In Lady Romeo (Avid Reader, July.), Guernica editor Wojczuk spotlights 19th-century actor Charlotte Cushman.
How did you discover Charlotte Cushman?
Through my obsession for Shakespeare. When I was four, my parents would take me to Shakespeare festivals. It was there I first heard about Charlotte—a woman who played Hamlet. After a bit of research, I discovered that she was enormously famous, which made me question how a queer woman who lived fairly openly could become a celebrity in the early 1800s.
What drew her to men’s roles?
Adventure stories with male protagonists were very popular during the time period, and Charlotte knew that in some ways she had to become a man to live her own adventure—similar to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And it turned out that playing a male character was very intuitive for her. She already embodied what, at the time, were considered very masculine characteristics: she was intellectual, brave, and willing to take risks.
What makes her story relevant for women today?
It’s a story about the trials of an ambitious woman. She lived at a time when women weren’t allowed to have jobs, and had no access to higher learning, or to any public spaces. That didn’t stop Charlotte. She was able to amass an enormous fortune and become just as famous as people like Charles Dickens. There were those who tried to undermine her—certain critics, for example—but audiences loved her so much, she could pack theaters and therefore get away with a lot.
Why do you think 19th-century audiences loved her so much?
At the time, all the actors were doing melodrama, and audiences were tired of it. But Charlotte connected emotionally with the characters she played. I would consider her one of the first Method actors. When she played the role of the prostitute Nancy in Dicken’s Oliver Twist, for example, she went down to Five Points, an extremely dangerous neighborhood in New York, to meet prostitutes, and ended up exchanging clothes with them. Their clothes became her costume. Audiences were completely absorbed by her performances. People would leave the theater crying, emotionally devastated.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
An appreciation of the immense effort it takes to make art and to be a successful artist. For Charlotte, it was almost a duty to do something with this fire she had within, this talent that drove her. Ultimately, this is an adventure story—proof that women, even those still being punished for being ambitious, can live their great adventure.