Queer History from the Days When Romeo was a Woman

Tim Miller Interviews Lisa Merrill, author of When Romeo Was a Woman

She was as famous as Madonna, as talented as Sir Laurence Olivier and as much a Sapphic heartthrob as Jodie Foster! I am talking about none other than Charlotte Cushman, the renowned 19th Century lesbian actress who wowed the world with her brilliant performances of male roles in Shakespeare. Lisa Merrill recounts this extraordinary story in When Romeo Was a Woman (University of Michigan Press, 1999), her engaging and consistently enjoyable biography of Cushman and the pivotal role she played in the development of lesbian cultural identity..

In a heroic act of scholarship and queer sleuthing, Lisa Merrill has undone the damage of decades of homophobic historians and claimed a key figure in queer history. I caught up with Lisa Merrill recently in Columbus, Ohio, where I was performing and Lisa was speaking (appropriately) at the Drag King Conference. Sitting down to our BLT's in a cheery buckeye diner, we chewed the fat about Charlotte Cushman, hidden histories, gender and the Ohio spectacle of the largest Drag King confab ever!

TM: What led you write When Romeo was a Woman?

LM: I've always been interested in the importance of telling our stories as gay and lesbian people and have been aware of how the absences and silences about our lives shape us. When I discovered that Charlotte Cushman-America's first great actress-was the most significant "breeches actress" in the nineteenth century, I was immediately intrigued. Then I found that Cushman left literally thousands of unpublished letters mostly written to and from the women she loved, yet the historical record of her life seemed deliberately to overlook, dismiss, silence, or trivialize her achievements and the importance of women in her life. I wanted to go to the primary sources and reconsider her story. Or stories, I should say.

TM: As I read When Romeo Was a Woman, I was struck how phenomenally successful Charlotte Cushman was during her lifetime. Who would be a contemporary counterpart?

LM: She was extraordinarily popular; when she died in 1876 she was arguably the most famous woman in the English-speaking world. After acting on two continents for forty years, she had been seen by millions. And Cushman not only earned a fortune, she was at the center of some of the most famous and prestigious literary and social circles, friends with politicians, nobility and acclaimed writers. I guess the closest contemporary corollaries today would be rock stars, so imagine a woman-a rather "butch" woman, in fact-with Madonna's international popularity, self promotional skill, and mass appeal. Like Madonna, Charlotte only needed one name; the American newspapers raved about "Our Charlotte." As the first American actress to be received so well in Britain, particularly in Shakespearean roles, Cushman was a source of pride to her country people who longed for cultural parity with Britain.

But what was especially intriguing to me is the range of women and men who were apparently drawn to her power, especially in cross-dressed roles like Romeo, one of her most famous roles. Although she was not the first female Romeo of her era, she was undoubtably the most successful. When Charlotte Cushman and her sister, Susan, first played Romeo and Juliet for British audiences in 1845, the reviewer from the London Times stated enthusiastically that "It is enough to say that the Romeo of Miss Cushman is far superior to any Romeo that has been seen for years." Critics from the major London newspapers found Cushman successful and believable as Romeo, not merely as a "female Romeo."

TM: Was it unusual for women to play male roles? How did audiences respond to cross-dressing women on the stage?

LM: No, there was a convention in the nineteenth-century theater of women playing male roles, but unlike other women whose performances in men's tight breeches displayed more of their female bodies to their audience than women's dress would reveal, Cushman did not "titillate" her male spectators. Instead, as a masculine woman with no romantic ties to men which might tarnish her reputation, she allowed herself to be seen as her character. It intrigued me to discover that in keeping with the Victorian notion that passionate acting between men and women would be improper and immoral, after seeing the Cushman sisters, one theater critic asserted that: "It is open to question whether Romeo may not best be personated by a woman, for it is thus only that in actual representation can we view the passionate love of this play made real and palpable;... females may together give us an image of the desire of the lovers of Verona, without suggesting a thought of vice." So this moment in time, and the official "ignorance" about homosexuality afforded Cushman particular possibilities for the onstage and offstage performances of women's same-sex desire. In fact, the critic went so far as to state that "To give an adequate embodiment of the true feeling of this play, would certainly outrage the sense of a modern audience, were the performers of opposite sex."

It was clear to me from the unpublished letters by many of Cushman's contemporaries that the eroticism of women playing leading male roles worked on several different levels with different audiences. Some viewers were intrigued by the androgynous erotic energy of an active, assertive woman dressed and moving like a "virile" man, and found the incongruity appealing. Others were disturbed by the possibilities of a woman, particularly a "masculine" woman, playing the male lover of another woman. But overwhelmingly, Cushman was commended for her breeches performances, particularly by women in the audience. Many wrote to Cushman that she was the most ardent lover they'd seen. I've read the fan mail of women offered Cushman their "highest admiration," and mentioned they "could not help being absurdly envious of pretty Juliet." Others wrote of how their lives had been changed and "ennobled" just by seeing her. It's just thrilling that these letters still exist.

TM: You draw heavily on diaries and the thousands of letters you found in various library archives. Were there particular challenges in finding and uncovering evidence in the letters and diaries that Cushman was a lesbian?

LM: Oh yes, First there is the obvious challenge of decoding her and her correspondents' handwriting. There are thousands of letters written on tiny, often tissue-paper thin sheets of paper, with fading ink. Second, Cushman was very crafty. ('Strategic' is how I describe it in my book.) She tended to avoid using proper names, addressing her women lovers by petnames, and often not dating letters, so, once I could read her handwriting (no mean feat there-especially since she often wrote horizontally and then vertically on top of that to save postage) I had to figure out the shared references. And she had multiple lovers simultaneously. For the last twenty years of her life, the two women closest to her were both named Emma. But once I could figure this out, there were gems of personal disclosures. I also draw upon scores of theater reviews published in nineteenth-century newspapers throughout the U.S. and Britain.

Cushman's own collection of reviews is pasted into a scrapbook now at the Library of Congress. It's interesting to see how she crossed out the bits she didn't like, particularly those that called her unattractive. I've always been fascinated by the tensions between "official" records and personal documents and correspondence. In my book, I look at all of these letters, interviews, and articles as "performances" of a sort, directed towards specific readers.

Cushman's letters reveal that she managed her private and professional life with an eye to how her behavior, associations, and bearing would be read by others. I've been particularly interested in some of the roles Charlotte played in her private letters.

TM: How open was Cushman in her letters?

LM: Well she was pretty clear about passion she felt for the women in her life. In her diary in 1844 she writes of wanting to kiss her lover Rosalie Sully so passionately she would "press the breath out of her body." To later lovers she wrote of her desire for them, and warned them on occasion to be careful not to let others see her letters. Sometimes she told her lovers to burn her letters-fortunately some of them didn't listen. She warned one lover, Emma Crow, to "temper the fire of your spirit, darling." Her letters are evidence of her awareness of how she and her lovers negotiated their relationships.

These accounts of same-sex passion are such an important part of lesbian and gay history I was thrilled to find them. I want to tell contemporary gays and lesbians to save everything so that the historians of the future have the tools and material artifacts of our lives as an important part of this historical moment. So much evidence of gay and lesbian lives has been intentionally destroyed, withheld, or misinterpreted that it appears to some as if we have no history, although nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the very deliberateness of this erasure points out how threatening some considered us.

I think that much of Cushman's success can be attributed to a peculiarly Victorian paradox: because she was a woman whose emotional life was centered around other women, in an era when "romantic friendships" between women were generally accepted, Cushman was regarded by most of her contemporaries as a model of chastity and propriety who "elevated" the moral climate of the stage. Although some spectators were able to read Cushman as a potential object of female desire, she appeared to uphold many Victorian dictates of appropriate female behavior. The trivialization of Cushman's life and achievements coincided with and resulted from a growing climate of discomfort and homophobia after her death. At that time, sexologists started recognizing and describing a category of people as "homosexuals"-and Cushman, retrospectively fit the bill.

TM: After reading so much of her private thoughts what do you think of Charlotte Cushman? Did you like her? There is often a charged relationship between biographers and their subjects.

LM: Yes, my thoughts about her are very complex. There's a lot to admire about her achievements, but much is frustrating as well. I'm not quite sure whether we choose our subjects or they "find" us. Cushman was enormously powerful and always seemed to need to be the center of attention, so I had ambivalent feelings as I read letters directed to two different lovers at the same time, for example. And for all of the ways she advocated that women be economically independent and insisted on being treated and paid as well as the leading male actors of the day, it's disappointing that Cushman didn't support women's suffrage.

Overwhelmingly, though, I am fascinated by the ways in which Cushman "crafted" herself, the stories Cushman told or authorized about herself in letters, interviews, articles, and reviews and how strategically she used the press. She was very clever at getting and keeping the attention of the public, and consequently, such a wide range of people championed her work. Cushman drew on her remarkable celebrity to establish social connections, particularly among women writers. In America, she was lauded by such contemporaries as Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott.

When Cushman joined the ranks of the London theater, her social set included Charles Dickens and the Brownings. Through these associations and others, she forged connections with the women who became most significant in her life: poet Eliza Cook, writer Matilda Hays, sculptor Emma Stebbins, and her beloved Emma Crow. Cushman lived most of her life in long-term committed relationships with other women. With her partners Matilda Hays and later, Emma Stebbins, Cushman set up an expatriate community of women artists in Rome, where she lived for many years. At roughly the same time as gay male artist Frederic Leighton, members of Cushman's circle of female friends served to encourage, reinforce, and make possible the work of others. I would have loved to have spent some time with this group. Can you imagine their parties and "at-home" entertainments?

TM: Do you think Cushman's private relationships have bearing on contemporary gay and lesbian issues?

LM: Oh yes, Cushman grappled with the meaning of commitments like gay marriage and the need to negotiate between the demands of nuclear family and her "Sapphic family" of choice. Cushman had three long-term relationships in which she described herself as "married" to her respective female partners. In fact, I believe that the breakup of Cushman's "female marriage" (as Elizabeth Barrett Browning described it) with British feminist writer and translator Matilda Hays led to the threat of one of the earliest palimony suits. When Cushman and Hays met in the 1840s Hays was a novelist, one of the first translators of George Sand, and briefly, an actress who played Juliet to Cushman's Romeo. In 1857 Cushman left Hays for Emma Stebbins. Hays, who was a committed feminist, threatened to sue Cushman for the "sacrifice of her writing career" which Hays had given up during the decade she lived with Cushman.

Ultimately Cushman paid Hays several thousand dollars-not a paltry sum in those days-in recompense. Of course, not unlike tabloid accounts of famous breakups today, Hays wrote all about their relationship in a thinly disguised novel.

TM: Finally, How would you characterize Charlotte Cushman's greatest legacy to the theatre and to lesbian and gay lives?

LM: Through her performances and her remarkable personable power, Cushman touched millions of people in the way that live performance still does; in witnessing Cushman onstage audiences encountered aspects of themselves in their responsiveness to this celebrated "masculine" woman. When Cushman died in 1876, many of her eulogizers commended her character, acknowledged the partner she had lived with for almost twenty years, and remarked that Cushman had "seemed to stand complete in nature, with the finest qualities of either sex." I think that Cushman's story reminds us of the possibilities that existed for gay men and lesbians in an earlier historical moment, and the danger of our history being erased.


Tim Miller is a solo performer whose full-evening theater works have been presented all over the world. He is Artistic Director of Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica and is the author of Shirts & Skin, published by Alyson.

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