Introduction to "Fashion", A Comedy in Five Acts
As both Anna's and her husband's health worsened, she had to give up her career as a public reader. From 1842-1845, she returned to writing as a means to support herself financially. The acclaim of her public persona helped her to publicize her work. Her connections, for example, with the poet and playwright, Epes Sargent (shown on right), helped propel the success of Fashion. Despite illness, James and Anna were somewhat involved with New York's high society. (Barnes 127) Once again, by using her keen abilities of social and self-perception, Anna would be able to expose the social system that she herself was tangentially involved in by working from within that very system.
The Mowatts would often regale with the Sargents and other close friends after some extravagant event.(Barnes 131) During these conversations, Anna would comment about what it means to be a member of society and the various pretences that people put up, particularly the "New Money" class. Epes Sargent could detect the wit and cham with which Mowatt treated these issues, and suggested that she write a play addressing this. (Barnes 132) This play would soon become Mowatt's most famous work, Fashion.
Mowatt worked diligently to write Fashion (it is presumed that it took her three to four weeks to do so) and Sargent helped her to refine technical aspects of the play. (Barnes 131) Eric Barnes, a scholar on Anna Cora Mowatt, comments on how the style Fashion is a reflection of Mowatt's character:
"Indeed the whole tone of the play, with its unsparing yet good-natured caricatures of the noveau riche, its keen perception of weaknesses behind a front of pretence, its passionate avowal of principles of sturdy democracy is a reflection of Lily's [Anna's] personality."—Barnes, The Life and Theater of Anna Cora Mowatt, p 132
Mowatt, who had been caught between worlds, the worlds of financial desperation, the world of New York's high society, and the world of her youth in France, gained a keen understanding of human behavior as a result. She could see through pretension, because she herself had to often put up pretenses of her own. For example, she had to put up a pretense when she embraced the 'Cult of Femininity' in front of an audience of men during her public readings in order to maintain her reputation as a woman. Mowatt's keen perceptivenes resulting from her own life experiences drove broth her sucess as a theater artist and the success of Fashion.
In her autobiography, Anna Cora Mowatt points to the importance of her sarcastic style in her writings and daily conversation and how this self-awareness contributed to her decision to write Fashion as a comedy:
"It was true that at that period of my life a vein of sarcasm, developed by my trials through which I had passed, pervaded all my thoughts, and betrayed itself in much that I wrote as well as in conversation." (202)
Mowatt as a Writer
Plot, Setting, and Characters
When Anna and James Mowatt moved to Fourth Avenue in New York in 1842, New York was undergoing a wave of expansion, both socially and as a physical landscape. In the late 1830's, the old class of pre-Revolutionary names in New York began to fade, and a new class emerged, the Noveau Riche or, "New Money." (Barnes 129)
This class was composed of a generation of newcomers seeking opportunity amidst New York's booming economy. Many came from the hinterlands of America and the Old World (primarily from Europe). (Barnes 128) Since most of these people were just starting to ammass wealth, they did not have the same refined tastes of the "Old Money." (Barnes 129) When they mingled with members of the "Old Money," they could sense their own lack of refinement. As a result, the Noveau Riche aimed to "fashion" their behavior so that they seemed refined on the surface. For example, they would ammass ornate, shiny decor to decorate their houses with, and they would speak French with one another and with visiting aristocrats, and their women would dress lavishly. (Barnes 129)
Anna Cora Mowatt keenly observed the behavior of the Noveau Riche. Oftentimes, some of her friends would even welcome members of the Noveau Riche without expressing distaste for their behvior. Anna could see through the behavior of these newcomers, however, and was thoroughly amused by it. (Barnes 130) This amusement would ultimately manifest itself as the social commentary of Fashion.
Fashion is not a play that relies heavily on plot. Mowatt, instead, is best known for her ability to vividly depict characters that reflect the social landscape of mid-19th century New York. Mowatt fully intended to write Fashion this way, however, as shown in the quote from her autobiography below:
"There were no attempts in Fashion at fine writing. I designed the play wholly as an acting comedy. A dramatic, not a literary, success was what I desired to achieve. Caution suggested my not aiming at both at once." (203)
The play is set in New York in the mansion of Mr. and Mrs. Tiffany. The plot of Fashion revolves around the woes of Mr. Tiffany, a drygoods merchant who nearly became bankrupt due to his wife's exorbitant spending out of her desire to be perceived as fashionable. Mrs. Tiffany is a former milliner who sold flashy caps and hats in a little store on Canal Street. She is characterized by her continuous chattering in French, attempts to emulate European customs, and overall preteniousness.
In order to pay his debts, Tiffany has forged checks in front of his secretary, Snobson. In order to ensure that Snobson does not expose him, Tiffany urges his daughter Seraphina to marry him. Mrs. Tiffany, however, wants Seraphina to marry Count Jolimaitre, an imposter who is in reality a cook named Gustave Treadmill. For some time the ''Count'' had lived in Paris. When he left Paris, he forsaked a young girl who had given him all of her savings. This girl, Millinette, is, coincidentally, the Tiffanys' maid. Also living in the house is Gertrude, a virtuous young lady who serves as music teacher for Seraphina. Colonel Howard, a U.S. Army officer, is in love with Gertrude. Adam Trueman, a wealthy farmer from Catteraugus County, visits his old friend, Mr. Tiffany. Trueman eventually cuts through the pretension, chaos, and confusion surrounding the Tiffany household in order to bring Gertrude and the Tiffany family to a happy ending. Trueman, somewhat wealthy a farmer, in a sense, reflects the ideas of Mowatt. He was the only "True man" in the play. Trueman's attack on Tiffany for his greed is depicted in the quote below:
"You look as if you'd melted down your flesh into dollars, and mortgaged your soul in the bargain! Your warm heart has grown cold over your ledger--your light spirits heavy with calculation! You have traded away your youth--your hopes--your tastes for wealth! and now you have the wealth you coveted, what does it profit you? Pleasure it cannot buy; for you have lost your capacity for enjoyment--Ease it will not bring; for the love of gain is never satisfied! It has made your counting-house a penitentiary, and your home a fashionable museum where there is no niche for you! You have spent so much ciphering in the one, that you find yourself at last a very cipher in the other!"— Fashion (17-18)
Trueman's vehement attack against Mr. and Mrs. Tiffany's desire to ammass wealth and power to become more "fashionable" represents Mowatt's core views against the Noveau Riche in New York.