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In the epilogue to Anna Cora Mowatt’s comedy Fashion (1845) — modeled, as Edgar Allan Poe pointed out in an early review, on Sheridan’s plays — one character expresses her hope that Fashion will become fashionable. The play’s republican hero, an overprotective grandfather, reiterates his distrust of fashion, and yet another character, the heroine, concludes by asking the audience both to show mercy on the performers and to give them “your honest verdict,” which will allow them to “learn to prize at its just value — Fashion.”

All the punning on Fashion/fashion seems to betray not only an anxiety about the status of fashion in the antebellum city but about the reception of Mowatt’s play. As it turns out, Mowatt had a hit, which eventually opened the door for her to take the stage as a professional actress. If her play seems awfully like Tyler’s The Contrast in its Sheridean debts, there does seem to me to be less equivocating about its accommodation of fashion. Mowatt’s republican mouthpiece is now a grandfather rather than a bachelor hero, and the heroine’s concluding speech doesn’t reject fashion so much as accommodate it. For Mowatt, the nouveaux riches pose the biggest danger, because they overvalue fashion and seek to use it as part of their scramble for upward mobility. If you value fashion (and Fashion) justly, by contrast, you must be part of that natural nobility Trueman was always blathering about.

There’s much more to be said here than I have time to write about today, but it’s worth noting how performances of age, race, and gender play into this discussion of fashion — and performances of authorship as well. That’s the angle Poe took up when he wrote about Mowatt in his essay series “The Literati of New York.” He begins:

Mrs. Mowatt is in some respects a remarkable woman, and has undoubtedly wrought a deeper impression upon the public than any one of her sex in America.
She became first known through her recitations.  To these she drew large and discriminating audiences in Boston, New York, and elsewhere to the north and east.  Her subjects were much in the usual way of these exhibitions, including comic as well as serious pieces, chiefly in verse.  In her selections she evinced no very refined taste, but was probably influenced by the elocutionary rather than by the literary value of her programmes.  She read well; her voice was melodious; her youth and general appearance excited interest, but, upon the whole, she produced no great effect, and the enterprise may be termed unsuccessful, although the press, as is its wont, spoke in the most sonorous tones of her success.
It was during these recitations that her name, prefixed to occasional tales, sketches and brief poems in the magazines, first attracted an attention that, but for the recitations, it might not have attracted.

The same goes for Fashion‘s success: “Her first decided success was with her comedy, ‘Fashion,’” he writes, “although much of this success itself is referable to the interest felt in her as a beautiful woman and an authoress.” He concludes with an extended gloss on her beauty. (Read the full sketch here.) Though he has some appreciative things to say about her writing, it seems clear that Poe dismisses her success as itself the whim of fashion. He may have been right, of course, given that her status at the apex of female American authorship was extremely short-lived, requiring her to be perpetually rescued by literary and theater historians.

If you have access to JSTOR, you might be interested in two relatively recent pieces on Mowatt: one on Poe as prototype for the play’s character T. Tennyson Twinkle, and the other on the creation of Mowatt’s public persona.

Of course, whenever I think about Mowatt’s play, this is what comes more immediately to mind:

 

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Following on yesterday’s Q&A with Alex Roe, who directed The Contrast for the Metropolitan Playhouse in 2009, today we’re happy to host a Q&A with Professor Cynthia Kierner of George Mason University, who edited the play with a substantial introductory essay for NYU Press in 2007. Professor Kierner directs GMU’s PhD program in History and Art History and is the author of Scandal At Bizarre: Rumor and Reputation in Jefferson’s America (Virginia, 2004).

PWHNY: When I teach The Contrast in an American Lit survey I discuss it as dealing with post-Revolutionary American culture broadly. In Writing New York it’s a more local affair, a picture of New York staged for New Yorkers by a visiting Bostonian. How do you teach the play?

CK: I first read the play in grad school, but never really thought about teaching it (or editing it) until it was one of the assigned texts for a discussion group (among high school teachers) that I was leading for a National Humanities Center Seminar in North Carolina. Although I thought that the play was really, really funny, I had never really thought that its humor would transfer to a discussion group of modern readers. It did. So, the main reason I decided to edit the play was to create an accessible edition for use in college-level courses. What fun to talk about dating and sex and shopping in a college history class! (The only online edition at that point was a real mess and not especially usable.)

I have used the book as a required text in undergraduate and graduate classes on the Revolutionary era and in an undergraduate course in American women’s/gender history. In both contexts, I tend to play up the gender angles. Among other things, this play is very much about the distinctive roles of women and men — at home, in the marketplace, and in society — and how, if at all, those roles differed in a republic. I also emphasize the extent to which, even after the Revolution, the U.S. was part of an Atlantic culture. The question of how distinctive Americans were within that Atlantic world is arguably the central one in Tyler’s play. And the notion of “American exceptionalism” continues to be hotly debated, even in today’s political discourse.

PWHNY: Cold War readings of the play often took for granted that Manly and Maria and Jonathan were unquestionably virtuous and the play’s heroes. Over time I’ve come to think that Tyler satirizes them as forcefully as anyone else. Does the play have characters we’re meant to embrace and emulate?

I agree completely that Tyler satirizes both Manly and Maria. Despite his admirable qualities — patriotism, loyalty, respect for his parents and for women, etc. — Manly is long-winded and wears bad (and old) clothes. Arguably, his patriotism, however inspiring during the war, was not the kind that would make him an effective role model in the post-revolutionary era. (Note that George Washington, that quintessential role model, was known for his reticence and also for going back to civilian dress after the war was over). I think that Tyler is much gentler toward Maria, but she’s not perfect either.

I can’t think of any single character that Tyler would have wanted his readers to emulate completely. I think that most of his characters have admirable qualities, but they also have flaws. And maybe that’s the point: Americans don’t have to be perfect as individuals to have a republic, but they do have to be sufficiently moderate and open-minded to make their experiment work.

PWHNY: Charlotte’s opening anecdote about her stroll on the Battery seems to set the stage (so to speak) for a long tradition of conflating New York with the theater: the town, that is, seems to be one big performance situation. Do you think Tyler was trying to get at something he saw, as an outsider, as specific to New York, or are we being given insight into the nature of commercial society?

CK: Interesting point (about conflating NY with theater). I think that for anyone whose experiences had been primarily rural — a category that would have included the vast majority of Americans ca. 1787 — any city would have struck them as “one big performance situation.” The thing that might have made New York special in 1787 would have been its new status as the capital of the United States, which made it the stage on which the nation’s leaders (and prominent New Yorkers) enacted official and quasi-official rituals as they constructed the public culture of the republic. Philadelphia occupied this position both before and after New York’s brief stint as the center of government. (Note that NY was not the largest city in the U.S. at that time, nor was it the one with the most significant theater history.)

PWHNY: What do you think The Contrast has to teach us today?

CK: My students are really interested to learn that theater was so controversial — that people regarded the stage variously as a source of corruption and a source of education. Does that make theater the “new media” of late eighteenth-century America? On an even more basic level, by including characters from so many different ethnic backgrounds, Tyler’s portrait of New York teaches readers that the city — and, by extension, the United States — was born diverse, and that contemporaries saw diversity as an important aspect of their society. That’s a crucial insight and a useful counterpoint to those who would see the story revolutionary era as a top-down founders-focused sort of history.

PWHNY: Thanks for this conversation!

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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.

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Cyrus’s discussion of Irving’s History over the last week or so lays the foundation for one of the big trajectories we trace in Writing New York: the idea of constructed histories — the literariness of the city’s history — and the very real effects those histories have had on the city’s development over time. (Elizabeth Bradley’s Knickerbocker is also instructive in this regard.)

The material I’m taking up over the next few weeks for #vWNY gets at another of our big issues: the way so much writing, especially over the course of the nineteenth century, channels anxieties about the theatricality of everyday urban life. The plays that we teach in this unit share preoccupations with fashion, manners, and the distance between public and private selves. They also fixate on the fluidity of social class. These issues aren’t unique to New York writing, of course, but they do seem to have played into the city’s reputation and self-conception for a very long time.

In lecture I use this bit from Luc Sante’s Low Life as a starting point:

Manhattan was a theater from the first. When, early on, it was a walled city, and further surrounded by a forest of masts, it enclosed in its ring a small universe. This enclosure is the model of cities as it is of theaters, as can be seen when one compares old representations of fortress cities and of Greek amphitheaters and later theaters like the Globe. In Manhattan, social stratification followed a course in which the waterfront and the area environs near it became undesirable, became like the galleries [in theaters], which the dead center, Fifth Avenue, would be the orchestra stalls. What, then, would be the stage? There are two answers. One of them in contained in the image of the city as a theater, consisting of rings, loge, and parquet, in which . . . the audience is the object of its own contemplation. Manhattan has eternally been fascinated by itself. . . . The other answer has to do
with the street that runs diagonally up the island — Broadway — putting itself on display and carrying in its train its dark twin, the Bowery.

Sante’s attention to lower Broadway (and, later, the Bowery) as a space of social performance anticipates the opening scene of Tyler’s play, in which Charlotte recounts for a friend her adventures walking on the Battery for an audience of soldiers and beaux. In our post-Erving Goffman world, the idea that we perform our way through everyday life is practically taken for granted. In Tyler’s day it was one of the reason some social conservatives distrusted theater: because it lent to the theatricalization of ordinary social exchanges. If everyone’s performing, whom can you trust?

The easy answer, on many reading’s of Tyler’s play, is that you need to trust Colonel Manly — a sentimental patriot, dressed in homespun, throwing off the trappings of England and celebrating his country’s native virtues (including Maria, the sentimental heroine). But I’m pretty sure Tyler isn’t letting these characters off the hook so easy. When we talk about the contrasts in The Contrast it usually involves making a list that goes something like this:

country / city
simple virtue / luxury
homespun / import
sentiment / politeness
revolutionary gravity / frivolity
democracy / aristocracy
veteran / beau
age / youth
marriage / seduction
patriarchal authority / filial insubordination
New England / New York
America / Europe
Country (USA) / City (NYC)

But, as I try to make the case in lecture (and in my chapter of the Cambridge Companion), I think one additional contrast undoes some of these others — the contrast between inexperienced theater-goers (especially Jonathan, the Yankee rube, who thinks he’s peeping in on the neighbors when he’s watching a play) and more sophisticated consumers of plays, including, we presume, this play’s target audience. By aligning himself with the theater, Tyler walks a thin line, and in some contemporaries’ minds probably fell over that line and landed flat on his face. It’s hard to take the play’s moralizing at face value when it’s thrown in its lot with a form so inimical to republican virtue. (Others, including George Washington, didn’t share these conservative qualms.)

Tyler’s play seems (inadvertently?) to expose Manly and Maria’s sentimentalism as so much show. Does it expect us to find a way to step outside our everyday performances? Or are we simply supposed to be more honest in recognizing the ways we act, in naming the performances from which the city won’t let us escape?

Previously on PWHNY:

The contrasts in The Contrast.
John Adams, Royall Tyler, and Woody Allen.
More thoughts on the Metropolitan Playhouse’s The Contrast.
Royall Tyler’s The Contrast at Metropolitan Playhouse.
The Battery’s Down: Lost and Found at South Ferry.

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As many times as I’ve given my lecture on nineteenth-century theater in Writing New York, I’ve almost never been able to pace it right to conclude as planned with the Astor Place Riots, which is probably how I came to write this post last year.

I’ll supplement my rushed conclusion from today, then, with a video from a blog I’ve only recently discovered, Little Bytes of the Big Apple, written by novelist Robert Westfield. His video episode on Astor Place’s history covers much of the ground I would have at the end of lecture today and also usefully illustrates a few places I mentioned, including Colonnade Row. Enjoy!

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Monday morning we’re wrapping up the opening unit of our Writing New York lecture, which starts us off with the early New York stage. From last week’s discussion of Royall Tyler’s The Contrast in the post-Revolutionary city, we’ll turn to the emergence, by the mid 19th century, of theaters catering to specific class interests. We’ll focus in particular on Anna Cora Mowatt’s 1845 play Fashion and Benjamin Baker’s 1848 play A Glance at New York. The former was designed for middle-class audiences, written by and starring a popular actress and playwright who devoted a lot of energy to demonstrating that middle-class women could act without compromising their character. Baker’s play was a working-class play written by a working-class actor and designed for working-class audiences.

We’ve written previously about these plays and some of their contexts. So let this post serve to point you in the direction of prior discussions. Baker’s Glance is famous for introducing to the stage the character of Mose, the prototypical Bowery B’hoy. A couple springs ago I wrote about Mose as the subject of studies by the pioneering American folklorist Richard Dorson, who treated the flannel-clad fireman as something like New York’s own version of the legendary Paul Bunyan. I also wrote briefly about the nineteenth-century leisure spot Vauxhall Gardens, where Baker’s play concludes, noting its significance as contested ground in class struggles at mid century. Vauxhall Gardens stood between Broadway and Astor place and was bisected when John Jacob Astor developed Lafayette Place as a tony street for some of Manhattan’s wealthiest families, including his own. The remnants of those luxurious settings are the Public Theater, formerly the Astor Library, and Colonnade Row, the deteriorating Greek Revival residences now partially owned and occupied by the Blue Man Group. Not far from either of these sites, the Astor Place Opera House witnessed one of the most famous theater riots in the nineteenth century, which also provided the first occasion for national guardsmen to fire on and kill American citizens who were protesting what they saw as the aristocratization of the American theater.

We’ve written less here about Anna Cora Mowatt. Maybe I’ll have a chance to remedy that this over the next few days. In the meantime, here’s a nice introduction to her career, along with her page on the Perspectives in American Literature site. And here’s a review of the Metropolitan Playhouse’s 2003 revival of Fashion.

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We’ve written here before about Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast, which was the first American play to be professionally staged. Set in Manhattan following the Revolution, the play takes Sheridan’s comedies of manners as a model for its send-up of New York society. I have a brief treatment of the play in my essay “The City on Stage” in our Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York, in which I write about comparisons the play sets up between the theater and urban life, particularly in moments we would recognize as metatheatrical. (For another take on metatheatrical commentary in the play, see John Evelev’s 1996 essay in Early American Literature; institutional subscription required for that link.)

The most exemplary of the play’s many metatheatrical moments involves a visit to the theater by Jonathan, a “waiter” (not a servant, he explains!) to the play’s ostensible hero, the grave Revolutionary War veteran Colonel Manly. Jonathan is the prototypical “Stage Yankee,” a bumpkin character that appeared in American drama and folklore through the nineteenth century. Jonathan and his successors are bewildered by the city but often enjoy some form of moral triumph in the end, either by virtue of native simplicity or what we might call farm-smarts. Think Forrest Gump but from Western Mass; another descendant, the “Stage West Texan,” is the character George W. Bush created for The American Presidency. (Oh, wait … that was real life?)

In Tyler’s play, Jonathan visits the John Street Theater but thinks he’s attending church. (His minister had warned him against the theater and he never would have gone in had he known where he really was.) When the curtain goes up, he assumes he’s somehow peeping on the family next door.  He describes his visit later to two New York servants, Jenny and Jessamy, who have a lot of fun at his expense: “Did you see the family?” Jenny asks, in on the joke.

JONATHAN: Yes, swamp it; I see’d the family.
JENNY: Well, and how did you like them?
JONATHAN: Why, I vow they were pretty much like other families—there was a poor, good-natured curse of a husband, and a sad rantipole of a wife.
JENNY: But did you see no other folks?

To this point Jonathan has inadvertently been responding to opponents of the theater who believed that the stage was not like life. Now, again without realizing it, he begins to describe Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, the play he mistook for the family next door. Sheridan’s play had been performed at the John Street Theatre only weeks before Tyler’s:

JONATHAN: Yes. There was one youngster; they called him Mr. Joseph; he talked as sober and pious as a minister; but, like some ministers that I know, he was a sly tike in his heart for all that. He was going to ask a young woman to spark it with him, and—the Lord have mercy on my soul!—she was another man’s wife.
JESSAMY: The Wabash!
JENNY: And did you see any more folks?
JONATHAN: Why, they came on as thick as mustard. For my part, I thought the house was haunted. There was a soldier fellow, who talked about his row de dow, dow, and courted a young woman [HERE HE’S TRANSITIONED INTO AN ACCOUNT OF THE SECOND PLAY, THE POOR SOLDIER, ALSO ON THE BILL AT JOHN STREET ONLY WEEKS EARLIER]; but of all the cute folk I saw, I liked one little fellow–
JENNY: Aye! Who was he?
JONATHAN: Why, he had red hair, and a little round plump face like mine, only not altogether so handsome. His name was—Darby;–that was his baptizing name; his other name I forgot. Oh! It was Wig—Wag—Wag-all, Darby Wag-all; . . .

Okay. Let’s pause here for a moment. The layers of inside joking here are multiple: not only is the audience at the John Street theater listening to a character’s description of the audiences and performers in the John Street theater, but also to a discussion of plays staged only a few weeks prior to The Contrast’s debut, and starring the same company of actors. These jokes culminate in Jonathan’s description of “Darby Wag-all”: both characters—Jonathan in The Contrast and Darby in The Poor Soldier—were played by the actor Thomas Wignall; when Jonathan proclaims that Darby “is a cute fellow,” in other words, the actor is talking about his own appearance in a previous role.

Jonathan’s theater escapade helps us catalog the play’s many “contrasts”: country vs. city, republican virtue vs. urban or European luxury, sentiment vs. politeness, revolutionary gravity vs. frivolity, democracy vs. aristocracy, veteran vs. beau, age vs. youth, New England vs. New York, marriage vs. seduction, patriarchal authority vs. filial insubordination, American homespun vs. imported European fashions.

All these things, as you’d expect, boil down to the most obvious contrast in the play: between American patriotism and the unhealthy residue of British manners and fashion—between Manly, Maria, Jonathan, and country homespun on one side and Dimple, Charlotte, Jessamy, and imported British tastes and behaviors on the other.

But we’re offered yet another contrast here that seems to undermine the ones I’ve already identified: the contrast between a sophisticated theater audience (represented by Jessamy and Jenny in the scene quoted above) and a bumbling rube, which is to say the contrast between theater-goers and the theater’s ignorant opponents. To the extent that Jonathan functions as an audience member he is a rather naive one, the object of multiple audiences’ scorn. Jonathan continually misreads the city: he assumes Jessamy is a member of congress, a brothel is a church, a prostitute is a deacon’s daughter, and the stage is a neighbor’s house. He’s been trained, also, to think of the theater as “the devil’s drawing-room” and actors as “wicked,” attitudes that place him at odds with the very form Tyler has taken up, and dangerously so, considering the theater was still illegal in his native Boston.

Recognizing the ways in which the play’s alignment with its own sophisticated audiences undermines some of its republican fervor, it’s easier to see ways in which the play savages its ostensible hero and heroine, Manly and Maria, as well as Jonathan, who has often been understood as an emblem of “native worth.” There’s something a little more rebellious at play in The Contrast than has sometimes been noticed. It comes out in the humor, which was much more evident when I saw the play performed at the Metropolitan Playhouse a while back than it ever had been when I’d read and taught it from the page. Here’s part of what I wrote here after seeing the performance:

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.

It’s a subtle humor that has more sympathies with New York’s precariously polite urban society than scholars have previously tended to notice.

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Notice of two events TONIGHT of interest to downtown cultural historians:

First, at the Ottendorfer Library (135 Seconds Ave.), a panel on preservation efforts on the Lower East Side, sponsored by the Lower East Side History Project. 6 pm.

Second, at Judson Memorial Church (Washington Square Park South), a memorial service for Harry Koutoukas, a cornerstone of the LES theater scene for decades. Start time unannounced, but more info about Koutoukas can be found at warholstars.org. At that site I found this memorial sermon, preached at Judson last Sunday, by one of the community ministers, Michael Ellick:

(h/t Carey Abrams)

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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?

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There’s a famous anecdote about the first appearance of Mose the Bowery B’hoy on the New York stage. Played by neighborhood boy Frank Chanfrau, Mose, the fireman-butcher, makes his entrance in Benjamin Baker’s 1848 farce A Glance at New York by vowing to break with his fire company: he ain’t gonna run with his machine no more. As the story goes, Mose’s opening line brought down the house.

200px-Frank_Chanfrau_as_Mose.jpg

The success of Baker’s play is often attributed — like that of an earlier, more genteel comedy, Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787) — to the audience’s desire to see itself portrayed on stage. When haven’t New Yorkers liked to watch themselves on stage or screen? Mose the Bowery B’hoy looked and sounded like his most important audience members, the Bowery working class, just as Tyler’s target audience was expected to identify with his principals, especially the ones who gently parodied the new republican elite. But unlike many middle-class portraits of city life, there’s no railing against fashion in Baker’s play; instead, Mose crystallized a popular street style and probably reinforced it for years to come. (I’d like to know more than I’ve been able to find out about the popularity and endurance of Bowery B’hoy fashion.)

Both plays are too
simplistically understood as a form of New York narcissism, though. For one thing, the half-century that intervenes between the plays allows Baker to write working-class characters who, though they still delight in fleecing naive rubes visiting from the country, win the play’s sanction rather than its opprobrium.

But both plays should be
taken more seriously still, as demonstrating how theater has, in different ways over time, informed controversies about social division and public space. I’ve been thinking through a half dozen or so such “City on Stage” plays for my contribution to our Cambridge Companion, and I taught an advanced undergrad seminar on the topic last spring. One thing I’ve noticed about the century or so following Tyler’s first portrait of New Yorkers on the New York stage is how consistently these plays obsess about the city’s public spaces. From the class-stratification encouraged by eighteenth-century theater architecture (when audiences were divided along class lines into different portions of the audience space) to the mid-nineteenth century, when increasingly pronounced class divisions had led to separate theaters altogether based on class, from anxieties about women’s theater attendance to Barnum’s innovation of separate “Negro” showtimes for black audiences, theaters served as a highly visible crystallization of urban anxieties and conflicts, which sometimes — especially for upper class audiences — masqueraded as a fear of “the city” itself. In what ways did “City on Stage” plays aim to quell such anxieties, and in what ways did they foster them?

If Clyde Fitch’s 1909 Broadway play The City is any indication, the
blame for vice had shifted from the city itself to the individuals who inhabit it — regardless of class. In response to the play’s grisly portrait of political corruption, sexual
decadence, and drug use, the chastened protagonist, who will lose his bid for New York’s governorship due to a series of family scandals, begs his audience not to blame the city: “It’s not her fault! It’s our own! What the City does is to bring out what’s strongest in us. If at heart we’re good, the good in us will win! If the bad is strongest, God help us!” The city is a stage, here, in other words, for proving one’s self, in a way
a country village will never allow you. A “big, and busy, and selfish, and self-centered” city is a virtue: “she comes to her gates” and welcomes the man coming from the country village, “and she stands him in the middle of her market place . . . and she paints his ambition on her fences, and lights up her skyscrapers with it! — what he wants to be and what he thinks he is! — and then she says to him, Make good if you can, or to Hell with you! And what is in him comes out to clothe his nakedness, and to the City he can’t lie!” The emphasis here on advertising, clothing, ambition, and the market suggests that one function of the “City on Stage” trajectory over the course of the century was to naturalize what was still deeply problematic when Tyler wrote The Contrast. If, in Fitch’s play, there’s still very little distance between the stage and street, by the early twentieth century performance and artifice were taken to be the deepest expression of who a person is.

Perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned from the century-long pattern of New Yorkers putting themselves on stage, then, is the relationship between the institution of the theater and what would become modern consumer culture. What does the culture of consumption do to class divisions in the modern city? My hunch is that the answer has to do with the kinds of performance involved in high-fashion promenades — the problematic starting point of Tyler’s play, but something Mose and his G’hal take, as it were, in stride.

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