Tracy Patch Cheever was not a big theatre fan. “It is not often that I will tolerate a play,” he wrote in his diary (which is at the Massachusetts Historical Society), “there is so much lack of art[,] especially in the inferior casts, together with such a consciousness of moral inferiority in many of the performers, that high thoughts and noble deeds coming through them, seem mockeries and leave none of the force of life behind them.”
Cheever wasn’t alone, especially in nineteenth-century Boston, which happened to be the time and place in which he lived. This was a time when many people still harbored a deep suspicion of theatre: after all, would you trust someone who made their living by pretending to be other people? Playhouses were often seen as disorderly places, where mobs might start a riot or ladies of ill repute would troll for customers. This had started to change in a pretty significant way by the 1850s, when Cheever wrote his sniffy dismissal of theatre and actors, but the phrase “Banned in Boston” would remain shorthand for a moral censoriousness that lasted well into the twentieth century.
Then, in early February 1853, everything changed. Cheever was on a trip to Washington, D.C. when he was dragged to the theatre by some acquaintances, but what he saw there changed his attitude entirely. The star that night was Anna Cora Mowatt, well-known as both a playwright and an actress. Cheever fell in love with her almost instantly.
“I am truly sorry to part with the sight of Mrs. Mowatt,” wrote Cheever. “It seems as though a blessing were taken from me. No influence that I have experienced in Washington seems so good as that she exerts over me, no less of her graceful art, than by the noble personal virtues which seem to belong to her.” It wasn’t just that Mowatt was good on the stage: she was, in his eyes, both beautiful and a fundamentally good person. “Unless I am misinformed,” he said, “she unites in her own person, the charms of the best heroines she portrays. Such a woman not only blesses beyond computation, her husband, family and friends, but all who can be reached by virtue, by piety and by intellectual accomplishment.”
We’ve all been there: we see an actor in a role and start to conflate their personality with that of the character they played. However, I think that what Cheever was doing here was a little more interesting, and a little more significant than that. Remember, this is a guy who didn’t care for theatre very much, and not necessarily because he thought that most productions had bad acting or crummy sets. It was the moral characters (or what he assumed he knew of their moral characters) of the actors that he found most objectionable.
And yes, we all fall prey to this. We all know about Jennifer Lawrence’s aw-shucks public persona and project it onto whatever role she happens to be playing. We love Kanye or Taylor Swift’s music (feel free to mutter “uh, not me” in response as necessary), but can’t dissociate it from their antics outside of the recording studio.
Cheever’s experience is so interesting to me because it’s one small example of how attitudes towards performers were beginning to change at this time. I would also argue that it’s a demonstration of how the concept of celebrity was becoming a driving force in entertainment, especially theatre, in the nineteenth century. My fast-and-loose definition of celebrity is that it refers to a person whom you recognize without ever having met them in a social setting and whose personal life is of as much or even more interest to you than what they do for a living. Today, we like to bemoan the omnipresence of people like the Kardashians, who truly deserve Daniel Boorstin’s cranky dismissal of celebrities as people “known for [their] well-knownness,” but many of them are accomplished performers, politicians, etc. in their own right. We follow these people’s lives not because we’re necessarily intimately interested in every little detail of their craft, but because we find their personalities and private lives fascinating, and we want to know more.
Cheever wasn’t some aesthete who wanted to analyze every little technical aspect of Mowatt’s performance onstage. He was interested because he thought she was an interesting individual and, on some level, he was a little bit in love with her. He pretty much said so, in fact. He rhapsodized that, “I find myself drawn by cords of strong esteem towards this most excellent lady. It would be too much to ask of Heaven that such an [sic] one might be sent to strew with exalted happiness my own pathway of life.” Translation: oh man, so pretty, want to marry her.
I’ll have more to say about Tracy Patch Cheever and Anna Cora Mowatt, because the story doesn’t end there. He’d make plenty more trips to the theatre to see his favorite celebrity, and in the process he’d both demonstrate all the ways that celebrity was working its way into popular culture and run up against some of the limitations of this modern cult of fame.