- Cora Urquhart Potter's "Perilous Public Experiment":The 1889 Antony and Cleopatra
Although today she has largely faded from the public's memory, at the time of her death in 1936, the New York Herald-Tribune commented at length, and with considerable respect, on actress Cora Urquhart Potter. Her career, launched in the late 1880s and unfolding chiefly on the London stage, was distinguished by a diversity of critical opinion exceptional even for persons in her volatile profession. Recalling the highly publicized theatrical endeavors of the actress, whom they dubbed the "foe of Victorianism," the Herald-Tribune wrote,
Through an epoch of delicate sensibilities and elevated eyebrows, Mrs. Potter scintillated, trailing admiration of European royalty, the vitriol of American aristocracy, the idolatry of theatre audiences in the hinterland and the scorn of metropolitan critics. No one denied her beauty. But her ambitions as an actress provoked some of the cruelest utterances that ever were set down by the drama reviewers of England or America.("Mrs. Potter Dies")
The censorious critiques unleashed on Cora Potter raise questions about critics' motivations. Certainly some of the vitriol was a generic, time-honoured response to women who, rejecting self-effacement, stepped outside the domestic sphere in order to shape personal identity. As Susan Glenn notes in Female Spectacle, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, "womanliness was still defined as selfless devotion to others, whether husband and children or a society in need of uplift and reform" (12). This concept of womanliness was not one Cora Potter would embrace.
In 1877, at age twenty, Mary Cora Urquhart married socially prominent James Brown Potter of New York City. Upon moving north from her native New Orleans, Mrs. Potter became a glittering fixture within the city's beau monde. A daughter, Anne (familiarly known as Fifi), was born to the Potters in 1879, and, shortly after, Mrs. Potter became involved in amateur theatrics through the blandishments of a female friend.
In the 1880s, it was quite the rage for socially prominent men and women to appear in amateur theatricals for charitable purposes. Theatre historian Benjamin McArthur cites an 1886 article in Theatre magazine that described the vogue as an "epidemic." He further notes that the amateur stage "offered [End Page 147] New York's stagestruck elite an opportunity to indulge their passion without jeopardizing their social standing" (138). However, as Michael Sanderson observes in his social history of acting, "the experience of amateur work was often a crucial factor in the decision to turn professional" (20); this proved to be the case with Mrs. Potter, who aspired to a professional career after success on the amateur stage.
In Actresses as Working Women, Tracy Davis details the social transgressions attached to nineteenth-century women who, in choosing a career on the stage, vitiated traditional notions of womanliness:
As working mothers and wives (but not necessarily both), they threatened traditional family structures, the balance of economic power, and gender-based restrictions of association, movement, dress, education, and influence. In a society hostile to nocturnal womanhood, the actress was conspicuous. If she maintained her independence ... she was bound to create hostility.(99-100)
The closing decades of the nineteenth century proved to be a period of considerable reformation with regard to the social position of both actors and actresses, with acceptance into the rarified upper echelons of society being proffered, in England certainly, from the very top of gentility's ladder. Sanderson observes that "the royal influence of ... Edward VII ... both as Prince of Wales and as King ... was a most important factor raising the estimation of the theatre in the eyes of Society and in turn drawing leading actors into a wider circle of social acceptance" (Sanderson 134-135). At the time, actor and producer Sir Charles Wyndham observed, "the modern English stage has been made by King Edward. His Majesty has made the theatre fashionable and respected..." (qtd. in Sanderson 134). Tracy Davis, however, provides a more modulated view of the dynamics of this shift:
Society's ideology about women and prescriptions of female sexuality were constantly defied by the actress whose independence, education, allure, and flouting of sexual mores (unavoidable conditions of...