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Highlighting Charlotte Cushman

Shakespeare Theatre Company continues its celebration of radical women in the theatre. Last week, we shed light on the incredible work of Evie Manning and Rhiannon White of UK-based Common Wealth Theatre Company and this week, we go back in time to reflect on the life of one of America’s first stage celebrities – Charlotte Cushman. 

An old sketch of two women embracing. The one of the left is in Shakespearian garb - including large, highly decorated shorts and tights; she has short hair. The woman on the right has longer hair and is wearing a light colored dress. Both are looking wistfully into the distance.
Charlotte and Susan Cushman as the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet

During her lifetime, Cushman became a household name in the English-speaking world. Of her many fans, she could include President Abraham Lincoln as a supporter; he was enraptured particularly by her performance as Lady Macbeth in the Scottish play. Following her death, Lawarence Barett described her appeal: “Miss Cushman was a woman of weird genius, somber imagination, great sensibility … victorious by force rather than by sweetness.” 

Born in Boston, Massachusetts on July 23, 1816, Charlotte Cushman was the eldest of four children. Her father had initial success as a merchant, but he lost the fortune he had built and died leaving the family in destitution. However, the connections he built lingered, and Cushman was able to train professionally as an opera singer. She performed for some time, but the strenuous soprano parts she was cast in stressed her contralto voice, ending her short career as a vocalist. It was from there that she decided to train as a stage actress.  

In 1836, Cushman performed as Lady Macbeth in the Scottish play.  She bucked the era’s convention by giving a very energetic and powerful performance, which was celebrated by audiences and critics alike. Cushman’s commanding stage presence, as well as her ability to play to her features, was what made her a household name. Another ability she was known for was her “breeches parts;” these were crossdressing roles that gained popularity in the 19th century. During the span of her career, she played a total of 30 male-presenting roles. The role she was most known for was Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. What makes her turn as the star-crossed lover unique is that she played opposite both her sister – the actress Susan Cushman – as well as one of her lovers – Matilda Hays.

Cushman’s relationships with other women were well-documented. At the time in which she lived, society’s views on female sexuality were radically different than those held today (at least in some places). In the 19th century, it was believed that women could not have physical desire as men did; the “romantic friendships” between two women were viewed as chaste. Therefore, Cushman was able to live quite freely with her partners and was viewed as a couple with them in Europe.  

Cushman’s connection to Shakespearian roles remained strong throughout her career. In 1844, she took a tour of England where she performed Lady Macbeth and Rosalind for adoring fans. She gained popularity in the playwright’s home country and performed many successive tours there throughout her life.  

Another one of Cushman’s passions was writing and fostering intellectual community. She wrote pieces for the publications Goedy’s Lady Book and Ladies Companion. Her home in Rome, Italy soon became a feminist haven, attracting both lesbian and straight women artists and writers from the world over. Cushman was a strong supporter of the feminist movement as it was starting to gather force during her lifetime.  

After developing breast cancer in 1869, Cushman retired from the stage. The disease progression impacted her mobility however she continued to perform as a dramatic reader. For seven years, up until her death on February 18, 1876, she performed poetry, selections from novels, and, of course, pieces from the works of Shakespeare.  

Cushman’s legacy remains as one of the most well-known actresses of the 19th century; becoming a household name long before the advent of mass media. Although, after her death, homophobia would serve as a way for detractors to dimmish her accomplishments, it goes without saying that Cushman was a revolution on the stage. Her style of performance challenged the standards of her time period, another step in the evolution of stage acting.   

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