Recently in City on Stage Category

The-Contrast.jpgRoyall Tyler's The Contrast (1787), currently on stage at Metropolitan Playhouse in the East Village, is best known to literary historians and theater buffs as the first play by an American writer to be professionally staged. Written by a young New Englander who was visiting New York City on government business, the comedy of manners sets up several contrasts: between the new nation and the mother country, between country and city, between New England and New York.

Critics commonly treat the play as a brief for Revolutionary republicanism: an attack on British "luxury" as effeminizing and a plea for young Americans to cultivate homespun virtues, fashion, and entertainment. In making such arguments, the play would seem divided against itself, since the theater itself was taken by some old-guard republicans to be one of the chief European vices that needed to be stamped out.

During the Revolution, the Continental Congress outlawed all "shews, plays, and other expensive diversions." New York's major theater troupe, the American Company, most of whom were natives of Great Britain, left for the British West Indies, where they stayed for eight years, waiting out the war. The British, who eventually came to occupy New York City for the duration of the Revolution, continued to sponsor amateur theatricals (with British soldiers staging plays of their own). When the American Company returned following the evacuation of the British, the New York City council denounced them for performing "while so great a part of this city still lies in ruins, and many of the citizens continue to be pressed with the distresses brought on them in consequence of the late war." Tyler, whose native Boston would not legalize the theater until 1794, was treading a thin line in writing for the stage.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that The Contrast is so preoccupied with theater conventions themselves. The play mines the idea of theatrum mundi--"all the world's a stage," in Shakespeare's formulation--to its fullest comic potential in a series of situations in which the play comments on the conventions of the theater itself and draws extended comparisons of society to stage acting. The most exemplary of these moments involves the prototypical "Stage Yankee," Jonathan, a country bumpkin from Massachusetts in town as an attendant to the Revolutionary War officer Colonel Manly.

Jonathan explores the city in company with two local servants, Jessamy and Jenny, while Manly finds himself caught up in a seduction plot involving his sister, Charlotte, and then falls in love himself with Maria, a novel-reading sentimentalist who's become dissatisfied with Billy Dimple, the affected fool her father wants her to marry. While the romance plots and subplots unfold among the upper-class characters, the unsophisticated Jonathan -- played to full comic effect at the Metropolitan by Brad Frazier -- accidentally finds himself in New York's John Street Theater, the very theater in which The Contrast premiered. Jonathan mistakes the playhouse, though, for a church -- unwitting commentary on similarities between stage and pulpit -- and when the curtain goes up, he assumes he's somehow peeping on the family living next door. When Jessamy and Jenny ask him later for details about what he saw, his confusion is apparent: "Why, I vow they were pretty much like other families," he says of the people he saw on stage. "[T]here was a poor, good-natured, curse of a husband, and a sad rantipole of a wife." He goes on to offer details that would make it clear to Jonathan's audiences, on stage and off, that he was describing a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's extraordinarily popular play, The School for Scandal (1777), along with John O'Keefe's The Poor Soldier (1783), both British imports. The actor who originally played Jonathan even winds up commenting on what would have been his prior performance in the latter, in some stuttered lines about "Darby Wagall," a conflation of role and actor.

Though audiences today need program notes or footnotes to make sense of some of these references, Tyler's initial audience would not have, which is precisely the point and the source of Tyler's humor. The inside joke does depend, however, on the audience's refusal to suspend its disbelief, or to differentiate between the theater and real life--on its ability, that is, to see the actor and his character on stage at the same time. (At the Metropolitan, director Alex Roe has his actors interact directly with audience members, making plain that they are implicated in the play's social satire.) The line between stage and "real life" has been stretched precariously thin; this idea would become a staple in theatrical representations of New York over the coming century.

Jonathan's experience at the theater helps us see one of the many "contrasts" the play stages: between a sophisticated theater audience (represented on stage by Dimple, Jessamy, and Jenny) and a bumbling rube, Jonathan, the intellectual and cultural victim of the theater's ignorant opponents. What does it mean, then, that the play aligns its own knowing audience--the people who understand the jokes--with derided characters like Dimple and Jessamy, who go to the theater only to turn their backs on the performers and watch elite women in the boxes "play the fine woman to perfection"?

LetCharweb.jpgTo the extent that Jonathan represents audience members he is a rather poor and unsophisticated one here and elsewhere. Jonathan continually misreads the city, assuming that Jessamy is a member of congress, that a theater and a brothel are both churches, that the theater's stage is a neighbor's house, and that a prostitute is a deacon's daughter. But Jonathan does get something fundamentally right about the theater's relationship to life: that the theater is like life in some ways. If his peep into the "neighbor's household" convinces him that Sheridan's characters are essentially like any other family, the observation implies that most members of society are caught up in various kinds of performance themselves. The Contrast's opening scene makes much the same point, in Charlotte Manly's account of a walk on the Battery, at the bottom of Broadway, before an audience of admiring soldiers and beaux. Broadway, which ran close to the sites of both the John Street and the Park Theatres, from very early on was the site of fashionable promenades, becoming a contested territory in the nineteenth century as multiple social groups wanted to display their taste. Tyler, poking fun at such pretension, makes visible something that would remain a part of New York's characterization as a city all the way to the present: the popular conflation of the city with the theater itself.

Tyler's play shows how manners or politeness help institutionalize divisions based on class, sex, and race. For Tyler, social theatricality poses a problem, to be sure, but most particularly when members of the servant class seek to climb above their stations. We are to understand it as dangerous, for instance, when Jessamy recites Lord Chesterfield's advice (from his oft-reprinted if controversial Letters to His Son) on how to behave in polite society. Even Jonathan, whose rural simplicity is sometimes understood as "native worth," is marked as an outsider to metropolitan manners and, in the process, kept in a lower-class position. Two virtues, as it were, for the price of one. At the same time, Manly's ability to perform his role as a natural aristocrat and to appear artless and sincere while doing so offers just one example of the cultural work such a play could perform in the name of patriotism. The Contrast's conclusion--the promise of a wedding between New England and New York landed gentry, all done by Federal authority and isolationist rhetoric--leaves those who can't comprehend theatrical and social cues (or who can't afford to pay to learn them) out in the cold.

DimpleManly1web.jpgMuch of what I've just written seems positively sterile in the face of the vibrant, humorous staging of the play at the Metropolitan. This production keeps its emphasis on the satire of urban social mores in ways that make the play seem incredibly contemporary rather than a period piece. (In fact, I couldn't stop comparing it to the TV teen drama Gossip Girl in its relentless satirization of New York's moneyed classes, whether they be openly vacuous or self-righteously unmaterialistic and moral.) The decision to have the cast appear in tanktops and rather plain skirts and pants (with the exception of the clownish Jonathan, who appears in pajama pants) calls attention to the play's critique of fashion in ways that quaint period clothing simply could not have done. But the biggest surprise for me, having read and taught the play a dozen times, was how thoroughly unprepared I was for the play's rich and constant humor. Cold War critics, this production suggests, were completely snookered by Colonel Manly's patriotic platitudes. He seemed boring or priggish, sure, but no one really talked about him as the object of Tyler's satire in the same way Tyler was clearly sending up the Anglophile fops and coquettes, Dimple and Charlotte, or the class-climbing servants, Jessamy and Jenny. But in this production -- and I suspect in the original as well -- Manly and his sentimental counterpart Maria are shown to be as much the objects of Tyler's satire as anyone else in the play. Manly's declamations (as delivered by Rob Skolits) are meant to ring hollow and self-serving -- to the point of hilarity, given his inability to see his own blind devotion to republican cliche. Maria Silverman's performance as Maria leaves no doubt (from her first entrance singing a popular tune about a stoic Indian chief -- her model of manly behavior) that Tyler was lampooning her rather than making her a virtuous alternative to the foolish, fashion-obsessed Charlotte, played pitch-perfect by Metropolitan veteran Amanda Jones.

The Metropolitan's cast and director have unlocked a hilarious streak in this play too long overlooked by literary scholars. They've changed the way I will read and teach it in the future. This is a rare opportunity to see a piece of American and New York City theater history brought to new life in a way that doesn't feel stuffy and dated. I can't recommend enough that you get out and see it before it ends November 1.

More on The Contrast and New York history at Inside the Apple.

JonDanceweb.jpgOur good friends at the Metropolitan Playhouse have mounted a brilliantly directed production of Royall Tyler's 1787 play The Contrast -- the first play by an American playwright to be staged by a professional company. It debuted at the John Street Theater downtown, the city's principal theater prior to the opening of the Park in 1798.

I'll have more to write about the play and its significance -- and about this staging -- later. For now I'll just say that the folks at Metropolitan have found much more humor in the play than I've ever read there, having taught it a dozen times and written about it in my contribution to our forthcoming Companion. Lines I never noticed before are side-splitting. The main performances are outstanding. So mind the main chance: get out an see it. It's a rare treat to have the opportunity.

If you're inclined to listen to me ramble about it, I'll be talking with the audience following the matinee this Sunday. Info on tickets here.

leavesOG.jpgWe've just heard about what promises to be an eye-opening stage adaptation of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. It's playing at the cell, a theater space located at 338 West 23rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

You can find out more at, which describes the show as "chamber theater meets dance theater meets congregation meets celebration -- without irony or clothing." Yep, that's right: the chorus performs in the nude. According to the director, Jeremy Bloom, the production "celebrates the bare human form as an intersection of nature and industry."

Leaves of Grass continues through August 29, with performances Thursday through Monday at 8:00 p.m. and additional performances at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Running time is about an hour. 

The video below will give you a sense of what the show is like.

Twelve Hours for Twelfth Night

| | Comments (2) | TrackBacks (0)
shakespeare_park_2009.gifLast weekend, I waited for twelve hours, first outside and then inside Central Park, for tickets to see the final performance of the Public Theater's production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater, featuring Anne Hathaway in the role of Viola. Like many people, I'd put off going to wait on line because of the rainy weather in June, and I'd had no luck with the "Virtual Line" -- an online lottery in which (I'm told) about 50 tickets are distributed to each performance. Last year, the friend with whom I typically go see Shakespeare in the Park actually received tickets to see Hair via the "vline" (alas, on a night I couldn't make it), but generally speaking the odds are ridiculously slim.

I was thwarted twice earlier in the week in my attempts to get on line. On Wednesday, I arrived at about 7:00; the line stretched inside the park from the Delacorte up to the equivalent of about 4 blocks north, making the chances of receiving tickets remote if you were just joining the line. And when a park worker decided to force people to move at the end of the line, which had snaked around onto the bridle path, the ensuing chaos led me to give it up for another day.

I returned on Friday, this time at 5:50 a.m. before the park officially opens, and I discovered that people had been waiting on Central Park West outside the park starting in the wee hours of the night. By the time I found the end of the line, it had grown to five blocks long and around into the transverse at 86th Street. In fact, there were so many people that I didn't manage actually to join the line once it was inside the park: we were told that the line had reached its "legal limit," and a police cruiser had parked after the last legal person to make sure that no one else could join. Someone near the front of the line had a cardboard sign that read: "Waiting since 11 p.m. last night." Many of the people in the front of the line didn't look like they'd be attending the play: there's been a brisk trade (conducted via Craig's List and eBay) in line-waiting for the production. When I checked, people were willing to wait on line to procure 2 tickets for the fee of $150.

It became a point of pride for me to get the damn tickets, particularly when I read some Facebook postings from a friend who had seen the production on "a perfect night." The outdoor Delacorte is a wonderful venue on a beautiful summer night, set as it is in front of a pond with Belvedere Castle looming in the distance.

Just before I set off at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night, I checked online and found a posting from someone who claimed to have gotten on line at 9:30 p.m. and was offering his tickets for $250.

Emily the Nurse (Emma Thompson) and Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) in the film adaptation of Angels in America, directed by Mike Nichols.

I wanted to share one of my favorite scenes from Angels in America with you. Bryan mentioned it in lecture on Wednesday. It's the beginning of Part II: Perestroika, Act Four: John Brown's Body, Scene 6.

It features Prior Walter, one of the play's protagonists, who is dying of AIDS, his nurse-practitioner Emily, and Hannah, who is . . . well, you'll see.

Night. Prior, Emily (Prior's nurse-practitioner) and Hannah in an examination room in St. Vincent's emergency room. Emily is listening to his breathing, while Hannah sits in a nearby chair.

EMILY:  You've lost eight pounds. Eight pounds! I know people who would kill to be in the shape you were in, you were recovering, and you threw it away.

PRIOR: This isn't about WEIGHT, it's about LUNGS, UM . . . PNEUMONIA.

EMILY: We don't know yet.


HANNAH: You'd breathe better if you didn't holler like that.

PRIOR (Looks at Hannah, then): This is my ex-lover's lover's Mormon mother.

(Little pause.)

EMILY: Even in New York in the eighties, that is strange.

The scene is an example of the play's humor, but it also reinforces an important idea that runs throughout the play: the idea of cosmopolitanism.

New York emerges in Kushner's play as a cosmopolitan space of transformation. It's all about learning to embrace difference and change. Bryan cited one of my favorite concepts these days, what the philosopher Anthony Appiah calls "cosmopolitan contamination," in opposition to the idea of cultural purity. Bryan suggested that in a play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the idea of contamination as an inevitable and perhaps even necessary part of cultural change has an even greater force than it might if considered in the abstract.

Here's what Appiah says about contamination in an article from the New York Times ("The Case for Contamination," New York Times Magazine, January 1, 2006), which was adapted from his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006):

Living cultures do not, in any case, evolve from purity into contamination; change is more a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture, a process that usually takes place at some distance from rules and rulers, in the conversations that occur across cultural boundaries. Such conversations are not so much about arguments and values as about the exchange of perspectives. I don't say that we can't change minds, but the reasons we offer in our conversation will seldom do much to persuade others who do not share our fundamental evaluative judgments already. When we make judgments, after all, it's rarely because we have applied well-thought-out principles to a set of facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to justify what we have done - or what we plan to do - are typically made up after the event, rationalizations of what we have decided intuitively to do. And a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to. That does not mean, however, that we cannot become accustomed to doing things differently.

Angels in America is all about learning to do things differently, and the play understands the transformative power of conversation. The play, after all, ends with a conversation -- or rather two. The first conversation the conversation among four friends who have come together against all odds: Prior, the AIDS survivor; Louis, his ex-lover; Hannah, his ex-lover's lover's Mormon mother; and Belize, a gay African American male nurse who serves as the moral compass of the play. The second conversation is between Prior and us, the audience: it's the one that ends with the blessing that Bryan cited in a previous post.

And I think it's important the Prior uses the word "citizens" in the moments before he utters that blessing: "We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come."

What Prior is evoking is the idea of the world-citizen, a fundamental concept for cosmopolitan theory. It's the idea that each of us has a fundamental obligation to humanity as a whole. The time has come, Prior is telling us, to step up and be cosmopolitan, to be citizens of the world, to take responsibility for the way in which the world spins forward. That, in my reading, is what the play's final line -- "The Great Work Begins." -- ultimately signifies.

Meryl Streep as Prior's ex-lover's lover's Mormon mother, Hannah.

We'll Miss You, Natasha

| | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (0)
Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming in the 1998 revival of Cabaret

I'm in mourning today for Natasha Richardson, who passed away suddenly yesterday after an accident during a ski lesson at Mont Tremblant north of Montreal. She was, as an Associated Press article put it yesterday. "a proper Londoner who came to love the noise of New York."

I'd been thinking about Richardson lately after seeing a version of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie at the Metropolitan Playhouse last fall. I'll always regret missing the 1993 revival of the play in which she starred along with Liam Neeson, Rip Torn, and Anne Meara. Now more so than ever. (I'm hoping it's been preserved on videotape at Lincoln Center, so that I can view it for, ahem, research purposes.)

Her performance in the edgy Broadway revival of Cabaret eleven years ago remains a vivid memory. Directed by Sam Mendes and featuring Alan Cumming as the Master of Ceremonies and Ron Rivkin as Herr Schultz, and Denis O'Hare as Ernst Ludwig, the production evoked a sleazier version of Berlin nightlife than more elegant vision in Bob Fosse's original, marvelously translated onto the screen with Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Grey. My family and I were fortunate enough to have a stage-side table at the "Kit Kat Club" (Studio 54), and we were riveted. Indeed, my poor father seemed more than a little discomfitted by the fact that the tickling boas and wiggling derrieres of the chorus girls were, well, right in his face.

You can get a sense of the production from this YouTube video of Cumming performing "Wilkommen" at the Tony Awards:

Richardson's "Sally" was more damaged and fragile than Minnelli's, a wonderful reinterpretation of the role that made you forget (at least momentarily) Liza's iconic performance.

Here's what Ben Brantley had to say about Richardson in his review of the production:

Sally Bowles has just stepped into the spotlight, which is, you would imagine, her very favorite place to be. Yet this avidly ambitious chanteuse recoils when the glare hits her, flinching and raising a hand to shade her face. Wearing the barest of little black dresses and her eyes shimmering with fever, she looks raw, brutalized and helplessly exposed. And now she's going to sing us a song, an anthem to hedonism, about how life is a cabaret, old chum. She might as well be inviting you to hell.

Not exactly an upbeat way to tackle a showstopper, is it? Yet when Natasha Richardson performs the title number of ''Cabaret,'' in the entertaining but preachy revival of the 1966 Kander-Ebb show that opened last night, you'll probably find yourself grinning in a way you seldom do at musicals these days. For what Ms. Richardson does is reclaim and reinvent a show-biz anthem that is as familiar as Hamlet's soliloquy.

She hasn't made the number her own in the way nightclub performers bring distinctive quirky readings to standards. Instead, she has given it back to Sally Bowles. Ms. Richardson, you see, isn't selling the song; she's selling the character. And as she forges ahead with the number, in a defiant, metallic voice, you can hear the promise of the lyrics tarnishing in Sally's mouth. She's willing herself to believe in them, and all too clearly losing the battle.

For pleasurable listening, you would of course do better with Liza Minnelli, who starred in the movie version. But it is to Ms. Richardson's infinite credit that you don't leave the theater humming the tune to ''Cabaret,'' but brooding on the glimpses it has provided of one woman's desperation.

He concluded by calling her performance "an electrifying triumph." You can get a dim sense of Richardson's Sally from these two recently uploaded YouTube videos:

I had the good fortune to see Richardson again in her next Broadway role, as Anna in
Patrick sMarber's play Closer, with Anna Friel, Rupert Graves, and Ciarán Hinds. My memories of that production are almost equally vivid, and as a result I've never been particularly inclined to see the film version starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Clive Owen, and Julia Roberts in Richardson's role.

The last time I saw Richardson was in the role of Blanche Du Bois in the 2005 revival of Tennessee Williams's A Street Car Named Desire. In stark contrast to her Sally, Richardson's Blanche was glamorous and lovely (Brantley called her "radiant") -- indeed too glamorous and lovely for some who prefer their Blanches faded, ravaged, and completely delusional. Richardson didn't inhabit the role of Blanche in the way that she inhabited Sally, but it was a thought-provoking and often moving performance that emphasized Blanche's deep well of sexuality. I always regretted that John C. Reilly was cast as Stanley and then directed to create a character that in many ways was the antithesis of Marlon Brando's portrayal: Reilly's Stanley struck me as an iteration of the character he'd played three years earlier on the screen in Chicago, the sad-sack Amos Hart. I love Reilly as an actor, but how marvelous it would have been to see Richardson playing against a Stanley who exuded Brando's sexual charisma and air of violence.

Richardson's passing is a great loss to the world of the performing arts. She will be missed.

[The photo at the top of this post is from]

Maggie at the Theater

| | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (0)

We spent quite a bit of time on this passage from Stephen Crane's Maggie in lecture on Wednesday:

Evenings during the week [Pete] took [Maggie] to see plays in which the brain-clutching heroine was rescued from the palatial home of her guardian, who is cruelly after her bonds, by the hero with the beautiful sentiments. The latter spent most of his time out at soak in pale-green snow storms, busy with a nickel-plated revolver, rescuing aged strangers from villains.

Maggie lost herself in sympathy with the wanderers swooning in snow storms beneath happy-hued church windows. And a choir within singing "Joy to the World." To Maggie and the rest of the audience this was transcendental realism. Joy always within, and they, like the actor, inevitably without. Viewing it, they hugged themselves in ecstatic pity of their imagined or real condition.

The girl thought the arrogance and granite-heartedness of the magnate of the play was very accurately drawn. She echoed the maledictions that the occupants of the gallery showered on this individual when his lines compelled him to expose his extreme selfishness.

Shady persons in the audience revolted from the pictured villainy of the drama. With untiring zeal they hissed vice and applauded virtue. Unmistakably bad men evinced an apparently sincere admiration for virtue.

The loud gallery was overwhelmingly with the unfortunate and the oppressed. They encouraged the struggling hero with cries, and jeered the villain, hooting and calling attention to his whiskers. When anybody died in the pale-green snow storms, the gallery mourned. They sought out the painted misery and hugged it as akin.

In the hero's erratic march from poverty in the first act, to wealth and triumph in the final one, in which he forgives all the enemies that he has left, he was assisted by the gallery, which applauded his generous and noble sentiments and confounded the speeches of his opponents by making irrelevant but very sharp remarks. Those actors who were cursed with villainy parts were confronted at every turn by the gallery. If one of them rendered lines containing the most subtile distinctions between right and wrong, the gallery was immediately aware if the actor meant wickedness, and denounced him accordingly.

The last act was a triumph for the hero, poor and of the masses, the representative of the audience, over the villain and the rich man, his pockets stuffed with bonds, his heart packed with tyrannical purposes, imperturbable amid suffering.

Maggie always departed with raised spirits from the showing places of the melodrama. She rejoiced at the way in which the poor and virtuous eventually surmounted the wealthy and wicked. The theater made her think. She wondered if the culture and refinement she had imitated, perhaps grotesquely, by the heroine on the stage, could be acquired by a girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory.

I love his description of Maggie's desire for some sort of upward mobility, though we're painfully aware already that her hopes are most likely to be dashed. And so the scene comes to illustrate something of the false promise of consumer society. In lecture, Cyrus talked about this as related to poor folks who vote against their class interests and put Republicans in office -- simply on the promise that they, too, may be rich one day, and if they were, they wouldn't want government overtaxing them. (We'll see if such attitudes shift once the recession we're in really settles in. My guess is that more and more voters will come to back plans to tax the wealthy to fund things like universal health care.)

But back to the nineteenth-century city. I'm struck that Maggie's situation is rather different than the one for middle-class theater-goers a couple decades earlier. For one, the display she's watching isn't simply a depiction of working-class triumph over oppression: it's the promise that the meek will inherit all the wealth the city has to offer. It's the promise of moving up in the world, not just having one's virtue vindicated. It strikes me that this is rather different than what middle-class viewers get out of a play like The Poor of New York, by Dion Boucicault, popular from the late 1850s to the 70s. First staged in 1857, in the midst of an economic panic, the play was based closely on a French melodrama from the previous year, The Poor of Paris, and subsequently was staged in London and as elsewhere as The Poor of London, etc. The transportability of the play reminds us that "mysteries of the city" fiction and other peeps into urban underworlds emerged in Paris and London either in advance or around the same time they did in New York. Poe's story "The Mystery of Marie Roget," set in Paris, was based on a real New York murder case. Realist fiction, like the rising profession of journalism, aimed to expose what had previously remained in the city's darkest corners.

A huge gulf separates the middle-class melodrama of The Poor of New York and Maggie, however. Unlike Boucicault, Crane is careful to show the effects of a rising culture of consumption (including the effects of melodrama like Boucicault's) on the lowest members of society, whereas for Boucicault, the truly poor are members of the middle class who have become disinherited in the economic downturn.

Here's what I have to say, in my piece for our Cambridge Companion, about that play and another like it, Augustin Daly's Under the Gaslight (the play that launches Dreiser's Sister Carrie's ambition to become an actress at the turn of the century):

Sensation plays contained no direct assault on money or fashion. Rather, the most virtuous are uniformly shown to be deserving of wealth, even if economic misfortune has stripped them of it. The real crime in these plays lies in social cruelty, not inequality. When Laura, the heroine of Gaslight, is temporarily thought to be low-born, the ladies of New York's old money families are "insulted by the girl's presence" and conspire to exile her.  Her fiancé, though he compares society to a pack of wolves, finds himself unable to defend her in the moment of her exposure. Still, he accurately diagnoses the problem: "Laura has mocked [society] with a pretense, and society, which is made up of pretenses, will bitterly resent the mockery." In the world of sensation plays, there is no attempt to undo or resist society's theatricality; it has long since been taken for granted. Either one is born for the role or not. Resolution comes for Laura and her lover only because her aristocratic lineage--which she deserves because she is virtuous--is eventually proven. (Her virtue alone would not have earned her the happy conclusion.) A similar end comes to the hero of The Poor of New York, who has meanwhile complained that the "most miserable of the poor of New York" are not the permanently impoverished but rather those who have lost fortunes in the recent economic downturn; these true unfortunates are bound by politeness to "drag from their pockets their last quarter to cast it with studied carelessness to the beggar at home whose mattress is lined with gold."

Though Boucicault aimed at realism in one sense -- his sensation play featured a highly realistic tenement fire, one of the drama's major draws -- it's clear that his interest in the realities of class-based experience in the city, in the actual poor of New York, is nothing like Crane's. Rather, considering the two together seems to seal the deal that the cultural workings of theater at century's end served precisely to numb the poor to their plight by making them consumers of the theater as much as anything else, of goods that promise to lift you up. In the theater Maggie imagines a fantasy of wealth just waiting to trickle down and be inherited. What chance could she have in such a world?

barnumatdesk300.jpgWe've been thinking about entertainment cultures in the 19c city lately. I mentioned in lecture last week what a significant role P. T. Barnum played in popularizing the theater among middle-class families by staging "moral" plays such as dramatic adaptations of H. B. Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or, even earlier, extraordinarily popular temperance (anti-alcohol) plays such as W. H. Smith's The Drunkard -- which often featured an actual reformed drunk in the lead role, adding to the realism of the famous delirium tremens scene (when the drunk falls into a delusional fit on stage).

The Drunkard was, like Royall Tyler's The Contrast before it, a Boston play with a New York setting. The New York scenes contrast rural simplicity and come only when the protagonist, Edward Middleton, is at the lowest point of his alcoholism. The city is a symbol of vice, a lack of self-control. The municipal government's inability to govern its inhabitants (particularly in the notorious Five Points slum) mirrored the individual lack of self-control that could lead to alcoholism, or "dipsomania," at it was termed then. The play was orignally staged in a museum in Boston; museums in the nineteenth-century were a mixture of pop science and sheer sensationalism. They might offer natural history specimens, but they could just as easily offer freakish "curiosities" with spurious claims to authenticity. They also offered popular readings, or "lectures"--sometimes even scenes from Shakespeare's plays--to audiences that perhaps would not attend the theater.

Barnum_American_Museum.jpgThe Drunkard aimed both for those morally high-minded audiences and for folks who were attracted to freakish displays. The combination must have worked: It played for an unprecedented 101 nights in Boston in 1844. Following its extraordinary success in Boston, Barnum, the owner of New York's famous American Museum, decided to expand his own "lecture room" not once, but twice, eventually accommodating 3,000 people. These renovations were undertaken largely to accommodate The Drunkard's extraordinary success. He hadn't taken such steps before because his museum neighbored the Park Theatre (on Park Row, just across the street from the southern tip of City Hall Park). But once the Park burned down (again) in 1849 and wasn't rebuilt, Barnum decided to venture into the theatrical business.

Barnum wasn't the inventor of the museum by any means, but he transformed the institution in significant ways and became one of the most successful and famous showmen in America as a result. In the early 1840s he bought an already existing museum and the stock of another and launched his own enterprise. Older museums had attempted to combine education, moral uplift, and amusement in order to refine their audiences and, of course, to make money. Barnum understood better than earlier museum owners that above all the public wanted novelty. He brought in trained dogs, performing fleas, jugglers, ventriloquists, fat people, giants, dwarfs, wax figures, scale models of the wonders of the world, Indians, and even the "Feejee Mermaid." Barnum also understood the power of print: his advertisements literally papered the town; his illustrated museum guide a bestseller; and he pioneered the celebrity autobiography. Barnum also opened special hours for black patrons, which means two things: his audiences were still carefully managed in important ways (in this case, segregated by race), but he also recognized blacks as a potential paying audience.

Alcool-CPA-_11-39KB.jpgReform melodramas were the primary theatrical genre on stage at museums like Barnum's. This made their spaces safe for some Protestants who would not attend the more established theaters. These plays drew on sentimental and gothic elements in a way that bridged the gap between traditional theater and the freak shows on display in museums. In this way you can think of the delirium tremens scene in The Drunkard--reportedly one of its biggest draws--as something like a freak show. People would pay good money to see someone insane with liquor, just like they would pay to see the Quaker Giantess. One of the motivations would have been to make themselves feel normal.

Reform plays had been popular at least since the 18th century, but became much more common with the explosion of reform movements and the rise of melodrama in the nineteenth century. William Dunlap, the original manager at the Park, had a play called Thirty Years, or The Gambler's Fate. Another such play had the enticing title, Wine, Women, Gambling, Theft, Murder, and the Scaffold. Just in case you got hooked by the first part of the title, it wanted to let you know where that would lead you. A number of other temperance plays were produced in The Drunkard's wake. These include The Bottle, Another Glass, Life, or Scenes of Early Vice, The Curate's Daughter, Aunt Dinah's Pledge, The Drunkard's Warning, The fruits of the wine cup, and Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, an adaptation of the era's most famous temperance novel.

Barnum-conflagration.jpgFollowing a fire in the mid-1860s, Barnum gave up his famous museum enterprise and turned his energies to the traveling circus--a form that still bears his name. But he's important to us not only because he stands, in New York and American history, at the crossroads between popular entertainment and dramatic literature, but because he illustrates a conception of celebrity he shared with the stars of the stage: As one theater critic of the day put it, "Barnum himself is one of the curiosities [on display in his museum] and we scarcely know which people would go further to see--Barnum, the sea serpent, or a real mermaid."

For more on Barnum:
The American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, in collaboration with The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, maintains the excellent Website "The Lost Museum," which offers, among other things, a virtual tour of Barnum's Museum and a "temperance archive."

My favorite recent book on Barnum is Benjamin Reiss's The Showman and the Slave, which examines in detail Barnum's early career, in particular his claim to have on display a 161-year-old slave woman who had been George Washington's nursemaid. The standard biography remains Neil Harris's Humbug. The best book on temperance is John W. Frick's Theatre, Culture, and Temperance Reform in Nineteenth-Century America.


Benjamin Baker's 1848 farce A Glance at New York, which I wrote about earlier this week, concludes in Vauxhall Gardens, a "pleasure garden" situated on Lafayette between 4th and 8th. Wikipedia has a decent entry on it, drawing for the most part from Mark Caldwell's New York Night (2005) and Mary Henderson's classic The City and the Theatre (rev. ed. 2004).

According to the article, the pleasure garden -- named after the famous London entertainment spot -- was originally opened by Samuel Fraunces, proprietor of Fraunces Tavern, a version of which remains on lower Pearl Street in the financial district. His Vauxhall existed in present-day TriBeCa, at the intersection of Greenwich and Chambers, where my daughters' old elementary school, P.S. 234, now stands. It later moved to Broome Street, between Broadway and Bowery (which is where I happen to live), and then relocated to Lafayette between 4th and 8th (pictured above in 1803), where it remained until 1859. Until the middle of the 1850s its facilities included an outdoor theater and restaurants. It would have been this location represented in Glance's final scene.

Several things strike me as interesting about the gardens' final location. First, it would have been adjacent the Astor Place Opera House, scene of New York's most infamous theater riots in 1849, only a year after Glance premiered. (The land the gardens were on also belonged to Astor.) Second, its location -- with Broadway on one side and Bowery on the other -- placed it smack in between the centers of upper-class fashion and working-class life. Vauxhall also would have separated the Bowery culture from the Olympic Theater, on Broadway (though a little lower, between Howard and Grand), where Glance opened. (See my prior post for a contemporary protest against the impact the play had on the theater's audience makeup.)

According to the Wikipedia article, again citing Henderson and Caldwell, the gardens drew patrons from both elite and working-class neighborhoods until around 1850, when the Bowery folks won out for the park's remaining decade. This would make Benjamin Baker's choice of the spot for the conclusion of his play a rather interesting symbolic geography: a place where classes mingled, but one increasingly coming under working-class influence. And it does seem as if Mose and Lize are more at home at Vauxhall than are the play's upper-class characters. Harry, one of the wealthier characters, acknowledges to his new girlfriend Jane that she has "condescen[ded]" to "honoring this place with [her] presence." By contrast, Mose, with his "outré" manners, sits and delivers his famous order to the waiter: "Bring me a large plate of pork and beans. Say, a large piece of pork, and don't stop to count de beans!"

Bonus: check out the Bowery Boys' podcast on the "original bowery b'hoys," along with a group of kid actors known as the "Bowery Boys" in the 1930s and 40s.

Chinese Delivery Guy

| | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (0)
Lin-Manuel Miranda

I'm thinking about emblematic images or moments to use in my account of emergent contemporary New York writing for Bryan's and my forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Literatures of New York City.

Here's one from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights. Asked by the Gothamist last February to describe one experience that struck him as a classic New York moment, Miranda said this:

When I was writing the first draft of In the Heights during my winter break I would go for walks when I got stuck for inspiration I would take a walk around. I think I was on 181st Street walking around. I always tell people Washington Heights is full of music and they sort of think it's just a line I use to plug the show. But I swear to God when I was writing the first draft I was walking around and I saw a Chinese delivery guy riding his bike with a boom box strapped to the front of his bike. It wasn't a little radio; it was a two speaker boom box blasting music. It was like Pimp My Ride but with a two wheeler. I always thought that was a classic New York thing: Of course the Chinese delivery guy has got a subwoofer on his bike!
It's an image of the confluence of cultures that's just what I'm trying to portray in my piece for the Companion. You can read the full interview with Miranda here. I'll be posting more suggestive moments in the days to come as a finish up the piece.

Tag Cloud

Powered by Movable Type 4.32-en

Our New Book