Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Edward S. Mawson to Walt Whitman, 17 August 1885

Date: August 17, 1885

Editorial notes: The annotation, "from E. Mawson (Phila) | old theatricals &c," is in the hand of Walt Whitman. The annotation, "328 Mickle St," is in an unknown hand.

Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03259

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Nicole Gray, Kyle Barton, and Stephanie Blalock



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E. MAWSON,
IMPORTER AND MANUFACTURER OF
Seal Sacques, Furs, Cloaks,
and Tailor-Made Costumes,
Riding Habits and Garments.
1018 CHESTNUT ST.,
GROUND FLOOR BACK.
Philadelphia,
17th Aug 1885

Walt Whitman Esqr1
Dear Sir

I read with much pleasure, your interesting article: "Old Bowery"—with the reminiscencies of the actors & actresses fifty years ago2—Tho' I am not personally known to you—& as far as my knowledge you to me—still every one tells me, I would assuredly know Walt Whitman the poet by description—your remarks about the elder Booth3 is true to the letter—no actor has ever approached him—in this Century—unless it be the Elder Kean4—or the Kembles5—Tho' I am not yet an Octogenarian or even a Septuagenarian—I being but 66 at the close off this month—I date my theatrical experience since 1835 just fifty years ago the year I came from England—then a mere youth, but as I was intimately acquainted with the Treasurer of the Park Theater under Price6—I had the entreé at that theater at all times & was & was in theatrical parlance a "first nighter" referring back to Booth he was the genius of all the players—neither Macready7 nor Vandenoff8 (the elder) nor Chas Kean9 or Booth (his son) or Irving10 could compare to him his acting was inspiration—none could equal him save perhaps Forrest11 in two characters—Richilieu & King Lear—his stentorian voice & powerful frame which gave him perhaps an advantage over Booth but Forrest even in these characters was the perfection & not the genius of acting—I never witnessed Forrest acting but the houses were jammed, my experience of witnessing Booth was not so fortunate as yours—I seldom saw him to big houses the last time I saw him was at the Chatham Square theater—a rather pretty house for those times, built I think by Flynn of the old Bowery Theater12—I think he played Sir Giles Overeach in a new way to pay old debts"—at all events it was where he has a servant named "Maral" I cannot remember without reference whether it was this piece or the "Iron Chest" both pieces besides all you name I saw him in—at this representation I speak of—he played to empty benches as far as memory serves—There could not have been fifty persons in the house—I was in the pit or what is now called the parquet—I never can forget his marvelous acting it was inspiration with him—one scene where he upbraids Maral he gives him a contemptuous look & utters with electrical effect "Maral I hate thee"—I can never forget it—it was imprinted in my mind ever since—if he was now alive few houses would hold the numbers that would flock to see him—I cannot account for the cause, why I never saw him to a crowded house—I presume his erratic career had something to do with [illegible]—while upon theatricals fifty years ago you perhaps did not witness scenes, which I did—memorable among which was the driving of Mr & Mrs Wood13 from the stage of the Park & her reappearance at the same house by the almost unanimous need of the theater going Public—

The driving of Mr & Mrs Wood from the stage was the action of Jas Watson Webb then proprietor of the Courier & Enquirer a gentleman in manners & association14 but he espoused the cause of a Mrs Conway & got up this "Theatrical row" I was there—& as I write I witnessed her reappearance at the same house after an absence of 2 3 or 4 years—The ovation was as great as the row—do you recollect this delightful singer no english singer could compare to her in this century—the Italians such as Grisi15 or Titiens16 had more musical science, but as a whole they were not better only Malibran17 perhaps was her superior Mrs Wood sang in Sonambula & Norma—with equal effect & gestures which neither Grisi or Titiens could attempt Sonambula, you assuredly must have seen her in this part—can you ever forget the scene, where her lover upbraids her, for being formal in "his Lordships chamber" she was a charming singer—certainly no English singer of my time, can be compared to her, I think she is dead—but her husband is still living in England or it may be au contraire Mr. Wood was a very agreeable singer of the English school—not as sweet a singer or as good as Wilson—you must recollect the Shirreff troupe—who came out I think under Wallack Sr. management—Miss Shirreff Wilson the Seguins & a charming Baritone who name I cannot now remember They came out in "Amelie" written by a young Irish composer named Rooke18 a charming opera full of sweet melodies well harmonized—they took New York by storm—you must also recollect a very pretty chorus girl named Taylor—who was in the foremost of the choristers—she made quite a sensation19—& was afterwards one of Mitchell principal actresses in his English burlesque company20—she subsequently married quite well then burlesques were very witty & quite enjoyable—they outlived themselves however & the Opera Bouffe21 with reason taken its place—particularly some of the later compositions, which are not offensive to good taste or ears polite Then again do you recollect Signor de Begnis (—with perhaps the exception of Lablach22—whom I have heard frequently on my trips across the ocean)23 he was the first Bouffe I ever heard—his voice was somewhat off when he came to this country, but he was a great singer—it was for he that Rossini wrote his Barber in the Barbiere di Sivilgia as well as for Madame de Begnis24— a very good singer I believe for she was before my time—but a very bad immoral woman—they were playing the Turco in Italia at the old Church [illegible] Theater under De Begnis management the night it was burnt down the site is now occupied by extensive dry goods store—poor de Begnis was heart broken—I knew him intimately—I recollect his coming down to the English chop house cor of Bway & Leonard St a celebrated Caterer—an Englishman—but for the life of me I cannot recollect his name—well he came down perfectly crest fallen—deploring the destruction of the house—& as he said for he spoke vile English that all his "Turkeys" was burnt up meaning that his turkish dresses were consumed—he was a character I assure you—but a great actor—As I say no one was superior except Lablach & none could approach him save perhaps Ronconi25—De Begnis died of yellow fever in [illegible] then you speak of Alboni26—I heard her both in New York & this city she still lives in Paris—no one has ever approached her in voice or style—long previous to her however was Fanny Elssler who came over under the Chaperonage of Mr Wikoff27—she was a delightful dancer in her style what is called tour de force no one approached her—about her time there was a charming dancer Madame Augusta whose particular Role was in the Bayadere—she drew crowds always28—you speak of Bettini Badiali29—I heard them with Madame Todesco30 at the Old Chestnut theatre (about 35 years ago) to very poor houses price 50 cents pit boxes 1.00 They afterwards appeared at the Walnut—to better houses. Things have changed since the days of Hamblin—Scott & maybe Kirby31—this style of acting would not suit any class of people now—the mob like a little rant & loud declamation now—but it must be from pieces which are more sensational in their character—as you will learn I have been a great theater goer in my time—I am getting a little in the "sere and yellow leaf"32 now—but I still enjoy the play—& most of all Musical entertainments I have seen & heard all the great artists of my time with only three notable exceptions Malibran Rubini33 & Paganini34 still there are great Musical artists now. Patti35 [Sulehi?] & others, in the hope my reminiscencies may be amusing to you I subscribe myself

Yours Very Truly
Edw. S. Mawson

PS—I have a series of small volumes called the "Drama" published in London 1824 giving the appearance as well as sketches of the leading actors & actresses of that time I should be happy to loan them if you think their perusal would be interesting to you

The English Caterer I speak of I now recollect was Windurst


Correspondent:
Edward S. Mawson (1819–1889) was born in London and had opened his "Fine Furs" store in Philadelphia in 1839.

Notes:

1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman Esqr | Camden | N.J. It is postmarked: PHILADELPHIA | PA | AUG 17 85 | 8 30 PM; CAMDEN, N.J. | AUG | 18 | [illegible] AM | [illegible] | REC'D. [back]

2. Whitman's "Booth and the Old Bowery" was published in the New York Tribune on August 16, 1885. Whitman recieved $60 for it. See also his letter to Charles Allen Thorndike Rice of August 12, 1885[back]

3. Edwin Thomas Booth (1833–1893) was an American actor, famous for performing Shakespeare in the U.S. and Europe, the son of actor Junius Brutus Booth (1796–1852), and the brother of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865), also an actor. He was the owner of Booth's Theatre in New York. [back]

4. Edmund Kean (1787–1833) was a well-known Shakespeare actor, touring in his native England as well as overseas. [back]

5. The Kembles were a family of English actors, who were considered the prime of British theater at the turn of the eighteenth century.  [back]

6. Stephen Price (1783–1840), a former lawyer, was one of the managers of the New York Park Theater in the early nineteenth century. He introduced many famous British actors to New York and with his focus on spectacle, Price played a key role in the theater's success and financial well-being.  [back]

7. William Macready (1793–1873) was a British stage actor. [back]

8. John M. Vandenhoff (1760–1861) was a British actor, famous for his performance of Shakespearean and other roles. [back]

9. Charles John Kean (1811–1868) was a British actor and son of Edmund Kean. [back]

10. Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905), born John Henry Brodribb, was a well-known British stage actor and inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Both Stoker and Irving visited Walt Whitman in Camden in 1884, where the actor and Whitman talked "a good while and seemed to take to each other mightily" (Thomas Donaldson, Walt Whitman the Man [New York: Francis P. Harper, 1896], 55). [back]

11. Edwin Forrest (1806–1872) was an American stage actor, well known for his Shakespeare roles. He was also notorious for his feud with William Macready that ended in an 1849 nativist riot in New York that left twenty-five dead. [back]

12. Thomas Flynn (born 1834) was an Irish-American actor who managed the Bowery theater briefly in the 1830s and would later help finance and direct the Chatham Street Theatre. Originally a neighborhood playhouse, the Chatham became known for its minstrel shows in the 1840s and would later draw figures like Edwin Forrest and the elder Booth. [back]

13. Mary Ann Wood (1802–1864), neé Paton, was a Scottish actress and singer, often called "Queen of the English Opera" in her day. She was briefly married to the tenor Joseph Wood (died 1863), whom she later divorced. Wood was accused of misbehaving towards a fellow actress by the name of Mrs. Conduit and not only refusing to take part in a benefit the latter organized but putting on a show of her own in direct competition with it. The affair ended with an angry mob storming the Park Theater and driving the Woods off stage. The destruction of the establishment itself was only averted when one of its managers (Edmund Simpson) promised to never let the couple appear on stage again. [back]

14. James Watson Webb (1802–1884) was an American diplomat, general, and newspaperman. After publicly denouncing singer Mary Ann Wood in his Morning Courier for her alledged misbehavior toward a fellow actress (Mrs. Conduit) whom his paper supported, he was challenged to a pistol duel by her husband. While the duel apparently never took place, Webb continuted to editorialize against the couple and played a major role in the Woods' flight from the United States. For more on the Wood affair, see Vera Brodsky Lawrence's Strong on Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 3–30. [back]

15. Giulia Grisi (1811–1869) was an Italian opera singer who toured throughout Europe and the Americas. Whitman had apparently seen her in the late 1840s. [back]

16. Thérèse Johanne Alexandra Tietjens (1831–1877) was a German-born opera singer who became famous for her performances in London. [back]

17. Maria Malibran (1808–1836) was an Italian mezzo-soprano and one of the most widely known opera performers of the nineteenth century. Malibran famously died while performing in a church in Manchester. [back]

18. William Michael Rooke (1794–1847) was an Irish composer. He had written "Amelie" in 1818 but it only premiered in 1837 to widespread praise. [back]

19. Mawson names two of the more famous traveling opera troupes of his day: Wilson's Opera Troupe (led by Jane Shirreff and John Wilson) as well as the Seguine Operatic Troupe. Shirreff (1811–1883), Mrs. Wilson, and Mrs. Seguin apparently performed "Amelie, or the Love Test" together in 1838 with the support of a variety of singers, including Henry Horncastle who might be the "charming baritone" that Mawson mentions. It was also the first performance of Mary Taylor, who would later become a popular stage actress at London's Olympic Theater. See also Katherine K. Preston, Opera on the Road (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001). [back]

20. William Mitchell was one of Broadway's most famous burlesque producers and actor managers. [back]

21. Opéra bouffe was a subgenre of late-nineteenth-century French operetta. [back]

22. Either Luigi Lablache (1794–1858), a French/Irish opera singer, or his son Frederick Lablache (1815–1887), also an opera singer, born in England. [back]

23. Both Giuseppe de Begnis (1793–1849) and Luigi Lablache (1794–1858) were Italian opera singers. [back]

24. Giuseppina Ronzi (known as "Claudine") was an Italian operatic soprano who married Guiseppe de Begnis in 1816. [back]

25. Giorgio Ronconi (1810–1890) was an operatic baritone from Milan. [back]

26. Marietta Alboni (1826–1894) was an Italian opera singer who became world famous after touring Europe in the late 1840s. Whitman heard her perform frequently, and she was his favorite singer; his 1860 poem "To a Certain Cantatrice" is addressed to her. [back]

27. Fanny Elssler was a famous Austrian ballerina, who in 1840 performed for two years in the United States alongside her sister in a tour organized by the travel writer and diplomat Henry Wikoff (1811–1884). [back]

28. Augusta Maywood (1825–1876) was an Austrian-American dancer who became one of the first ballerinas of international renown trained in the United States. [back]

29. Cesare Badiali (1805–1865) and Allesandro Bettini were Italian opera singers whom Whitman admired. The poet had written newspaper pieces praising their art as early as 1851. [back]

30. Fortunata Tedesco (1826–1866) was an Italian soprano who earned renown for her 1861 role of Venus in Tannhäuser[back]

31. Thomas S. Hamblin (1800–1853), Sarah Kirby (1813–1898), and her husband James Stark were well-known theater managers. Hamblin, born in England, managed New York's Bowery Theater for a while and the Starks were active in the theater scene of San Francisco. [back]

32. Macbeth, Act V, where Macbeth says, "I have liv'd long enough: my way of life / Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf. . . ." [back]

33. Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794–1854) was an Italian tenor. [back]

34. Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) was an Italian composer and one of the most celebrated violin-players of the nineteenth century. [back]

35. Adelina Patti (1843–1919) was an opera singer from Spain and a celebrated soprano. [back]


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