Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 152
Charlotte Cushman was one of the most famous American theater artists of the mid-19th century. And while she was known for her Lady Macbeth and Oliver Twist’s Nancy, she was acclaimed for her performances as Romeo and Hamlet.
The newest book about Cushman’s life is Tana Wojczuk’s Lady Romeo : The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity. Cushman’s life was radical indeed. She played Shakespeare’s leading men with an emotionality and vulnerability that took audiences by surprise, started a bohemian artists’ colony in Rome, and lived publicly as a queer woman. We invited Wojczuk to join us on the podcast to chat about Cushman’s life, loves, work, tragedies, swordsmanship, and more.
Tana Wojczuk is a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica. She teaches writing at New York University. She has worked as an arts critic for Vice, Bomb Magazine, and Paste and as a columnist for Guernica. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, The Believer, Gulf Coast, Apogee, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Rumpus, Narrative, Opium Magazine, and elsewhere. Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America's First Celebrity was published by Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, in 2020.
Wojczuk's appreciation for The Folger Shakespeare editions, "How Shakespeare Paperbacks Made Me Want to Be A Writer," appeared recently in The New York Times Magazine's Letter of Recommendation column.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published September 29, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Do You Not Know I Am a Woman?”, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
Images from the Folger Collection
Explore images of Cushman from the Folger's collection.
Charlotte Cushman: When Romeo Was a Woman
Listen to our Shakespeare Unlimited interview with scholar Lisa Merrill about Cushman.
Shakespeare Lightning Round: Tana Wojczuk
Watch Lady Romeo author Tana Wojczuk answer our 30 lightning-fast Shakespeare questions.
MICHAEL WITMORE: In the 16th century, men played women in Shakespeare plays. In the 19th century, there’s a woman who got famous playing men in Shakespeare. How’d that happen?
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The woman I was talking about is Charlotte Cushman, one of the most famous American stage performers in the 1840s and ‘50s. She was known for her Lady Macbeth, and for the role of Nancy in Oliver Twist. But what she was best known for was her work as a male lead, principally as Romeo and Hamlet.
Charlotte Cushman is one of those “lost” celebrities of the 19th century who seems to get rediscovered every generation. The latest book about her is by Tana Wojczuk, the senior nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine who teaches writing at New York University. The book is called Lady Romeo, and it hits all the high points of Charlotte Cushman’s remarkable career.
In June of 2020 Tana wrote an essay for the New York Times about how the Folger Editions changed her life. It captured what we hear from so many readers of what we’re now calling The Folger Shakespeare. We hope you’ll take a look at it. We got Tana in front of a microphone at her home in New York to talk about Shakespeare and Charlotte Cushman for a podcast episode that we call “Do You Not Know I Am a Woman?”
Tana Wojczuk is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: So that we can picture Cushman, why don’t you tell us, just what did she look like, physically?
TANA WOJCZUK: She was unusual in the sense that she was very tall. She was tall as most men. And her looks were described by people who were critical of her as epicene, which was sort of unsexed or, like, neither man nor woman. When I look at her, though, I see these very deep-set, expressive grey eyes and very strong features that are really made for tragedy. They’re features that can be read from a long way away and you can see a lot of expression in the angles of her face. In addition to being tall she was very broad chested and physically powerful, described as a pantheress at one point.
BOGAEV: So, she was curvy, it sounds like.
WOJCZUK: She was.
BOGAEV: And that really confuses me because she played so many of the male leads in these Shakespeare plays. Queen Victoria once said that when Charlotte Cushman played Romeo, the queen just couldn’t believe it was a woman playing the part.
BOGAEV: So why was she so convincing as a man?
WOJCZUK: I checked initially because she is very curvy, but she didn’t bind her chest—at least, not in any of the images that I have found. My sense though, is that on stage, she read as a little more, like, barrel-chested. But I also think that audiences, including Queen Victoria, really saw her manner on stage as being masculine. They weren’t used to seeing a woman move with that confidence and freedom. So, I think those are some of the things that read as more masculine on stage.
BOGAEV: Well, how common was it at the time for women to play Shakespearean male leads like Hamlet or Romeo?
WOJCZUK: So, it wasn’t that uncommon in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries. They didn’t do it all the time, but it was not unheard of. But the big difference between Cushman and the tradition of actresses like Sarah Siddons playing Hamlet, say, was that Cushman appeared to audiences more manly. She wasn’t playing it as a, sort of, leg show, where, you know, audiences could be titillated by seeing a woman in tights.
BOGAEV: That’s really interesting. I want to dig into that. But first I want to ask you, why would a theater have a woman play Romeo or Hamlet anyway, at that time?
WOJCZUK: Cushman first played Romeo in Albany and, sort of, away from the main theaters in New York and, kind of, had to prove that she could do it. But when she really had her break-out moment as Romeo, which was with her sister as Juliet in London. This was an attraction. It was an oddity. And I think many…
BOGAEV: So, like a gimmick?
WOJCZUK: It was a gimmick. And I think many people came to the theater expecting to see something of a side-show. And it was advertised that way, it was advertised as this very unusual thing. But once they saw her on stage, they found her totally convincing and captivating. You know, as a tragic actor she had immense talent, and so I think people were also drawn in by seeing this talented tragedienne, in a really great role, essentially.
BOGAEV: But was it always a gimmick? I’m thinking that we recently had a guest on the podcast who had a theory about Americans accepting women on the stage, that it generally happened at times like during the Civil War when men had to be men, or any wartime. The public were insecure about male virility and vulnerability and they couldn’t handle seeing a man play a weepy, effeminate part like Romeo or Hamlet. So, they’d rather see women play it. What do you think of that theory?
WOJCZUK: I think that’s interesting. Though, she first played Romeo and was successful at it, before the Civil War, at a time when there wasn’t as much of that anxiety. Although, many men did actually comment, and critics commented that her passion for Juliet was… some found it embarrassing, and others found it liberating.
I don’t think it was a gimmick after the beginning. I think what people saw when they saw her perform, was a very special experience. People wrote about seeing her as Hamlet, as Romeo, and then later as Lady Macbeth in their memoirs. And they never forgot it.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and I’m curious how she developed this take on Shakespeare and also her acting skills. What was her background in Shakespeare? Did she grow up reading or seeing the plays on stage?
WOJCZUK: She did grow up reading Shakespeare, but her family was from a line of Puritan preachers, at least on her father’s side. So she didn’t grow up going to the theater until her father left and essentially abandoned the family; nobody knew where he was. Then her mother’s brother started taking her under his wing. He was the first person to bring her to the theater. He was an investor in the Tremont Theatre in Boston.
BOGAEV: Oh, so it was a theatrical family. A connection in theater.
WOJCZUK: Just that connection through him. Yeah.
BOGAEV: And was she brought up to think, like many Americans, that theater was low-brow and sinful?
WOJCZUK: She was. She tried initially to be an opera singer and she didn’t want to go into theater, initially. She did have some of the prejudices against theater that the rest of the country had. But when she failed as a singer—she broke her voice essentially, in New Orleans, trying to fill the St. Charles Theatre, which was the largest theater outside of Milan. She didn’t have anything else to go to. And so, when she was offered the part of Lady Macbeth, she took it and, essentially, never looked back.
I don’t see in her letters… I see her being somewhat, I would say, defensive about other people’s view of theater and wanting to make sure that she showed that she was an upstanding woman. But I don’t see she herself worrying about it being sinful.
BOGAEV: It’s kind of wild. She ended up in acting in Shakespeare because of chance, right? It was a favor to her employer to take that job as Lady Macbeth. But she also had to support her family because the father had abandoned them.
WOJCZUK: She did. Although, I think—so there’s this narrative that’s a wonderful adventure story which is, like… she has these series of disasters in her life. Breaking her voice, all of her costumes being burned in the Bowery Theater, and it forces her on and it forces her to take these enormous risks that later pay off.
To the press she says, “I’m doing this for my family.” And all of that is true. However, in her letters, she is very ambitious. She believes in herself and she thinks that her talent is God-given and it’s her duty to follow this fire that she has in her. So, I also think that public narrative is, while true, also a bit of a mask that allows her to follow her ambitions.
BOGAEV: Interesting. And she’s really a hard worker, it sounds like.
WOJCZUK: She is.
BOGAEV: And maybe that’s the answer to my next question which is, here she’s taking the stage with no real training, except in singing, and she just succeeds wildly. How did she learn what to do with the basics, like iambic pentameter?
WOJCZUK: My sense is that she definitely grew up reading Shakespeare and typically, you know, at home with her family would read it out loud. So, I don’t think it was the first time she’d spoken Shakespeare, but certainly it was the first time she’d performed it.
She was also an excellent close reader. So, even though this doesn’t guarantee she’s going to be successful on the stage, she really looked at the meaning of the language. She wasn’t just looking to make points on stage and find the big scene-chewing moments. She was actually trying to figure out, like, who was Lady Macbeth, for example, and what drives her? And she was able to find fresh takes on her characters, I think, as a result.
BOGAEV: Yeah, let’s talk about that. And I’m curious about her Hamlet. She played Hamlet in New York City in 1861 and the critics—some, many—just went wild and said she was more convincing playing a man on stage than playing a woman in life. And that speaks more to what men thought of women in public life. But, anyway, just basically, what kind of Hamlet was she?
WOJCZUK: Her Hamlet was very introspective and a different physical role for her, sort of a softer role in some ways. She could be a lot softer playing Hamlet than she could playing some of her famous female roles like Lady Macbeth or Nancy.
BOGAEV: And what was contributing to her insights into Hamlet? Because she had a lot of tragedy in her life by this point.
WOJCZUK: She had a lot. I mean, her father’s disappearance, she calls the first disaster of her life. There’s definitely a lot of bitterness that she has about that. Then her youngest brother, Augustus, who she essentially raised. He died tragically, early in her career when she was in Albany, riding a horse that she gave him with some of her first earnings. It was devastating. She said that the waters went over her soul. By ‘61, she’s also lost, you know, the first love of her life. Rosalie Sully, whose father banned them from seeing each other. Rosalie later died before Cushman could see her again.
BOGAEV: And Rosalie, this is a woman that, they were in a very deep relationship, according to your book. They had had a marriage contract and were married in a private ceremony. What did people know and make of Charlotte Cushman’s sexuality at this point?
WOJCZUK: I am a bit torn because you definitely can see, there’s a lot of coded language in the reviews and critics writing about her masculinity or they called her ugly—though I don’t find her ugly and most of the women she was with did not find her ugly. You see it cropping up that people are seeing her as something that is not womanly. And, you know, that’s coded language that you see elsewhere when people write about lesbianism.
There’s this really terrible but revealing book called The Female Husband which is published around that time, that shows a woman stripped to her waist, covered in hair, being whipped in a public square for marrying a woman. These things are out there and the descriptions of Cushman as this force of nature are both wonderful, but also hinting at her sexuality.
Privately, her mother definitely knew. There’s a really revealing letter that her mom writes to her when she first goes to London saying, you know, “It’s a good thing that you left because people are talking about you and Rosalie.” Her and also another woman that she was going around with at the time. Her mom was furious with her, not… it seemed like she was not furious for the relationships themselves. She was furious that the word was getting out.
BOGAEV: So it sounds like, from what you’re saying, it’s really interesting that if a woman goes into something as disreputable as theater and then presents so convincingly as a man, really, she’s not a woman anymore. It sounds like she’s, like, de-sexed.
WOJCZUK: Exactly. And one of the lines, I think, that resonates so deeply with Lady Macbeth is the, “Unsex me here.” Lady Macbeth has to unsex herself to become a strategist, to become the power behind the throne, essentially. Cushman had to unsex herself to be able to enjoy the freedoms that men enjoyed. Although, ironically, the fact that she was always with women, and not with men publicly, allowed critics to say that she was very pure.
BOGAEV: Right, and respectable.
WOJCZUK: And respectable.
WOJCZUK: Yeah. It’s very interesting so, there’s a kind of agreement going on that. We’re agreeing to say that these relationships are not sexual—which you see throughout 19th century literature, it’s not unusual. But if you combine that with the ample evidence that her sexuality was recognized, it’s a very complicated set of agreements or games that are sort of playing out here.
BOGAEV: And then it gets even more complicated when we get to the title of your book, Lady Romeo, in which, Cushman played Romeo across from her sister playing Juliet in London. First, before I talk about that performance, just tell us a little bit about her sister, because that’s another tragedy.
WOJCZUK: Yeah, so her sister Susan, her younger sister, was sort of left behind when Cushman went to New York. She brought her mom and she brought Augustus, who was young and could be moved from school to school. But like Cushman, Susan had dropped out of school, and couldn’t work. So, Susan ended up with relatives.
There was an elderly man who started courting her. Initially, he wanted to adopt her, which is kind of strange, and then later wanted to marry her. After he married her, it was discovered that he, in fact, had no money and when Susan became pregnant, he abandoned her. So, Susan had no money and a young infant, and Cushman saved her by bringing her to New York and then bringing her to London to play Juliet opposite her.
BOGAEV: Just an amazing story. First, what did theatergoers make of two sisters playing Romeo and Juliet? When I first read this story, I thought it was kind of uncomfortable. But then I was thinking about the March sisters and Little Women; they’re always putting on their plays in the attic and people are always doing theatricals in drawing rooms. Siblings must have played all sorts of parts opposite from each other, at that time.
WOJCZUK: Yeah. They were not uncomfortable. Audiences were very impressed by the level of passion between the two actors on stage. It was very smart of Cushman because she could be extremely passionate as Romeo. She lifted Juliet up at the end, when she finds Juliet dead, and wept over her. Seeing a man weeping on stage was more uncomfortable, I think, than two women—two sisters—making love with each other. But she got away with it because instead of seeing Cushman making love to another woman, they saw, “Oh, it’s her sister, it can’t be anything untoward.”
BOGAEV: Oh, it’s so interesting. There’s so much complicated desexing and unsexing and passion going on in this story. What distinguished her Romeo other than playing opposite her sister? For instance, what kind of swordsperson was Charlotte?
WOJCZUK: Charlotte was an amazing swordsman. That was one of the details that I discovered in the research that I did not expect. I know that she’s very athletic and physical. But she studied very hard and learned to be an excellent swordsperson.
At one point, as Romeo, she’s fighting Tybalt and she hit Tybalt’s sword so hard it slid down the stage, right at the audience. It almost slid into the audience. It was awesome, it was great. And she was very convincing and graceful swordsperson as well, which is something that, you know, you would want in that era.
She played a cavalier, in the sense that she was very courteous to her women, her fellow actresses. At one point, the actress playing Juliet—this was a different actress who Cushman was interested in at the time actually—was playing, I think it was the balcony scene, but I’m not sure. And someone in the audience started coughing and sneezing, fake coughing loudly. Cushman stopped the performance, escorted Juliet off the stage, and pointed at the man and said, “Get him out of the theater.” The audience lifted him up bodily, and carried him out of the theater, and then she resumed the performance.
BOGAEV: Wow. That is amazing. And all of this is reflected in the reviews of the time. I’m just looking at some of them here, critics were just overwhelmed. The London Times called her performance, “Far superior to any Romeo that’s been seen for years.” A newspaper called The Atlas said, “More intellectual, and at the same time, any more theatrically effective performance has never been witnessed.” It was a sensation. And she insisted that they perform the full text. An uncut version of the play. Was that unusual at the time?
WOJCZUK: Yes, that was very unusual. There was a version written by Garrick, who gave Romeo and Juliet a happy ending. That was very popular in London and had been performed for many years. And when Cushman came to London, she insisted that they do the full text. Her company was really angry about it. They hadn’t memorized the full text.
But it was exciting because, I mean, rhetorically, there’s so much that happens when you reinstate these cut parts of the play. You get all of these dangerous speeches like Mercutio’s very sensual Queen Mab speech, as is Juliet’s “gallop apace”, where she’s basically talking about, like, “I want to have sex. Get back here.” You know, things like that.
It also allowed Cushman, who at the time was still with Rosalie Sully—and pining for her, and being away from her in London—to open the play as Romeo, talking about his love for Rosaline. And that was something she also called Rosalie Sully in her letters.
BOGAEV: Well, this is probably a good time to talk about how Cushman seemed to be quite the Romeo in real life. She had a lot of young lovers. Tell us about Emma Stebbins and Max Hays.
WOJCZUK: Yeah, Charlotte often had one woman that she was committed to, but she also had other lovers. One of her first serious relationships after Rosalie Sully was a woman named Matilda Hays, who went by Max. She was a translator for George Sand. Cushman and Max decided to move to Rome together and brought along some other female artists and writers with them.
It was a very passionate household. Cushman and Max fought a lot. They were inseparable and went everywhere together but they also had a lot of disagreements and were jealous of each other. Cushman was very jealous of Max’s relationship with the sculptor, Harriet Hosmer, who was this incredibly talented young sculptor who moved with them to Rome.
Cushman also played Romeo to many Juliets, as her own, later wife-in-all-but-law, Emma Stebbins, wrote. Cushman played benefactor to many women as well. She would have these love affairs, and she would also support these women financially. Many of these women were artists so it supported their careers, but it wasn’t always positive for them. For example, Max Hays actually tried to sue Cushman for loss of income when they split up, because she had put aside her career to follow Cushman around her on some of her tours.
BOGAEV: And what decades are we talking here? What period is this?
WOJCZUK: So, with Max Hays, this is the ‘50s, 1850s. And then she met Emma Stebbins, who she was with for several decades, in the early ‘60s.
BOGAEV: And I asked you this earlier, but this is a different period. What was known of all of this? And what did the American public make of it?
WOJCZUK: They called her lovers, her partners, her “friend.” So, the reporters would say, “She’s touring America with her friend, Matilda Hays.” So, they weren’t written about as anything more than that. Although, the women who lived in Rome—some of the people who were already in Rome, sculptors like William Wetmore Story—were not thrilled that there were all these women coming to Rome wanting to be artists.
He certainly wrote about their… he thought that they behaved badly, and they were disgracing other Americans by going around together and dressed as men—dressed in men’s clothes to go riding, and things like that. I think, privately, people are writing about it. But publicly, these relationships were not acknowledged for what they were.
BOGAEV: And she was still kind of sheathed in this idea that she’s a paragon of virtue and respectability, because she’s not running around with men, too, that we talked about. But how did she fare as an older woman? Was she able to survive in Shakespearean theater on her own terms, as she did in her midlife and youth? Later in life. Did she make it to Lear?
WOJCZUK: There’s a great number of letters from her later life and, actually, that’s where the bulk of the correspondence lies. So, we know a little bit more about that period, than her early career. And she did go on and off the stage. She was made fun of a little bit for retiring all the time. But what people didn’t know was that she was sick. She had breast cancer. She found out that she had breast cancer around when she met Emma Stebbins in the 1860s.
But she kept coming back to the stage. She came back to the stage to perform in a series of benefits for the Union during the Civil War and she performed in America for Lincoln. And then she went back into retirement in Rome again.
But when she finally moved back to America after the Civil War, she did actually have another career, as a reader. It’s so interesting because she couldn’t do a full performance anymore. She was in too much pain and she had had several excruciating surgeries. But she could sit and read. And she would do these versions of Shakespeare and she would do all the characters and all the parts, sitting in a chair. And it’s remarkable that these performances were really popular. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the editor of Emily Dickinson’s poems, wrote that when he heard Cushman read, he could see every fiber on a dog’s back, and every thatch on a roof, and she just created an entire world with her voice. Henry James also remarked on the power of her performances in the second part of her career.
BOGAEV: She must have been incredible. I mean, in the pantheon of Shakespearean performers, where would you place Charlotte Cushman, then, in the final analysis?
WOJCZUK: Cushman would be considered, at the time, the star. People have asked me what Cushman would be like today. You know, “Would she be an A-lister,” or, “What kind of celebrity she would be?” I think it’s important to remember that, at the time, there weren’t that many celebrities. So, I think she was really the first American celebrity. There was not a lot of competition for attention, at the time. So, I think she was more of a household name than anyone else who was around at the time except for, possibly, Edwin Forrest.
BOGAEV: And the men are, you know, Booth, Forrest, Siddons; those names are somewhat known, but I don’t know about Charlotte Cushman. I mean, now obviously she’s not a household name. I have to ask what part you think homophobia might play in her legacy?
WOJCZUK: I think it plays a big part. She had known, when she was writing her autobiography and dictating it, that her legacy would be very fragile. In part, because she was an actress and, you know, in the theatre is dependent on the people who remember, and then the biographers or historians who come after them.
The Victorian biographers and the American counterparts were not that interested in her. There was a variorum of Macbeth that came out shortly after her death that did not include her, which I think is pretty egregious. Even on the day she died, you see in obituaries, people trying to change the narrative about her. So, while there are thousands of people walking, you know, in the streets to mourn her, there are columnists writing, “Thank God, no one else has to debase themselves by playing men on stage.” So, she’s being written out of history in a pretty active way. Not just forgotten.
BOGAEV: Thank you so much for this. It was great talking with you.
WOJCZUK: Thank you. Thanks so much you guys.
WITMORE: Tana Wojczuk is an editor at Guernica magazine and a Language Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. Her book Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America's First Celebrity was published by Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in 2020. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast episode, “Do You Not Know I Am a Woman?,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
As always, I’d like to ask: Please rate and review Shakespeare Unlimited in the Apple Podcasts app. That is the best way to let people know what we’re doing here. Thank you.
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. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.