April 1, 2009

A Spectacle on Stage

In researching the life of leading 19th-century actress Clara Morris, Barbara Wallace Grossman discovered as much about the power of perseverance as she did about the history of theater

By Marjorie Howard

On a raw November day in 2003, Barbara Wallace Grossman visited the cemetery where Clara Morris, once considered America’s greatest actress, is buried. Grossman, an associate professor and chair of the drama department, had begun researching Morris’ life a decade earlier, eager to find a subject for a new book. She thought she had it in Morris, who once was known for her passionate and powerful acting and now is virtually forgotten.

“Something about her story haunted me,” says Barbara Wallace Grossman of the actress Clara Morris. Photo: Jodi Hilton

Morris, who lived from 1847 to 1925, kept a diary that eventually filled 54 volumes, and Grossman hoped to use it as a means of not only telling her story, but of explaining the social and cultural history of the era in which she lived. But after years of research and two rounds of book proposal submissions, Grossman had received what she calls “a lovely bunch of rejection letters.” She was close to giving up.

A couple of fortuitous events, however, along with a growing respect for Morris, changed that.

Standing in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y., on that November day, Grossman remembers, “At that point I said to myself, ‘It’s doomed; maybe it’s a cursed project, and that’s it.’ But it really bothered me that I had spent so much time on the research and done what I thought was quality work. And I wanted to tell her story.”

As she approached the grave, Grossman saw a monument of a kneeling, weeping figure, flanked by two urns. She thought it was the perfect representation of Morris, an actress known for portraying immense suffering on stage.

“But it wasn’t hers,” says Grossman, who was stunned to realize that Morris lay nearby in an unmarked grave, alongside her adored mother. “That was poignant enough,” she recalls, “but what really got to me was an obelisk that cast a shadow over her grave.” On the obelisk was the last name of the family whose graves it marked. The family name was “Failing.” Nearby was another obelisk with the family name “Story.”

“There I am on a cold day in November feeling like I’m getting a message from beyond the grave: tell my story of failure and disappointment,” she recalls. Grossman rewrote her book proposal, this time emphasizing Morris’ resilience and tenacity in the face of rejection and sorrow. Her book, published in late February by Southern Illinois Press, is called A Spectacle of Suffering: Clara Morris on the American Stage, a title that refers both to Morris’ life and her distinctive performance style.

Trapped in Amber

Morris was born illegitimate and had a bleak childhood, raised by a single mother who worked as a housekeeper and cook in Cleveland. She rose to fame in melodramatic plays that were largely adapted from French originals. Often they dealt with fallen women, and Morris became famous for her roles in the New York theater as a suffering heroine. “She was known for her ability to cry profusely on stage and to make people in the audience emote along with her,” says Grossman.

But tastes changed, and by the late 1880s, the actress was no longer popular. “Her career spiraled downward, and she became a caricature of her former self,” says Grossman. “A Boston critic compared her to an insect trapped in amber.”

At one point Morris was known as the Queen of Spasms” because, says Grossman, “what people had once thought was fresh and innovative—namely a highly emotional style of acting—now was a mannered shell of what she had been.”

It might not have all been acting. Grossman believes Morris suffered from debilitating spinal pain and had become addicted to morphine, which was widely prescribed for pain relief at the time, before doctors realized it was highly addictive. Morris often interrupted her performances to go backstage for an injection, without which she would have been unable to continue. Although audiences thought she was simply resting, diary entries confirm her use of morphine at the theater for years.

Clara Morris in Camille in 1874. Photo: Courtesy of Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

One of the themes that runs through Morris’ diary was failure and the fear of failure. “For a time I disliked her,” says Grossman, “her complaints about her husband, her illnesses, her pain, her financial worries. She was anti-Semitic and racist early in her life. But to her credit, she evolved and seemed to lose those prejudices as she got older.”

Chastened perhaps by her own failure to get a publisher, Grossman reread the last volumes of Morris’ diary and came away with renewed respect for her strength, determination and ability to reinvent herself. After her acting career ended, Morris turned to writing, publishing nine books and hundreds of articles and short stories. Once again she became a beloved public figure. An invalid for 15 years before her death, “she accepted her lot in life and kept working,” says Grossman.

During the long journey toward writing her own book, Grossman had some unexpected help from a colleague in the drama department, Laurence Senelick, the Fletcher Professor of Oratory and professor of drama. Senelick frequently goes to antiquarian book fairs in search of theatrical memorabilia. At one point when Grossman had abandoned the project, Senelick presented her with two large boxes of material that he had purchased.

They contained information about Morris and notes for a book about her by George MacAdam, a journalist who died in 1929, leaving the biography he planned to write unfinished. “In addition to his invaluable research, the boxes also included some previously undiscovered Morris material, such as letters, telegrams and souvenir programs. It seemed like a sign that I needed to go back to this project,” says Grossman.

“Something about her story haunted me,” explains Grossman. “I’m also the kind of person who likes to finish what I start. She was determined and tenacious, and so am I.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

Article Tools

emailE-mail printPrint