American actress Charlotte Cushman was a 19th-century theatrical icon, known for playing traditionally male roles like Romeo and Hamlet. She was not the only actress of her time to play these parts, but her style was uniquely assertive and athletic. However, her breakout acting role was Lady Macbeth.
Read the story of Cushman’s dramatic debut (after a short-lived attempt at an operatic career) in this excerpt from a new biography by Tana Wojczuk, Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity.
“Never fell in love with a lord, never made an immense fortune, and never played Lady Macbeth,” wrote one of Charlotte’s contemporaries. It was a role actresses dreamed of, and one typically reserved for a star.
The role was intimidating in part because it was so closely associated with the legendary British actress Sarah Siddons. Siddons was first cast in the role in 1785, a little more than fifty years earlier. At the time she was unfamiliar with Macbeth, and stayed up late reading the play by candlelight: “I went on with tolerable composure in the silence of the night (a night I can never forget),” Siddons wrote in her memoirs, “till I came to the assassination scene,” where Macbeth botches the murder of the king. To keep herself and her husband from being caught, Lady Macbeth must wrest the bloody daggers from his hands. As Siddons read, the play began to scare her so badly she had to put it down. She grabbed her candle and “hurried out of the room in a paroxysm of terror,” imagining that her own silk dress rustling behind her as she climbed the stairs was a ghost following her. It would be another six years before she agreed to play Lady Macbeth again, but she would eventually make it her signature role.
Slim and statuesque with large, dark eyes, Siddons was a celebrated beauty. And her feminine figure and seeming fragility aided her in getting the audience’s sympathy in tragic roles. Lady Macbeth, who brags about being steely enough to kill her own child, is one of the most unsympathetic women in theatre, but Siddons found a way around this. She decided her Lady Macbeth should be “fair, feminine, nay, perhaps even fragile.”
Siddons dressed herself for the part in bridal white, with a nun-like white wimple that framed her guilt-stricken face. Her Lady Macbeth was a woman who used her beauty to seduce Macbeth into doing what she wanted.
Siddons had died in 1831, five years earlier, but thanks to a recent biography she was more on the audience’s mind than ever. Nostalgia elevated the great tragedienne still higher, and Charlotte seemed to be competing with a ghost.
Physically, Charlotte could not have been more different from Sarah Siddons. At five-foot-seven she was a towering figure onstage, taller than most men. Her body was strong, and she moved like a “pythoness.” Far from fragile, Charlotte had what one rival called a “lantern jaw,” wide shoulders, and large breasts and hips—erotic, perhaps, but not traditionally feminine. She had to find a new way to play Lady Macbeth, and quickly.
With only a few days to learn the part, Charlotte rose early each morning and walked to the theatre, where she rehearsed for several hours with James Caldwell. At night she climbed up to the garret of the house where she boarded and sat on the floor reading the lines out loud to herself until she had them memorized.
She enjoyed the process of rehearsal, which could be surprisingly funny. The actors wore their everyday clothes to rehearsal, and she could watch an actor pacing around the stage in his overcoat, carrying an umbrella as he dripped water everywhere, reciting Shakespeare as though talking about the weather. Or an actress wearing clothes several seasons out of date, practicing her pirouettes while nearby “a couple of begrimed men in shirt-sleeves and smelling of tar and things are kneeling on the floor hammering away at the gas arrangements or something about the scenery.” Charlotte had a good sense of humor, and her jokes and delight in the absurd quickly made her a favorite among her fellow actors.
Because they always rehearsed in street clothes, Charlotte was able to hide the fact that she had no costume for Lady Macbeth until opening day. All the actors were expected to supply their own wardrobe, but she lived paycheck to paycheck, sending home anything extra, and didn’t have the money to buy new clothes. As a novice, she also didn’t have a closet of costumes to pull from. Afraid she’d be fired, Charlotte waited until the very last moment to tell Caldwell. Alarmed, he quickly dashed off a letter and sent her running to an address he had hastily scribbled on an envelope. Charlotte hurried through the humid streets of New Orleans to the French Quarter and found the address. The celebrated French actress Madame Closel opened the door and both women burst out laughing. Charlotte was tall, thin, and lanky, while Mme. Closel was short, fat, and four-foot-ten-inches tall, with a waist twice the size of Charlotte’s and a very large bust. Mme. Closel was good-natured and empathized with Charlotte, so she got to work. She took a seam-ripper to one of her skirts and made an underskirt, taking in another dress “in every direction” to make a queen’s costume. “So it was,” Charlotte wrote, “I essayed for the first time the part of Lady Macbeth.”
The modern technology of the St. Charles helped Charlotte appear more natural than she might otherwise. Most theatres, like the Tremont in Boston, were lit by oil lamps set along the foot of the stage. The lamplight tended to converge on one central spot, leaving the rest of the stage in gloomy semidarkness. Actors had to play all their major speeches from the same place and exaggerate their mannerisms and expressions so they could be seen. Gaslight allowed Charlotte a freer range of movement and expression. For some, the effect was too much. One friend of James Maeder complained in a letter that Charlotte “was almost insane on the subject of display and effect . . . and altogether too demonstrative,” “commanding” rather than soliciting the audience’s attention.
But the critics agreed on one thing: like Hamlet thrusting his sword through a shadow in the curtains, Miss Cushman had hit immediately on a starring role. “She made the people understand the character that Shakespeare drew,” wrote one critic. “She was neither stilted, nor mock-heroic, nor monotonous, but so fiercely, so vividly natural that the spectators were afraid of her as they would have been of a pantheress let loose. It was impossible New Orleans should long retain such a woman.”
Excerpted from LADY ROMEO, by Tana Wojczuk. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Learn more about Charlotte Cushman’s remarkable life on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast: