This review of Claude Solnik's Victoria Woodhull at Theater For The New City was written by Dr. Thomas G. Jacoby and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Claude Solnik
Directed by Donna Mejia
Theater For The New City
155 First Avenue
New York, New York 10003
Victoria Woodhull, who is considered by some to be the first female candidate for President of the United States (1872) was born Victoria California Claflin on September 22, 1838 in the rural frontier town of Homer, Ohio. Her mother, Roxanna "Roxy" Hummel Claflin, was illegitimate and illiterate. She had become a follower of the Austrian mystic Franz Mesmer and the new spiritualist movement. Her father, Reuben "Old Buck" Buckman Claflin, was a con man and snake oil salesman. Victoria had only three formal years of education. At age 15, she married 28-year-old Dr. Canning Woodhull, who turned out to be an alcoholic and womanizer. She and Dr. Woodhull had two children, Byron (who had a mental disability), and Zulu (who was later called Zula). After their children were born, Victoria divorced her husband and kept his surname. Woodhull later married Colonel James Harvey Blood, who was also entering into matrimony for a second time.
In New York City, Victoria and her sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin ("Tennie") practiced spiritualism and held a seance for Cornelius Vanderbilt, where they "contacted" his deceased wife. It is speculated they obtained insider information from a network of prostitutes and spiritualists and then passed the information on to Vanderbilt, who made a fortune off it. Vanderbilt also had a romantic interest in Tennie and with his financial backing, the two sisters became the first female stockbrokers in 1870 opening Woodhull, Claflin & Company, the first female run brokerage firm on Wall Street. Woodhull made a fortune on Wall Street advising clients like Vanderbilt. On May 14, 1870, Woodhull & Claflin used the money they made from their brokerage to found a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, which at its height had a national circulation of 20,000. Its primary purpose was to support Victoria Claflin Woodhull's candidacy for President of the United States in 1872 even though she was ineligible to run for that office since she would not be 35 years of age at the time of the inauguration. Her newspaper became notorious for publishing controversial opinions and advocated for sex education, free love, women's suffrage, short skirts, spiritualism, and licensed prostitution.
Her run for office as the Presidential Nominee of the Equal Rights Party cannot be regarded as a candidacy that entertained any hope of success but Victoria Woodhull used it to call attention to issues of importance to her such as women's rights and equal rights for African-Americans, which is reflected in her choice of Frederick Douglass as her running mate (even though he never acknowledged or accepted the nomination). She also favored the eight-hour workday and the concept of social welfare programs. During the campaign, Henry Ward Beecher, a renowned preacher at Brooklyn's Plymouth Church, had condemned Woodhull's free love philosophy in his sermons. When it was discovered Beecher was engaging in adultery, this hypocrisy led Victoria Woodhull to expose the affair in her newspaper. On the eve of the election, Woodhull, Claflin & Col. Blood were arrested and charged with publishing an obscene newspaper and circulating it through the United States Postal Service. Victoria Woodhull was ultimately acquitted but the entire episode set off a national scandal that occupied the public for months.
Claude Solnik has woven many of the above-referenced facts into an engaging and well-paced drama. We are presented with two sisters, Victoria and Tennie, who are engaged in spiritualist practice and promotion, while being watched over by their aging, jolly, con-man father, Buck (believably portrayed by Chaz McCormack), and Victoria's second husband, Colonel Blood, played by Henrick Sawczak as a paradoxical character who, on the one hand is a former military commander but who, on the other hand, also gives in to his wife's wishes, under protest, at every turn. We watch them get close to Vanderbilt (played by Ed Altman) with a seance. This small section of an early scene demonstrates really good technique on the part of Elena Kritter, playing Victoria, as well as Juliette Monaco, who plays Tennie (as an opportunist with a talent for getting what she wants). They are actors, acting the part of spiritualists, who are also acting to promote an agenda. There are many levels of deception depicted, each beautifully executed. Using the insider information they get from Josie Mansfield, the girlfriend of financier Jim Fisk, the relationship with Vanderbilt quickly turns into opportunities to get involved with the stock market and the Wall Street investment culture, as well as the founding of Woodhull's newspaper. Ed Altman's Vanderbilt portrays a decent emotional range: gullibility, cynicism, passion, and rage.
It is at this point that Victoria's first husband, the alcoholic Dr. Canning, played by Adam Reilly as a charming drunkard with hidden demons, shows up, and at Victoria's insistence, the effectively emasculated Col. Blood, her current husband, agrees to allow Dr. Canning to stay in the same household. Vanderbilt's closeness to Tennie continues to develop. As her prominence in society grows, we witness Victoria meeting with Susan B. Anthony, played by Monica Bell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, played by Collette Campbell, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, played by Larissa Kruesi. The result of that meeting, we are led to believe, is Victoria and Tennie approaching Vanderbilt and asking him to set up a meeting for them with John Armor Bingham, one of the framer's of the 14th Amendment. Victoria is promoted by the suffrage movement, embodied by Anthony, Stanton, and Stowe, and after an intense meeting with Bingham, played by Ed McGlynn, makes the decision to run for President. McGlynn's Bingham is brilliantly portrayed radiating power, charisma, and villainy in equal parts.
The second act opens with the revelation of dark secrets from Victoria's past: the confidence games that grew into seances and Canning's perpetual drunkenness having led to his dropping their son Byron, on his head, causing permanent brain damage (which may or may not be historically accurate; all we know is that Byron was a special needs individual). There is conflict between the sisters and Vanderbilt stemming from an unflattering article they published in their newspaper regarding Vanderbilt's business practices. We are given to understand that there is controversy regarding whether Victoria is legally married to Col. Blood since no marriage certificate can be found. Bingham meets with Vanderbilt, entreating him to put an end to Victoria's political aspirations. Conflict with the pillars of the Suffrage Movement leads Victoria's paper to publish the infamous article attacking Stowe's husband, Henry Ward Beecher, for his extra-marital affair. This leads to the Suffrage Movement withdrawing support for Victoria's candidacy as she has become a liability due to her shady past. Victoria continues to expound on her views regarding "free love" and is arrested on obscenity charges stemming from the controversial newspaper article. Vanderbilt breaks up with Tennie, Woodhull loses the election to Grant, Victoria separates from Col. Blood, Vanderbilt dies, and his estate offers the sisters $100,000.00 if they agree to move to London and never return to the United States. They accept the offer.
Claude Solnik takes established facts from Woodhull's life and spins them into a believable narrative that is complex and fascinating. The greatest weakness of the play is that we never get a clear impression regarding Victoria Woodhull's character. It's never quite evident if she is a true believer in the paranormal given her childhood experiences or whether her life conducting seances and making a living with spiritualism is all just another con game used to enable her to make a living. A hint to the answer may be that we are told Victoria used to copy names from tombstones when entering a new town in order to lend greater credence to what was revealed during the seances. We see Victoria hammering the suffragettes as hypocrites for not going far enough with their demands for equality but we are uncertain whether her passion is based in idealism, narcissism, or just a financial strategy to be shocking in order to sell more newspapers. In terms of the production, Victoria Woodhull does not use period costumes or sets and the dialogue doesn't seem to have been written in period speech or idiom. In addition, none of the characters affect period accents or mannerisms, which is a major distraction. Some of the exchanges with the suffragettes, indeed, have rhythms more like modern-day reality television than a period drama.
Victoria Woodhull is profoundly flawed but still worth seeing. I feel a much more interesting play could have been written given the substantive nature of the source material. Whether it is up to the audience to lower its expectations, or up to the playwright to write a better play remains the question. However, at $18.00 a ticket for adults ($15.00 for students), you can't go wrong checking this play out for yourself. For reservations, call 212-254-1109 or visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net