Charlotte Melmoth

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Charlotte Melmoth
Harvard Theatre Collection - Charlotte Melmoth TCS 45.jpg
Mrs Charlotte Melmoth as 'Roxana' in "The Rival Queens"
Born Not known
Died 1823
Occupation Actress, Teacher
Language English, Irish
Nationality English
Partner Samuel Jackson Pratt (17??-1781; separated)

Mrs Charlotte Melmoth (c. 1749 – 1823) was an 18th-century English actress, the estranged 'wife' of British actor/writer Samuel Jackson Pratt ("Courtney Melmoth"), and known as "The Grande Dame of Tragedy on the Early American Stage"[1] After a mildly-successful stage career in Great Britain and Ireland she emigrated to America in 1793 and became one of the best-known actresses of the late 18th/early 19th century.[2][3]

Early life[edit]

Little is known of Charlotte's early years; she may have been an English farmer's daughter.[4] Her real name is uncertain.[2] She first came to the attention of the British public in the late 18th century, as "Mrs Courtney Melmoth" part of an acting duo with her supposed husband, Samuel Jackson Pratt who used the stage name "Courtney Melmoth". It is not known whether she adopted her husband's stage-surname "Melmoth" or, as has been speculated, "Melmoth" was her real surname and Pratt adopted it as his own stage name.[5]

Most biographers give her year of birth as 1749,[2][6] the same as Pratt's. However this would put her in her twenties in the early 1770s, when she first met Pratt,[7] in contradiction of another biographer's claim that she was still at school when this meeting occurred.[2][8]

Some time in the early 1770s, she entered into a marital-like [clarification needed] relationship with a clergyman, Samuel Jackson Pratt, who, as a result of the scandal, left the church to pursue an ultimately unsuccessful acting career and who eventually became a well-known writer.[2] According to A History of The City of Brooklyn, Charlotte "had been duped into a sham marriage, while at boarding school, by a Mr. Pratt (known in the literary and theatrical circles of that day as Courtney Melmoth), and with him went upon the stage, playing in several companies both in England and Ireland."[8] Pratt's parents strongly disapproved of the relationship and it is not known whether or not the marriage was ever legally formalised. The couple toured together in theatrical productions, not always successfully, and sometimes had to resort to telling fortunes to make their living.[7] In 1773 the couple opened a theatre in Drogheda, County Louth, Ireland. The venture was not successful and the theatre failed within three months,[3][7] whereupon the couple moved to London, where Charlotte began to achieve success as an actress, both at Covent Garden and Drury Lane.[2][8] From 1776–1779 the couple played seasons in Edinburgh, London and Birmimgham.

Friendship with Benjamin Franklin[edit]

From 1777–1778, the couple were in Paris, where they made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin.[9] The couple were present in January 1778 when Franklin gave a copy of his portrait to a certain Mrs Izard, but neglected to give a similar copy to Charlotte. The incident inspired Charlotte to write a poem, "Impromptu, To Doctor Franklin For the Author who was present when he gave his Portrait to a Lady", which Pratt sent to Franklin.[10] Franklin replied,apologising for not realising that Charlotte also wanted a copy of the portrait.[11]

The couple were by now experiencing serious financial problems, (Pratt had already borrowed money from a friend, Mrs Montagu and arrempted to borrow money from Samuel Johnson[3]) and, on 29 January 1778, the day after receiving Franklin's response to Charlotte's poem, Pratt wrote to Franklin asking to borrow money from him, which Franklin agreed to.[12] He then asked for a further loan four days later[13] and, on 3 March begged Franklin for "a small allowance by week or month, in order to assist my slender Circumstances".[14] A further request for money was made on 12 May,[15] shortly before the "Melmoths" returned to England, to which Franklin replied that he found the requests for money "a greater inconvenience to myself than you perhaps imagined", but agreeing to the further loan, relying "on your Honour and Punctuality for the speedy Repayment". On 22 June 1778 Pratt wrote to Franklin from London regretting that he and Charlotte were unable to repay the money,[16] whereupon the friendship with Franklin appears to have abruptly ended. By 1781 Pratt and Charlotte had separated, and Charlotte, retaining her 'married' surname, continued her acting career in Ireland.[3] In 1793 she emigrated to the United States.[6]

Acting career[edit]

In Britain and Ireland[edit]

Charlotte Melmoth as Queen Elizabeth in "The Earl of Essex" 1779.

Charlotte made her stage debut in May 1773 at The Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, playing Monimia in "The Orphan". In late 1773 Charlotte and Pratt opened their own theatre in Drogheda, with a production of "The Merchant of Venice", in which Charlotte played Portia to Pratt's Shylock, but the theatre failed and, after three months, the couple moved to London.[3][7]

In February 1774 she debuted at Covent Garden as Calista in "The Fair Penitent". Westminster Magazine reviewed her performance with the words, "Her figure is pleasing and also she is young and handsome ... she possesses the internal as well as external requisites of a good actress; for she discovers great feeling and sensibility; and indeed promises to be a great ornament to the theatre". Later that year, also at Covent Garden, she played Roxana in Nathaniel Lee's "The Rival Queens or The Death of Alexander The Great", a role she would reprise at other times in her career. Amongst other roles she played at Covent Garden that season are Eleanor in "Henry II", Hermione in "A Winter's Tale" and Queen Elizabeth in Henry Jones' tragedy, "The Earl of Essex". In 1776 she played Edinburgh with her husband, where, among many other leading roles, she played Alicia in "The Tragedy of Jane Shore", Viola in "Twelfth Night" and Mrs Belville in "School for Wives".[3] In Edinburgh she also played Lady Macbeth for the first time - a role for which she would eventually become famous.[2][17]

In November 1776 she made her debut at Drury Lane[2][3][8] as Lady Macbeth and the following February, reprised her role as Roxanne in "The Rival Queens", alongside Mary Robinson.[18] This would be her last appearance in London; the following year she and her husband were in Paris,[9] then in 1778 and 1779 they played two seasons in Edinburgh, where Charlotte began to add Comic parts (including Lady Sneerwell in "The School for Scandal") to her previously Tragic repertoire. In late 1779, after a season in Birmingham, Charlotte's success seems to have faded for a while, and the couple travelled Britain seeking work, occasionally telling fortunes for a living.[3][7]

By 1780 the couple had returned to where Charlotte's acting career had started - the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. They made their final appearance there as a couple in 1781, after which they separated and never met again. Charlotte toured the major cities of Ireland, playing in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Derry and Belfast, eventually settling in Dublin. She played Smock Alley from 1782–83, was the 'prima donna' of Leoni's Capel Street Opera House from 1783–84, Owensons Fishamble Street Theatre from 1784–85, returned to Smock Alley from 1785–88, finally ending her Irish stage career at the Crow Street Theatre from 1788-89.[3][19]

According to "The Thespian Dictionary", Charlotte converted to Roman Catholicism in 1786, shortly prior to her Benefit Performance in Dublin; the Dictionary suggests her motives were purely mercenary - increased ticket sales in a Catholic city - but most biographers believe her conversion to be sincere.[3][19][20]

In July 1789 Charlotte announced her retirement from the theatre in order to open a school teaching filigree work to ladies,[19] but the school was not a success and in 1793 Charlotte emigrated to America to resume her interrupted stage career.[2][3][6][8]

In America[edit]

Arriving in New York in March 1793, Charlotte (advertised as 'From the Theatres Royal of London and Dublin') gave a series of recitations and Shakespearian monologues, held at Corre's Hotel throughout that April.[19] The London Register reported that the event "afforded infinite delight to every rational mind".[3]

Later that year she joined Hodgkinson's 'American Company' at the John Street Theatre, New York, making her debut on 20 November 1793[8] as Euphrasia in Arthur Murphy's "The Grecian Daughter".[2][3] Over the next five years she was to play many leading tragic roles for that company, including her most famous role as Lady Macbeth, becoming a 'universal favourite' for the excellence of her acting.[2][8] She was acclaimed by leading American impresario, William Dunlap, as "the best tragic actress the inhabitants of New York, then living, had ever seen," and William Wood wrote of her "To a fine face and powerful voice she added an exquisite feeling of the pathetic which...left an impression which years fail to efface."[3]

In 1794 she refused to speak the Epilogue of a new opera, "Tammanay" by Ann Hatton, apparently disapproving of its patriotic sentiments. The New York Journal demanded a boycott of Charlotte's performances and called for her not to be "suffered to go on the New York stage again."[3] Nevertheless, her popularity was undiminished and when the Park Theatre, New York, opened in 1798 Charlotte became one of its leading actresses.[2]

Unfortunately, Charlotte, still playing youthful parts in her late-40's was no longer in the prime of life, and her figure had grown bulky[8][17] - "far beyond the sphere of embonpoint" as Dunlap commented. She had grown so large that, playing Euphrasia one night she invited another character to stab her, crying, as per the script, "Strike here! Here's blood enough!" at which the audience burst out laughing - she cut the line from all further performances.[3][8]

Finally becoming aware of the limitations of her size, she took to playing older "matron" parts instead, at which she apparently excelled.[3][8] She stayed with the Park Theatre until 1805, when she moved to the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.[2][3]

In 1811 she was travelling to fulfil an engagement at the Olympic Theatre, New York, when she was involved in a carriage accident, resulting in a severe fracture to her arm (although rumours that she had been killed were circulating in the press). The fracture failed to heal properly and Charlotte reluctantly had to give up her acting career.[3][19]

On 12 August 1812, after announcing her retirement from the stage, Charlotte gave her last performance - a 'benefit performance' to raise funds for her retirement - playing Fiammetta in "The Tale of Mystery" at the Olympic Theatre, New York.[3]

Later life[edit]

Following her 1812 retirement, Charlotte supported herself on the proceeds of a 'respectable tavern' which she had already purchased while still acting, and opened a school for elocution in Washington Street, New York.[3] Later she purchased a cottage in Red Hook Lane, Brooklyn (on present-day Carroll Street) where she established a boarding house and a school[4][8] which she ran until her death. Her pupils included children from some of the wealthiest and best-known Brooklyn famies, including the Cornell, Pierpoint, Cutting, Jackson and Luquer families.[8]

She died, aged 74, on 28 September 1823 and was buried in the Catholic graveyard surrounding the original St. Patrick's Cathedral on Mott and Prince streets in Manhattan.[3][8] The Washington Quarterly obituary said of her "her talent, particularly in the higher walks of tragedy, was very generally acknowledged. She was much esteemed for her excellent private character."[21]


  1. ^ The Oxford companion to American theatre by Gerald Martin Bordman, Thomas S. Hischak
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m The Oxford Companion to the Theatre (Fourth Edition)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians (Vol 10)
  4. ^ a b The Virtual Dime Museum profile of Charlotte Melmoth Archived April 26, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ Dictionary of Pseudonyms: Adrian Loom
  6. ^ a b c The Cambridge Guide to the American Theatre
  7. ^ a b c d e Dictionary of National Biography 1921-1922 Vols 1-20
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m A History of the City of Brooklyn. Including The Old Town And Village Of Brooklyn, The Town Of Bushwick, And The Village And City Of Williamsburgh. Vol.II. Chapter II.
  9. ^ a b The Franklin Papers - "Courtney Melmoth"
  10. ^ The Franklin Papers: 28 January 1778 (s): letter from Pratt to Franklin enclosing copy of Charlotte's poem.
  11. ^ The Franklin Papers: 28 January 1778 (r): Benjamin Franklin's response to Charlotte's poem.
  12. ^ The Franklin papers: 29 January 1778 Pratt's first request for a loan
  13. ^ The Franklin papers: 4 February 1778
  14. ^ The Franklin Papers 3 March 1778
  15. ^ The Franklin Papers 12 May 1778
  16. ^ The Franklin Papers 22 June 1778
  17. ^ a b Companion to the American Theatre
  18. ^ Memoirs of Mary Robinson
  19. ^ a b c d e John Green: "Theatre in Belfast 1736-1800"
  20. ^ "The Thespian Dictionary" - Charlotte Melmoth
  21. ^ The Washington Quarterly 1824

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