long-continued applause which gave her time to recover herself. When she slowly rose at last and faced the house again, the spectacle of its enthusiasm thrilled and impressed her in a manner she could never forget. The audience were standing; some had mounted on the benches; there was wild waving of hats and handkerchiefs, a storm of cheering, great showering of bouquets.

      Her second character in London was Lady Macbeth, to the Macbeth of Edwin Forrest; but the American actor failed to please, and the audience gave free expression to their discontent. Greatly disgusted, Forrest withdrew, deluding himself with the belief that he was the victim of a conspiracy. Miss Cushman's success knew no abatement. She played a round of parts, assisted by James Wallack, Leigh Murray, and Mrs. Stirling, appearing now as Rosalind, now as Juliana in "The Honeymoon," as Mrs. Haller, as Beatrice, as Julia in "The Hunchback." Her second season was even more successful than her first. After a long provincial tour she appeared in December, 1845, as Romeo at the Haymarket Theatre, then under the management of Mr. Webster, her sister Susan assuming the character of Juliet. She had sent for her family to share her prosperity, and had established them in a furnished house at Bayswater.

      Her success as Romeo was very great. The tragedy was played for eighty nights. Her performance won applause even from those most opposed to the representation of Shakespeare's hero by a woman. For a time her intense earnestness of speech and manner, the passion of her interviews with Juliet, the fury of her combat with Tybalt, the despair of her closing scenes, bore down all opposition, silenced criticism, and excited her audience to an extraordinary degree. She appeared afterward, but not in London, as Hamlet, following an unfortunate example set by Mrs. Siddons; and as Ion in Talfourd's tragedy of that name.

      In America, toward the close of her career, she even ventured to appear as Cardinal Wolsey, obtaining great applause by her exertions in the character, and the skill and force of her impersonation. But histrionic feats of this kind trespass against good taste, do violence to the intentions of the dramatists, and are, in truth, departures from the purpose of playing. Miss Cushman had for excuse--in the first instance, at any rate--her anxiety to forward the professional interests of her sister, who, in truth, had little qualification for the stage, apart from her good looks and her graces of manner. The sisters had played together in Philadelphia in "The Genoese"--a drama written by a young American--when, to give support and encouragement to Susan in her personation of the heroine, Charlotte undertook the part of her lover. Their success prompted them to appear in "Romeo and Juliet." Other plays, in which both could appear, were afterward selected--such, for instance, as "Twelfth Night," in which Charlotte played Viola to the Olivia of Susan--so that the engagement of one might compel the engagement of the other. Susan, however, quitted the stage in 1847, to become the wife of Dr. Sheridan Muspratt, of Liverpool.

      Charlotte Cushman called few new plays into being. Dramas, entitled "Infatuation," by James Kenny, in 1845, and "Duchess Elinour," by the late H. F. Chorley, in 1854, were produced for her, but were summarily condemned by the audience, being scarcely permitted indeed a second performance in either case. Otherwise, she did not add to her repertory. For many years she led the life of a "star," fulfilling brief engagements here and there, appearing now for a term in London, and now travelling through the provinces, playing some half a dozen characters over and over again. Of these Lady Macbeth, Queen Katherine and Meg Merrilies were perhaps the most frequently demanded. Her fame and fortune she always dated from the immediate recognition she obtained upon her first performance in London. But she made frequent visits to America; indeed, she crossed the Atlantic "upward of sixteen times," says her biographer. In 1854 she took a house in Bolton Row, Mayfair, "where for some years she dispensed the most charming and genial hospitality," and, notably, entertained Ristori on her first visit to England in 1856. Several winters she passed in Rome, occupying apartments in the Via Gregoriana, where she cordially received a host of friends and visitors of all nations. In 1859 she was called to England by her sister's fatal illness; in 1866 she was again summoned to England to attend the death-bed of her mother. In 1860 she was playing in all the chief cities of America. Three years later she again visited America, her chief object being to act for the benefit of the Sanitary Commission, and aid the sick and wounded victims of the civil war. During the late years of her life she appeared before the public more as a dramatic reader than as an actress. There were long intervals between her theatrical engagements; she seemed to quit her profession only to return to it after an interval with renewed appetite, and she incurred reproaches because of the frequency of her farewells, and the doubt that prevailed as to whether her "last appearances" were really to be the "very last." It was not until 1874, however, that she took final leave of the New York stage, amid extraordinary enthusiasm, with many poetic and other ceremonies. She was the subject of addresses in prose and verse. Mr. Bryant, after an eloquent speech, tendered her a laurel wreath bound with white ribbon resting upon a purple velvet cushion, with a suitable inscription embroidered in golden letters; a torchbearers' procession escorted her from the theatre to her hotel; she was serenaded at midnight, and in her honor Fifth Avenue blazed with fireworks. After this came farewells to Philadelphia, Boston and other cities, and to these succeeded readings all over the country. It is to be said, however, that incessant work had become a necessity with her, not because of its pecuniary results, but as a means of obtaining mental relief or comparative forgetfulness for a season. During the last five or six years of her life she was afflicted with an incurable and agonizing malady. Under most painful conditions she toiled unceasingly, moving rapidly from place to place, and passing days and nights in railway journeys. In a letter to a friend, she writes: "I do get so dreadfully depressed about myself, and all things seem so hopeless to me at those times, that I pray God to take me quickly at any moment, so that I may not torture those I love by letting them see my pain. But when the dark hour passes, and I try to forget by constant occupation that I have such a load near my heart, then it is not so bad." She died almost painlessly at last on February 18, 1876.

      Charlotte Cushman may assuredly be accounted an actress of genius in right of her originality, her vivid power of depicting emotion, the vehemence and intensity of her histrionic manner. Her best successes were obtained in tragedy, although she possessed a keen sense of humor, and could deliver the witty speeches of Rosalind or of Beatrice with excellent point and effect. Her Meg Merrilies will probably be remembered as her most impressive achievement. It was really, as she played it, a character of her own invention; but, in truth, it taxed her intellectual resources far less than her Bianca, her Queen Katherine, or her Lady Macbeth. Her physical peculiarities no doubt limited the range of her efforts, hindered her advance as an actress, or urged her toward exceptional impersonations. Her performances lacked femininity, to use Coleridge's word; but in power to stir an audience, to touch their sympathies, to kindle their enthusiasm, and to compel their applause, she takes rank among the finest players. It only remains to add that Miss Stebbins' fervid and affecting biography of her friend admirably demonstrates that the woman was not less estimable than the actress; that Charlotte Cushman was of noble character, intellectual, large and tenderhearted, of exemplary conduct in every respect. The simple, direct earnestness of her manner upon the mimic scene, characterized her proceedings in real life. She was at once the slave and the benefactress of her family; she was devotedly fond of children; she was of liberal and generous nature; she was happiest when conferring kindness upon others; her career abounded in self-sacrifice. She pretended to few accomplishments, to little cultivation of a literary sort; but she could write, as Miss Stebbins proves, excellent letters, now grave, now gay, now reflective, now descriptive, always interesting, and altogether remarkable for sound sense and for force and skill of expression. Her death was regarded in America almost as a national catastrophe. As Miss Stebbins writes, "The press of the entire country bore witness to her greatness, and laid their tributes upon her tomb."

      The following letter of good counsel from Miss Cushman to young Mr. Barton is reprinted, by permission of Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin and Co., from the "Life and Letters of Charlotte Cushman."

"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 labor 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 trouble enough; but you have a strong and earnest spirit, and you have the true religion of labor 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."

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