City on Stage

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.

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.

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.