- A Spectacle of Suffering: Clara Morris on the American Stage
A mere four pages into the introduction of A Spectacle of Suffering: Clara Morris on the American Stage, in which Barbara Wallace Grossman offers her readers a brief précis on the triumphs and catastrophes that typified her subject's turbulent life and career, you may begin to wonder, as I did, how Clara Morris evaded a full-length biographical treatment for so long. Beyond Morris's status as one of the most famous American actresses of the nineteenth century, her life serves up a veritable banquet of scandals and [End Page 698] misfortunes rarely occurring within a single individual's history: an isolated childhood, chronic illness, morphine addiction, artistic failures, contentious relationships, financial distress, and an extramarital affair, just to list the feast's main courses. However, upon finishing A Spectacle of Suffering, you may also find yourself unreservedly delighted, as I was, that Grossman got there first. In the hands of a less intuitive and assiduous scholar, a biography of Morris could easily slip into the realms of tawdry sensationalism or mythologizing hagiography; instead, it is a rigorously researched and readable history of an actress who should neither be apotheosized nor demonized, but whose life, the author posits, "is as much a tribute to the power of the human spirit as it is an effective means of exploring American theater and society in the Gilded Age" (6).
With the exception of the first chapter, which introduces readers to Morris at the height of her popularity, dramatic potency, and youthful ambition, the book progresses through the actress's life chronologically. Morris's childhood and adolescence, as well as the beginnings of her professional acting career in Ohio, are discussed over the course of three chapters. Raised by a single mother (whose devotion to Clara seems uncharacteristic when considering her repeated abandonment of several other children), Morris lived a nomadic lifestyle until settling in Cleveland. Her first theatrical engagement was at Cleveland's Academy of Music, where at age 15 she was hired by John Ellsler, a married actor-manager who eventually became her lover. It was in Cleveland, and later in Cincinnati, that Morris cultivated the "hallmarks of her art": "graphic realism . . . emotional intensity . . . and the powerful impact she had on her audiences—particularly women" (68).
The middle chapters of the book track Morris's meteoric rise to fame in New York, where she first moved with her mother in 1870 to work at Augustin Daly's Fifth Avenue Theatre. Daly and Morris's working relationship was frequently antagonistic: Morris viewed his management style as authoritarian and condescending, while Daly "resented her defiant, even subversive independence" (85). Yet both enjoyed immense successes with the actress's turns in plays like Article 47 and Madelein Morel that capitalized on her effective portrayals of "erotic, hysterical wom[en]" (97). After three years under contract with Daly, fierce salary negotiations and enmity prompted Morris to defect to Albert Palmer's Union Square Theatre, where her maturing powers as an emotional actress were showcased in Camille (a theatrical chestnut into which Morris breathed new life) and a variety of other dramas. It was during Morris's tenure with Palmer that ill health began to plague the actress, and in 1876 she was prescribed morphine to alleviate chronic pain, initiating a decades-long addiction that lasted until her death in 1925.
The book's final chapters follow Morris's artistic, financial, and physical decline and the development of her second career as a writer and lecturer. Attempts to reignite her stage career were hobbled by her escalating drug use, stale repertoire, and exhausting touring schedule. Grossman's coverage of this period, deliciously titled "Queen of Spasms," is perhaps the only letdown of the biography, as the author becomes a little too fastidious in recording Morris's every move on tour—a tactic that briefly drags down the book's normally effective pacing.
A Spectacle of Suffering profits from Grossman's judicious analysis and deployment of...