A Spectacle of Suffering: Clara Morris on the American Stage
By Barbara Wallace Grossman. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, February 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-0809328826, $37.50. 344 pages.
Review by Hayley Wood, Massachusetts Humanities
Barbara Wallace Grossman has contributed an engaging biography of Clara Morris to the Theater in the Americas series published by Southern Illinois University Press. Written with crisp and down-to-earth prose, the book not only conveys the remarkable life of an acclaimed nineteenth-century actress, it also recreates the industry of the gas-lit, resident stock theatre company—already in its decline by the time Morris began her stage career at the age of fifteen as a lowly “ballet girl” for three dollars a week.
Clara Morris was known in her heyday as a virtuoso of the “emotional school” of acting, an aesthetic match with the popular contemporary plays of the day, many of which were French melodramas with complicated plots and maudlin, hysteria-prone female characters. The actress, who excelled in summoning real tears and moving audiences with a blend of emotional realism and choreographed movements, honed her signature roles, all “victims of social usage.”
It will not surprise readers that Morris rose to prominence from an extremely poor and lonely childhood, the painstakingly researched (and puzzling) details of which Grossman records with care, noting all remaining uncertainties and using several sources besides Morris’s diaries, memoirs, and autobiographical fiction. Born in Toronto to a house servant and a man later discovered to be a bigamist, Morris knew little ease or joy as a young child. Her early life with her mother was marked by several moves to homes in which she was expected to remain quiet and unobtrusive—she experienced no security beyond the lifelong bond of mother and daughter (Morris’s mother lived with her until she died in her nineties). Getting a job at the Academy of Music in Cleveland signaled a dramatic upswing in the lives of Clara Morris and her mother.
Moving relatively quickly from playing chorus and dancing parts to being a stand-in for leading lady roles, Morris stayed with the Cleveland company for seven years. She advanced to a “leading business” position in a Cincinnati company, and from there, at the age of 22, moved on to the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York, run with talent, care and a despotic level of control by Augustin Daly. Here she emerged in her career’s signature role as Cora the vengeful Creole in Article 47, in which her “descent into raving madness” seduced audiences and critics, cementing her reputation as an actress skilled at depicting acute emotional and physical pain.
Clara Morris’s decline—caused by chronic pain, morphine addiction, and an unhappy marriage—was long, public and painful, although her persistence as an actress and a writer was remarkable. Chronicling with intelligence and compassion both Morris’s satisfying hard work and success as well as her decline into poverty and illness, Grossman masterfully weaves details from Morris’s large body of work, which includes six books of fiction, three memoirs, countless newspaper articles, and her fifty-four-volume diary. A Spectacle of Suffering is a great read and a reminder of the treasure trove that a faithfully kept diary can be. It doesn’t hurt if that diary records the life of a famous stage actress whose arc of life resembles the American dream in both its promise and disenchantment.