Hissing

The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen

Source: George Atkinson Ward, The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen, an American in England, from 1775 to 1783 (Boston, Little, Brown and company, 1864 [4th ed.]), pp. 338-339

Production: Hannah Cowley, The World as It Goes; or, a Party at Montpelier, Covent Garden, London, 24 February 1781

Text: Feb. 24. To theatre to see Mrs. Cowley’s new play; unfortunately it was hissed off the stage just before the conclusion of the last act; being in its progress of acting alternately and frequently hissed by its foes and cheered by its friends; the latter proved the minority, and therefore unsuccessful, as all in minorities are in State and Church, as well as theatres. Many came for the express purpose of supporting or damning it; her husband, a writer in one of the daily papers, employs his pen in criticising works of all other stage writers, and has, by the severity of his remarks, raised up a host of determined foes to crush whatever proceeds from his quarter; though no foreign considerations were needed to banish this piece from the stage, its own intrinsic unworthiness was more than enough; being a low performance, and unworthy the pen of the author of “Belle’s Stratagem” and “Who’s the Dupe.” Knowing the writer and her connections, I feel severely for them, especially, too, as her brother is a fellow-lodger, whose exquisite delicacy of feeling must be cruelly wounded on this occasion. The prologue and epilogue were excellent, and did great credit to the performers, Mr. Lewis and Miss Young, who were rewarded with universal applause.

Comments: Samuel Curwen (1715-1802) was an American merchant and justice. As a British loyalist fled America in 1775, having been attacked for not opposing the British military action at Lexington and Concord, and spent ten years in Britain, during which time he became a supporter of the American cause. Hannah Cowley (1743-1809) was best-known for her 1780 play The Belle’s Stratagem. Its successor, The World as It Goes, subsequently retitled Second Thoughts Are Best, was a notable failure. Her journalist husband was Thomas Cowley. The prologue was written by Richard Josceline Goodenough. The performers of the prologue and epilogue, respectively, were Charles Lee Lewes and Elizabeth Younge.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 15-16

Production: Anon., The Taylors, a Tragedy for Warm Weather, Haymarket Theatre, London, 2 July 1767

Text: Thurs. July 2. Dined at St Clement’s Eating house. ½ past 6 went to the Haymarket Theatre, but could not get into the Pit or first Gallery, so stood on the last row of the shilling Gallery, tho’ I could see little, to see how ‘The Taylors’, a new Tragedy for warm weather, would go off, being the first night of its performance. 3rd Act hissed – the Gods in the shilling Gallery called for the ‘Builders Prologue’ – hissed off the part of the old Maid twice and Davies, who came to make an excuse. The Gentlemen, many of whom were there, cried ‘No Prologue’, but to no purpose. At last Foote said if he knew their demands he would be ready to comply with them. The noise ceasing, after some time he was told the Builders Prologue was desired. He said he had done all in his power to get the Performers, having seen them. After some time he came and informed them that he had got the performers together and if the house would be pleased ‘to accept the prologue in our dresses as we are you shall have it’. This was followed by a great clapping, which shows the genius of our English Mobility, ever generous after victory.

Comments: Sylas Neville (1741-1840) was an English gentleman of unclear origins, who had studied medicine but spent much of his adult life travelling while being continually short of money. His surviving diary frequently mentions visits to the theatre in London. Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was an English actor, dramatist and theatre manager. The Taylors, a Tragedy for Warm Weather, later also known as The Quadrupeds, was a burlesque of the manners of tragic dramas, set among the world of tailors, with Foote playing Francisco and Thomas Davis playing Bernardo (some sources give Foote as the author, but the evidence is unclear). The ‘Builder’s Prologue’ was another name for a popular piece by Foote, An Occasional Prologue in Prose-Laconic, written to celebrate the Haymarket Theatre gaining its royal patent to perform spoken drama in 1766. ‘Mobility’ was a vogueish term for ‘mob’.

Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House

Illustration from the pamphlet

Illustration from the pamphlet

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Astor Place Opera House, New york, 10 May 1849

Source: Sidney H. Stewart, ‘Testimony of Sidney H. Stewart’, in Account of the terrific and fatal riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House, on the night of May 10th, 1849; with the quarrels of Forrest and Macready, including all the causes which led to that awful tragedy! Wherein an infuriated mob was quelled by the public authorities and military, with its mournful termination in the sudden death or mutilation of more than fifty citizens, with full and authentic particulars (New York: H.M. Ranney, 1849), p. 21

Text: I left the Tombs that evening in company with Justice McGrath, and arrived at the Astor Theatre about 7 o’clock; soon after the doors were opened, the audience were assembling; on entering the house, I found the theatre filled with people and a large body of the police; most of the police magistrates were there; Judge Edmonds was there also; the understanding with the magistrates, Judge Edmonds, and the Chief of Police, and Recorder, was that no arrests should be made in the house, unless some overt act was committed, tending absolutely to a breach of the peace; the usual indulgence was to be allowed as to the hissing and applauding; that rule was observed. In the course of the evening, demonstrations were made by several in the parquette, by shaking their fists at Macready, threatening him with violence, by twelve or fifteen persons, certainly not to exceed twenty; an application was made at this time to the Chief of Police to arrest them, and remove them from the house; he delayed the order for some time, and finally sent for the Recorder to consult with him on the propriety of making arrests; after a consultation, it was concluded to make the arrests, which was done; in less than five minutes they were taken into custody, and order comparatively restored; about this time a great deal of hissing was heard in the amphitheatre, and loud applauding; the play was still going on; several arrests were made in the amphitheatre, by order of the Chief of Police and Recorder; about this time, the first breach of peace on the house was a large paving stone which came through the window into the house; the house continued to be assailed from those without; an alarm was given that a fire was below under the dress circle; it was soon extinguished; large stones were thrown at the doors on Eighth street, smashing in the panels, and doing other damage; the police were ordered into Eighth street, say fifteen men; on my going into the street, I saw a large concourse of people, but those near the door of the theatre were mostly boys, who were apparently throwing stones; several of them were arrested by the police and brought in; I cannot say how many were aiding in the disturbance, but certainly a very small proportion to the crowd collected; the policemen arrested some six or ten of them, and the attack on the door in Eighth street ceased; the attack then, after these arrests, was made with more violence on the front of the theatre in Astor-place; a very large crowd was collected, yet I could pass in and out with ease, comparatively; this crowd did not appear to be very turbulent; a very large number appeared to be citizens looking on, and not aiding in the disturbance; the majority of those throwing stones were boys from the ages of 12 to 18 years; several of the policemen at this time complained of being struck with stones and badly hurt; the policemen kept making arrests, and bringing them in; I cannot say how many; the crowd appeared to be increasing and more dense; the mob appeared to be determined to accomplish some particular act; there seemed to be a strong determination, although they only threw stones; the force of policemen on Astor-place amounted to from fifty to seventy-five; the mob then continued to throw stones; the military then came.

Comments: Sidney H. Stewart was Clerk of Police in New York City. He was one of several witnesses to the riot at the Astor Place Opera House on 10 May 1849 cited in the anonymous pamphlet Account of the terrific and fatal riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House. The cause of the riot was the rivalry between the American actor Edwin Forrest and the British actor William Charles Macready, which was blown up by the press during Macready’s 1848-40 tour of the United States, cast in Britain vs. America terms. A performance of Macready’s Macbeth at the Astor Place in New York on 7 May 1849 was halted after rioting in the theatre. On 10 May another performance was interrupted by rioting among rival supporters of the two actors which spilled out into the streets. The New York State Militia was called, and at least twenty-two people were shot dead, with dozens more injured.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Sitting in Judgment with the Gods

Source: Channing Pollock, extract from ‘Sitting in Judgment with the Gods’, in The Footlights, Fore and Aft (Boston: Richard G. Badger/The Gorham Press, 1911), pp. 383-402 [originally published in Smith’s Magazine, March 1906]

Production: Lured from Home, Thalia Theatre, New York, November 1905

Text: The Thalia, where I began my travels, is full of contrasts. Evidences of departed grandeur
elbow old dirt and new gaudiness. In the lobby, with its marble floor and lofty ceiling, stand hard-faced officials in uniforms that glitter with gold braid. Lithographic representations of various kinds of crime and violence hang on the walls, advertising the attraction to follow that holding the boards. The auditorium is architecturally stately and old fashioned, bearing an outline resemblance to the colosseum at Rome. The ground floor is a succession of steps, on each of which is a row of seats, while three balconies of horse-shoe shape afford opportunities to the patron whose financial limit is ten, twenty or thirty cents. There are queer little boxes on either side of the stage, which slopes perceptibly and has in its middle a prompter’s hood — survival of the days when parts were so long, and so many had to be learned each week, that no actor could be trusted out of sight of the man with the manuscript. The Thalia is a theatrical anachronism, dilapidated, decayed and degraded. It is a royal sepulchre containing rags and old iron, a family mansion utilized as a boarding house, a Temple of Thespis managed by “Al” Woods and devoted, on the night of my visit, to the representation of a stirring comedy drama in five acts, entitled “Lured From Home.”

The audiences at the Thalia are composed principally of peddlers, longshoremen and girls from the sweat shops. Farther up town one sees sailors and mechanics, with a sprinkling of families large enough, numerically and physically, to delight Roosevelt. Everywhere small boys abound and Jews predominate. Perched aloft in the gallery, one picks out scores of types and observes dozens of humorous incidents. Down town there were men who took off their coats and kept on their hats, probably for no better reason than that they were supposed to do neither. A fat negress sat next to a loudly dressed shop girl, who was too absorbed to draw the color line while the performance was in progress, but glared furiously between acts. The contention that the Third Avenue is “a family theater” was supported by a mother who nursed her baby whenever the curtain was down and the lights up. Two precocious youths discussed the “form” of certain horses that were to race next day, while their “best goils”, one on either side, alternately stared at each other and at their programs. Reference to this bill of the play, printed by the same firm that supplies programs for the better class of theaters, disclosed the fact that a large part of the pamphlet was devoted to articles on “What the Man Will Wear” and “Chafing Dish Suggestions.” It seemed to me that these indicated utter lack of a sense of humor on the part of publisher and manager. “The Man” at the Third Avenue probably wears whatever is cheapest, and I can’t fancy the woman feeling a keen interest in oyster pan toast or orange mousse.

Barring a little difference in millinery and a difference of opinion as to the indispensability of neckwear, the audiences at all these theaters are very much alike. They read pink papers assiduously before the play begins and eat industriously throughout the intermissions. Melodrama seems to affect the American appetite much as does an excursion. You may have noticed that lunches appear the moment a pleasure trip begins, and every cessation of histrionic action at a popular-priced house is a signal for the munching of apples, candy, pop-corn, peanuts or chewing gum. Most of the material for these feasts is furnished by small boys who begin the evening selling “song books” and conclude it dispensing provisions. Just as the orchestra emerges from under the stage the merchant appears, taking his place at the foot of an aisle and unburdening his soul of a carefully prepared announcement. “I wish to call your attention for just about a few minutes to the company’s ‘song book'”, he commences. These volumes invariably are marked down from ten to five cents, and, for good measure, the vendor throws in an old copy of The Police Gazette. Sweets arc his stock in trade between acts, though one also has the pleasure of hearing him announce: “Now, friends, I’ve a postal card guaranteed to make you laugh without any trouble.”

Reserve is not a characteristic of these gatherings. They hiss steamily at what they are pleased to consider evil, and applaud with equal heartiness that which seems to them good. Especially remarkable instances of virtue also bring out shrill whistles, verbal comment and the stamping of feet. The management maintains in the gallery a play censor with a club, who knocks loudly against the railing when he feels that these evidences of approval are passing bounds. What would not your two dollar impressario give if he could transplant this enthusiasm to Broadway? How gladly Charles Frohman or Henry W. Savage would trade his surfeited first night audience for one of those which requires only an heroic speech to wear out its individual hands in frenzied applause!

They are a queer, child-like lot — the people who compose the clientele of the Murray Hill and the Third Avenue. Intermissions have to be made short for them, because they have not the patience to wait for setting scenery, and he would be an intrepid dramatist who would put sufficient faith in the intensity of a situation to trust to its keeping them quiet in the dark. To an assembly at the Thalia the turning out of the lights for the husband’s confession in “The Climbers” would have proved only an opportunity for making weird noises without danger of being “spotted” by the “bouncer.” Their tastes are primitive and their sympathies elemental. They have no time for fine distinctions between right and wrong; a character is good to them or it is bad, and there’s an end to the matter. Ready and waiting with their pity, one cannot help believing that they feel only on the surface, since they are quite able to forget the tragedy of one moment in the comedy of the next. I have seen them sob like babies at the death of a child in the play and break into uproarious laughter a second later at the intrusion of the soubrette. Their prejudices are explicable, but unexpectedly strong, favoring the unfortunate under any circumstances and finding vent in bitter hatred of the prosperous. They are the natural enemies of the police officer, and, by the same token, friends to the cracksman or the convict who expresses a particle of decency. Physical heroism is the only kind these men and women recognize, and emphasis rather than ethics influences their verdict on questions of virtue and vice. Apparently the element of surprise is not a dramatic requisite with them, since every habitual playgoer of their class must know by heart every melodramatic theme in existence, together with its incidents and its outcome. Undivided in their approval of the noble and their disapproval of the ignoble, one soon learns that their ideas on the subject are theories not intended for practice. The man who most loudly applauds defence of a woman on the stage is not always above disciplining his wife vigorously when he gets home. “Zash right!” I heard an inebriate call to a melodramatic hero who had spurned the glass offered him. “Zash right! Don’t you tush it!”

I have said that the stories and situations of melodrama must be familiar to the folk who attend such performances, and I speak advisedly. One melodrama is as much like another as are two circuses. Drifting into the American one night just as the players were indulging themselves in that walk before the curtain which is their traditional method of acknowledging a “call”. I might easily have mistaken the principal pedestrians for the characters I had seen fifteen minutes before at the Third Avenue. There they were without exception — the sailor-hero, the wronged heroine in black, the high-hatted villain, the ragged child, the short-skirted soubrette, the police officer, the apple woman, the negro and the comic Jew. Some of these types, notably the apple woman and the negro, are as old as melodrama, while others are but recently borrowed from vaudeville. Whatever their origin, they are the handy puppets of the man who writes this kind of play; identified the moment they step on the stage and hissed or applauded according to the conduct expected of them.

This sameness of character is paralleled by a sameness of dialogue that is amazing. Few melodramatic heroes do very much to justify their popularity, but all of them have a pugilistic fondness for talking about what they are going to do. Certain phrases favored by this class of playwright have been used so often that the most casual theater-goer will be able to recall them. “I can and will”, “my child”, “stand back”, “on his track”, “do your worst”, “you are no longer a son of mine” and “if he knew all” are convenient terms for expressing a variety of violent emotions. Most of them mean nothing specific, and herein lies their recommendation. It is so much easier to say “if he knew all” than to figure out precisely what part of a purple past is of sufficient theatrical value to be dilated upon in a speech.

Apropos of purple pasts and of heroines in black, it is worthy of note that propriety in the hue of one’s garb is another of the inviolable conventions in the cheap theaters. Olga Nethcrsole probably thought she was doing a wonderfully original thing some years ago when she announced that she would wear various colors to typify the regeneration of Camille, but a chromatic index to character antedates the English actress by many decades. To anybody acquainted with sensational plays a white dress means innocence, a black dress suffering and a red dress guilt just as infallibly as the cigarette habit had a penchant for sitting on the arms of chairs indicates utter depravity in a female. If you told an Eighth Avenue amusement-lover that good women sometimes smoke and often sit on the arms of chairs he wouldn’t believe you.

With puppets and speeches to be had ready-made, the receipt for writing a melodrama would not seem to be particularly complicated. The favorite story for a piece of this sort concerns two men — one poor and good, the other wealthy and bad — who love the same girl. For that reason and because the hero “stands between” him and “a fortune”, the villain plans to “get him out of the way.” The soubrette saves the intended victim from death, the would-be assassin is disgraced, and the play “ends happily.” There may be a dozen variations of this theme, such as an effort to send the hero to prison “for another’s crime”, but, until managers found a gold mine in the lechery of their low-browed patrons, it formed the central thread of four offerings out of five. The stock plot now-a-days is the frustration of sundry attempts to sell women to waiting despoilers; the dramatization of what the newspapers describe, hideously enough, as “white slavery.” This is an unpleasant subject in any form, but the part it plays in current melodrama is so gross and evil that I shall risk referring to it again in another paragraph.

The “fortune” that serves as bone of contention in the tale related above never happens to be less than a million. Such trifling sums as fifty thousand pounds or a hundred thousand dollars are given very little consideration in melodrama. Everyone of importance lives in a “mansion” and carries about huge rolls of greenbacks. When the villain tries to murder the hero he resists the temptation to stab or shoot him quickly and quietly, having found the expedient of binding him across a railway track or throwing his insensible body on a feed belt more conducive to a thrilling rescue. Handmade murder has no place in melodrama; all reputable scoundrels do their killing by machinery. The strongest situation possible in the sensational play is that in which the comedienne flags the train or stops the belt. Next to this “big scene” is the inevitable encounter between the villain with a knife, the unarmed hero, and the heroine, who arrives with a revolver at what Joseph Cawthorne calls “the zoological moment.” I have seen the superiority of the pistol over the dagger demonstrated five times in a single melodrama, yet the villain never seems to profit by experience. One would think he would learn to carry a “gun”, just as one would think that the hero would learn not to leave his coat where stolen bills might be placed in the pockets, but the playwrights of the popular-priced theaters seem to model their people on the dictum of Oscar Wilde, who said: “There are two kinds of women — the good women, who are stupid, and the bad women, who are dangerous.” Notwithstanding their crass improbabilities, many melodramas of the better sort are interesting and not without occasional evidences of clumsy originality and crude strength.

Comments: Channing Pollock (1880-1946) was an American playwright and critic. Its subject is the cheap theatres of New York and their audiences’ taste for melodrama. The Thalia, also known as the Bowery Theatre, was located on the Bowery in Lower East Side Manhattan, New York City. Lured from Home (author unknown) opened at the Thalia on 20 November 1905.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive