Mrs. Southworth goes to the theater

September 5, 2010

While Southworth’s relationship to popular nineteenth-century theater has not been explored in any depth by American literary historians (dissertation topic, anyone), many of her works were adapted to the stage beginning in the late 1850s and throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. Among the earliest to adapt her work was Harry Watkins, who staged Bride of an Evening (the New York Ledger serial that would be published in book form as Gipsy’s Prophecy) at Barnum’s Museum in New York City in 1858.

Watkins recorded his experience of adapting and staging Bride in his journal, selections of which were published in Maud and Otis Skinner’s One Man in his Time: The Adventures of H. Watkins, Strolling Player, 1845-1863 (Philadelphia, U of Pennsylvania P, 1938). Among this experience was a meeting with Southworth, who traveled to New York to attend a benefit performance of the play. The Skinners include two passages where Watkins discusses his contact with Southworth: On Friday, March 19, he notes that “Mrs. Southworth arrived last night from Virginia to witness the performance of ‘the Bride of an Evening.’  This morning I called on her at the residence of Mr. Horace Day and had three hours’ very agreeable talk with her.  She is highly pleased with my dramatization of her story, and was anxious that I should put some of her other work in a dramatic form. In appearance Mrs. Southworth is not very prepossessing–indeed she is what would be termed a homely woman.  She has a care-worn look, sallow complexion prominent nose and dull blue eyes.  Her age, I should judge, is the wrong side of forty-five. I should take her to be a woman of strong nerve and not easily governed.”  While Watkins’s description of Southworth’s appearance is intriguing, he does miscalculate her age by several years, as in March 1858 she was only 38 years old.

A week later, on Friday, March 26, he records Southworth’s attendance of the play: “Evening set apart as a benefit to Mrs. Southworth, the management paying her one hundred dollars for the use of her name.  After the performance I was called before the curtain and made a lengthy speech on the American drama.  Mrs. Southworth, who was in a private box, was then called upon.  She arose and made a short speech, but it was inaudible six feet from where she stood.  She paid me a very high compliment. [Could not the man assume a gallantry, though he had it not?]” (Skinner 230-231).

Even though Watkins claims he was unable to hear Southworth’s speech that night, it was recorded and reprinted in the newspapers in the following days.  The New York Herald‘s account (3/28/1858) quotes the speech in full, “her first appearance as a public speaker”:

“I thank you for the flattering favor with which you have received ‘The Bride of an Evening.’  The interest is greatly enhanced by the highly effective manner in which my novel has been dramatized by your talented young townsman, Mr. Henry Watkins, and presented by himself and his co-artists.  Where so many are excellent, comparison is invidious, but I must express the deep satisfaction with which I have witnessed the beautiful Honora Paule of Mrs. Howard, and the spirited Godfrey Dulanie of Mr. Watkins; Miss Melissa is as really Agnes Darke as if the part had been written for her.  Indeed, each member of this excellent corps has conferred unqualified satisfaction by the fidelity with which they have filled their various parts–

For theirs is the spell o’er hearts

Which only acting lends–

The youngest of the sister arts,

Where all their beauty ends

Every human effort should spring from and have a laudable object.  In the novel I sought to draw the reader’s mind to a closer consideration of the question of capital punishment.  If by this work and its dramatic representation a few thinking men and women may be led to reflect upon the subject of the death penalty, at least upon circumstantial evidence, then the holiest purpose of the writer will have been blessed with success, and she also may find her aspirations are prophecies.”  The stanza of poetry that Southworth quotes here is by Thomas Campbell.

The Herald‘s coverage of the event (like Watkins’s journal) also provides a physical description of the author and a (more accurate) guess at her age: “Mrs. Southworth is a tall, thin, distinguished looking lady, as yet on the right side of forty. She has dark hair and eyes, and complexion ditto, while her voice is ‘softly, sweetly, femininely low.”

Harry Watkins would go on to stage a number of Southworth’s works, including The Hidden Hand, where he played the slave Wool to great acclaim. Interestingly, he also appears as a character in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, as the characters attend a staging of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Watkins appears as Abraham Lincoln. Watkins and Southworth continued their acquaintance for decades. (George Washington University has a letter from Southworth to Watkins in 1889, over thirty years after their first meeting)

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