— But while the Cricket dances to jubilant music and the weird accompaniment of her shadow, while her sobs, echoing a feigned sorrow, fill the little Olympic Theatre on Broadway, and as her laugher is taken up and echoed again by a thronged and charmed audience, further up the street, at another theatre, among the noblest company of comedians now upon the stage, there is a sorrow not feigned, for one of that rare combination has gone from among them, and will return no more forever. They stand together in little knots of twos and threes, in the by-palace of the stage and in the green-room, speaking quietly, tenderly of her who was greater than them all, of one of the latchets of whose shoes the Fanchon was not worthy to unloose, of Mary Gannon, the grace and crown of comedy, its noblest, truest female, representative [. . .]
Miss Gannon was an actress at the Old Bowery in her sixth year, playing Henry in “Jack Robinson,” and Julio in “The Planter and his Dog.” After that she was at the old Franklin Theatre, in Chatham street, dancing with infinite grace, and so learning that charm of deportment which afterward became one of the stronger characteristics of her acting. The next season she had advanced a step, has quite left the Old Bowery behind her forever, and makes her dèbut in an old play of Garrick’s, at the elder Wallack’s Theatre. The greatest Romeo and Don Caesar and Benedict of his day—or of ours—has been watching the little lady, and hereafter she will grow to greatness and win from the old veteran of high praise of being “the first of America’s female comedians” [. . .] (8)
As an actress Miss Gannon was but slightly indebted to mere personal appearances or to physical endowments for success. Her figure was of medium height, rounded and full, and did not lack a certain grace and elegance. Her step upon the stage was firm, elastic, and she moved across it, never assertant [sic], yet always as if assured of her power ; her gesticulation was charmingly natural, graceful and expressive, and that’ most difficult thing for an actress to master, the movement of the hands and arms, was always with her perfectly easy and correct [sic], never forestalling the speech, but following it certainly and regularly, as sound follows the blow, or shadow the substance. In her by-play, a movement of her hand, or a change in the wonderfully mobile face, created a meaning out of silence, provoking laughter or tears as no words could do. But generally, her hands seemed only to emphasize the speech, giving it significance unknown before. Voice and hand move one before the other, with a propriety and naturalness that could result from no amount of study, but only from an intimate and very human sympathy with her author’s meaning.
Her face was of exceeding plainness, but the expression of her features, when in repose, was habitually soft and pleasing ; and if any fancy touched them from within, a smile, wonderfully rare in its sweetness, lighted them up, and for the moment made them beautiful. It was a face that attracted beggars, and all hurt and sorrowful people, and it never showed them anything but pity for their pain, and her hand was always ready as her face to enforce its sympathy and human love. Her voice ranged through al the scale of sweet and gentle utterances. Its mellowness, richness, and distinctness had no counterpart upon the American stage, and it died, leaving us no copy.
Miss Gannon was only lovely in the beauty of her life and art, and it saying something for the credit of the public in these days, and more for her genius, that she could hold her audience’s allegiance so long and closely, considering how plain a face she nightly showed them. There was something of excellence in the oddness of her ways, in her strange simplicity, in her freedom of all effort, and in the gracious human aspect of her genius, in its truthfulness to nature, and her honest, earnest love for her art, that won their sympathy and made her a great artist. Her success in the development and portrayal of character never seemed the result of mere study, but rather of an intense feeling for and kinship with all the personal joys or sorrows of the heroines whose phase of life she depicted. For the time being, the player and the creature she personified became one and inseparable. As an actress, she was without a single trick, and scored the meretricious art that catches at applause (9). She played in apparent, and, we believe, in real unconsciousness of her audience. After her feet touched the stage she was the thing, in outward semblance and in inward truth, that she personated. There was more subtle wit, more delicate humor, more abandon, simplicity, tenderness, or pathos shown by her than the author, whose character she adorned by her genius, ever suspected could be put into it. She took the bald creation of his mind, and informed it with the hot blood of life and passion that ebbed and flowed to and from her own heart.
Her nature was wide as the air, beautiful, generous, and strong, full of those delicate sensibilities which permitted her to dissolve in tenderness, to be gentle, grace, or hoydenish, to fly from the maddest burlesque to the profoundest depths of passion. She wrapped her soul in “measureless content,” was witty, strong, weak, stupid or passionate, grave or tender, all in a moment. She could express, as no other actress could, all shades and moods of passion ; she could do so because they were in her heart, and were as real and tangible to her as the feeling in her husband’s and her children’s love—she had felt all sorrows and the extent of mortal suffering in their early death, in her prolonged and beautiful widowhood—she had known the strings of poverty, and had only learned pity and charity for them ; the charms and graces of society were her daily companions, teaching her those refinements which adorned her life and made more potent her art. There was nothing weird or startling in her acting ; she did not life the soul higher than nature, but gave the true and perfect type of all that was pure and womanly. She spoke only in the true language of nature and passion, and as her most brilliant triumphs were achieved without effort, the applause attendant upon them was never tumultuous. It began in a low murmur of laughter, or followed the utter silence of tears. She touched no vulgar springs to elicit the loud shout or evoke the whirlwind of commendation. To the last she was sublimely unconscious of the “golden rigol that bound her brows withal ;” from first to last, a wondrous simplicity possessed and ennobled her life. One who knew her well has laid this passing tribute on her new-made grave. “Her whole private life was passed in doing good to others, and her whole public life in contributing to the amusement of everybody.”
Mr. Lester Wallack, a great artist himself, and whose dramatic career was contemporary with Miss Gannon’s, in writing of his friend, says of her: “I shall not in time ‘look upon her like again.’ She has left a void that cannot be completely filled. Her appearance on the stage was always (aside from the hearty applause which greeted her) marked by a low murmur of delight among her audiences, as if they were congratulating one another on the certainty of a bright and pleasing evening.”
“It is my opinion, as it was that of my father and other experienced artists, that she was by far the most accomplished actress in America. Her acting in the higher walks of comedy was marked by a perfection of finish and ease that no other lady artist could approach.”
Mr. Wallack further says: “[. . .] She excelled in all” (10).
The Galaxy: A Magazine of Entertaining Reading 8/1868: 245 (PP. 8-12 within PDF). Print.