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.
Oops. I just realized the Whitman quote is “no dainty kid glove business” rather than “affair.” Oh well. It’s worth linking to in any case.