Laura Keene:
A British Actress on the American Stage, 1826-1873

by Vernanne Bryan

Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1997, x p., 222 pp., illus. ISBN 0-7864-0075-7. $35.00.

There is no doubt that Laura Keene was a many-gifted and intelligent person. In addition to being an outstanding stage actress, she was also a devoted daughter and mother. In an age when women were expected to devote their energies to the domestic sphere, Keene broke the gender mold by managing her own theatre company, taking on responsibilities that were generally handled by men. In her book Laura Keene: A British Actress On the American Stage, 1826-1873 author Vernanne Bryan takes a close look at the life and career of the multi-talented actress/manager.

Laura Keene was born Mary Frances Moss in the British town of Westminster in 1827. After her father's death in 1841, Mary Frances set out to look for a job to help support her family. She was married to Henry Wellington Taylor in 1844, bearing him two children, Emma Elija and Clara Stella. Her husband, a shifty ne'er-do-well soon abandoned his small family, leaving Mary Frances to raise her children alone.

Mary turned to her aunt, Elizabeth Yates, for guidance. Mrs. Yates, a well-respected British actress, saw a great potential in Mary Frances in the same profession. Mary Frances Moss took on a new persona, adopting the stage name, Laura Keene. Laura soon developed a great following in England. In 1852, leaving her daughters in the care of her mother, Laura left England to seek fame and fortune on the American Stage.

Her career in the United States was as stellar as it was in Great Britain. She found success in New York, Baltimore and San Francisco. She even made brief tour of Australia before settling down on the eastern coast of the U.S.

Of course, her name will forever be remembered as the lead actress in Our American Cousin, the
play Lincoln was watching at Ford's Theatre the night he was assassinated.

The book in question, by Vernanne Bryan, offers an adequate sketch of Keene's life, but there are
aspects to the work that are a bit problematic. It is apparent that Bryan, while writing on a historical topic, is not herself a trained historian. A close inspection of her endnotes reveals that the book was written primarily through the use of secondary sources. The author draws extensively from earlier biographies of Laura Keene by John Creahan and Ben Graf Henneke1. For basic facts on the assassination of Lincoln, she relies upon The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop. Mr. Bishop himself acknowledged the many shortcomings of this book long ago, and surely Ms. Bryan could have chosen a better source upon which to rely.

The author also engages in historical speculation and imaginative narration. She introduces a lengthy quote of a non-existent letter of Miss Keene's, in which the actress is sending for her mother and daughters to join her in American by saying, "The concluding paragraphs of that letter must have gone something like this:" (Page 32).

Ms. Bryan acknowledges that she is a feminist author, and that influence often sidetracks her narrative into areas not particularly germane to the Keene story. In discussing Keene's early education, Bryan launches into full-page quote of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Right of Women, under the guise that the book was "easily available" to Jane Moss, Laura Keene's mother (p. 8-9). Bryan future opines in an endnote that Mary Lincoln was railroaded into being judged mentally incompetent as a "direct result of a gender system that removed women from the economic and legal sources of power and gave them the insufficient substitute of a male protector" (p. 210). She does not, however, attempt to reconcile Mrs. Lincoln's strange behavior and irrational fears at the time of her committal.2

To her credit, Bryan does an excellent job at following in close detail Laura Keene's many theatrical achievements and successes. Not only are these accomplishments described in detail in the narrative, but also an appendix titled "Theatres, Companies, Plays and Roles with which Laura Keene was Associated, in Chronological Order (1851-1863)" provides a detailed list of the actress's roles and her fellow actors in those plays.

In the end, however, Bryan's use of secondary sources and the at times annoying feminist soapboxing left me somehow unfulfilled, and rather anxious to read Creahan's and Henneke's works to learn more about the real Laura Keene.

© Copyright Daniel E. Pearson, 1999

1 John Creahan. The Life of Laura Keene: Actress, Artist, Manager, and Scholar, Together with Some Interesting Reminiscences of Her Daughter. (Philadelphia: Rodgers Publishing Company, 1897). Ben Graf Henneke. Laura Keen: A Biography. (Tulsa, OK: Council Oak Books, 1990).
2 See Mark E. Neely, Jr. and R. Gerald McMurtry. The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986).