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Charlotte Cushman: ‘a woman who played the man’. And won.

Charlotte Cushman, by Thos. Sully.

By MONTANA WOJCZUK [from Lapham’s Quarterly] – Charlotte Cushman was one of America’s first superstar actresses. Walt Whitman had written rapturously of her roles as a young theater critic for the Brooklyn Eagle. In 1846 he proclaimed “the towering grandeur of her genius” writing,

“Miss Cushman assuredly bears away the palm from them all, men and women.” In the golden age of American theater this was no mean feat, but Charlotte Cushman was no ordinary actress. She became famous for playing “breeches parts,” men’s roles like Hamlet and Romeo, for which she competed with the most famous actors of the day.

Cushman’s Romeo, with her sister as Juliet, had unprecedented success in England and her Hamlet and Macbeth drew both men and women to the stage door, arms laden with flowers. One woman declared that Cushman was “a very dangerous young man.” As an artist who was also an “intellectual” performer, a woman who played the man, and a single woman whose life reads like an adventure novel Cushman deeply influenced American culture in the time of great upheaval around the Civil War. Louisa May Alcott once wrote that she had a “stage-struck fit” after seeing Cushman perform, and would later base the character of Miss Cameron from Jo’s Boys on her…

By the time of her death in February of 1876, Cushman was among the most famous women in the world. Yet as 25,000 people holding flickering candles crowded the streets of New York in mourning, a counter-movement of social conservatives had begun a campaign to eventually write Charlotte Cushman out of history.

Continued at Lapham’s Quarterly | Propose a Notice | More Chronicles & Notices.

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