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Georgia Cayvan

Biography: 

(1858-1906)

Georgia Cayvan was the first in the great lineage of American "woman's actresses," performers whose admiration was greatly inflected by gender. Like her successors, Alla Nazimova and Bette Davis, Cayvan dramatized the condition of her gender in a manner that made male audience's nervous and female ecstatic. Contemporaries described her as "whole-souled, eager, and energetic."

Born in Maine, her mother brought her as a girl to Boston at the cessation of the Civil War. Her first performances were greatly applauded recitations at Spiritualist lyceums sponsored by her mother. The ambitious young woman set her heart on the stage, eventually managed an engagement as Hebe in the Boston Theater's 1879 staging of "H.M.S. Pinafore." Her Broadway debut came as a replacement for another actress in an 1880 staging of "Hazel Kirke" at the Madison Square Theatre. She took over the lead role in the next season.

For six seasons Cayvan perfected her talent under the tutelage of David Belasco at the Madison Square. She became regarded as a first rank talent in Belasco's play "May Blossom." When Frohman established his company at the Lyceum Theater in New York, he pursued Cayvan to be his leading woman. He promised money, artistic challenges, and a more sumptuous staging of plays. She consented. The Lyceum productions rivaled those of Augustin Daly's 5th Avenue Theater for acting and dramaturgical ingenuity. From 1887 to 1894 she served as leading lady.

During this period Cayvan constantly sought to improve her stage intelligence and understanding of theater. In 1892 she visited Japan and composed a searching assessment of that nation's dramatic practices "In Japanese Theatres" for The New York Herald (Apr 9, 1893). Eventually her researches led to a wish to control her own performances. In 1894 Cayvan severed her connections with the Lyceum Company to become a touring star employing her own troupe under the management umbrella of Klaw & Erlander. For three years she appeared on both sides of the Atlantic in touring plays, none of which manifested the directorial care or scenic design of the Lyceum masterpieces. While Cayvan's performance won praise, critics invariably voiced regret at the diminishment of the theatrical experience in the star version of plays.

The close of Cayvan's career was particularly tragic. She contracted a cancerous tumor in 1896. Surgical intervention proved unsuccessful. Concurrently she was unjustly named as co-respondent in a divorce suit. She campaigned for the restoration of her name. This defamation and the physical effects of her disease produced a violent mania, leading to her sequestration in a sanatarium. She went blind. She spent five years in the sanatarium before dying in 1906. During this period her moments of lucidity were "temporary and short-lived." David S. Shields/ALS