Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 13
Actress Charlotte Cushman was a 19th-century theatrical icon, so famous and beloved that, like Madonna or Beyoncé today, newspapers called her by just her first name: she was “Our Charlotte.” But her fame was not for conventionally Victorian feminine portrayals.
Cushman was known for playing traditionally male roles, like Romeo and Hamlet. She was not the only actress of her time to play these parts, but her style was uniquely assertive and athletic. When Queen Victoria saw Cushman as Romeo, she said she couldn’t believe it was a woman playing the part. Cushman managed her own career and demanded to be paid as much as her male counterparts. She also spent her life in a series of romantic relationships with women.
We talk about “Our Charlotte” and her remarkable life with Lisa Merrill, a professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Hofstra University and author of When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female Spectators. Merrill is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.
From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Originally broadcast October 22, 2014 and rebroadcast with an updated introduction August 6, 2019. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, “I Will Assume Thy Part in Some Disguise,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Esther Ferington and Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had help from Larry Josephson and Robert Auld.
MICHAEL WITMORE: You probably think you know what people were like in the past. You have images in your head—derived through whatever means—of, say, the Puritans or the ancient Greeks. Delve into small corners of the past, though, and you might find things that completely upend those stereotypes that you hold dear.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Along with those other perceptions you hold, you likely have an image in your head of the Victorians—a straitlaced world with a rigid set of gender roles. We probably think we know what a society like that would make of an actress who spent her career playing male roles, and, in her personal life, showing no interest in men. She’d be shunned. She’d be outcast. Right? Well, no, actually. Wrong. We’re going to hear now about Charlotte Cushman, among the most renowned American performers of Shakespeare in the Victorian era. And as we said when we originally ran this podcast in 2014, if you’ve never heard of Charlotte Cushman, don’t worry. There’s a reason for that, too.
Lisa Merrill is a professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Hofstra University. She’s written a book about Charlotte Cushman called When Romeo Was a Woman. We invited her in for a look at this remarkable story. We call this podcast I Will Assume Thy Part in Some Disguise. Lisa Merrill is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.
REBECCA SHEIR: So, I’d like to start, actually, at the end of this story, and then jump back to the beginning. Can you convey to us just what an enormous star Charlotte Cushman was when she died in 1876?
LISA MERRILL: Sure. It’s really remarkable. I’m convinced she was the most celebrated woman in the English-speaking world, because she had been seen by millions of audience members, in both the United States and in Britain, during all of her years onstage. And she was an icon for Americans. They had parades celebrating her. So her importance as a cultural figure was really unprecedented.
SHEIR: But she was best known for playing men onstage, is that correct?
MERRILL: Yes. She played male characters and strong female characters. It’s the male characters that are most unusual to us, though.
SHEIR: Well, how common was it during this period for women to portray men onstage?
MERRILL: Well, that’s the interesting bit. It wasn’t that uncommon at this moment in time for women to play men onstage, but part of what I found is it wasn’t just the fact of playing male characters, but the way that Cushman did it, that really is what we can attribute to her fame.
So the other women who played what were called "breeches parts" at the time, women wearing male clothes, were, to a person, you know, conventionally attractive women. And remember the clothing at this time—women were wearing large skirts. It’s only wearing breeches that you could actually see a woman’s legs, and so the leg shows that most breeches parts allowed were ways for women to titillate the men in the audience. Now Cushman did none of that, and that’s part of why she was remarkable. So yes, it’s playing the male roles, but it’s also the way that she played them.
SHEIR: Well, when and where did she start playing these male roles? Do we know?
MERRILL: Yeah, I think so. Pretty early in her career, starting in the 1830s, when she was very first onstage, 1836. She started out singing and failed as an opera singer, and then went on to the legitimate stage. She came to New York, and then the theater in which she was performing was burnt down. She had a short run in Albany and immediately started playing male characters, and most of them were in melodramas, not well-known characters. But she was really well received, and part of that, I think, is that she made no attempt to titillate the men in the audience, and that was remarkable. To have a woman in breeches playing a male character and allowing her to be seen as masculine, rather than, you know, as a woman being very flirtatious and exposing more of herself in these clothes.
SHEIR: And what roles did she play as a man?
MERRILL: Well, Romeo was her most successful, and the most famous, and she started that pretty early in her career. She was just about 21 when she first played Romeo. And later on in her life, she played Hamlet and she played Wolsey, in terms of the Shakespearean characters that she played. She also played male characters in some other melodramas, and competed with male actors like Edwin Forrest in her Shakespearean characters, but also in melodramas. So Forrest was well known for playing a melodramatic character, Claude Melnotte, and immediately after he did that, she did it, too.
SHEIR: You mentioned she was well known for playing Romeo. Didn’t Queen Victoria once say that when Charlotte Cushman played Romeo, the queen couldn’t believe it was a woman playing the part?
MERRILL: Yes, yes, and Victoria wasn’t alone. Many people who saw Cushman’s Romeo initially found it remarkable that it was a woman. Cushman was tall for the time, she was five foot six. So she was a large woman, she had a strong jaw, she moved around very forcefully onstage. And that was unusual then, too. This was the time when most performances, Shakespearean and otherwise, were done in a declamatory style, where performers would, just like public speakers, would take a pose and they would orate onstage. And Cushman said to an actor friend once that she wasn’t attractive enough to stand there and pose, so she had to move around, and she did. I mean, she fenced as Romeo, and she jumped all around the stage. It was very unusual in terms of a performance style.
SHEIR: You mentioned something so fascinating about this particular time period. You say, “It was a time when people could largely accept the realism of a female Romeo. But at the same time, they saw women who had professional careers as being," what you call, "unsexed." Can you explain that?
MERRILL: Yes, certainly. The people who objected to Cushman, and while she had a remarkable amount of fans, there were people who objected to her, also objected to women in any other kind of professional or assertive roles. I mean women onstage, there were so few careers open to women, and onstage, a woman could compete financially with a male, and so there were people who considered it unnatural that she was as assertive as she was. She demanded to be paid exactly what male actors were paid as soon as she became successful, which was remarkable. No women did that at the time. She managed her own career, so there were people who objected to those aspects of her life.
SHEIR: I think there’s something so intriguing about Cushman’s story, having to do with her relationships. She was never known to have a relationship with a man. Can you talk about all the aspects of that, both the lack of knowledge when it came to same-sex relationships at that time, and then also what it said about an actress that she wasn’t seen as caring about men?
MERRILL: Yeah, and I think that we can attribute a lot of her success to that fact. So at this time period, the mid-19th century, actresses are equated with prostitutes, often. So this is a disreputable... Not only don’t women pursue a range of other careers, but the idea that you could pay to see a woman, and a woman’s body, onstage was highly suspect. And because actresses are equated with prostitutes, a woman who’s onstage and has no discernible connection with any male suitors, ironically, is a moral paragon. And people considered that she uplifted the state of the American stage. It’s ironic to consider that today, right? That it’s her relationships, the absence of relationships with men, that are the signifiers of her respectability for the mid-19th-century audience.
SHEIR: Well, there’s this idea you mention in your book that respectable women lacked "carnal motivation." What does that mean?
MERRILL: Well, in terms of the development of notions about sex and bodies and sexuality, it was generally conceived in the 18th and 19th century that women, at least respectable women, were incapable of feeling sexual desire. I mean, it sounds ridiculous to us now. And, in fact, they considered it a vile aspersion to suggest that women could feel any sexual desire at all. So therefore, women who spent their lives with other women were blameless, and Cushman was the epitome of that.
SHEIR: Some of the most enduring icons of Charlotte Cushman’s career are pictures and figurines of her playing Romeo while her sister is playing Juliet, her sister Susan.
SHEIR: Let’s talk about that performance, because you spend an entire chapter on it in your book. She did this, or they did this, when and where?
MERRILL: Okay. So as I said earlier, Cushman started playing Romeo way before her sister was on the stage. Susan was six years younger. And their father had an earlier family, and he was, you know, the age of a grandfather to them, and he left their family, and went back to his adult children, before Cushman even went on the stage. So she really was the sole support of her mother, who had a boardinghouse in Boston.
So Susan was much younger, and when Cushman first went to Albany, and her mother and youngest brother went with her, her sister at 14 somehow was, I imagine, forced into a marriage with a man, her father’s friend and contemporary. Now remember the father is the grandfather’s age, so here’s a 14-year-old girl forced into this connection with this man in his sixties. And Susan, the 14-year-old, was shortly pregnant, and then he disappeared. Susan was abandoned with an infant, and Charlotte was becoming a very successful performer. So very early on, she invited Susan onto the stage, so they did that while they were in the US.
But to go back to your question, the famous images of them as Romeo and Juliet come from an 1845, mostly 1846, performance in England. Cushman is the first American actress to receive British acceptance and incredible support. So, the British audiences love Cushman when she first goes over there. She sends for her sister and says… I’ve actually brought the letter with me. Cushman says, “I will bring her out under such auspices as no one has ever had in that part. After she’s once made a star, then she can go her own way.”
SHEIR: So by this point, even though the idea of women playing men was established, and even though Cushman had played Romeo for a season in the UK, you write that when she and her sister opened for an out-of-town run in Edinburgh, there were problems.
MERRILL: There were problems. When Cushman first came to England, she became acquainted with a number of people in Scottish society. And some of them, who had first befriended her, were very concerned about her morality and Susan’s, so part of the question was asking people how respectable Cushman really was. And Susan, remember, has a child that she’s had so young, so they want to see marriage and divorce certificates. So it isn’t merely the fact of playing Romeo.
SHEIR: What about these rumors that were going around? Ugly rumors about Charlotte and her sister. Do we know who the source of those rumors were? You write about them in the book.
MERRILL: Yeah, one of the suspicions, and there are a number of people who say this in their letters to her... The rumor that you’re talking about, many people attribute it to Edwin Forrest.
SHEIR: So, Edwin Forrest, I mean, he was an enormous star at the time. He was super famous, super popular. What was his problem with Charlotte Cushman?
MERRILL: Cushman and Forrest were very competitive with each other. And as successful as he was, Forrest, in the United States, and he was remarkably successful, as you say—in England, he was not well received. So when Cushman and Forrest played opposite each other, he was slammed by the British press, and she was commended. And from that moment on, it kind of sealed the rancor between them. And it’s the following year that Charlotte and Susan play Romeo and Juliet.
SHEIR: So there’s all this criticism about Susan and Charlotte playing Romeo and Juliet. But once they got to London, it seems that criticism faded. In fact, and I think this is so funny, the fact that two sisters were playing Romeo and Juliet seems to have bothered people a lot less than the fact that they were performing Shakespeare’s original words.
MERRILL: Yes, and that was again Cushman’s, she initiated that. Much of the Shakespearean scripts that were used at the time were based on the Restoration rewrites, and, you know, there were productions of Hamlet with happy endings. Cushman never did those.
But over time, Shakespeare was starting to be restored, and the Shakespearean script had not been performed, the whole Shakespearean script of Romeo and Juliet, until Cushman did it in England. When Cushman insisted... Remember, there are no directors as such at the time, there are theater managers, but leading performers make the decision about the script that they’re going to use and the blocking onstage, all of that.
So, when Cushman decided to do Romeo and Juliet and she wanted to use the Shakespearean script, they reacted to her as though she was uncouth. They called her one of the "American Indians," who wanted to use the earlier, less carefully wrought script instead of the improved version. But people who were purists, once they saw the entire Shakespeare script onstage, celebrated her for that. There was a movement just starting at that time, and she was really in the heart of that.
SHEIR: Can you give us a sense of the critical acclaim that Charlotte got for this particular performance as Romeo?
MERRILL: Oh, it was remarkable. All the British newspapers said things like, “She’s not just successful as a female Romeo," but they said things like, “Only when two women play the part can we see the emotion of the characters,” because it would offend a modern audience if there were men and women playing Romeo and Juliet. So part of the commendation was her interpretation of the character, but it was also the sense that she was able to do this so believably.
SHEIR: So Charlotte Cushman was a huge success in Europe, and now, as for in America, you mention that “her gender transgressions onstage puzzled as well as pleased Americans.” Now I get "puzzled," but "pleased"? What pleased Americans about Cushman’s gender transgressions?
MERRILL: Well, I liken her to other celebrated people in our century who are only known by one name, like "Madonna of the 19th century." The newspapers would have, as big headlines, “Our Charlotte Returns,” whenever she came back. And everyone knew who "Our Charlotte" was. She represented to Americans the cultural parity with the British. And especially as a Shakespearean performer, that was just unknown at the time.
The gender aspect of your question... I think she was able to do that because to the British, Americans were generally more physical, more manly, and that didn’t necessarily mean masculine, but assertive, powerful. That was the conception of Americans in general. So Cushman is the epitome of Americans, but she has the cultural and intellectual ability to inhabit Shakespearean characters, so that was remarkable to them.
SHEIR: Well, let’s talk about the other male roles Cushman was famous for in the Shakespeare canon. We have Hamlet, we have Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII. As for Hamlet, when did she first play that character?
MERRILL: Okay, so she first played Hamlet in 1851, but she doesn’t do it very often. My interest in her Hamlet is really about a century [that is, a decade] later, 1861, because at that time, right at the outbreak of the US Civil War, there are in New York three productions of Hamlet, simultaneously. And in the season, Edwin Forrest, you know, still a reigning superstar, and if you’ve seen images of Forrest, you know he’s this large, muscular guy; Edwin Booth, who was the younger male actor; and Cushman. And so part of what I think is that there’s a crisis of masculinity at the outset of the American Civil War, that you can see in these three very accomplished forms of Hamlet that are all equally successful, and that’s what so remarkable about them, that they’re happening simultaneously.
Cushman’s competition with Edwin Booth for Hamlet is really interesting, because one of Cushman’s Juliets after Susan was Mary Devlin, who Booth marries. And so the beautiful Mary Devlin, when she was being courted by Edwin Booth, Cushman kept sending her pearls from England and telling her not to marry Booth. And when Mary Devlin does marry Booth, and Cushman goes to perform Hamlet, she follows him, and where Booth is performing, Cushman performs. And she asks Mary Devlin to borrow her husband’s costume for Hamlet, and then writes back to Mary about how much better she looked in his breeches. [LAUGH]
SHEIR: Wow, you don’t have to be a Freudian to see where that’s going!
MERRILL: That’s right! [LAUGH]
SHEIR: Moving on to another character Charlotte played, Cardinal Wolsey. She broke ground when she played that role, didn’t she?
MERRILL: Yes, she broke ground, yes, absolutely. I have not found any reference to any other earlier women playing that part. You know, Hamlet and Romeo, because they’re young and often considered, you know, attractive figures, it wasn’t that unusual for breeches performers to take on those characters. You couldn’t say that about Wolsey. [LAUGH] But as Cushman was aging, and she first plays Wolsey in ’57, so she’s already in her forties, she continues to play Romeo at times, but she does that much less frequently. So she was looking for another character. And she had been very successful as Katherine in Henry VIII. And she would alternate and do Katherine one night and Wolsey another.
SHEIR: So with all these stories and anecdotes you’re telling, we’re getting a sense of what Charlotte Cushman was like as a person. I want to talk more about what she was like as just an everyday woman. To whom would you, for example, compare her today?
MERRILL: For such a powerful and assertive and, you know, large personality, as well as a large body, so I have to think. Years ago, when I, you know, in my mind have always imagined what actresses could play her. And, you know, many years ago, I thought, oh, maybe a kind of Colleen Dewhurst kind of character. Now I think Cherry Jones would be a perfect Charlotte.
She’s somebody to be reckoned with, you know. Her personality annoyed people who didn’t like powerful women, so offstage, she commanded lots of attention. She spent lots of years in London and in Rome, and then would come back to the United States, tour for a year, and then go back to these homes abroad. And when she was living in England, and even later in her life in Newport, Rhode Island, she had a kind of salon. You know, so she entertained people at home. She would do orations of poetry. She’d do readings, and she became, actually, a very successful dramatic reader, too. But she was a host, as well as a support, of numerous people.
And one of the things I talk about in my book is that she set up this expatriate community of women artists in Rome, and so she not only supported her family, but she supported the work of other women artists. Many of the women in her life were visual artists, and her last kind of official partner was Emma Stebbins, the sculptor of the "Bethesda Fountain," the "Angel of the Waters." And one of the things, I found great correspondence, that, if you remember the image of that angel, it’s a large-bodied woman, and when the angel was unveiled in Central Park, Stebbins got bad press. She modeled it, I think, on her partner, Charlotte Cushman. And one of the newspapers wrote that “It looks like Miss Stebbins’s angel was raised on pork and hominy.”
MERRILL: I love that Tony Kushner used the image of that angel in Angels of America, and I don’t know if he knew that this was, you know, the result of this incredible relationship between these two women.
SHEIR: Well, let’s talk more explicitly about Charlotte Cushman’s sexuality.
SHEIR: She was seen by the outside world as asexual, but you’ve certainly seen enough evidence in her letters to confirm that she was indeed a lesbian. Right?
MERRILL: Yeah. I mean, if you hear hesitancy in my voice, it’s only because that term wasn’t used at that time. But women were the emotional, and I believe sensual, sexual center of her life. She described herself as "married" to Emma Stebbins in some of her letters, and she says that in a letter to another younger woman, who she’s also having a very passionate relationship with.
So Cushman had female partners all her life, and also sometimes simultaneous relationships with much younger women, but she’s very strategic about her correspondence, though. And so the collection of letters that I will be publishing is called Burn This Letter, because Cushman wrote atop some of the letters that were the most passionate, to burn the letter. And even though women and men write very sentimental, romantic same-sex correspondence at the time, I think Cushman’s are decidedly different, because she’s so strategic. She says things like, “If anyone were to see us, that would be the end.”
SHEIR: Now, you have a theory as to how Cushman’s sexuality was read immediately after her death. In your book, don’t you say that Cushman disappeared because of homophobia?
MERRILL: Yes. I think so. Immediately after her death, she was celebrated. Every Boston paper published sermons in churches about lessons to be learned from the life of Charlotte Cushman. She was considered so respectable and so renowned.
But at the same time, as people start becoming more aware of the possibility of sexual desire between women, her celebrity changes. Havelock Ellis in the 1890s writes that women are in fact capable of sexual feelings, and certainly, by the time of Freud, where any kind of same-sex desire is considered some sort of, you know, infantile problem and not a intersex possibility. And theater historians do the same thing. By the few decades afterward, she’s described as having a loveless life. I also think it has to do, certainly homophobia, but also a kind of misogyny, because, as I said, she’s not a conventionally attractive woman. And so, when there are people looking back, who haven’t seen her live and onstage, seeing this conventionally unattractive, powerful, large woman who would be read as a very much, a kind of butch woman now, they’re very dismissive of her, and so she gets written out as a kind of laughingstock.
MERRILL: Yeah. It’s remarkable, right? Her celebrity to some extent in her lifetime is due to the way that she experiences herself and her relationships with women, and then, posthumously, that’s the cause for her disappearance.
SHEIR: Well, as a Shakespearean performer, where do you think Charlotte Cushman... What is her place in the pantheon of Shakespearean actors, do you think?
MERRILL: Certainly, in the 19th century, she is the epitome of the leading Shakespearean female performer. It’s Fanny Kemble and Charlotte Cushman. And I think that you can see that in the fact that the Staffordshire figurine of Romeo and Juliet is Cushman and Susan, I mean, and these were mass, widely produced and on the mantels of middle-class houses. So there’s really very few, I can’t think of many competitors.
She’s, I guess, immediately afterward, a couple of decades, we have Sarah Bernhardt, and if you think about the kind of iconic perception people have of Bernhardt as the epitome of powerful, successful women onstage, that’s what Cushman was. There was just simply no competition. The only competition at all was Fanny Kemble, and Cushman’s onstage for decades and Kemble, you know, retires very early.
SHEIR: And yet, when you compare her with, or when you mention, Bernhardt, Bernhardt is now a household name. But Charlotte Cushman? Not so much.
MERRILL: Right. Right. And when you think about it, Bernhardt played male characters. Bernhardt was a pretty famous Hamlet. But women who did that and, you know, were known to have relationships with men, were able to get away with that.
And Cushman was remarkable. But you know, even before she died, when she officially retired in New York in 1874, there was a fireworks display, and they had a military escort. William Cullen Bryant did a poem to her. So her importance as a cultural figure was really unprecedented. She wasn’t just known as an actress. She was known, really, as a representative of American culture, and so she was so successful in that regard.
WITMORE: Lisa Merrill is a professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Hofstra University. Her book about Charlotte Cushman, titled When Romeo Was a Woman, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2000. She was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.
“I Will Assume Thy Part in Some Disguise” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had help from Larry Josephson and Robert Auld.
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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. And, if you find yourself in Washington, DC, please come and visit us on Capitol Hill. Take in a performance in our Elizabethan Theatre and come face to face with a First Folio—the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.