Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Julia Marlowe: The Tomboy and the Lady

The hefty Marlowe as a girl playing
 a boy in Twelfth Night
Marlowe playing Rosalind posing
as a male in As You Like It

The actress Julia Marlowe was a contradiction,  a mixture of the tomboy and  Lady. What follows is a brief blank verse biography focusing on her split personality.

A mixture of tomboy and Lady,
she most often played females on the stage,
Juliet Capulet in particular,
but she played males occasionally—
the mad young poet Thomas Chatterton,
the fictional Sir Joseph Porter
of the farce The Pirates of Penzance.
She also played females posing as  males—
including sweet Viola in Twelfth Night
the fair Rosalind in As You Like It,
and the doomed Joan in  Péguy's Jeanne d'Arc.
It is well known Joan was burned at the stake
but not that it was for cross-dressing,
a heresy in the Church's view.
In Jeanne d'Arc Marlowe wore a suit of armor
and again in one of Shakespeare's histories
and around the house to get used to it,
which was odd but no longer heretical.

Had she never left England she probably
would not have risen above the low station
her family had occupied socially
in the north, near the border with Scotland,
before her father dragged them to Kansas
where he changed their name from Frost to Brough
(his mother’s maiden name, which rhymed with rough)
to escape from an imaginary 
prosecution, and with his wife’s savings
this footloose Brit bootmaker bought a farm
about thirty miles west of Kansas City
in pursuit of his American dream.
But all it took to kill that foolish scheme
and convince him he had made a mistake
was one long winter in his underwear
in the unforgiving plains of Kansas.
So he dragged his family, including
his daughter Fanny, as she was nicknamed,
back east to the so-called Buckeye State, 
to Ohio, to the shoe capital 
of America, to the river city 
of Portsmouth, across from Kentucky,
to what is now 425 Front Street,
with not one but two charming balconies
on which “Julia” might have been born
on a moonlit evening in mid-summer.
Depicted on a Floodwall mural, the simpering portrait of
Marlowe next to 425 Front St.

The building still stands fondly on Front Street,
the same one where Fanny's father did his soft
shoe number, skipping in and out of town
when it suited him, leaving his poor wife
to make the best of a bad situation,
which she did by taking in boarders.
Much later a schoolmate recalled Fanny
had been an unabashed red-haired tomboy, 
and Fanny herself recalled she got girls
to play hooky from school to go hiking
in the fall when the leaves were turning
colors in the woods surrounding Portsmouth.
That was the only pleasant memory
she could recall from what she called her
“miserable" and nomadic childhood.

After moving on to Cincinnati,
where she ran yet another boarding house,
her mother decided she had had enough
of her cad husband, so she divorced him
and married a German baker named Hess,
whom her children, including Fanny,
the future Julia, found  "loathsome."
But at least there was bread on the table.

From her dull, miserable existence,
Fanny the tomboy first found her escape
in play acting, becoming at the age
of thirteen, the character Sir Joseph Porter,
the First Lord of the Admiralty 
in one of the all-children productions 
of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical,
the smash hit H.M.S. Pinafore,
in which, with what was called a "golden voice,"
she sang the team's comical arias. 
Being a tomboy, the role suited her 
it could be said like a sailor to the sea, 
having already acquired her sea legs
when she crossed the Atlantic as a tot.

Pinafore satirizes the snobbery
of England’s rigid class system
in which the lowly got the royal shaft, 
but satire and social criticism, 
radical politics of any kind, 
did not interest the budding thespian.
Instead, the immortal bard, Shakespeare,
the native son of her birthplace, England,
became her ideal, her idol, her god.

From Gilbert and Sullivan, Julia,
as she was  “new baptized,” graduated 
to Romeo and Juliet, not as
Juliet but as Romeo’s servant  
and companion, the faithful Balthasar.
He was one of a number of males 
she would play, reversing the tradition
in which adolescent boys played women 
on the unisex Elizabethan stage.

When she became very serious about
being a thespian, and her acting career,
the name she chose, Julia Marlowe,
was all-Elizabethan: Julia, like Juliet,
and Marlowe, Shakespeare’s contemporary.
Among playwrights the Bard was the monarch
the brilliant master of all he conveyed
and to him she swore her fealty.

What Shakespeare stood for in America,
with its lack of taste, tact, and manners,
was Culture, with a capital C. 
By embracing bardolatry
like an anglophile religion, 
she was able to rise above
her lower class American station.
She lacked not only background and breeding
but also a high school education,
which she tried to make up for
by acting more British than the British.

Her American dream was to be not
American but consummately English.
Her course of study was limited to
the King’s grandiloquently spoken English—
enunciation and elocution—
with lessons thrown in on grooming and posture.
How one carried oneself in public
and on the stage was crucial to success.
To be stoop shouldered, chin down, or drag ass,
was for a lady impermissible.
She once caught a glimpse of her behind
accidentally in a large mirror. 
“She was startled by the ugly movement 
of her hips,” a biographer wrote, 
“so she determined to correct the fault. 
At the time she was passing the summer 
on the [New] Jersey coast; and early 
every morning she paced the shore 
with her hands pressing down on her hips, 
till she had remedied the fault.”
Were those "ugly" hips a reminder she was
a woman, a member of the weaker sex,
which she tried to suppress by pressing
repeatedly down on those ugly hips?
There was  nothing she couldn’t do once she
singlemindedly decided to do it,
even making her behind behave better,
as befitted a Shakespearean actress.

She made her fortune not in Shakespeare's plays—
from them she got respect and adulation—
but plays like When Knighthood was in Flower,
pure American romantic claptrap. 
As she grew older and wealthier,
Marlowe grew more and more to resemble
the aristocrat she had wanted to be
when she was a poor girl
living on the riverfront in Portsmouth.
With enough money to be charitable,
she helped out the less fortunate with whom, 
though not eager to admit it, she felt
a bond, a close identification.

Not burned at the stake like cross-dressing Joan,
she went out philanthropically in
a sunset blaze of noblesse oblige,
her mail armor, much like her male ardor,
rusting in a closet along with gowns
and gewgaws she had used on stage
when she pretended to be "the lady."
The gowns as well as the mail armor
ended up in Portsmouth, gathering dust
in the 1810 House while the male armor,
if not amour propre, like Banquo's ghost,
haunts the banquets of the straight shooters.

Shakespeare in the U.S.  in the 1800s
was something of a racket, fleecing folks
who wanted to get a bit more culture
like those rubes in Huckleberry Finn
who get taken in by the "King" and "Duke,"
who exploited the craze for things British
of which Shakespeare was the ne plus ultra.
Marlowe and Sothern may have been the best
in their trade, but today they sound like
a straight-faced sketch on Saturday Night Live 
lampooning bombastic bardolatry,
which you can eavesdrop on by clicking here.