Mary Ann Wrighten Pownall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Welcome to the 1790s—and accounts of the earliest celebrities in the American Theatre!

Overview of Project


Mrs. Melmoth as Roxalana © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This site explores the careers and personal lives of  the first “celebrity” actresses who came to the United States in the last decade of the eighteenth century and who remained in this country until their deaths.  At this time, anti-theatrical laws only recently had been repealed, and although the United States had broken ties with Great Britain, many citizens in the new country still clung to British tradition and culture, particularly British plays, playwrights, and players.


Georgina George Oldmixon TCS 45 Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

Although scholars have considered the careers of other early American actresses, most notably Susanna Rowson and Anne Brunton Merry, few have addressed the careers of other celebrity actresses on stages in the United States. This project explores the biographical information, repertory, reviews, compositions,  roles, travels, and professional strategies of 17 “celebrity” actresses of the 1790s: the international stars: Mary Ann Pownall (formerly Mrs. Wrighten),  Charlotte Melmoth, Frances Hodgkinson, Georgina Oldmixon, Dorothea Broadhurst, Eliza Whitlock, and Anne Brunton Merry Wignell Warren. Some other actresses became nationally known for their depictions in tragedies and dramas; these include Mrs. Giles Barrett and Elizabeth Harrison Powell. Comedy “fine ladies” include Elizabeth Ford Johnson, Elizabeth Walker Morris, and Eleanor Francis. Actresses who starred in comedic Romps include Eliza Hallam, Maria Henry, Louisa Fontenelle WilliamsonLydia Marshall and Arabella Brett.


Dorothea Broadhurst TCS 45 Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

Many of these performers had established reputations on stages in Great Britain and enjoyed even greater professional success in this country despite their relative maturity and their less-than-svelte figures. All performed regularly with major theatres in Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Boston. Some also performed in Savannah, Hartford, and Baltimore.  In addition, several were mothers who successfully balanced professional and domestic responsibilities.


Frances Brett Hodgkinson TCS 45 Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

.All of these actresses performed in plays and in concert halls. Four of the five were renowned vocalists, and one was the most accomplished actress of tragic roles yet seen in this country.  Even more impressively,  they all inspired public notices of their virtue and respectability despite murky marital histories and their unconventional “professional” lives on public stages.