1844 was an election year and it was difficult to catch the attention of the press. The American actress Charlotte Cushman had amazed audiences as Lady Macbeth and even made them weep over the death of the prostitute Nancy in Oliver Twist. Still, her managers at the prestigious Park Theatre in New York believed Charlotte too ugly, too masculine-looking to be a star and cast her in small roles, and did not give her a cut of the ticket sales as they would with a true star. Charlotte's friend, the British star William Macready, explained that American theatres wouldn't appreciate her fully until she received the European stamp of approval. Convinced, Charlotte began to save her wages for a voyage to London. But even when she had the money she hesitated. For the first time, Charlotte was in love.
Rosalie Sully was the daughter of the famous American portrait artist Thomas Sully. His fluid, soft, idealized portraits of the rich and famous, and especially women and children, were extremely popular. Sully had nine children and supported his late brother’s children on the income he received as an artist. Rose and Charlotte met after she commissioned Mr. Sully to do her portrait. It took longer than expected because Charlotte was difficult to capture in a still image. Sully threw out his first painting of her, convinced it didn’t do her justice.
Rose also wanted to be a painter, and she, too, began working on a portrait of Charlotte—a miniature. Since meeting Rose in the fall of 1843 through a mutual friend, Charlotte had spent every weekend at her house, equally enamored of Rose and her large, close-knit family. The chaotic Sully house delighted her with the noise and children and the electric glimmer of Thomas Sully’s famous clients. Whenever she arrived at the house, she raced eagerly to visit Rose in her own art studio, to sit and read while Rose painted or walk or ride with her through the countryside. To Rose’s family, Charlotte was an entertaining, if somewhat eccentric, new friend: she went walking with Rose’s oldest sister and mother and came regularly to dine, where she would give command performances of Shakespeare’s monologues, sing, and recite poetry. But behind Rose’s closed studio doors, Charlotte became Romeo begging for a kiss.
After an exhausting week of performing in New York, Charlotte would race back to Rose. They would saddle their horses and ride to Clover Hill, the new house Mr. Sully was building for his family. Charlotte was a passionate and confident rider and preferred a horse that responded to open ground by running flat-out as fast as it could go. Neither rider nor horse cared about conserving energy. Competition brought a flush to Charlotte’s face, and she often challenged Rose to race. When Rose inevitably lost, Charlotte made it up to her with jewelry.
Miniature of Charlotte Cushman in her twenties, by Rosalie Sully
Rose expressed her love in a different key. For Charlotte’s birthday in July, Rose gave Charlotte a miniature portrait of herself that Rose had worked on for weeks. Holding her own image cupped in her lap, Charlotte could see herself as Rose saw her: glossy chestnut hair, parted neatly in the middle and gathered at the nape of her neck, expressive, large dark eyes gazing straight out, unafraid, her mouth beginning to twist into a smile. It was not the most accurate portrait, Charlotte thought, but she looked beautiful.
Rose’s love gave Charlotte confidence, and she decided to try what was acknowledged as the most difficult role in Shakespeare’s canon: Hamlet. Sarah Siddons had first played Hamlet in 1776, but no American actress had done it successfully. It was a complicated, challenging role, essentially a character study, and she would have more than fifteen hundred lines. Hamlet is a philosopher, and she would need to show her understanding of the sense of Shakespeare’s lines, lines that also held private meaning for her.
She debuted the role on May 13, 1844. The gas light gave off a smell like burning butter, and under the lights onstage an actress could feel like she was being roasted alive. In the half-dark beyond the stage’s hemisphere, prostitutes prowled through the men’s upper gallery, their cries occasionally breaking the silence.
In the pit, the audience passed applejack and peeled boiled eggs as they waited for the curtain to rise.
Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.
The audience continued talking through the first scene and most of the second. They talked as the ghost of King Hamlet glided across the stage in white greasepaint and rags, as Claudius entered holding Gertrude possessively by the arm. Finally, Charlotte strode onto the stage dressed as Hamlet. She wore tights and a loose doublet, her breasts disguised under heavy brocade, her large head bowed. Hamlet is a young man, and Charlotte’s smooth woman’s face made her a better fit for the role than a male actor of similar experience.
Charlotte was critical of actresses who took on breeches parts for the titillation the performances offered men. Their “limbs are apt to cling helplessly together,” she wrote a fellow actor. Charlotte’s Hamlet, however, was utterly masculine, but her actually being a woman made her love scenes especially effective; they were, wrote one critic, “of so erotic a character that no man would have dared indulge in them.” Some critics who came to see her Hamlet said she was more convincing playing a man onstage than playing a woman in life.
Both audiences and critics appreciated the way she interpreted Hamlet. A reviewer in the entertainment rag Amusements would later write that Charlotte “appreciates the influence of the supernatural upon [Hamlet’s] mind, she does not therefore, fall into the error of representing him as one who is merely playing a part . . . she enters into his melancholy.”
Privately, Charlotte was herself melancholy, despite her success. Her love for Rose had deepened. It wasn’t enough to spend every day together; she wanted a household with Rose, even a family. Instead, in public she had to pretend that Rose was just a friend. Dressed as a young man, she stood as if naked before the audience, pleading, “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!”
Excerpted from Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America's First Celebrity by Tana Wojczuk. Published by Avid Reader Press, a new division of Simon & Schuster.