"The idea of becoming a professional actress was revolting."—Anna Cora Mowatt, "Autobiography of an Actress " (139)
When Mowatt was a public reader, she felt the above sentiment about acting. Being an orator was the closest she could get to fulfilling her desire for self expression and maintaining her dignity as high class woman. It was after the success of Fashion, however, that Mowatt's views radically began to change. This radical change is represented in the quote below from her autobiography:
"Many circumstances had proved to me how unfounded were the prejudices of the world against the profession as a body.....I had adopted the conclusions of those who were as ignorant on the subject as myself—who, perhaps, cared as little as I had done to ascertain the truth." (214)
Originally, Mowatt became a public reader and playwright primarily out of financial necessity. This sentiment began to shift as Mowatt moved into the realm of acting. In her autobiography, she comments on this shift within herself and her relationship with her work:
"I should have never adopted the stage as a matter of expediency alone, however great the temptation. What I did was not done lightly or irresponsibly. I reviewed my whole past life, and saw, that, from the earliest childhood, my tastes, studies, pursuits, had all combined to fit me for this end....My love for drama was genuine, for it was developed during a period when the theater was an unknown place, and actors a species of mythical creatures." (214)
Self-Realizations and Transition from Writing to Acting
Debút and Later Work
"I cannot tell you why, but the sound of my untremulous voice reassured me." —Anna Cora Mowatt, Autobiography (221)
Several (predominantly male) figures in the theater world had to convince Mowatt to become an actress. Mowatt was initially unsure about whether this was the best path for her to take because she suffered from a respiratory illness and was, therefore, very physically weak. (Mowatt, Autobiography of an Actress, 219) She also somewhat feared taking make drastic career move and expose herself to the public, even though she knew in her heart that it was what she wanted to do. Mowatt's debut was carefully orchestrated. She performed as Pauline in Lady of the Lyons. Initially, she had a lot of stage fright, but this subsided as she embodied the part and lost herself in it. (Mowatt, 221)In the quote below from Mowatt's autobiography, she describes he transition from being a fearful debutante on stage to being an actress:
"I thought no more of the surrounding eyes, so full of speculation—of the covert ill wishes, of the secret condemnations. I gave myself up to the part, and acted with all the abandon and intensity of which I was capable." (221)
Following the rousing success of Mowatt's debut performance, she went on to perform several smaller roles (including that of Gertrude in her own play Fashion). She then went on to give a tour of the United States, during which she performed for two-hundred nights in a row. She performed a variety of roles (including that of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, pictured left, and Rosalind, pictured above. Her favorite role to perform during this process was Juliet, from Romeo and Juliet, and least favorite role was that of Gertrude from her own play, Fashion. (Mowatt 236) Mowatt comments on her experience playing Shakespeare's Juliet in her autobiography:
"My whole being merged itself into the impassioned existence of Shakespeare's Juliet." (Mowatt 236)
She only performed the role of Gertrude when she was made to by her manager, thus demonstrating, that, though she was a pioneer for women in the arts, she was not entirely autonomous throughout her career. (Mowatt 231) In fact, she did often have to embrace the image of the "True Woman" that she portrayed to audiences as a public reader. (Macki) Once again, Mowatt had to work within the trappings of femininity in order to have influence as a pioneer for women in theater.
For the next eight years, Mowatt would tour the United States and Europe, performing Shakespeare's works, her own plays, and melodramas, a popular genre of the time period. (Mowatt) After the death of her husband, Mowatt took a brief break from acting, but then resumed her career. (Barnes 295) This is a testament to Mowatt's perseverance and dedication to theater.
Once Mowatt got remarried, she retired from the stage and moved to Virginia with her husband, William Ritchie. (Barnes 341) Therefore, despite Mowatt's role as an inspiration for women to enter male-dominated spaces such as the stage, her career and decisions were never truly free from the influence of men.