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  • Susanna and the Stage; or, Rowson Family Theatre
  • Jeffrey H. Richards (bio)

Susanna Rowson has been discussed almost exclusively as a writer who sometimes was forced to do other things to make money, notably act and teach. Although there has been considerable attention paid in recent years to Rowson's play Slaves in Algiers (1794), there has been relatively little focus on her four years as a theatrical performer in the United States and hardly any comprehensive attempt at establishing her as a person of the stage. This has led to mistakes and omissions in her biographical record (and the critical response to it) that stand in need of revision, both in terms of facts and focus. What follows is an attempt to re-imagine Rowson's career from the perspective of the theatre. In many ways, her writing for the stage is grounded in her experience as a reader of and actress in a broad spectrum of plays and productions, largely comic afterpieces, but including tragedy, pantomimes, and musical entertainments. Therefore, a good portion of the essay will examine that acting career both in itself and as a way of understanding her playwriting, which is also more extensive than is often realized.1 Although Rowson established herself as a writer of prose fiction first, nearly the entirety of her professional life after 1786, the year she published her first novel, Victoria, can be read as inflected by the stage.

As a child in Massachusetts, Susanna Haswell could not have been exposed to professional theatre, a banned entertainment in the colony; however, it is possible that her very literate father, the British naval officer William Haswell, shared plays, or speeches from them, with her. Even stage-hating Puritans and their anti-theatrical descendants read plays, including those by Shakespeare, and British military officers often mounted productions, even in Massachusetts, for their own amusement. Nevertheless, things theatrical can only have been a minor part of her American upbringing, and virtually [End Page 1] absent during the three years when her family suffered house arrest during the Revolution. Although she may have had some exposure to the stage (as a spectator) upon her family's return to England in 1778, she became immersed in the theatre when she married William Rowson in 1786. Despite his frequent portrayal in Susanna Rowson biographies as a pathetic lout whom she had to support with stoic forbearance, her husband had been employed steadily at Covent Garden since 1782 as either a supernumerary, a singer, a musician (he played trumpet), a member of the technical staff, or some combination of those positions, and remained active in that Theatre Royal until the conclusion of the 1792-1793 theatrical season. To be sure, for the most part, he was one of those largely invisible persons who often made up the lowest tier of the house acting corps, but he eventually gained sufficient skill as a performer to be listed among the casts of several productions during his last two years with the London theatre. In addition, William's sister, Elizabeth Rowson, appears to be the Miss Rowson whose name appears as a Covent Garden dancer beginning in 1781, and who continued to appear in London with increasing importance until her death in October 1790. Given William's and Elizabeth's commitment to the stage, it was natural that Susanna would try to engage with the company that employed her husband or at least show some interest in the workings of the professional theatre. Because theatre people often traveled to the provinces for the summer, when the major London stages closed, she would have been dependent on William's location for employment. It is possible that she appeared with the London actors who played in Brighton the summer of 1786 (there is mention of a "Mrs. Rowson" in that season), but she most certainly had ample time to observe from many angles how a theatre functioned and who peopled the particular one that employed her husband and sister-in-law, Covent Garden.2

In 1788, she issued an extensive critique of the London theatre scene in the form of an anonymous poetic review, A Trip to Parnassus, her first significant...


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