Mass Appeal. William Shakespeare, predicted one critic in 1882, “is destined to become the Shakespeare of the college and university, and even more the Shakespeare of private and select culture. Nor will he ever be perfectly himself and perfectly at home anywhere else.” Throughout much of the nineteenth century Shakespeare had belonged to every man, woman, and child—regardless of social class. Some theater companies presented “traditional” interpretations of the bard; others adapted his work to comic, even bawdy purposes. Richard III might be performed as Bad Dicky, Romeo and Juliet as Roamy-E-Owe and Julie-Ate. By the 1880s “high” and “low” drama began to diverge. “Why, I’Ve played an act from Hamlet, one from Black-Eyed Susan, and sung ‘A Yankee Ship and a Yankee Crew’ and danced a hornpipe ... all in one night. Is there any one you know of today who can do that?” asked the actor Edward L. Davenport (1815-1877), lamenting bygone times. In that pre-Hollywood era, however, theater was the crown jewel of American popular culture, and the New York stage—testing ground for new technologies and showcase for the world’s leading actors—sparkled brightest of the bright.
The Production. Realistic settings and sensational effeets made late-nineteenth-century theater a spectacle. When Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur was adapted for the stage in 1899, the chariot races, rigged on treadmills, thrilled New York audiences. Behind the spectacle of Ben-Hur and other theatrical extravaganzas hovered the guiding presence of astute producers and stage managers. David Belasco (1853-1931), perhaps the best-known producer of the period, was a San Francisco native whose spare-no-expenses style and passion for stage realism made him a leading force in the theater well into the twentieth century. Steele MacKaye (1842-1894)—like many of his colleagues, an actor and playwright as well as a producer—pioneered the use of overhead electric lighting on stage. Augustin Daly
(1838-1899), whose theater was home to the most star-studded stock company in New York, made his name adapting European plays to American settings. Richard Mansfield (1854-1907) helped introduce American audiences to modern drama with his production of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man (1894).
The Farce. Twentieth-century critics often dismiss late-nineteenth-century theater as a muddle of old (melodramatic) and new (realistic) styles. If the theater of the 1880s and 1890s failed to generate a trademark style, it did not fail to entertain—and, occasionally, challenge—American audiences. Some playwrights merged old forms with new subjects. Thus, Bronson Howard (1842-1908) loosed the force of farce on the contemporary business world in Young Mrs. Winthrop (1882) and The Henrietta (1887). Other playwrights, such as Edward Harrigan (1845-1911), reveled in the raw power of burlesque. A composer of popular songs, sketches, and plays, Harrigan worked a cycle of farces around his ditty “The Mulligan Guard” (1873). Featuring Harrigan and his comedy-duo partner Tony Hart (1855-1891), The Mulligan Guard’s Picnic (1878), The Mulligan Guards’ Ball (1879), and similar follow-ups satirized the military mindset of post-Civil War America. Another pro-lific author of “light” drama, Charles Hale Hoyt (1860-1900), scored with A Texas Steer (1890), a political satire; A Trip to Chinatown (1891), a tale of ill- fated urban adventuring; and A Temperance Town (1892), a social farce. Perhaps the most popular actor of the era, William Gillette (1855-1937), was also the author of thirteen original plays. Gillette’s most significant work, The Secret Service (1896), was a spy thriller set in Civil War times. The actor earned kudos, too, for his performance in Sherlock Holmes (1899), a reworking of the Arthur Conan Doyle detective stories. Another popular actor-producer, James O’Neill (1847-1920), father of playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), became so identified with the leading character in the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo, which he produced for the first time in 1883, that audiences refused to accept him in any other role.
The Advent of Realism. American theater of the late nineteenth century had its serious side as well. The “forward-looking” realistic dramas staged in New York during the 1880s and 1890s inspired avant-garde playwrights of the early twentieth century but were not always welcomed by audiences accustomed to melodrama. After watching a performance of Margaret Fleming (1890) by James A. Herne (1839-1901), one critic noted with regret that the dialogue was conducted in “the colloquial English of the shops and streets and the kitchen fire-place” by characters representing “the everyday nonentities that some folks like to forget when they go to the theatre.” Despite such criticism, Herne’s realistic style took root and prospered. Among the popular plays written by Herne were Shore Acres (1892), set in Maine; The Reverend Griffith Davenport (1899), a Civil War drama about a liberal southern clergyman; and Sag Harbor (1899), written with David Belasco. Other notable social dramas—or “problem plays”—of the period include Steele MacKaye’s Paul Kauvar (1887), a sympathetic study of anarchism inspired indirectly by the 1886 Haymarket bombing in Chicago; and The District Attorney (1895), a clever take on politicat corruption
written by Charles Klein (1867-1915) and Harrison Grey Fiske (1861-1942).
Gerald Bordman, ed., American Musical Theatre: A Coronide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992);
John Gassner, ed., Best Play’s of the Early American Theatre (New York: Crown, 1967);
Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergernce of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).