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Cushman, Charlotte (1816-1876)  
 
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Charlotte Cushman was one of the most famous actresses of her day, enjoying success on the stage in both the United States and Britain. Her repertoire encompassed a wide range of parts, including male roles such as Romeo. A commanding presence both on and offstage, Cushman used her fortune and fame to champion the work of other women artists, among them her lover Emma Stebbins.

Early Years

Cushman was the eldest of the four children of Elkanah and Mary Eliza Babbitt Cushman of Boston, Massachusetts. Her father was said to have had a Puritan ancestor who came to America on the Mayflower, but the story may be a fiction invented to promote an image of respectability for Cushman as she embarked on a career whose practitioners were often considered morally suspect.

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As a child Cushman was, by her own description, "a tomboy"--active and adventurous. She was also a good student but left school at the age of thirteen. Her father had suffered business losses and the family needed new sources of income.

Young Charlotte Cushman thought that she might be able to earn a living as a musician, and so she trained to be an opera singer. Her professional debut as Countess Almaviva in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro in April 1835 in Boston received generally favorable response. When she went on tour to New Orleans, however, reviewers were less than impressed. A critic for the New Orleans Bee declared that "Miss Cushman can sing nothing" and recommended that she confine herself to acting parts, for which she showed more talent.

Success on the American Stage

In later years Cushman would claim that she had strained her voice trying to sing a soprano role (instead of one in her natural contralto range) in the large St. Charles Theater in New Orleans. Whatever the reason, Cushman turned to James Barton, the leading actor at the St. Charles Theater, to coach her as an actress. On April 23, 1836, she debuted as Lady Macbeth. Her interpretation of the role was much more energetic and powerful than was customary at the time. Spectators and critics reacted favorably to her performance.

After a successful season in New Orleans, Cushman went to New York, where she signed a three-year contract at the Bowery Theatre. She was to be a "walking lady" in the stock company. As such, she played a wide variety of roles--young and old, star and walk-on, male and female.

Having taken responsibility for the support of her family, Cushman also sought other sources of income. Through correspondence, she became friends with Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady Book. Short stories and poetry by Cushman were published in the Lady Book and also in the Ladies Companion magazine.

These "ladylike pieces" served the double function of putting Cushman's name before the public and creating a wholesome image of her. Early on, Cushman seems to have realized the value of publicity, particularly the sort that would identify her as a member of genteel society and offset the general suspicion that actresses were not virtuous women.

Cushman scored a success in Albany, New York, where she again portrayed Lady Macbeth and also performed several male roles. Local drama critic Henry Dickinson commented that "her stately form, rather masculine contour of countenance, and powerful voice admirably adapt[ed] her to the line of male characters."

Cross-dressing by actresses--called "breeches parts"--was an accepted and popular practice in the nineteenth-century theater. Male attire, including tight breeches, displayed more of the woman's body to the audience than did the flowing gowns of female costumes; hence, the breeches parts appealed to heterosexual male spectators. Women, too, liked the performances. Throughout her career, Cushman would receive many fan letters from women who had been moved by the sight of the actress when she was playing a man making love to a woman.

After the Albany season ended, Cushman again sought work on the more prestigious New York City stage. Hired at the Park Theater as a "walking lady," she was called upon to fill in at the last minute as the gypsy Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannering. Her approach to the role was creative and risky: Cushman's Meg Merrilies was a physically unattractive yet powerful old crone. The effect was startling to her audience and her fellow actors alike, and the performance was a triumph.

Appearing as she did, Cushman was playing to her strength. She was not a conventionally beautiful woman. Tall and robust with a square face, lantern jaw and heavy brows, she relied not on feminine prettiness but rather on energy and wit to appeal to spectators.

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Charlotte Cushman in 1874.
  
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