metropolitan playhouse

You are currently browsing articles tagged metropolitan playhouse.

Two seasons ago our friends at the Metropolitan Playhouse put on a fantastic staging of Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787). At the time I wrote a couple posts about it. Since we’re spending a week with the play here for #vWNY I thought this might be a good time to go back to the Metropolitan’s artistic director, Alex Roe, with a couple questions about his experience with that production. The Metropolitan Playhouse is located at 220 E. 4th St, between Avenues A and B. Alex describes their current play, Charles A. Taylor’s From Rags to Riches, (1903) as “a fascinating late melodrama that I see as a purposeful send-up of the genre, something like Airplane was to disaster movies, or the Scary Movie series is to horror.” In January the theater will center its annual Living Literature Festival on the nineteenth-century American author Horatio Alger. Submission deadline is September 30.

PWHNY: The Contrast: A) A Sheridan rip-off? B) An early American play? C) A New York play? D) A Boston play about New York? E) All or none of the above?

ALEX: Of these, I’d have to say an early American play — as it captures the spirit of a new country trying to define itself socially, politically, ethically, and philosophically. It parodies Massachusetts AND New York, but without siding with either. Really, it uses these as much as philosophical and cultural signifiers as actual places, and the two poles represented by them neatly stake out extremes of the infant nation’s concerns. As to its debt to Sheridan, to use its inspiration as a critique is trivial at best, to me, for it misestimates what the play is. If anything, Tyler makes a more interesting social satire than, say, The Rivals. One could draw numerous parallels to Tyler’s advantage, I think, and find that a hero like Manly is a combination of Falkland and Absolute — both a leading man and a buffoon; Dimple is malicious and vain, like O’Trigger and Acres; Maria an affected Julia; Charlotte an edgier Lydia. But in the end, what is interesting is these characters articulating American aspirations and foibles. In this, the play more closely resembles the Restoration comedies than the Georgian.

PWHNY: One of your key decisions in staging the play was to drop the period costumes and dress your actors in tanktops and jeans. Can you tell us what prompted this call and what you think its effects were?

ALEX: Well, not jeans, which would have worked against us, I think. We sought a look that would show the bodies of the actors as unadorned as possible, without revealing them as sexual objects (which would have been distracting) or tying them to a particular fashion tradition (so grey slacks and skirts instead of jeans, work pants, tights, or formal wear). Of course, the audience had to draw some fashion connection, and the look to me most evoked either a ballet or gymnastics squad — either of which was suitable, as it suggested an acting “team” presenting the show — or perhaps school children in uniform, which was also apt for a satire that reduces our behaviors to adolescent affectations.

But why? The Contrast is concerned with social affectation and signs of status. To present it in full period regalia would surely have been a treat for the audience, but might have obscured some of the satire. We sought to underscore how insubstantial is the obsession with the right hoop skirt, or for that matter, the right manner of courtship, the right conversation at a reception, the right reverence for the Father of the Country, etc. In our production, every character, whatever the identification, is as vain as Malvolio. That is not to say that there are no virtues, but rather that one must choose values when all are equally ephemeral. In our production, the emperor truly had no clothes, and characters were obliged to identify contrasts based on merit and integrity, not their outward show.

PWHNY: The Metropolitan stages work, for the most part, from the century following Tyler’s play, from the 1780s into the nineteen-teens. What do you think are the key changes over that century in how American theater worked?

ALEX: What may be most remarkable is how durable themes and conventions prove to be, in fact! Consider three plays from our repertoire: The Contrast, of course, Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion (from 1845), and our production now running through this October 16, of Charles A. Taylor’s 1903 play From Rags to Riches. Each play presents characters rather plainly written to embrace opposing or sympathetic current attitudes towards the world and its inhabitants; confront them with one another through a plot in which money, status, and sexual appetite drive their interactions; challenge the Machiavellian pursuits with appeals to honor and generosity; and follow those interactions to their illogical conclusion. Each play functions by presenting these characters in a self-consciously theatrical medium, and allowing us to embrace them even while we preserve our distance. And ultimately, each offers a lightly satirical but loving vision of American culture.

The specifics of setting change, but rather strikingly, the same interactions take place: duplicitous wealthy characters with European affectations or connections prey on a naive but infatuated maidens and their deceived but willing guardians; stiffly pure righteous characters oppose on grounds of dignity and virtue; successful merchants are in danger of losing their wealth to the follies or machinations of a younger generation; the specter of legal obligations and actions, in the form of wills, contracts, and lawsuits, alternately threaten and abet the heroes’ progress; and everything works out well enough in the end for the naive and selfless … though the evildoers are not punished. The description of American life is much the same from play to play.

Are the mechanics of the plays very different? Each establishes characters in the time honored tradition of actors pretending to be other people, liberally violating that pretense with asides to the audience, but essentially offering a degree of exposition at the start, followed by a foreshadowing of characters and dilemmas to come, and then a portrayal of those dilemmas through climax to denouement. Then each resolves with a scene that brings all the characters onstage for a final reckoning.

An historian might note the more complicated technologies that enhance the staging, so The Contrast plays largely in intimate scenes of a few characters, while Fashion presents a fancy dress ball to dazzle its audience, and From Rags to Riches brings firearms, breakaway furniture, dogs, and a demolishable wall onto the stage. In this case, the entertainment becomes increasingly more sensationalistic, as the public appetite changes over the century, but the central conceits for communicating with that audience are much the same.

One might note the introduction of musical diversion into stage performances, achieving its height in the melodramas of the mid- to late-19th century, but here too is a matter of degree, not kind, for indeed, The Contrast calls directly for two songs sung by its actors.

It is true that for these examples, I choose three satires. But to some degree, representational theater is always satire in that presents an imitation of life for an audience’s examination and reflection. In this light, a play like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, full of comic scenes, but hardly meant as a comedy, follows nonetheless the same rules of presentation.

What does change is the play’s acknowledged relationship to itself, as it were. In the beginning of the 20th century, plays flirt with new levels of self-consciousness. One result is a play that parodies its own form. The latest of the plays above, From Rags to Riches, includes sensational action and audience asides in the melodramatic tradition. But this play goes so over the top in broadly stereotyped characters, absurdly contrived plot coincidences, and frequent allusions in the lines to its own contrivances, that I cannot believe the author was not sending up the genre as he celebrated its popular appeal. By the end of the first half, an entire melodrama has played out, taking poor characters from rags to promised riches, just as the title suggests. In the later half, when the naive heroine falls in love with her tormentor, legal actions prevent any of the heroes from receiving their riches, and the plucky boy hero begins to squander the money he finally receives, one sees the melodrama asking what would really happen if these whimsical tales played out in the ‘real’ world. Here, the self-conscious play asks us to doubt its reality entirely.
The opposite request seems another result of a growing self-consciousness in the theater.

In the later part of the 1800s and particularly in the early 1910s, plays begin to want to abandon their theatricality entirely. After the rise of the sensation scene that flourished in melodramas, plays began to achieve more personal, less incendiary climaxes. Additionally, they do away with prologues and epilogues, and audience asides and soliloquies drop from the text. This change asks for the audience to have a more private interaction with the play, though it is still experienced as a public event. From our repertoire, William Vaughan Moody’s The Faith Healer and The Great Divide, James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming, and Clyde Fitch’s The Truth and The City, all work on this more intimate level, however much theatrical pathos they may still seek to exploit. Perhaps they seek to reach an audience’s deeper, more complicated emotional life by asking that audience to forget they are in the theater. It certainly seems to be the assumption of an audience today that the older, more theatrical styles are shallower and more naive … though I am not convinced that that verdict is just.

PWHNY: Is The Contrast a play for our times?

ALEX: So long as we are encouraged to judge our leaders, families, friends, and neighbors by their outward displays of wealth, patriotism, power, and savvy; so long as we are dedicated to seeking admiration, influence, and love through our command of fashion — that is, for the foreseeable future of humankind — The Contrast is undoubtedly a play for our times.

PWHNY: Thanks for this exchange!

From Rags to Riches plays at the Metropolitan Playhouse through October 16.

Tags: , ,

UnderGaslight7web.jpg

Here are three reasons New York history buffs should be rejoicing that Metropolitan Playhouse is reviving Augustin Daly’s sensational melodrama Under the Gaslight (1867):

1. It’s the play that defined “sensation” for the New York stage. The debut run, at the Worrell Sisters’ New York Theatre, Broadway at Waverly Place, saw 47 performances. The signal moment — the original train-tracks rescue — originally aimed for extraordinary realism. In “sensation plays” from the Victorian era, audiences hoped to be transfixed by a single, sublime moment on stage: a fire scene, a shipwreck, a volcano erupting. I’m eager to see how this defining element of the genre translates into the Metropolitan’s much more intimate space. I doubt we’ll see a train rush by; I’m hoping to be caught up in the moment nonetheless.

Under_the_Gaslight-Poster-cepia-Resized.jpgPlus a train-tracks bonus: in this protoype for the melodramatic rescue scene, it’s a worthy, lower-class man tied to the tracks, only to be rescued by our heroine, who appears lower-class but is really of aristocratic blood. And virtuous! (Probably because she thinks she’s low-born.)

2. It’s a great “City on Stage” play, one I write about in my chapter in our Cambridge Companion (forthcoming next spring, as we’ve reminded our readers repeatedly). Daly was a major figure in 19c New York theater (and eventually in London) — both as a playwright and as a manager. Gaslight offers a terrific look at class-issues in the years just following the Civil War. Its settings include Delmonico’s and country estates on Long Island, and though it never questions the equation of money and virtue — the truly virtuous are those most deserving of wealth — it does seem to target the brutality of the upper classes, suggesting that not everyone born into wealth deserves it. Upper-class society is compared, by one character, to a pack of Siberian wolves. It’s kind of Gossip Girl for the nineteenth-century stage; the heroine would be the equivalent of Dan Humphrey in drag. That is, the play both revels in the lavish life of the upper-classes and offers a set of qualified critiques.

3. Fans of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) will remember that the heroine got her start on stage in a community production of this play, out in the mid-western hinterlands of Chicago. The narrator refers to it as “Augustin Daly’s famous production, which had worn from a great public success down to an amateur theatrical favourite, with many of the troublesome accessories cut out and the dramatis personae reduced to the smallest possible number.” The Metropolitan’s version, then, may be more akin to the regional production Carrie starred in than to Daly’s original (with all the “accessories”), but I’m confident the crew the Metropolitan has assembled, including Amanda Jones (who sparkled in The Contrast), will outstrip a late-nineteenth-century Chicago Elk’s Lodge by miles.

The play is in previews at the Metropolitan through the end of this week; opening night’s the 28th. It runs through December 10. Cyrus and I (and our colleague Tom Augst) have tickets for Sunday afternoon, Dec. 6, if you’d like to join us. I’ll be sure to report back, though by that point only a few performances will remain.

Tags: , , ,

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.

Tags: , ,

melville.jpgOnly three days left in the Metropolitan Playhouse’s Melvillapalooza fest, which has been going on for the last few weeks: original plays, poetry readings, and general Melville-inspired mayhem on E. 4th St.

Several of the remaining events are free (though they require reservations as seating is limited), including the final “scholar’s roundtable” on Sunday evening at 7:00 pm. The roundtable will be made up of — ahem — the two of us plus our colleague Thomas Augst, who wrote about Melville in his book on nineteenth-century clerks in the city and is the author of our Melville chapter in the forthcoming Cambridge Companion. We’ll be talking about Bartleby, Ishmael, and Pierre, showing some slides of Melville’s New York, and eliciting lots of audience participation.

So if you’re inclined, as I am, to fall on your knees and thank the deity of your choice for producing someone who wrote so much fantastic prose, head on over to metropolitanplayhouse.org and save a seat or two. Hope to see you there!

Tags: , ,

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.”

nowadaysmanwifejosierobertson.jpg

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.

Tags: , , , ,

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!

Tags: , , , ,