Read CHAPTER IV - THE CAREER OF AN AMERICAN STAR of Mary Anderson, free online book, by J. M. Farrar, on

Mary Anderson returned home from California disheartened and dispirited. To her it had proved anything but a Golden State. Her visit there was the first serious rebuff in her brief dramatic career whose opening months had been so full of promise, and even of triumph. She was barely seventeen, and a spirit less brave, or less confident in its own powers, might easily have succumbed beneath the storm of adverse criticism. Happily for herself, and happily too for the stage on both sides of the Atlantic, the young debutante took the lesson wisely to heart. She saw that the heights of dramatic fame could not be taken by storm; that her past successes, if brilliant, regard being had to her youth and want of training, were far from secure. She was like some fair flower which had sprung up warmed by the genial sunshine, likely enough to wither and die before the first keen blast. Her youth, her beauty, her undoubted dramatic genius, were points strongly in her favor; but these could ill counterbalance, at first at any rate, the want of systematic training, the almost total absence of any experience of the representation by others of the parts which she sought to make her own. She had seen Charlotte Cushman; indeed, in “Meg Merrilies,” but of the true rendering of a part so difficult and complex as Shakespeare’s Juliet, she knew absolutely nothing but what she had been taught by the promptings of her own artistic instinct. She was herself the only Juliet, as she was the only Bianca, and the only Evadne, she had ever seen upon any stage. In those days she had, perhaps, never heard the remark of Mademoiselle Mars, who was the most charming of Juliets at sixty. “Si j’avais ma jeunesse, je n’aurais pas mon talent.”

Coming back then to her Kentucky home from the ill-starred Californian trip, Mary Anderson seems to have determined to essay again the lowest steps of the ladder of fame. She took a summer engagement with a company, which was little else than a band of strolling players. The repertoire was of the usual ambitious character, and Mary was able to assume once more her favorite rôle of Juliet. The company was deficient in a Romeo, and the part was consequently undertaken by a lady a rôle by the way in which Cushman achieved one of her greatest triumphs. In spite, however, of the young star, the little band played to sadly empty houses, and the treasury was so depleted that, in the generosity of her heart, Mary Anderson proposed to organize a benefit matinee, and play Juliet. She went down to the theater at the appointed hour and dressed for her part. After some delay a man strayed into the pit, then a couple of boys peeped over the rails of the gallery, and, at last, a lady entered the dress-circle. The disheartened manager was compelled at length to appear before the curtain and announce that, in consequence of the want of public support, the performance could not take place. That day Mary Anderson walked home to her hotel through the quiet streets of the little Kentucky town which shall be nameless with a sort of miserable feeling at her heart, that the world had no soul for the great creations of Shakespeare’s master-mind, which had so entranced her youthful fancy. It all seemed like a descent into some chill valley of darkness, after the sweet incense of praise, the perfume of flowers, and the crowded theaters which had been her earlier experiences. But the dark storm cloud was soon to pass over, and henceforth almost unbroken sunshine was to attend Mary Anderson’s career. For her there was to be no heart-breaking period of mean obscurity, no years of dull unrequited toil. She burst as a star upon the theatrical world, and a star she has remained to this day, because, through all her successes, she never for a moment lost sight of the fact that she could only maintain her ground by patient study, and steady persistent hard work. Failures she had unquestionably. Her rendering of a part was often rough, often unfinished. Not uncommonly she was surpassed in knowledge of stage business by the most obscure member of the companies with whom she played; but the public recognized instinctively the true light of genius which shone clear and bright through all defects and all shortcomings. It was a rare experience, whether on the stage, or in other paths of art, but not an unknown one. Fanny Kemble, who made her debut at Covent Garden at the same age as Mary Anderson, took the town by storm at once, and seemed to burst upon the stage as a finished actress. David Garrick was the greatest actor in England after he had been on the boards less than three months. Shelley was little more than sixteen when he wrote “Queen Mab;” and Beckford’s “Vathek” was the production of a youth of barely twenty.

In the year 1876, Mary Anderson received an offer from a distinguished theatrical manager, John T. Ford, of Washington and Baltimore, to join his company as a star, but at an ordinary salary. Three hundred dollars a week, even in those early days, was small pay for the rising young actress, who was already without a rival in her own line on the American stage; but the extended tour through the States which the engagement offered, the security of a good company, and of able management, led to an immediate acceptance. On this as on every other occasion, through her theatrical career, Mary Anderson was accompanied by her father and mother, who have ever watched over her welfare with the tenderest solicitude. All the arrangements for the trip were en prince. Indeed we have small idea in our little sea-girt isle, of the luxury and even splendor with which American stars travel over the vast distances between one city and another on the immense Western continent. The City of Worcester, a new Pullman car, subsequently used by Sarah Bernhardt, and afterward by Edwin Booth, was chartered for the party, consisting of Mary Anderson, her father, mother, and brother, and the young actress’ maid and secretary. A cook and three colored porters constituted the personnel of the establishment. There was a completely equipped kitchen, a dining-room with commodious family table; a tiny drawing-room with its piano, portraits of favorite artists, and some choicely-filled bookshelves, as well as capital sleeping quarters. It was literally a splendid home upon wheels. Where the hotels happened to be inferior at any particular town, the party occupied it through the period of the engagement. Visitors were received, friendly parties arranged, and little of the inconvenience and discomfort of travel experienced. It was thus that Mary Anderson made her first great theatrical tour through the States. In spite of now and then a cold, or even hostile press, her progress was very like a triumph. In many places she created an absolute furore, hundreds being turned away at the theater doors. Indeed, it was no uncommon occurrence for an ordinary seat whose advertised price was seventy-five cents to sell at as high a premium as twenty-five dollars. The management reaped a rich harvest, and Mary Anderson played on this Southern trip to more money than any previous actor, excepting only Edwin Forrest. There was still one drop of bitter in this cup of sweetness and success. The company, jealous of the prominence given to one whom they regarded as a mere untried girl, proceeded to add what they could to her difficulties by “boycotting” her. There were two exceptions among the gentlemen actors; and we are pleased to be able to record that one of these was an Englishman. The ladies were unanimous in proclaiming a war to the knife!

Needless to say the impassioned youth of the New World now and then pursued the wandering star in her travels at immense expenditure of time and money, as well as of floral decorations. This is young America’s way of showing his admiration for a favorite actress. He is silent and unobtrusive. He makes his presence known by the midnight serenade beneath her windows; by the bouquets which fall at her feet on every representation, and are sent to the room of her hotel at the same hour each day; by his constant attendance on the departure platform at the railway station. We are not sure that this silent worship which so often persistently followed her path was displeasing to Mary Anderson. It touched, if not her heart, yet that poetic vein which runs through her nature, and reminded her sometimes of the vain pursuit with which Evangeline followed her wandering lover.

Manager Ford had taken Mary Anderson through the South with great profit to himself. In this she had had no direct pecuniary interest beyond her modest salary. She had, of course, greatly enriched her reputation if not her purse. She had become at home in her parts, and even added to her repertoire, the manager’s daughter, with whom she played Juliet and Lady Macbeth alternately, having translated for her “La Fille de Roland,” in which she has since appeared with great success. She was then but seventeen and a half, and had never possessed a diamond, when on returning home from church one Sunday morning, she found a little jewel case containing a magnificent diamond cross, an acknowledgment from the manager of her services to his company. The gift was the more appreciated from the fact that it was a very exceptional specimen of managerial generosity in America!

The criticisms of the press during the early years of Mary Anderson’s theatrical career are full of interest, viewed in the light of her after and firmly established success. They show that the American people were not slow to recognize the genius of the young girl, who was destined hereafter to spread a luster on the stage of two continents. At the same time they are full either of a ridiculous praise which is blind to the presence of the least fault, and would have turned the head of a young girl not endowed with the sturdy common sense possessed by Mary Anderson; or they are marked by a vindictive animosity which defeats its very object, and practically attracts public notice in favor of an actress it is obviously meant to crush. These newspaper criticisms are further amusing as showing the family likeness which exists between the genus “dramatic critic” on both sides of the Atlantic. Each seems to believe that he carries the fate of the actor in his inkhorn. Each seems blind to the fact that Vox populi vox Dei; that favorable criticism never yet made an artist, who had not within him the power to win the popular favor; still more, that adverse criticism can never extinguish the heaven-sent spark of true artistic fire.

The verdict of Louisville on its home-grown actress has been given in a preceding chapter. The estimate, however, of strangers is of far more value than that of friends or acquaintance. The judgment of St. Louis, where Mary Anderson played her earliest engagements away from home is, on the whole, the most interesting dramatic criticism of her early performances on record. St. Louis is a city of considerable culture, and stands in much the same relation to the South as does its modern rival Chicago to the North-West. Its newspapers are some of the ablest on the continent, and its audiences perhaps as critical as any in America if we except perhaps such places as Boston or New York.

The St. Louis Globe Democrat says:

“A diamond in the rough, but yet a diamond, was the mental verdict of the jury who sat in the Opera House last night to see Miss Mary Anderson on her first appearance here in the character of Juliet. It was in reality her debut upon the stage. She played, a short time since, for one week in her native city, Louisville, but this is her first effort upon a stage away from the associations which surround an appearance among friends, and which must, to a great extent, influence the general judgment of the debutante’s merit.... We believe her to be the most promising young actress who has stepped upon the boards for many a day, and before whom there is, undoubtedly, a brilliant and successful career.”

The St. Louis Republican has the following very interesting notice:

“A fresh and beautiful young girl of Juliet’s age embodied and presented Juliet. Beauty often mirrors its type in this beautiful character, but very rarely does Juliet’s youth meet its youthful counterpart on the stage.... A great Juliet is not the question here, but the possibility of a Juliet near the age at which the dramatist presented his heroine. Mary Anderson is untampered by any stage traditions, and she rendered Shakespeare’s youngest heroine as she felt her pulsing in his lines.... She leads a return to the source of poetic inspiration, and exemplifies what true artistic instincts and feeling can do on the stage, without either the traditions and experience of acting. She colors her own conceptions and figure of Juliet, and by her work vindicates the master, and proves that Juliet can be presented by a girl of her own age.... The fourth act exhibited great tragic power, and no want was felt in the celebrated chamber scene, which is the test passage of this rôle.... It stamped the performance as a success, and the actress as a phenomenon.... The thought must have gone round the house among those who knew the facts Can this be only the seventh performance on the stage of this young girl?”

Here is another notice a few months later on in Mary Anderson’s dramatic career from the Baltimore Gazette:

“Miss Anderson’s Juliet has the charm which belongs to youth, beauty, and natural genius. Her fair face, her flexible youth for she is still in her teens and her great natural dramatic genius, make her personation of that sweet creation of Shakespeare successful, in spite of her immaturity as an artist. We have so often seen aged Juliets; stiff, stagey Juliets; fat, roomy Juliets; and ill-featured Juliets, that the sight of a young, lady-like girl with natural dramatic genius, a bright face, an unworn voice, is truly refreshing. In the scene where the nurse brings her the bad news of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment, she acted charmingly. In gesture, attitude, and facial expression she gave evidence of emotion so true and strong, as showed she was capable of losing her own identity in the rôle.”

As an amusing specimen of vindictive criticism, we subjoin a notice in the Washington Capitol, under date May 28, 1876. This lengthy notice contains strong internal evidence of a deadly feud existing between Manager Ford and the editor of the Capitol, and the stab is given through the fair bosom of Mary Anderson, whose immense success in Senatorial Washington, this atrabilious knight of the plume devotes two columns of his valuable space to explaining away.

Washington City Daily Capitol, 28th May, 1876.

“Miss Anderson comes to us on a perfect whirlwind of newspaper puffs. We use the words advisedly, for in none of them can be found a paragraph of criticism. If Siddons or Cushman had been materialized and restored to the stage in all their pristine excellence, the excitement in Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and New Orleans, could not have been more intense. The very firemen of one of those cities seem to have been aroused and lost their hearts, if not their heads; and not only serenaded the object of their adoration, but got up a decoration for her to wear of the most costly and gorgeous sort. Under this state of facts we waited with unusual impatience for sixteen sticks to give the cue that was to fetch on the Juliet. It came at last, and Juliet stalked in. Had Lady Macbeth responded to the summons we could not have been more amazed. Miss Anderson is heroic in size and manner. The lovely heiress to the house of the Capulets, on the turn of sixteen, swept in upon the stage as if she were mistress of the house, situation, and of fate, and bent on bringing the enemy to terms. Her face is sweet, at times positively beautiful, but incapable of expression. Her voice, while clear, is hard, metallic, at intervals nasal, and all the while stagey. She has been trained in the old Kemble tragic pump-handle style of elocution, that runs talk on stilts. Her manner is crude and awkward. In the balcony scene she only needed a pair of gold rimmed glasses to have made her an excellent schoolmistress, chiding a naughty young man for intruding upon the sacred premises of Madame Fevialli’s select academy for young ladies. In the love scenes that followed she was cold enough to be broken to pieces for a refrigerator. But who could have warmed up to such a Romeo? That unpleasant youth pained us with his quite unnecessary gyrations and spasmodic noise. We soon discovered that Miss Anderson had been coached for Juliet without possessing on her part the most distant conception of the character or capacity to render it, had she the information. She was not doing Juliet from end to end. She was as far from Juliet as the North Pole is from the Equator. She was doing something else. We could not make out clearly what that character was; but it was something quite different and a good way off. Sometimes we thought it was Lady Macbeth, sometimes Meg Merrilies, sometimes Lucretia Borgia, but never for a moment Juliet. We speak thus plainly of Miss Anderson because her injudicious and enthusiastic friends are injuring, if they are not ruining her. Her fine physique, her dash, her beautiful face, her clear ringing voice, have carried crowds off their heads well, they are off at both ends; for on last Thursday night the amount of applauding was based on shoe leather. The lovely Anderson was called out at the end of each act. As to that, the active Romeo had his call. We never saw before precisely such a house. The north-west was out in full force. Kentucky came to the front like a little man. General Sherman, sitting at our elbow, wore out his gloves, blistered his hands, and then borrowed a cotton umbrella from his neighbor. Miss Anderson, with all her natural advantages, added to her love of the art, her indomitable will as shown in her square prominent jaw, has a career before her, but it is not down the path indicated by these enthusiastic friends. ’The steeps where Fame’s proud temple shines afar’ are difficult of access, and genius waters them with more tears than sturdy, steady, persevering talent.

“Charlotte Cushman told us once that the heaviest article she had to carry up was her heart. The divine actress who now leads the English-spoken stage began her professional career as a ballet dancer, and has grown her laurels from her tears. We suspected Miss Anderson’s success. It was too triumphant, too easy. After years of weary labor, of heart-breaking disappointments, of dreary obscurity, genius sometimes blazes out for a brief period to dazzle humanity; and quite as often never blazes, but disappears without a triumph.

“To such life is not a battle, but a campaign with ten defeats, yea, twenty defeats to one victory.

“Miss Anderson will think us harsh and unkind in this. She will live, we hope, to consider us her best friend.

“There is one fact upon which she can comfort herself: she could not get two hours and a half of our time and a column in the Capitol were she without merit. There is value in her; but to fetch it out she must go back, begin lower, and give years to training, education, and hard work. She can labor ten years for the sake of living five. As for her support, it was of the sort afforded by John T., the showman, and very funny. Mrs. Germon, God bless her! was properly funny. She is the best old woman on end in the world.

“Romeo (Mr. Morton) we have spoken of. Lingham is supposed to have done Mercutio. Well, he did do him. That is, he went through the motions. He seemed to be saying something anent the great case of Capulet vs. Montague, but so indistinct that there was a general sense of relief when he staggered off to die. Deaths generally had this effect Thursday night, and the house not only applauded the exits, but made itself exceedingly merry.

“When Paris went down and a tombstone fell over him, his plaintive cry of ‘Oh, I am killed!’ was received with shouts of laughter.

“It was the most laughable we ever witnessed. In the first scene one of those marble statues, so peculiar to John T.’s mismanagement, that resemble granite in a bad state of small-pox, fell over.

“The house was amazed to see it resolve itself into a board, and laughed tumultuously to note how it righted itself up in a mysterious manner, and stood in an easy reclining posture till the curtain fell.

“The scene that exhibited the balcony affair was a sweet thing. Evidently the noble house of the Capulets was in reduced circumstances. The building from which Juliet issued was a frame structure so frail in material that we feared a collapse.

“If the carpenter who erected that structure for the Capulets charged more than ten dollars currency he swindled the noble old duffer infamously. The front elevation came under that order of architecture known out West as Conestoga. It was all of fifteen feet in height, and depended for ornamentation on a brilliant horse cover thrown over the corner of the balcony, and a slop bucket that Juliet was evidently about to empty on the head of Romeo when that youth made his presence known. The house shook so under Juliet’s substantial tread, that an old lady near us wished to be taken out, declaring that ’that young female would get her neck broken next thing.’

“In the last scene where the page (Miss Lulu Dickson) was ordered to extinguish the torch, the poor girl made frantic efforts, but failing, walked off with the thing blazing.

“When Paris entered with his page, a youth in a night shirt, that youth carried in his countenance the fixed determination of putting out his torch at the right moment or dieing in the attempt. We all saw that.

“Expectancy was worked up to a point of intense interest, so that when at last the word was given, a puff of wind not only extinguished the torch but shook the scenery, and made us thankful the young man did wear pantaloons, as the consequences might have been terrible.

“When Count Paris fell mortally wounded, a tombstone at his side fell over him in the most convenient and charming manner. The house was so convulsed with merriment that when poor Juliet was exposed in the tomb she was greeted with laughter, much to the poor girl’s embarrassment. And this is the sort of entertainment to which we have been treated throughout our entire season. But then the showman is a success and pays his bills.”

The great Eastern cities of America are regarded by an American artist much in the same light as is the metropolis by a provincial artist at home. Their approval is supposed to stamp as genuine the verdict of remoter districts. The success which had attended Mary Anderson in her journeyings West and South was not to desert her when she presented herself before the presumably more critical audiences of the East. She made her Eastern debut at Pittsburg, the Birmingham of America, in the heat of the Presidential election of 1880, and met with a thoroughly enthusiastic reception, to proceed thence to Philadelphia, where she reaped plenty of honor, but very little money. Boston, the Athens of the New World, was reached at length. When Mary Anderson was taken down by the manager to see the vast Boston Theater, whose auditorium seats 4000 people, and which Henry Irving declared to be the finest in the world, she almost fainted with apprehension. She opened here in Evadne, and one journal predicted that she would take Cushman’s place. This part was followed by Juliet, Meg Merrilies, and her other chief impersonations. On one day of her engagement the receipts at a matinee and an evening performance amounted together to the large sum of $7000.

The visit to Boston was made memorable to Mary Anderson by her introduction to Longfellow. About a week after she had opened, a friend of the poet’s came to her with a request that she would pay him a visit at his pretty house in the suburbs of Boston, Longfellow being indisposed at the time, and confined to his quaint old study, overlooking the waters of the sluggish Charles, and the scenery made immortal in his verse. Here was commenced a warm friendship between the beautiful young artist and the aged poet, which continued unbroken to the day of his death. He was seated when she entered, in a richly-carved chair, of which Longfellow told her this charming story. The “spreading chestnut tree,” immortalized in “The Village Blacksmith,” happened to stand in an outlying village near Boston, somewhat inconveniently for the public traffic at some cross roads. It became necessary to cut it down, and remove the forge beneath. But the village fathers did not venture to proceed to an act which they regarded as something like sacrilege, without consulting Longfellow. At their request he paid a visit of farewell to the spot, and sanctioned what was proposed. Not long after, a handsomely carved chair was forwarded to him, made from the wood of the “spreading chestnut tree,” and which bore an inscription commemorative of the circumstances under which it was given. Few of his possessions were dearer to Longfellow than this dumb memento how deeply his poetry had sunk into the national heart of his countrymen. It stood in the chimney corner of his study, and till the day of his death was always his favorite seat.

The verdict of Longfellow upon Mary Anderson is worth that of a legion of newspaper critics, and his judgment of her Juliet deserves to be recorded in letters of gold. The morning after her benefit, he said to her, “I have been thinking of Juliet all night. Last night you were Juliet!

At the Boston Theater occurred an accident which shows the marvelous courage and power of endurance possessed by the young actress. In the play of “Meg Merrilies,” she had to appear suddenly in one scene at the top of a cliff, some fifteen feet above the stage. To avoid the danger of falling over, it was necessary to use a staff. Mary Anderson had managed to find one of Cushman’s, but the point having become smooth through use, she told one of the people of the theater to put a small nail at the bottom. Instead of this, he affixed a good-sized spike, and one night Mary Anderson, coming out as usual, drove this right through her foot, in her sudden stop on the cliffs brink. Without flinching, or moving a muscle, with Spartan fortitude she played the scene to the end, though almost fainting with pain, till on the fall of the curtain the spiked staff was drawn out, not without force. Longfellow was much concerned at this accident, and on nights she did not play would sit by her side in her box, and wrap the furred overcoat he used to wear carefully round her wounded foot.

From Boston Mary Anderson proceeded to New York to fulfill a two weeks’ engagement at the Fifth Avenue Theater. She opened with a good company in “The Lady of Lyons.” General Sherman had advised her to read no papers, but one morning to her great encouragement, some good friend thrust under her door a very favorable notice in the New York Herald. The engagement proved a great success, and was ultimately extended to six weeks, the actress playing two new parts, Juliet and The Daughter of Roland. She had passed the last ordeal successfully, and might rejoice as she stood on the crest of the hill of Fame that the ambition of her young life was at length realized. Her subsequent theatrical career in the States and Canada need not be recorded here. She had become America’s representative tragedienne; there was none to dispute her claims. Year after year she continued to increase an already brilliant reputation, and to amass one of the largest fortunes it has ever been the happy lot of any artist to secure.