New York

The Diary of Philip Hone

Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. “Madlle. Fanny Elssler in La tarentule.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1840. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/2678e780-9d9b-0131-9bb0-58d385a7b928

Source: Bayard Tuckerman (ed.), The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1889), vol. 2, p. 28

Text: Many and many a night has passed since the walls of the Park have witnessed such a scene. Fanny Ellsler [sic], the bright star whose rising in our firmament has been anxiously looked for by the fashionable astronomers since its transit across the ocean was announced, shone forth in all its brilliancy this evening. Her reception was the warmest and most enthusiastic I ever witnessed. On her first appearance, in a pas seul called la Cracovienne which was admirably adapted to set off her fine figure to advantage, the pit rose in a mass, and the waves of the great animated ocean were capped by hundreds of white pocket-handkerchiefs. The dance was succeeded by a farce, and then came the ballet “La Tarantule,” in which the Ellsler [sic] established her claim to be considered by far the best dancer we have ever seen in this country. At the falling of the curtain she was called out; the pit rose in a body and cheered her, and a shower of wreaths and bouquets from the boxes proclaimed her success complete. She appeared greatly overcome by her reception, and coming to the front of the stage, pronounced, in a tremulous voice, in broken English, the words “A thousand thanks,” the naiveté of which seemed to rivet the hold she had gained on the affections of the audience.

All the boxes were taken several days since, and in half an hour after the time proclaimed for the sale of pit tickets the house was full, so that when we arrived, which was a full hour before the time of commencing the performance, placards were exhibited with the words “Pit full,” “Boxes all taken.” This wise arrangement prevented confusion. The house, although full in every part, was not crowded, and a more respectable audience never greeted the fair danseuse in any country she has charmed.

Comments: Philip Hone (1780-1851) was an American businessman and diarist, who was Mayor of New York 1825-1826. Fanny Elssler (1810-1884) was an Austrian ballerina, considered to be one of the finest dancers of the Romantic ballet period. After much success in Europe, she toured the USA for two years from 1840, with her dancer sister Therese.

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Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York

Source: Catherine Elizabeth Havens, Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York (New York: Henry Collins Brown, 1920), p. 108

Text: A while ago my brother took some of us to Christy’s Minstrels. They are white men, blacked up to look just like negroes. As the last man went off the stage, he stumbled and fell flat, and then he said, “Sambo, why am I like one of Walter Scott’s pomes? Give it up? Because I’m de lay ob de last minstrel!” And everybody laughed, and one of them said, “Pompy, my wife had an awful cold, and de doctor told her to put a plaster on her chest; but she didn’t have no chest, so she put it on her band-box and it drew her bonnet all out of shape.” And then we all clapped and laughed. They are awfully funny. They act on Broadway, down near Grand Street.

Comments: Catherine Elizabeth Havens (1839-?) spent her childhood in New York and began writing a diary when she was ten. This passage comes from a long diary entry for 6 August 1850 (her eleventh birthday). Her family lived in Brooklyn, on Ninth Street. Christy’s Minstrels were a troupe of blackface performers (i.e. white performers blacked up), formed in 1843 by Edwin Pearce Christy. At this time the troupe regularly performed at the Mechanics’ Hall at 472 Broadway, New York.

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New York

Source: Paul Morand (trans. Hamish Miles), New York (London: William Heinemann, 1931 [orig. pub. 1930]), pp. 186-188

Text: Manhattan’s taste is taking shape; the old melodrama’s life is done. The new musical comedy in the English mode, of the style of The Geisha, La Poupée, The Belle of New York, is all the rage, and will lose its pre-eminence only to the Viennese light opera. The music-hall in its turn develops, modelled on the Empire or the Alhambra in Leicester Square. They clamour for all the Parisian stars, even for Cléo de Mérode and La Belle Otéro. The music-hall adopts English workings, but remains specifically New York in tone. It springs from the downtown Jewish quarters, a sort of neo-Hebraic commedia dell’ arte, known as “burlesk.” Burlesk can still be seen in a good many humble districts, notably at the National Winter Garden or the Irving Place Theatre. Here we no longer have realistic actors surrounded by Rembrandtesque co-religionists, rolling in epileptic scenes beneath the bearded portrait of Karl Marx that hangs like an ikon on the wall; here is the original music-hall, with its audience of counter-jumpers in bell-shaped trousers, a completely masculine audience. The actresses have on no clothing except bust-supporters and drawers-costumes which are far more indecent than the “artistic nudes ” of the Casino de Paris which shock so many Americans on account of the uncovered breasts. The performers are in duty bound to perform contortions of the hips and shakings of the torso, in the “moukère” or “rumba” style, called the “kooch dance,” which is extremely pleasing to these audiences of Orientals. It was here that there began the fashion, so much favoured shortly before the war, of running a bridge out over the orchestra; when the women passed along it, above the heads of the spectators, some of the audience, inflamed by this proximity, laid their Visiting-cards along the pathway. . . . The programme is changed every Friday, before the Sabbath. Once a Week, on Wednesdays, the clothes of the prettiest actress are put up to auction; as each part of her dress is knocked down in turn, she has gradually to undress. . . . During the entr’actes, while people drink lemonade in paper tumblers, they proceed to further auctioning. This American fondness for auctions, whether in the theatre or in the smoking-room “pools” on board liners, comes direct from the synagogue, where the community proceed thus on certain days. I enjoy the vulgarity, the broad humour, the Elizabethan obscenity, of certain comedians adored by the burlesk public. It is low New York in the crude form.

Comments: Paul Morand (1888-1976) was a French author and intellectual. He held ant-Semitic views, and during the Second World War we was a supporter of the Vichy regime in France. He made trips to New York between 1925-1929, resulting in his travel book New York, published in French in 1930.

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.

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A Wanderer in London

Dan Leno, from his autobiography Dan Leno, Hys Booke (1899)

Dan Leno, from his autobiography Dan Leno, Hys Booke (1899)

Source: E.V. Lucas, A Wanderer in London (New York: The Macmillan company, 1918), pp. 62-64

Text: The ordinary low comedian of the Halls too often has only the machinery of humour and none of its spirit. It is when one thinks of so many of them that the greatness and goodness of poor Dan Leno, for so long the best thing that the Halls could give us, becomes more than ever to be desired and regretted. In Dan Leno England lost a man of genius whose untimely and melancholy end was yet another reminder that great wits are sure to madness near allied. Not that he was precisely a great wit: rather a great droll; but great within his limits he certainly was, and probably no one has ever caused more laughter or cleaner laughter.

That was, perhaps, Dan Leno’s greatest triumph, that the grimy sordid material of the Music Hall low comedian, which, with so many singers, remains grimy and sordid, and perhaps even becomes more grimy and more sordid, in his refining hands became radiant, joyous, a legitimate source of mirth. In its nakedness it was still drunkenness, quarrelsomeness, petty poverty; still hunger, even crime; but such was the native cleanness of this little, eager, sympathetic observer and reader of life, such was his gift of showing the comic, the unexpected side, that it emerged the most delicious, the gayest joke. He might be said to have been a crucible that transmuted mud to gold.

It was the strangest contrast — the quaint, old-fashioned, half-pathetic figure, dressed in his outlandish garbs, waving his battered umbrella, smashing his impossible hat, revealing the most squalid secrets of the slums; and the resultant effect of light and happiness, laughter irresistible, and yet never for a moment cruel, never at anything, but always with it. The man was immaculate.

In this childlike simplicity of emotion which he manifested we can probably see the secret of his complete failure in New York. In that sophisticated city his genial elemental raptures seemed trivial. The Americans looked for cynicism, or at least a complete destructive philosophy — such as their own funny men have at their finger-tips — and he gave them humour not too far removed from tears. He gave them fun, that rarest of qualities, rarer far than wit or humour; and, in their own idiom, they had “no use” for it.

In the deserts of pantomime he was comparatively lost: his true place was the stage of a small Music Hall, where he could get on terms with his audience in a moment. Part of his amazing success was his gift of taking you into his confidence. The soul of sympathy himself, he made you sympathetic too. He addressed a Hall as though it were one intimate friend. He told you his farcical troubles as earnestly as an unquiet soul tells its spiritual ones. You had to share them. His perplexities became yours — he gathered you in with his intimate and impressive “Mark you”; and you resigned yourself to be played upon as he would. The radiant security of his look told you that he trusted you, that you could not fail him. You shared his ecstasies too; and they were ecstasies!

No matter what Dan did to his face, its air of wistfulness always conquered the pigments. It was the face of a grown-up child rather than a man, with many traces upon it of early struggles. For he began in the poorest way, accompanying his parents as a stroller from town to town, and knowing every vicissitude. This face, with its expression of profound earnestness, pointed his jokes irresistibly. I recollect one song in the patter of which (and latterly his songs were mostly patter) he mentioned a firework explosion at home that carried both his parents through the roof. “I shall always remember it,” he said gravely, while his face lit with triumph and satisfaction, “because it was the only time that father and mother ever went out together.” That is quite a good specimen of his manner, with its hint of pathos underlying the gigantic and adorable absurdity.

Irish (of course) by extraction, his real name was George Galvin: he took Leno from his stepfather, and Dan from an inspired misprint. His first triumphs were as a clog-dancer, and he danced superbly to the end, long after his mind was partially gone. But he will be remembered as the sweetest-souled comedian that ever swayed an audience with grotesque nonsense based on natural facts.

Comments: Edward Verrall Lucas (1868-1938) was a British essayist who wrote several books on London and held an opinion on many things. Dan Leno, born George Wild Galvin (1860-1904), was one of the great music hall and pantomime performers of the late Victorian era. He became particularly well-known for his appearances in the annual Drury Lane Christmas pantomime. Leno’s performances in New York, for which he received mixed notices, were over a four week engagement at the Olympia Music Hall on Broadway in the Spring of 1897.

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The Diary of Philip Hone

Source: Bayard Tuckerman (ed.), The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1889), vol. 1, pp. 265-266

Production: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals, National Theatre, New York, 4 September 1837

Text: September 4. — Wallack opened the National Theatre (late the Italian Opera House) this evening, with the comedy of “The Rivals.” He has brought with him from England a very strong company, several of whom appeared this evening. I never saw a play go off with more spirit. Wallack, in the dashing part of Captain Absolute, with a handsome scarlet uniform coat, and his one beautiful leg (the other being a little crooked ever since he broke it by being upset in the stage at Brunswick), made a most captivating entrée, was received with great applause, and made, at the falling of the curtain, one of the best, most graceful, and eloquent speeches I ever heard on such an occasion. But I fear he will not succeed. The National is the prettiest theatre in the United States; but it is not in Broadway, and the New Yorkers are the strangest people in the world in their predilection for fashionable locations. In Paris the theatres are scattered over the whole city, and the fashionable milliners, jewellers, tailors, and all those who depend for their support upon the gay, the rich, and the fashionable, are to be found in by-streets, or in the mazes of narrow, dark alleys; but our people must have their amusements thrust under their noses, and a shopkeeper, if he hopes to succeed in business, must pay a rent of $4,000 or $5,000 in Broadway, when he might be equally well accommodated for $600 or $800 ten doors from it. But there is a greater obstacle to the success of the new establishment in the great number of theatres at present open in the city, each one of whom has some “bright particular star” shining to attract and dazzle the eyes of the multitude.

It is almost incredible that in these times of distress, when the study of economy is so great an object, there should be nine of these money drains in operation: The Park; the old Drury, of New York, which has done well during the whole of the hard times; the Bowery, with Jim Crow, who is made to repeat nightly, almost ad infinitum, his balderdash song, which has now acquired the stamp of London approbation to increase its éclat; the Franklin, in Chatham square; Miss Monier’s Theatre, in Broadway, opposite St. Paul’s, — little and weakly, and likely to die; the Euterpean Hall, Broadway, below Canal street, — short-lived, also, I suspect; the Broadway Theatre, next to Tattersall’s, which has been handsomely fitted up, and is to be opened next week; Mrs. Hamblin’s Theatre, formerly Richmond Hill, where the Italian opera first placed its unstable foot in New York; the Circus, in Vauxhall Garden, nearly in the rear of my house; and Niblo’s Vaudevilles, — the best concern of the whole at present, with a strong company playing little pieces à la française. Concerts, and rope-dancing, and other performances of the Ravel family, consisting of eight or ten of the most astonishing performers in their line who have ever appeared in this city. If Wallack can stand all this, he is immortal.

Comments: Philip Hone (1780-1851) was an American businessman and diarist, who was Mayor of New York 1825-1826. The National Theatre originally opened as the Italian Opera House in 1836. The actor-manager James William Wallack took over management in 1837, putting on a repertory of classic dramas. Wallack played Sir Anthony Absolute in this production of Sheridan‘s The Rivals. The theatre burned down in 1839, was rebuilt only to burn down again in 1841.

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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

The Diary of Philip Hone

Source: Bayard Tuckerman (ed.), The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1889), vol. 1, p. 238

Production: William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Park Theatre, New York, 9 December 1836

Text: Miss Ellen Tree made, this evening, her first appearance in America, at the Park Theatre, in the character of Rosalind in “As You Like It,” and Pauline in a sort of melodrama called “The Ransom.” Her Rosalind was a most fascinating performance, full of grace and refinement and the part well adapted to her style of acting. The play, admirable as it is, and abounding in Shakespeare’s finest passages and most touching sentiments, is usually tiresome in the performance, and can be best appreciated in the closet; but on this occasion sweet Rosalind was so ably supported by all the other characters that it went off delightfully. The charming debutante was well received by a prodigiously crowded house, and was saluted by cheers and waving of hats and handkerchiefs. I was struck again, as in London, by the great resemblance of Ellen Tree to my daughter Mary. Her profile is much like hers, and her smile so like that it almost overpowered my feelings; they are both pretty well off for nose, neither being of the kind called “snub” by any means; “quite to the contrary, I assure you,” as Temple Bowdoin says; but Mary’s eyes are finer and more expressive than Miss Tree’s. Fanny Kemble was right in this matter.

Comments: Philip Hone (1780-1851) was an American businessman and diarist, who was Mayor of New York 1825-1826. He saw Shakespeare‘s As You Like It at the Park Theatre, New York, 9 December 1836. The British actress Ellen Tree (1805-1880) was known professionally as Mrs Charles Kean after her marriage in 1842.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Philip Hone

Source: Bayard Tuckerman (ed.), The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1889), vol. 1, p. 62

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Park Theatre, New York, 17 September 1832

Text: Monday, Sept. 17. — Charles Kemble made his first appearance this evening at the Park Theatre, in the character of Hamlet, to a great house. He was well received, and listened to with great attention. There were not many ladies in the house, but the audience appeared to be critical and discriminating. It was precisely such acting as my recollection of Kemble and my opinion of his powers had led me to expect. The part was deeply studied and well understood; his reading is critically correct, his elocution distinct, and his manner dignified; but he is too formal, even for Hamlet. His pauses are too long and too frequent, so much so as to make the representation fatiguing; and for myself, I confess that, although my judgment is perfectly satisfied, his Hamlet falls far short of the power to interest me and give me pleasure of Kean’s or even Wallack’s, and he labours, moreover, under one great disadvantage, of which he has, unfortunately, no chance of amendment, — he is too old by thirty years for this part, and the expression of his face will do better for Lord Townly, Sir Edward Mortimer, King John, and other such parts. He is, on the whole, a fine actor, a good study for the younger men, and his visit to this country ought to improve the American stage. Fanny Kemble is to appear to-morrow evening in “Fazio.”

Comments: Philip Hone (1780-1851) was an American businessman and diarist, who was Mayor of New York 1825-1826. He saw Hamlet at the Park Theatre, New York, 17 September 1832. The British actor Charles Kemble visited America in 1832 and 1834, accompanied by his actress daughter Fanny Kemble.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust