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A Spectacle of Suffering

Clara Morris on the American Stage

Barbara Wallace Grossman

Publication Year: 2009

Once called "America's greatest actress," renowned for the passion and power of her performances, Clara Morris (1847-1925) has been largely forgotten. A Spectacle of Suffering: Clara Morris on the American Stage is the first full-length study of the actress's importance as a feminist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Detailing her daunting health problems and the changing tastes in entertainment that led to her retirement from the stage, Barbara Wallace Grossman explores Morris's dramatic reinvention as an author. During a second robust career, she published hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and nine books—six works of fiction and three memoirs.

Grossman draws on the fifty-four-volume diary that Morris kept from 1868 until 1924, as well as on the manuscript fragments and notes of journalist George T. MacAdam, who died in 1929 before completing the actress's biography. Grossman provides a dramatic account of Morris's life and work from her troubled early years, through an unhappy marriage, morphine addiction, and invalidism, to the challenges of touring, the decline of her artistic reputation, and the demands of the writing career she pursued so tenaciously. A Spectacle of Suffering reveals how Morris, even after experiencing blindness and the loss of her home, livelihood, and family, did not succumb to despair and found comfort in the small pleasures of her circumscribed life.

A Spectacle of Suffering recovers an important figure in American theatre and ensures that Morris will be remembered not simply as an actress but as a respected writer and beloved public figure, admired for her courage in dealing with adversity. The book, which is enhanced by twenty-four illustrations, is the only published biography of Clara Morris. It is as much a tribute to the power of the human spirit as it is an effective means of exploring American theatre and society in the Gilded Age.



Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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Preface: A Tale of Two Cemeteries

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pp. xiii-xvi

The settings are similar, but the two gravesites are striking in their differences. Mount Auburn Cemetery, consecrated in 1831 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was America’s first garden cemetery and a pioneer in the rural cemetery movement. ...

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pp. xvii-xx

As a “genetic democrat,” to quote my husband, Steve, I am tempted to paraphrase U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton and claim it took a village to produce this book. While that would be hyperbolic, there are many people who were kind and helpful over the years to whom I am grateful. ...

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Introduction: A Strange Human Cryptogram

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pp. 1-6

Newspapers across the country carried Clara Morris’s obituary on Saturday, 21 November 1925. The celebrated seventy-eight-year-old actress and writer had died on Friday in New Canaan, Connecticut, having been an invalid for almost two decades. ...

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1. That Fair Peak of Triumph

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pp. 7-16

For a theater-mad decade, it was another glittering opening. Under the glare of gas lamps, carriages snarled in a traffic jam outside Augustin Daly’s handsome Fifth Avenue Theatre on West Twenty-fourth Street, adjacent to the fashionable Fifth Avenue Hotel. ...

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2. The Making of an Emotional Actress

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pp. 17-34

In Life on the Stage, Morris provides a selective account of her early years, a childhood as melodramatic as the plays in which she appeared. Vague about specifics, she tells a story that rivals the Brothers Grimm in its clear division between good and evil, love and hatred, hope and fear. ...

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3. Theatrical Apprenticeship in Cleveland

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pp. 35-56

On 17 May 1893, Clara Morris joined actresses Georgia Cayvan, Julia Marlowe, and Helena Modjeska in Chicago at the World’s Congress of Representative Women, a week-long colloquium designed to showcase the advancement of women in various fields and “departments of intellectual activity.” ...

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4. Leading Business in Cincinnati

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pp. 57-73

In mid-September, Morris arrived in Cincinnati, a hilly city tucked into a bend in the Ohio River. Settled in 1788 and incorporated in 1819, the Queen City of the West had seen its population increase from 750 in 1800 to 230,000 in 1869, due largely to an influx of German immigrants.1 ...

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5. A Western Actress in New York

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pp. 74-99

Nothing seemed impossible for a confident and growing New York in 1870. The city where Clara Morris and her mother settled in August was America’s largest, as it had been since the mid-1850s, with a population of almost one million. The nation’s leader in trade, banking, and commerce, New York was financially secure and thriving. ...

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6. The Dramatic Meteor

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pp. 100-125

Morris had last seen Daly on 30 June, two days after the 1872–73 season ended, when she went to the theater “for salary.” “Met fully word” was her code-like diary entry (suggesting that he honored whatever promises he had made), after which “goodbyes and good wishes exchanged.” ...

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7. Marriage and Macbeth

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pp. 126-154

A 23 June 1874 diary entry records Morris’s arrival in Liverpool after a smooth crossing. “All well,” she wrote, indicating that she and her traveling companions were fine. They included her mother (“Ma”), Union Square actress Roberta Norwood (“Norwood”), and Frederick C. Harriott (“Fred”), her fiancé of more than a year. ...

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8. Morphined in Miss Multon

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pp. 155-185

In a letter from California that ran in the Cleveland Leader on 1 March 1875, Morris looked forward to the mud baths in Santa Barbara and a respite from performing. “Next week I do not act,” she wrote with palpable relief. “Only think of it—no dresses, no wigs, no rouge, no rehearsals, no fear of critics (!), ...

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9. Queen of Spasms

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pp. 186-214

In 1903, critic Lewis C. Strang asked, “What, then, was Clara Morris? Was she actress or phenomenon, artist or exotic? That she had power cannot be disputed. That she afterward lost this power is also a fact.” Fifty-two years later, theater historian Garff B. Wilson offered the inane, sexist explanation that Morris, ...

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10. Diary of a Working Actress

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pp. 215-250

Morris’s life for the next fourteen years was a study in paradox. Although comparatively few actresses remained in the theater beyond age thirty-five,1 she worked harder than ever and was still touring in her fifties, even as her health declined. ...

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pp. 251-270

Left in Charge was not Morris’s only book in 1904. In October, there was another novel, The Trouble Woman, an expanded version of a short story published in newspapers the previous December. Like much of her fiction, it is a tale of fortitude and endurance. The title character is Widow Breene, a crone who tends the sick and helps the needy. ...


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pp. 271-312


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pp. 313-320

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Author Bio

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p. 344-344

Barbara Wallace Grossman, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Drama and Dance at Tufts University, is a theater historian and director. She is the author of Funny Woman: The Life and Times of Fanny Brice. ...

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Series Statement

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p. 345-345

The goal of the series is to publish a wide range of scholarship on theater and performance, defining theater in its broadest terms and including subjects that encompass all of the Americas. ...

Back Cover

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p. 346-346

E-ISBN-13: 9780809387298
E-ISBN-10: 0809387298
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809328826
Print-ISBN-10: 0809387298

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 24
Publication Year: 2009