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.
Plus 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.