The first American actress to achieve international acclaim, Charlotte Cushman was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 23, 1816. Descended from the original Plymouth colonists, Cushman’s family suffered financial disaster in 1829 when her father, a merchant, declared bankruptcy and disappeared. Only 13 at the time, Charlotte was forced to quit school and take work as a domestic to help support her mother and her sister Susan.
With characteristic single-mindedness, Charlotte became determined to find better work at higher pay. Blessed with a strong voice, she began taking singing lessons, which she paid for herself from her meager wages. In 1835 she made her professional opera debut in Boston. Encouraged by generous reviews, Cushman secured an apprenticeship at the St. Charles Theater in New Orleans. In her first performance, she strained to reach notes too high for her range, causing a New Orleans critic to dismiss Cushman’s singing as “squalling.” Humbled by the experience, Cushman took the advice of the theater’s manager, who suggested that, with her natural theatricality, she might find more success as a dramatic actress.
In the late 1830s, Cushman was hired to play a wide variety of roles in theaters in Albany, Philadelphia, and New York City. Unlike most young actresses, she generally shied away from ingenue roles. Tall and plain, she felt physically uncomfortable playing a romantic lead. Temperamentally, she also preferred strong, independent characters. Her early successes included roles as an old gypsy in the stage adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering and as the prostitute Nancy in a version of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. For the role of Nancy, Cushman spent five days touring New York’s slums to watch the movements and behavior of the city’s poor streetwalkers. Although her audiences appreciated the authenticity of her performance, Cushman soon dropped Nancy from her repertoire for fear that playing such an unsavory character would slow her rise in high society. She turned, instead, to powerful female roles from Shakespeare, especially Lady MacBeth and Henry VIII ’s Queen Katherine.
Despite her growing fame, Cushman was dissatisfied with her career. While one of the United States’s leading actresses, she longed to prove herself on the English stage, then considered far more sophisticated and professional than the American theater. Her desire to perform in London was also guided by more practical concerns. As the sole breadwinner of her family, Cushman wanted the impressive income only an performer with experience in England could command. For example, for a two-week stint at a Boston theater, Cushman was paid a mere $100 while her costar, William Macready, a well-known English actor, received $2,900.
Carrying letters of introduction from her many well-connected friends, Cushman set off for England in the fall of 1844. The following February, she made her London debut in Fazio, a popular melodrama about a woman who, in a fit of jealousy, reveals her husband’ s embezzlement to the authorities. The audience seemed indifferent to Cushman’s performance until the play’ s climax, when her character, hearing her husband sentenced to death, begs him for forgiveness. Her passion thrilled the audience, who rose to their feet and cheered Cushman at the play’s end. Overnight, she became one of London’s biggest stars.
During her triumphant English tour, Cushman also earned accolades for her depiction of Romeo, often in productions featuring her sister Susan as Juliet. At the time, actresses often played male characters, usually because it allowed them to wear pants or tights that displayed their legs. Sex appeal, however, seemed to play little role in the audience’s appreciation of Cushman’s Romeo. Instead, playgoers seemed to respect the credibility her height, mannish features, and low voice gave her in the part.
Cushman remained a fixture of the American and English theater for the next three decades. Yet, she remained ambivalent toward acting. Repeatedly, she declared herself retired, only later to change her mind and announce her return to the stage. With each comeback, she demanded a higher and higher salary. Her money funded lavish homes in Rome and Newport, Rhode Island, where she entertained an ever-growing circle of female friends. She developed a romantic attachment with several of these women, most notably the American sculptor Emma Stebbins. Cushman’s companion for 20 years, she published a collection of Cushman’s letters two years after Cushman’s death from cancer on February 18, 1876.
Following her final performance in 1874, a teary-eyed Cushman told her audience the “secret of my success in life”: “To be thoroughly in earnest, intensely in earnest in all my thoughts and in all my actions, whether in my profession or out of it, became my one single idea.” It was just this intensity and focus that made Cushman the most respected American actress of the 19th century.
Dudden, Faye E. Women in the American Theater: Actresses and Audiences, 1790–1870. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.
Leach, Joseph. Bright Particular Star: The Life and Times of Charlotte Cushman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970.