McDOWELL, EUGENE ADDISON, actor and theatre manager; b. 1845 in South River, N.J.; d. 21 Feb. 1893 in Bloomingdale, N.Y.
Eugene Addison McDowell made his début as an actor about 1865 in St Louis, Mo. From 1872 to 1875 he played in New York, supporting such stars as Helena Modjeska, Edwin Thomas Booth, James O’Neill, and Clara Morris, a Canadian. He also made other professional contacts and became acquainted with a number of popular plays. During the summer hiatus in 1874 he joined William Nannary in managing the Academy of Music in Saint John, N.B., and he played for a month in Halifax.
Spurred by the success of this Canadian foray, McDowell, through the questionable copyright practices common at the time, brought Dion Boucicault’s popular The shaughraun to Toronto in the spring of 1875. Possessing a handsome, winning stage presence, McDowell, according to the magazine Grip, played with “plenty of humour and life” the lead role of Conn the Shaughraun, an Irishman. Grip pronounced the production “a brilliant success,” but it experienced severe financial difficulties while travelling around the country until it was saved by an unexpectedly appreciative audience at Quebec. As Conn, McDowell made a lasting impact, and he was known thereafter as the manager of The shaughraun company.
This critical success led Montreal businessman Sir Hugh Allan* to engage McDowell to open and manage the Academy of Music in Montreal in late 1875; 18 months later, however, in May 1877, it closed, a financial disaster. According to the Montreal Evening Star, “our citizens are not essentially theatrically inclined,” and to attract them McDowell had embarked on an over ambitious program of 80 plays and 15 curtain-raisers, with obvious sacrifices in quality. Supportive of the academy in principle, the Evening Star was often obliged to be critical of its productions, and, tired of seeing the same old faces despite the variety of roles, theatre-goers turned to the touring companies. One poorly paid actor, Felix Morris, found that McDowell “had a knack of vanishing behind doors and of disappearing around corners.” When Morris finally trapped him, McDowell proved by “abstruse and marvelous calculation” and with “numerous little slips of paper which were simply confusing” that he owed Morris next to nothing. Then, said Morris, he declared “that I had a great future . . . and with a warm shake of the hand and a most angelic smile, he quietly vanished from my view.” The actors took over the management of the company but, after initial success, they too failed.
On 30 Jan. 1877, before he left Montreal, McDowell had married Fanny Reeves, a pretty and extremely popular soubrette from his company. The “much-talked of event” was celebrated in the Church of St James the Apostle before “an overflowing crowd” composed mainly of “girls, young ladies and matrons,” who became so excited that the rector, fearing grave material damage, threatened to call the police. Tardy, Sir Hugh Allan arrived in a dramatic rush to give the bride away. In 1878 the couple had their only child, Claire, who within months was launched on what proved to be a long acting career.
Even as McDowell was taking over the Academy of Music in 1875, resident stock companies were being replaced in popular favour by road companies, mainly from New York, which played Canadian theatres for a night or a week depending on circumstances. Between 1875 and 1900 more than 135 such troupes toured central Canada [see Margaret Finlayson]. After his failure in Montreal, McDowell himself organized a number of these companies during the 14 seasons that he operated in Canada. But, if stock troupes bored audiences because the actors never changed, touring companies exhausted the actors and managers by the constant requirement for adaptation. Continually on the move, McDowell’s troupes visited not only the major cities on the regular circuit – Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, and Halifax – but also dozens of small towns, which got their first taste of professional theatre thanks to him. McDowell was the first, for example, to bring professional, theatre to the west; he visited Winnipeg and surrounding communities in 1879 and on three subsequent occasions. In Emerson, Man., during one visit the troupe performed two plays the same night in an old warehouse. Soap and candle boxes were the popular benches, champagne and brandy cases the choice seats; the orchestra was a church organ.
Variety being a key to success, touring companies had to be adaptable in performance. Between 1877 and 1890 McDowell produced more than 200 plays, but many of them were repeated numerous times so that he was ultimately able to attain exceptional quality in their production. His repertoire reflected current international tastes in comedy, melodrama, and musicals. Three productions were Canadian, one of which, William Henry Fuller’s H.M.S. Parliament or the lady who loved a government clerk, published at Ottawa in 1880, achieved a brief but striking success that year. Based on the current hit by Gilbert and Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore; or, the lass that loved a sailor, it satirized federal politicians, particularly Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley, as well as federal politics, the National Policy in particular. McDowell’s tour featuring this play was a pinnacle in his career.
Adaptation was necessary again in McDowell’s strategy of catering to local interests. He chose his productions according to the place and incorporated local themes into them. Having noted, for example, that H.M.S. Parliament drew weaker responses the farther he got from Ottawa, McDowell made it merely one production among many in Winnipeg, where he produced a locally written play. As well, McDowell had to tailor his productions to local moral exigencies. In June 1880 the Winnipeg Daily Free Press told him that James Albery’s The pink dominoes was “too spicy – at least for this town.” A ballet offered without incident in Montreal in 1876–77 provoked a Halifax newspaper to complain in 1878 that “this atrocious assault on female modesty, this shocking exposition of the female figure in a state of contortion . . . [is] vulgar and indecent.” In general Ontario and Quebec were more liberal than the West or the Maritimes.
As an attraction McDowell also adapted his productions to use locals as extras, and he did benefit performances for local causes. In addition he employed Canadians, such as Julia Arthur [Ida Lewis*], as regulars in his casts and thus provided training for them. Although his actors were good and versatile, McDowell, like all producers of his time, depended heavily on elaborate props and costumes and on spectacular special effects to arouse the enthusiasm of audiences and reviewers. It was no easy task, however, to haul such props as the interior and exterior of the Parliament Buildings for H.M.S. Parliament between Winnipeg and Halifax.
Although McDowell toured in Canada regularly between 1877 and 1890, New York remained his home. Canadian theatre managers journeyed there every year to negotiate productions, and there McDowell could keep up with the most recent developments in the theatre, which he then took to Canada. In addition he played New York stages, made contacts, and booked actors since the completion of each tour witnessed the dispersal of his company. Many actors remained loyal and signed with him year after year. However, McDowell was not successful financially in New York or in the United States generally; his American tours ate up the profits made in Canada, a situation that depressed him.
In 1890 McDowell over-extended himself. After a long Canadian tour, he took his troupe to the West Indies and to South America, where he collapsed from “nervous exhaustion.” He recovered, however, and continued active until some months before his death in 1893 of paresis, a form of paralysis. “He was a very conscientious, good actor, and painstaking,” noted the Montreal Daily Star in its obituary. “He never grumbled at the cost of mounting a play properly. He was a favorite with every one, for he had a kindly, hospitable manner, and he was a staunch friend.”
Professionally, McDowell’s willingness to explore new territory in terms of repertoire and geography, his adaptability, and his capacity to rebound from financial and artistic set-backs were often admirable but always essential qualities. Apart from encouraging the development of Canadian players and playwrights, he contributed solidly to Canadian theatre through his presentation of quality productions adapted to local circumstances, for in this way he made theatre attendance acceptable recreation for thousands of conservative Canadians in small towns and cities from Manitoba to Nova Scotia.
Portraits of Eugene Addison McDowell are held by MTRL, Arts Dept., E. A. McDowell and Company coll., and by McCord Museum, Notman Photographic Arch., 43062-BII–64-BII, 43110-BII, 44781-BII. Some of these portraits are reproduced in K. D. J. Fraser, “Theatre management in the nineteenth century: Eugene A. McDowell in Canada, 1874–1891,” Theatre Hist. in Canada (Toronto and Kingston, Ont.), 1 (1980): 39–54, and R. G. Lawrence, “Dramatic history: H.M.S. Parliament,” Canadian Theatre Rev. (Toronto), no.19 (summer 1978): 38–45.
The text of W. H. Fuller’s H.M.S. Parliament or the lady who loved a government clerk is reproduced in Canada’s lost plays, ed. Anton Wagner and Richard Plant (4v., Toronto, 1978–82), 1: 158–93.
Felix Morris, Reminiscences (New York, [ 1892]), 68–73, 76–79, 84–87. Canadian Illustrated News (Montreal), 28 Feb. 1880. Dramatic Mirror (New York), 4 March 1893. Grip (Toronto), 24 April 1875. Montreal Daily Star, 30 Jan. 1877, 22 Feb. 1893. M. D. Edwards, A stage in our past, English-language theatre in eastern Canada from the 1790s to 1914 ([Toronto], 1968). K. D. J. Fraser, “A history of the McDowell Theatre Company, 1872–1893”