Born in 1816, Charlotte Cushman rose to fame as a dramatic Shakespearean actress, enthralling audiences on two continents. Some of her greatest fans included President Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Louisa May Alcott. Cushman’s stage presence and celebrity were remarkable at a time when actresses were considered little better than prostitutes, when women were villainized and demeaned for having ambition and aspiration, and when mainstream society had no clear terminology—much less acceptance— for queer sexuality. In a new biography that draws from research at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, which she describes as “research gold,” author Tana Wojczuk delves deeply into Cushman’s personal and public lives. We sat down with Wojczuk to discuss Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity and better understand the lasting significance of this singular celebrity.
In what sense was Cushman the first American “celebrity”?
By the time she died during the American centennial in 1876, Charlotte Cushman was one of the most famous people in the world. Abraham Lincoln had made her promise to perform for him, which she did during the Civil War. Walt Whitman called her a genius, Louisa May Alcott wrote in her diary that she “saw Charlotte Cushman, had a stage-struck fit,” H.W. Longfellow wrote to her asking if she would star in a play he was writing with her in mind. It’s as though we have a class portrait of all of these American icons and here is someone who has been cut out.
When Cushman was born in 1816, America was still considered a cultural backwater. She was immensely talented, but it was only after she succeeded in London, playing Romeo with her sister as Juliet, that she gained true celebrity abroad and at home. Americans typically waited for the European stamp of approval. Some argue that actor Edwin Forrest was the first American celebrity; he had performed in London before Cushman. But Cushman wrote in a private letter that Forrest and his manager had paid for friendly audiences and for critics to “puff” his performances, and when she played opposite Forrest, critics raved about her and panned him. Not that it has to be a competition. I think it’s significant enough that here was a talented, ambitious woman celebrated as an artist who influenced actors like Edwin Booth, activists like Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and who even inspired the Bethesda Fountain Angel, which was sculpted by her partner, Emma Stebbins.
How did the American public’s appreciation for Cushman’s talent contend with 19th century gender norms? How did the two manage to coexist despite the seeming contradiction?
Cushman specialized in “breeches parts,” or men’s roles like Romeo and Hamlet. When she played a man onstage, audiences and critics tended to think her offstage masculinity was a performance as well. She was criticized, however, for her masculine appearance, her “lantern jaw.” Criticism of her gender-bending tended to also come from male co-stars like George Vandenhoff who complained to a reporter that her physically powerful Lady Macbeth made him look weak. And yet, Cushman’s male roles were not like Vandenhoff’s or William Macready (whom she was said to resemble): When she wept over her Juliet’s death as Romeo, it gave men in the audience license to do the same. She helped expand the definition of masculinity as well as femininity.
We were moved by how you are able to step into Cushman’s mind in the book. What types of sources did you use that made it possible for you to write about and understand her motives and emotions? What sources allowed you to peer inside her intimate relationships?
Firstly, talking to librarians was the most transformative part of the research. At the Library of Congress, where most of Cushman’s surviving papers are held, I spoke to a librarian who told me about a cache of letters at Colorado College. These letters between Cushman and her friend Helen Hunt Jackson had been transcribed in the hopes that researchers would want to use them, and they were amazing. Letters between friends reveal different things than letters from Cushman to her mother or even to her lover Emma Crow (the correspondent on most of the Library of Congress letters). But most of the existing letters are from the last decade of her life, when she was largely retired. I discovered though, that the Patricia D. Kligenstein Library of the New-York Historical Society in my own backyard had some of the earliest surviving letters by Cushman, research gold in terms of piecing together her early formative years. I also paid close attention to the way she interpreted Shakespeare’s language and developed her method of deep research into her characters, through responses by critics and her own reports in letters and her diary. This also gave me insight into her emotional and intellectual life.
What power does identifying Cushman as a queer woman have for modern readers, especially given that the term is relatively modern?
A great question. I wanted to immerse myself in her experiences, but I also didn’t want the book to be constrained by 19th century norms, as Cushman herself was constrained. Work by Lisa Merrill and Sharon Marcus show without a doubt that Cushman was a queer woman and that her passions were for other women. That fact has been settled. My goal was to make her queerness visible and inherent while also filling in the gaps in the research when it came to her career and how she became as famous as she did. What, for example, did audiences see when Cushman, dressed as Hamlet, stood in the footlights wishing, “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt?” Personally, I think her queerness was visible and vital to her audience. It allowed them to engage with Shakespeare’s language on multiple levels, and her performances gave them the freedom to see gender as complex and fluid.
We were really interested in how your narrative draws a parallel between Cushman’s career and the development of American culture in the 19th century. In what ways do you think Cushman helped shape and develop American theater? Did she (or theater, more generally) play into the formation of American culture, as Walt Whitman seemed to have hoped? Could she also have helped make Shakespeare more palatable to Americans?
Her story is really a map onto which we can inscribe the development of American culture. At the time, and really still today, gaining cultural capital in the theater was about mastering Shakespeare. I’m not sure she made it more palatable in the sense of making it into pap—the theatrical culture of melodrama, scenery-chewing, and rewriting Shakespeare’s tragedies to have happy endings, had already done that. But the problem was, audiences were soon to grow bored of the melodramatic style. Cushman’s work was much more complex. She played Lady Macbeth as a frustrated, powerful woman who would be king but had to channel her power through her husband. She insisted that the company she first worked with in London reinstate the full text of Romeo and Juliet. The version they were working with for many years had the lovers waking up at the end and surviving; it cut out Romeo’s first love, Rosaline, as well as Mercutio’s sensual “Queen Mab” speech and the deeply sexual “gallop apace” speech given by Juliet. One of the ways Whitman and the early Transcendental Club defined genius had a lot in common with the Romantics on the other side of the pond. Genius was a force of nature merged with human intellect. It was not senseless but fully sensual. Just look at the paintings of Turner or Rosetti, or the poem “The Coming Storm” about Lincoln’s assasination and you can see how nature becomes a metaphor for human psychology. Cushman was an ideal embodiment of these things. She is often described in terms of natural forces, a “whirlwind,” a “tempest”, and she had a keen intellect and interpreted Shakespeare in ways audiences found exciting and new. I think the American tradition of using Shakespeare to ask better questions, to think through crises, as we did during the Civil War, was something Cushman helped found.
It seems evident that anti-British sentiment was closely intertwined with a dependence on Britain’s cultural leadership in the early part of the century. How did Cushman enter into this fight between the U.S. and Great Britain for ownership of Shakespeare?
Although Shakespeare came to America with the first settlers, I’d say the real battle over who owns Shakespeare—and by extension, what is American culture—really began shortly after the Revolutionary War. Americans asked: Was Shakespeare a tool of British cultural imperialism or was he an American by proxy? In the 19th century, writers like Hawthorne and Whitman took different approaches to Shakespeare’s influence on their work. Whitman seems to have embraced the Shakespeare in him while Hawthorne struggled far more with an anxiety over his influence. Cushman herself was accepted by Londoners in part because her Boston accent and Mayflower pedigree helped her pass as high class, even though her family had no money and actresses were still considered little better than prostitutes. But she also helped theatergoers see something new in Shakespeare, and by extension, helped prove that Americans could do more than copy Europeans.
How did the Astor Place Riot of 1849, in which over 20 people died at the Astor Place Theater in a violent dispute over competing portrayals of Hamlet and class tensions, play into that conflict?
The Astor Place Riots were complicated for Cushman. She had just returned to America as a star after her successes abroad, and she was friends with the British Macready, while she didn’t get along with the American Forrest [the two actors at the center of the conflict]. I’d say she took part more strenuously in the battle within America and between Americans over what our culture was going to look like. I don’t think she defined her own art as a reaction to the British, but as a way of exercising her intellect and passion in an individual way. That lack of consensus, that individualism, and the sense that Shakespeare is open to interpretation that Cushman contributed to is partly why I think Shakespeare is still so alive in America today.
How did the country’s reckoning with masculinity (and sexuality) in the aftermath of the Civil War affect the public’s response to Cushman’s portrayal of male roles? Did it affect Cushman’s selection of roles, or the creative choices she made while portraying men?
Cushman continued to play male roles after the war, but she started focusing more on Queen Katherine and Lady Macbeth. It’s possible that the postwar celebration of masculine heroes made her own more sensitive portrayals less appealing. Romeo and Juliet fell out of favor for a long time during and after the war, so that may also have affected her choices. Macbeth was a more meaningful choice, beginning in the aftermath of battle and wrestling with guilt and the sense of blood on our hands. At the same time, Henry VIII with its clear villains and heroines, also appealed to audiences. Playing Queen Katherine allowed Cushman to play a wronged woman cast aside for her age, something an aging actress could relate to. Cushman’s partner Emma Stebbins claims that her Lady Macbeth remained largely the same as when she first performed it, and it was her first and last role. However, as women protested to gain access to higher education, to votes, to jobs, the backlash was massive. Lady Macbeth’s ambition became a bogey used to frighten women, and even now we have ambitious women condemned as a Lady Macbeth.
Your narrative begins with Cushman’s farewell address in 1874. She reflected on her long career, telling the packed, star-studded audience, “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.” Is it possible that while referring to herself as “earnest” in her farewell address Cushman was aware of its late 19th century connotation as slang for “gay?”
An exciting possibility. There was a lot of coded language in reviews, for example Whitman once reprinted an article about Cushman dressing like a man on vacation in Sault St. Marie. He wrote about how magnificent she must have looked and that she’d probably keep dressing like a man until the end of her maidenhood. What he meant was, forever, since as a gay woman in the 19th century Cushman could not be married. It’s very possible that Cushman would have used the occasion of her farewell speech to equivocate (in the best sense), or code-switch so that her gay audiences could hear what her straight fans did not.
Why do you think “Charlotte Cushman” isn’t a household name today?
Partly it’s to do with the theater, which relies on our memories. The transcendent moment can’t be translated to the world beyond the theater. But also as an actress Cushman relied on those who came after her to record her story, and biographers in the postwar American and Victorian eras found Cushman’s queerness shameful. Even on the day she died, as tens of thousands mourned her in the streets, biographers were writiting that it was a good thing women wouldn’t have to “debase” themselves playing men onstage any more.
Written by Molly Zuckerman and Maggie Wainwright, interns, Center for Women’s History