Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Charlotte Cushman and the Redefining of the Ninteenth Century Woman

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Lisa Marie Hyslop
Dr. Neely
Breeches Parts

Charlotte Cushman and the Redefining of the Nineteenth Century Woman

Charlotte Cushman opened her memoirs with the simple statement; “I was born a tomboy.” At the turn of the century “tomboy” was applied to any girl who showed a penchant for thinking and acting for themselves (Stubbins). She developed what were considered “masculine” tastes, but what were in reality those that any intelligent young person would prefer if allowed to grow without intimidating restraints. She was a woman who held exercise over passivity, working with her hands and mind over playing with dolls (she cracked open her doll’s heads so she could explore what they might be thinking), and taking leading rather than subservient roles in games. Since the society of turn of the century America defined those choices as masculine, she began to think of herself in those terms. Her aspirations turned toward the masculine, to have a career, to make a lot of money, and to be independent. In 1987 she went looking for a profession that would allow her to hang onto her sense of self. She had very few options. Her determination and independence left her with the options of singing, writing or acting. Cushman’s search for acceptance and recognition became the focus of her life. Her desire to love and be loved shaped the choices she made in her career, and the partners she chose to share her life with. Cushman’s romantic friendships with women fueled her craft. The women in her life fed her drive for success by their support or conversely their dependency. By her own disenchantment with the traditional constraints of turn of the century heterosexual American values and mores, Charlotte Cushman carved herself a comfortable niche in the theatre and in life.

Being blessed with an excellent voice she decided, after leaving school, to make her first public appearance as a singer. Her debut appearance was held in 1860 at a society concert in Boston with the celebrated vocalist Mrs. John Wood. Wood was so impressed with Cushman that she advised Cushman to turn her attentions to singing on stage (Stone). A friend of a friend brought Cushman to perform as the Countess of Almavivi, in the Marriage of Figaro. Not long thereafter Cushman went to New Orleans, having nearly lost her voice by trying to force it up to soprano range (Stone). Her love of the stage kept Cushman from retiring completely and consequently her prowess as an actress took over. Cushman’s next appearance was as Lady Macbeth at the Bowery Theatre, New York in 1860 (Faderman). In 1870 she wrote a short story which was published in Godey’s Lady’s Book, but she felt that she had no great genius as an author (Faderman ). Abandoning writing for the time being, Cushman went to the Park Theatre where she became a leading actress.

Later in 1870 she appeared as Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The production was intended to showcase her sister Susan, but it was Charlotte’s portrayal of Romeo that garnered the attention of the masses (Dudden). Acting became her chosen path.

Her desire to be successful became more and more consuming. Cushman stepped into the traditionally male role of provider by taking it upon herself to support her debt-ridden family. Like her dear friend Louisa May Alcott, who also undertook the support of her own family, the situation of life around Cushman gave greater urgency to her already much desired goals. Cushman appeared to decide early on that a heterosexual connection would distract from her aims, and since her personality demanded that she and not an individual connected to her be of prime importance, she never missed what so many thought she “gave up” (Faderman). With women Cushman could truly share her most consuming interests, such as her love of the arts. She treated women as kindred spirits, and that way love interests with women would not threaten what she viewed as her potential.

Her early emotional bonds were all with women. The most significant relationship began when Cushman was in her twenties with painter Rosalie Scully (Faderman). Their ties grew stronger throughout the 1840’s as Cushman was building a reputation for herself on the American stage. By 1844 Cushman was recognized as a leading actress due largely to her successes in “breeches parts”. (Breeches parts are roles of youthful romantic heroes played by “personality” actresses. Cushman helped expand those roles to include the tragic heroes).

Her next logical step, with regard to fame and money, would be to set out for London and conquer British theatre. She was reluctant to leave Rosalie, but the two agreed that the temporary relocation was best for Cushman’s career. In Cushman’s diary entry of October 7, 1844 she refers to herself as “wretched” with the recollection of “… all that I had left, pouring upon me words of regret at the steps I had taken . . . Such wretched thoughts that it were better if I could not think . . . I hear her sigh for her absent friend. I feel almost her arms about me and then weep again; till I almost wish I could sleep away six months . . . Shall I ever make sufficient money to have her with me always? . . . Only my God can know how very dear she is to me.”(Stebbins). The other diary entries of this time are equally pitiable. On November 11, she recounts being fascinated by a woman walking in a marketplace whose movements reminded her of Rosalie’s. On November 14, she writes of crying at night wanting to be with Rosalie (Stebbins). During this time in London Cushman was in constant correspondence with Rosalie.

In the nineteenth century, married heterosexuals had a religious and/or civil bond between them that they held as sacred. In addition to the conditioning of the church, the laws of the time made divorce nearly impossible. Once a commitment of marriage was entered into all the forces of society converged to see to it that the commitment was met. Women who loved each other had no such social encouragement to consider their mutual pledges sacred. Cushman, a young woman alone in a strange country, a virtual overnight success on the London stage, her vanity and desperate loneliness appealed to many European women who came to “kneel at her feet,” formed a new relationship with the English poet Eliza Cook (Faderman).

Cook was as androgynous and self-assertive as Cushman herself was. Perhaps Cook’s greatest appeal was that, unlike Rosalie, she could stand on her own. Cushman’s career continued to flourish in Europe. Due mostly to her drive for success and her ironically desperate need for independence when Cushman finally sent for her family, Rosalie was not to accompany them (Faderman ). Cushman’s diaries refer to Rosalie less and less during and after the Cook affair.

It is not shocking that without the hindrance of society’s sanctions, such as a husband might have provided in a similar situation, Cushman allowed herself to be seduced by Cook. When Rosalie, still in Philadelphia, became privy to the nature of Cushman’s relationship with Cook she wrote a chastising letter to Cushman. In Cushman’s diary entry dated May 10, 1845 she states quite simply, “letter from Rose breaking my heart” (Cooper). Cushman stirred over a resolution to the problem but was relieved of her quandary when some months later she was notified of Rosalie’s death (Stubbins).

Cushman and Cook were doomed from the start, they were too much alike. Since each had a burning need to posses the limelight, their romantic friendship could not last long. Cushman needed someone who could stand on her own but with a more subdued personality than her own. In 1848 Cushman once again believed she had found her soul mate in Matilda Hays (Faderman). At just about the time Cushman met Matilda, Cushman’s sister who had been playing Juliet to Cushman’s Romeo, decided to retire. Cushman took it upon herself to train Hays, who put aside her own writing career for the opportunity. In Europe the women received rave reviews. Hays’ American debut was in 1848, and whatever talent she had shown seemed to vanish in a puff of smoke (Stone). Perhaps it was eaten up by Cushman’s domineering personality. The two women decided that instead of being Cushman’s leading lady Hays was better suited to be Cushman’s confidant and companion. Hays earned her keep by providing Cushman with a sense of home in her travels.

It would seem that from that point on Hays was a disappointment to Cushman. Cushman apparently felt a sense a commitment to Hays since it had been her suggestion that they form their particular type of relationship. Their intimacy had started on somewhat equal footing and wound up as role-ridden as any Victorian heterosexual marriage. In 1850 the two women went to Rome where their relationship continued to deteriorate. Shortly thereafter Hays left Cushman and returned to England and her aspirations of writing (Faderman).

It seems unclear how Cushman herself viewed her involvements . Emma Stebbins, her biographer and longest companion openly shares her view of Cushman’s relationships; “for all her life long, her friendships were of the nature of passions” (Stebbins). Despite the open nature of Stebbins’ comments, and the fact that young women of Europe swooned around Cushman’s dressing room door, Cushman did not feel intrepid about her amorous pursuits. Cushman seemed to be well aware that not all women were interested in “friendships of a passionate nature” (Dudden). However, since she spoke freely of her loves to her friends Robert and Elizabeth Browning and to her own family it is unlikely that she considered her relationships unorthodox.

In her last and longest running relationship, Cushman was more careful to choose a partner who would compliment her own temperament. Cushman had learned that what she required was a woman who possessed talents and strengths she could respect, a woman aggressive and confident in herself, who was in all ways independent, and yet one who would not compete with her as a ”character.” In 1857 fate brought her sculptor Emma Stubbins (Faderman). Their relationship worked on every level. Stubbins encouraged Cushman in her craft and distanced herself from the limelight that Cushman so craved. Cushman played the role of Stubbins’ sales agent, a role which Stubbins herself hated (Cooper).

The self-suffienciecy of each of the women meant that they could be apart without the recriminations Cushman had experienced in previous relationships. Stubbins’ own professional success helped Cushman mature by teaching her how to give up her own personal pursuits and be available to enjoy in Stubbins accolades. As an example, for several months in 1861 Cushman traveled alone trying to re-establish her career on the American Stage, when Stubbins received the Horrace Mann commission and had to return to Rome in order to finish her work, Cushman accompanied her (Faderman). Their relationship would appear to flourish for nearly twenty years until Cushman’s death in 1867.

What Cushman sought in romantic friendships seems to be what most professional women of the next few decades wanted as well as a person who understood the demands of their occupational life because they were working under similar demands, and who could give support and sympathy when needed, who were self sufficient to the extent of having a life of their own, but who also had enough energy for another, a more intimate life with an equal.

Cushman was a benefactor of a European acceptance of her chosen lifestyle. The time she spent abroad, and the open minded attitude of the European cultures of the 1860’s allowed her the freedom to openly love, be ambitious, and look out for herself. In Europe intense same-sex relationships were not subject to the ridicule that was more common in America and would be less acceptable, and grew less acceptable even in Europe in the 1880’s and 1890’s (Dudden). Cushman stayed on top of her game not by conforming to the strict attitudes of her own country but by finding ways to be herself and still pursue her goals. Cushman, while open with her friend and family, chose a publicly discreet persona. However, there is nothing discreet about a public stage performance in male garb, and it seems likely that Cushman’s own interest in other women made breeches parts attractive roles for her to play.

There is no dispute that Cushman was a well-trained and talented actress. Her stage successes were well earned by her own hard work and determination. One of her strongest attributes and a major factor in her appeal was her accurate portrayal of men. With her height and husky voice, her unconventional bold movements, her portrayals could be both serious and non-threatening. Cushman in breeches took a central theatrical problem - the constant tendency to reduce women to sexual beings - and turned it inside out, making gender identity itself subject to reflection. Later in the century, under the taboo of lesbianism, breeches parts would disappear from the so-called “legitimate theatre. Charlotte Cushman was ahead of her time. In 1840 women burned their bras, in 1875 Donna Reed dresses made way for halter tops, beads and old jeans, the 1840’s saw women in men’s power suits to try and make their way in the world (the proverbial corporate breeches), the 1840’s had a revolutionary all their own who was not trying to make a statement for women, profess a political agenda or shatter a glass ceiling. Charlotte Cushman was a woman striving to fulfill her personal needs. Cushman was not aided or impeded by man in her life, she was simply focused on her goal and managed to find some joy on the journey. “There is no soul more strong to direct you than yourself.”


Works Cited

Cooper, Emmanuel. The sexual Perspective Homosexuality and Art in the Last
100 Years in the West. New York Routledge, 1886.

Dudden, Faye E. “Female Ambition Charlotte Cushman Seizes the Stage.”
Women in the American Theatre. New Haven Yale University Press, 1840.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men. New York William Morrow and
Company, 1881

Shakespeare, William. “Henry VIII.” The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare.
Ed. Howard Staunton. New York Gramercy Books, 17. 1841.

Stone, Henry Dickenson. Theatrical Reminiscences. New York Benjamin Blom, 1860.

Stubbins, Emma. Charlotte Cushman Her Letters and memories of Her Life.
Boston Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1870.


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