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Charlotte Cushman 1816 ~ 1876


Charlotte Cushman

It may be said of Charlotte Cushman that she was one of those strenuous, noble souls who would have dignified and vitalized, as with the vitality of a man, any calling into which it might have pleased Fate to place her, and that she would have left the world better for her presence. For this mental pertinacity, as we might call it, we can credit the sturdy Puritan stock from which she was descended. The best blood of New England, the blood which has made both martyrs and honest, hopeless bigots ran through her veins. Her father was a respected merchant of Boston, and it was in that city that Charlotte Saunders Cushman was born, July 23, 1816.

Her strongest characteristics were her imitative power and her wonderful voice. It was this voice that was soon to aid her in the struggle for existence. Her father was unfortunate in business, and Charlotte began the study of music, and subsequently sang in a Boston church choir, and she was urged to continue the cultivation of her voice and not to waste time in the mere drudgery of teaching. And thus it came about that Miss Cushman became the pupil of James G. Maeder (afterwards the husband of Clara Fisher), and made her appearance under his instruction in April, 1835, as the Countess Almaviva, in the "Marriage of Figaro," the performance taking place at the Tremont Theatre, and was considered a triumph for Miss Cushman.

Visions of future operatic achievements filled her mind, when suddenly her voice failed, from overtraining, and through this apparent misfortune Miss Cushman was led to the stage, and through Caldwell, the theatrical manager, of New Orleans, she was given a part to appear on the stage. Her first appearance was as Lady Macbeth, in a benefit performance in that city. Of herself at that time Miss Cushman says: "I was a tall, thin, lanky girl, about five feet, six inches in height." Her rendition of the part was satisfactory, both to the audience and manager. For three years, from September, 1837, to September, 1840, she was at the Park Theatre, New York, playing various parts. This, no doubt, was a fine experience for her just at this time, and she came out of this ordeal a true actress, who was not afraid to play Romeo, Portia, Lady Macbeth, Joan of Arc, Belvidera, in "Venice Preserved," Roxana, in "The Rival Queens," and many other characters.

Her greatest achievement has always been believed to be Meg Merrilies. It was said of her first appearance in this part, "There was an uncanny charm, a wealth of picturesqueness and, at the same time, a depth of senile feeling in her portraiture that stamped it at once with the mark of inspiration." No one who ever saw Meg Merrilies will ever forget its terrible effectiveness. After leaving Park Theatre, she played male characters for some time. It was her professional association with Macready during the seasons of 1843 and 1844 that provided the stepping-stone for which Miss Cushman had been groping. After he witnessed her performance of Lady Macbeth he showed a sympathy for this aspiring woman which was of inestimable value to her.

Owing to the encouragement given her by Macready Miss Cushman determined to go to England, and although at the time it seemed rash the end justified the risk. One writer says of her debut in England: "Since the memorable first appearance of Edmund Kean, in 1814, never has there been such a debut on the boards of an English theatre."' Miss Cushman returned to America in 1870, and on November 7, 1874, took her farewell of the New York stage in Lady Macbeth, at Booth's Theatre.

Her last appearance of all as an actress, although not as a reader, was made in Boston, May 15, 1875, as Lady Macbeth. In the autumn of this year she made her residence in Boston, where she passed away on February 18, 1876.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.


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