drama

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We’re nearing the end of the semester in our Writing New York class. Many years we’ve concluded with Kushner’s Angels in America. This year we still have Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker to discuss, and so this morning I don’t feel quite the relief I often do when finishing my lectures on Angels. Still, it’s one of my favorite texts we teach in this course.

We’ve built up quite a few posts on Kushner’s play over the last few years. Here are a few of the highlights: Last year Cyrus supplemented my lectures with a few additional thoughts on Kushner’s use of New York City as a setting and on the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism (see this one, too, on that score). I’ve offered my own thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience, and a year earlier I’d written about the ways in which the play recycles a number of stories and symbols, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain among them. (Because that post has some links that are now dead, I had to post again on the prior use of Bethesda in Godspell.) Several years ago, a highlight of our course was a guided tour of Central Park at sunset (or a tour of the sunset with Central Park as a backdrop) with our favorite ex-NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. I provided a more detailed account of that afternoon elsewhere. It’s only indirectly related to Kushner’s play, but still important if you want to think about the ways in which Central Park has long been contested public space, something Kushner’s certainly aware of when he selects Bethesda as the setting for his final scene.

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I wound up today’s lecture on the varieties of 19th-century NYC theater with a long quote from one critic’s recollection of the opening of A Glance at New York, the play that made Mose the Bowery B’hoy a household name, made b’hoy red-flannel fashion an instant craze, and launched Mose’s career in American folklore. The account of opening night comes from William Knight Northall’s Before and Behind the Curtain (1851), a theater history of the preceding 15 years, published only three years after Glance‘s debut and two years after the notorious riots at the Astor Place Opera House. Northall recalls A Glance at New York‘s impact on the venue in which it premiered, the Olympic Theater, and on New York’s theater scene in general:

For four months did this unmitigated conglomeration of vulgarity and illiteracy keep the stage … The theatre was crowded from pit to dome nightly, and the hi-hi’s of the pit testified how happy they were to see a congenial vulgarity thrust under the nostrils of a better class of people. It would be scarcely fair to judge of a person’s taste, simply because they spent an evening in witnessing the rowdyism of Mose. The piece was the town talk, and few could resist the inclination to go and see for themselves what had produced such an extraordinary excitement all around them. …

The house was filled with a constant succession of strangers, for we venture to assert that no man with any pretension to good taste, with any love for the stage, or any desire to see it fulfil its proper uses, would ever go there twice, and sit through the abomination the second time. When the public curiosity had been somewhat satisfied … the boxes no longer shone with the elite of the city; the character of the audiences was entirely changed, and Mose, instead of appearing on stage, was in the pit, the boxes, and the gallery. It was all Mose, and the respectability of the house mosed too.

Northall’s account differs slightly from the apocryphal but widely circulated story of Mose’s first appearance on the stage, in which an audience of rapt workingmen break into uproarious approbation on seeing one of their own stride on stage. Instead, he offers a story of a Bowery audience’s take-over of a respectable theater. Bowery audiences had already controlled their own theater spaces — most notably the Bowery Theater itself — for more than a decade. Though city officials hoped the Bowery Theater would help gentrify the neighborhood and provide civilizing social uplift for poorer patrons, they misjudged, and working-class audiences made that space their own, to the dismay of some officials and elite onlookers.

The growing class divisions to which Northall nods weren’t merely confined to theater spaces. Class-based riots erupted throughout the 1830s and 40s. But the theater became a special site for wearing your class politics on your sleeve: literally, in the sense of fashion and taste. B’hoys soaped their locks and dressed like Mose, promenading on the Bowery; the genteel set daintily applauded the construction of the Astor Place Opera House (pictured), a new spot for refined entertainment, built at the head of Lafayette, a street created expressly for the purposes of exclusive real estate. (The new street also bisected an old entertainment spot, Vauxhall Gardens, where Glance at New York concludes.)

In spite of the rosy cross-class friendships at the end of Glance, the class tensions in these plays—and the competing styles of masculine behavior among audiences—would culminate in one of the most famous episodes in New York theater history: the Astor Place riots of May 1849, only a year after Glance premiered at the Olympic and three after Fashion played to friendly audiences at the genteel Park.

The riots, which have been written about by dozens of historians (most recently Nigel Cliff, whose book I haven’t yet managed to read) were the culmination of an ongoing rivalry between two leading Shakespearean actors. William Charles Macready was an Englishman, Edwin Forrest an American. The two had different acting styles that appealed to different audiences. Macready was refined, aristocratic, and appealed to wealthy, genteel New Yorkers: the Park set. Forrest typified the Bowery style: rough, forceful, and patriotic. He was something of a teen idol for the Bowery B’hoys. Philip Hone—the mayor who had dedicated the Bowery in 1826—considered Forrest “a vulgar, arrogant loafer, with a pack of kindred rowdies at his heels.”

The two actors had a longstanding feud. Forrest had toured England to poor reviews, which he blamed on Macready. He struck back by hissing Macready during a performance of Hamlet. British newspapers came down hard on Forrest, who defended himself, in true Bowery fashion, by asserting his right as an audience member to express his dramatic criticism on the spot.

In May 1849, the two actors performed in New York in competing performances of Macbeth. Forrest took a dig at Macready by emphasizing Macbeth’s line, “What purgative drug will scour these English hence?” This led to several minutes of sustained applause from his audience. The same night, Macready performed at the two-year-old Astor Place Opera House, whose dress code included white kid gloves for gentlemen, a detail that particularly pissed off the b’hoys. Forrest’s friends and fans still managed to infiltrate the opera house and showered Macready with vegetables, glass bottles, and chairs during his performance. The pit and gallery from one house, in essence, had taken over another that belonged to a higher class. In other words, the whole city had become a theater like the one Irving’s Jonathan Oldstyle had portrayed earlier in the century.

At his next performance, nearly 15,000 people gathered outside the Opera House, most of them spectators. Inside, the crowd again showered Macready with eggs and tomatoes. Outside, the crowd began to throw bricks through windows and tried to break down the theater doors, which had been barricaded. The militia fired into the crowd, killing over 20 and wounding over 100 others. It was the first time American militia had fired on American citizens.

86 people were arrested. They were primarily workingmen, many of them butchers, like Mose. The papers picked up on the class politics and framed the event as stemming from working class resentment against “aristocratizing the pit.” The episode allows us to see how theater politics were one manifestation of larger public issues, and how they fed into larger public issues as well.

More on the response to the riots by writers including Irving and Melville sometime next week.

My quick account of the riots here is cobbled from a lot of sources: the longstanding classic is Richard Moody’s The Astor Place Riot (1958). Philip Hone’s account, quoted above, is reprinted in Phillip Lopate’s anthology Writing New York. The title of this post comes from Walt Whitman’s recollections of the Bowery Theater in “The Old Bowery” (1892).

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goldman.jpgIn the spring of 1914, a few months before the beginning of what would be called the Great War, Emma Goldman set out on a national lecture tour, speaking to crowds on various “radical” topics, from birth control and unemployment to something that had come, in recent years, to occupy much of Goldman’s attention: the modern drama, which she believed would prove a compelling vehicle to bring radicalism to bourgeois audiences. As the tour kicked off, she published a small volume on The Significance of the Modern Drama, based on a stenographer’s notes on a six-week lecture series at the Berkeley Theater, near Times Square. “In countries where political oppression affects all classes,” she wrote in the volume’s foreword, “the best intellectual element have made common cause with the people, have become their teachers, comrades, and spokesmen.” In America, by contrast, the only ones who seemed to wind up in prison–or tarred and
feathered–for their politics were “the ‘common’ people.” Something was needed, then, “to arouse the intellectuals of this country, to make them realize their relation to the people, to the social unrest permeating the atmosphere.”

Goldman’s interest in modern drama was not new; as early as 1897 she had lectured on George Bernard Shaw to an audience of coal miners. In 1905 and 1906, a period when she had withdrawn from the public eye in the wake of a presidential assassination for which she was blamed by some, she had served, under the name “Miss Smith,” as a tour manager for a Russian-speaking Paul Orleneff theater troupe, with stops in Boston and Chicago. The group, which
included the future film star Alla Nazimova, is sometimes credited with introducing modern drama to American audiences; the group also staged a benefit
performance to help fund Goldman’s fledgling Mother Earth. As the Village personality Hippolyte Havel wrote in a 1910 biographical sketch of Goldman, working with the Orleneff troupe granted Goldman access to “various polite functions” among the “aristocratic ladies of Fifth Avenue,” who “had not the least inkling that the amiable manager who so entertainingly discussed philosophy, drama, and literature at their five o’clock teas, was the ‘notorious’ Emma Goldman.”

Though Goldman’s conceptions of what was vital about modern drama did not always square with the ideas of her Greenwich Village intellectual friends, many of whom were helping to usher in a political “little theater” movement at almost the same moment, the convergence of these theatrical obsessions was productive in its own time and can serve us–as I’ll argue at greater length in a chapter of the cultural history Cyrus and I are writing–as a particularly clear window onto the production of literary personality in the early twentieth-century city.

I thought about Goldman yesterday afternoon at the closing performance of the Metropolitan Playhouse‘s production of George Middleton’s Nowadays, written and published in 1914 but never staged because producers feared it would be insufficiently “commercial.” Goldman devoted The Social Significance of the Modern Drama primarily to major works by Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Chekhov and others, but she also called for a new program in American dramatic arts: “My only regret,” she announced in the preface to her volume, “was that my own adopted land had to be left out [of the book]. I had tried diligently to find some American dramatist who could be placed alongside the great Europeans, but I could discover no one.” She did mention in passing as “commendable” works by American playwrights like Eugene Walter, Butler Davenport, and–yes, George Middleton–but her complaint was clear: an American “dramatic master … was not yet in sight.”

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I’m not sure if Goldman ever addressed Nowadays in her lectures on American drama; if she read it, though, I’m sure it must have worked for her. The play’s technical weaknesses correspond directly to the limitations Margaret Anderson identified in EG’s criticism: Goldman biographer Alice Wexler quotes Anderson on EG’s “intrusion of dogma and platitude into the discussion, the wearying insistence upon ‘the moral’ of each play, the uncritical acquiescence in the veracity of each dramatic picture of life.” Certainly Middleton’s previously-unstaged play suffers from similar problems. The story of a mid-Western family torn apart (but ultimately reunited and strengthened) by a fiery young daughter’s desire to leave home and make it as an artist in New York, Nowadays plays to exactly the kinds of bourgeois-radical concern Goldman hoped to play in her effort to recruit middle- and upper-class intellectuals to the causes of anarchism and feminism. (One wonders if Middleton realized that the newspaper story he uses to open the play–“Eight Million Women Support Themselves by Working”–probably didn’t refer to middle-class women who struck out on their own to be modern artists. Goldman certainly would have known it.)

The play’s most unique plot twist–the mid-Western mother’s decision, two-thirds of the way through the play, to follow her daughter to the city, where she’ll pick up her own youthful enthusiasm for
painting–seems simultaneously far-fetched and, at the same time, extraordinarily heartfelt. It makes plain that Middleton’s target audience was not a generation of bohemian intellectuals in the Village but their parents. The play’s most riveting moment comes at the end of the second half, when the Victorian wife confronts her patronizing husband and tells him she’s going to the city to join her daughter, with or without him. The real force of the drama, then, isn’t the satirical social comedy that opens and closes the play but the tragedy of a woman whose life as a good wife and mother has forced her to sacrifice her own development as a human being. (Unlike her daughter, she doesn’t quite make it as an artist once she’s struck out on her own.)

Middleton, who participated in early public discussions of feminism in the Village, lived until 1967. He published an autobiography in the mid 1940s. Even though he remained somewhat well-known in the theater world during the first half of the twentieth century and had his works censored by church and state for advocating liberal divorce laws, Middleton remains virtually unknown today, a mere Wikipedia stub, perhaps because his cultural politics trumped artistic subtlety. (It’s no mistake that Goldman’s known for her politics rather than her role in American dramatic history.) Perhaps more productions like the Metropolitan’s Nowadays will return some attention–at least from cultural historians of feminism and the American stage–to someone Goldman once thought might develop into a great American playwright.

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logo72dpi.jpgI’ve mentioned before my abiding affection for the folks who run the Metropolitan Playhouse. I feel extraordinarily lucky to teach earlier American lit (including 19c drama) and the literary cultures of NYC in a neighborhood — one of the few in the world, I’m sure, if not the only one in existence — where you can actually see earlier American plays regularly staged. From Mowatt’s Fashion to Fitch’s The City and Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, the Playhouse is also its own virtual “City on Stage” archive; indeed, I’m pretty sure my idea for the chapter I’m currently writing on that topic gestated over several years of watching Met Playhouse productions.

Of course, our encounter with these plays in such an intimate space differs radically from how 19c and early 20c audiences encountered them — often in enormous theaters. But I’ll take it, and I’ll take my students along as often as possible.

The coming season has a lot to offer theater and Am Lit buffs: They’ll be doing Nowadays by George Middleton (one of Emma Goldman’s favorite American playwrights), a 1914 play that deals with gender issues; O’Neill’s Anna Christie (woo-hoo!), and an adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I’m especially looking forward to the Middleton, since I’m working, when I get a chance between more immediate deadlines, on a chapter of our cultural history that situates Goldman and O’Neill in overlapping, but not identical, theater and intellectual circles.  I’d never heard of Middleton before I starting researching Goldman’s lectures on modern drama.

And then there’s Melvillapalooza! For each of the last several seasons, the Playhouse has hosted a festival of small pieces celebrating, roasting, or inspired by famous American authors, including Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne. This year our beloved HM holds pride of place. I can only hope someone dramatizes the death scene from Pierre, one of Melville’s finest NYC scenes!

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