Introduction by Federico M. de Luca di Melpignano (UNAR) and Pasquale Quaranta – Gruppo GEDI Editore)
Fabrizia Sacchi and Ombra felice Quartet
Is it by coincidence that I bumped into Charlotte Cushman? I have no idea but blessed was the moment she was introduced to me. I began to follow her tracks through some rather complex research as it is not easy to find much information about her.
Then I found a beautiful book, 'Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of her Life' written by one of her dear friends, the sculptress Emma Stebbins (creator of the 'Angel of the Waters', more widely known as the Bethesda Fountain at the centre of Central Park, New York), and it was through this book that I finally began getting to know Cushman. One cannot speak of Charlotte 'only' as the most esteemed theatrical performer of her time, oh no. She was also very much a ringleader, a natural leader capable of attracting a real community of intellectuals to within her sphere, hanging on her every word, evening soirees at Cushman's home remain impressed upon the memory of anyone who participated in them. Even such accolades may not be enough however for Charlotte lived with a woman with whom she shared a real matrimonial relationship which she did not conceal and which she lived in a natural way despite homosexuality being illegal at the time. During the mid-19th Century when one spoke of homosexuality, it was entirely with regard to men. Lesbianism was not even contemplated.
Piecing together Cushman's life means piecing together all her journeys and movements as her life was one of continual transit. Reconstructing her life and character has proved to be a real journey, and it is really the extent of her travels that was the basis of her life: the tours that saw her performing in England then Paris, again in the United States and again in Europe, her trips to Swiss spas and those at Malvern, her round-the-world holidays before arriving here in Rome, a city she described as having the mildest winter and most beautiful spring. Cashman rented a house in Via Gregoriana, a stone's throw from Piazza di Spagna and established around her one of the most interesting communities of artists, all women and mostly sculptresses. Indeed, Henry Wreford, a well-known chronicler from The Times who during that period was also a war correspondent, locally known as 'Don Enrico', had left England permanently to set up home in Italy. Once in Italy, Wreford began writing about art and become interested in this odd group of women artists on whom he conferred the name, 'The Twelve Star Constellation'.
Charlotte was a formidable actress. The adjective most used to define her was 'earnest', that is both serious and sincere, two formidable characteristics applied to a natural interpretive talent such as hers. One of Cashman's most shocking theatrical performances was that of Romeo. English critics of the time uunanimously lauded her interpretation of this Shakespearian character, declaring a theatrical uniqueness and potency never witnessed before. Then there was Cashman's portrayal of Lady Macbeth with which she debuted and which she continued to perform throughout her career. Cashman was indeed never defined as an actress but more as a genius without gender definition. She was also a very competent organiser and manager of both herself and her companion. She possessed excellent theatrical production skills, an area of expertise until then the unique preserve of males.
However, for me, the most astonishing thing about Cashman was getting to know something about a woman through her work. Indirectly but also openly, she promoted, defended and highlighted the civil rights of women, a gender which until that moment had been marginalised. She faced her life and homosexuality dressed freely as either a male or female and lived as a couple with her female companion. Throughout her art and above all through her work, Cashman demonstrated how gender distinctions were already a political and social construction.
Charlotte resonates deeply with me. In her I finally find my ideal artist: seriously devoted to the stage; deeply attached to her family; a welcoming mother and friend and very entertaining for the company she kept. As well as an example of an independent and free artist, I find in her someone who defied the customs of her times. Her proverbial instinct leaves behind an exemplary life, unique, lived with passion and founded on hard graft since the outset.
Béatrice Muthelet – alto, Clément Noel – oboe, Anne-Elsa Tremoulet – violin, Jerome Le Franc – cello