History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/American Romantic
American plays on the early 19th century mainly include melodramas and social comedies.
Romantic drama in the USA is more precisely described as melodrama, represented by Augustin Daly with "Under the gaslight" (1867). According to Krutch (1967), "the distinguishing characteristics of melodrama have always been two: first, the absence of all shading in characterization and the resolute simplification of all moral distinctions until nothing remains except simple virtue on the one hand and a creature of hideous mien on the other second,thetendency to rely for suspense upon a conflict which can be presented in visual terms and which usually ends in some form of physical contest. For obvious reasons such a play can succeed only if its moral and intellectual assumptions constitute a sort of largest common denominator for the audience and ordinarily, therefore, melodramas are the least critical of plays for the simple reason that they usually reflect the judgments, sympathies, and prejudices most widely prevalent."
Augustin Daly also wrote "A flash of lightning" (1868), "Horizon" (1871), and "Love lives on crutches" (1884). In "A flash of lightning", Bessie is accused by her father of robbing her sister's necklace until he discovers a flash of lightning in their house was responsible. In "Horizon", a party from Washington meet a great number of difficulties while travelling westward where violent frontier men and Indians reside. In "Love lives on crutches", Sydney and Annis marry for money until each discovers that they have been writing love-letters to each other. Of Daly Hughes (1951) says: "his interests were so broad, and his artistic impulses so various, that his writing, taken in its entirety, represents nearly every kind of drama. Like Boucicault, he drew heavily on foreign authors, adapting their work freely to his needs, but in this process he was much more concerned than was Boucicault with the tastes and psychology of the American audience. His method of treating foreign plays was, to use Quinn's word, one of 'domestication'."
"Under the gaslight"
Time: 1860s. Place: New York and surroundings, USA.
Ray is engaged to be married to Laura. One evening, they receive a visit from Byke, introduced as Laura's music teacher, who requests a meeting with her. To Ray's surprise, she accepts to see him. Though known to everyone as her cousin, Pearl, in love with Ray herself, reveals to Ray that Laura is not her cousin, but was picked up by her parents from the streets as a child thief. Ray is stunned, starts to write a letter to Laura, then hesitates, and says little. At a social ball, Mrs Van Dam notices letters dropped from Ray's overcoat pocket, including one, unsealed and addressed to Laura, which, out of curiosity, she reads aloud to her friends, revealing Laura's origins. Instead of joining Laura, Ray joins his friends. Laura must now work for her living. She finds a job consisting of touching up photographs. When the remorseful Ray returns to say he still loves her. "I know how to construe the love which you deny in the face of society, to offer me behind its back," Laura retorts. Yet she agrees to go with him and see Pearl and her mother again. While Ray goes out for a carriage, Byke reveals he is her father and forces her to come with him to a police court, where he pleads his case before a judge. Byke explains that Laura was taken from him by rich people and now he wants her back, as "the prop of my declining days," he says. Though Laura resists, challenging him to describe her clothing when she was found, he passes the test. He and his woman-accomplice, Judas, plan to keep Laura and blackmail Pearl once she marries Ray, but their plan is upset when the latter convinces the police patrol to seize them on a pier when about to enter a boat. As the police officers close in, Judas pushes Laura into the water, but she is rescued by Ray. Near Shrewsbury among his friends at Courtland's cottage, Ray lies despondent. Despite having asked to marry Pearl and been accepted, he has not forgotten Laura, who wants him to forget her. Worried about being found out again by the blackmailers, Laura leaves the party to sleep at the signal shed of a train station, where Ray's messenger-friend, Snorkey, is captured by Byke, tied up, and laid across the tracks while she is locked inside because Snorkey found out that he and Judas intend to rob at the cottage. Laura at last finds an axe and cuts the wooodwork of the shed as Snorkey's neck tingles above the tracks because of the arriving train, saving him just in time. While Pearl sleeps on a divan at her house, Byke enters to steal bracelets and diamonds, at which she wakes up and screams. Informed by Snorkey of Byke's intent, Ray and Laura enter running to intercept the thief. Although Snorkey takes hold of Byke, he is undeterred and threatens to expose Pearl as Judas' substituted child. Because of this disclosure, Pearl releases Ray from his marriage vow. Byke rejoices when they release him but is prevented from any further attempt at blackmail after learning of Judas' death in a road accident.
George L. Aiken and Harriet Beecher-Stowe
George L. Aiken (1830 –1876) is remembered for "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852), an adaption of Harriet Beecher-Stowe's novel. Hughes (1951) summarizes its influence: "Although Uncle Tom's Cabin had its first successful production in 1852, and was revived frequently during succeeding years, it was not until the seventies that it was toured extensively. But by 1879 there were approximately fifty "Tom Shows" on the road. And the demand for them seemed unlimited. During the eighties the number increased with every season, and in the nineties there were between four hundred and five hundred companies in operation. Harry Birdoff, in his comprehensive history of this phenomenon, lists by name one hundred and thirty-five of the "better known Tom troupes of the nineties," and at the same time indicates that this list represents but a fraction of the total. All available types of transportation were used by these shows: wagon, railway, and boat: every sort of assembly place was used for performance: tents, churches, halls, theatres, and opera houses. Most typical was the tent-show, which, like the circus, carried not only its tent, but also complete seating and lighting equipment. The tents varied greatly in size, the largest ones seating as many as two thousand spectators. Production equipment and personnel varied proportionately. Little shows carried everything on a few wagons, and the few actors doubled as stage-hands and musicians; "mammoth" shows traveled in specially-built railway cars, and carried as many as seventy people."
"Uncle Tom's cabin"
Time: 1850s. Place: Kentucky, Ohio, Louisiana, Vermont, USA.
Because Shelby owes Haley money, he must hand over one of his slaves, George, who will be separated from his wife, Eliza, because Shelby's wife insists on keeping her. Rebelling against that plan, George escapes in the hope of buying her when he reaches Canada. When Eliza learns that Shelby has sold her young son, too, she also plans to escape and invites another sold slave, Uncle Tom, to do the same. But he chooses to remain. Haley hires Marks and Loker to get the boy back, but all three are thwarted when Phineas, master of a ferry-boat, sympathizes with the fleeing slave and helps her run across a river sheated with ice. Uncle Tom is eventually sold to St Clare, husband to Mary and father to little Eva, as the result of the child being saved from drowning when the slave jumped after her. St Clare gives to his cousin, Ophelia, a slave girl named Topsy. Having been nothing from trouble to them, he hopes Ophelia will be able to control Topsy. When Ophelia discovers that on their first meeting Topsy has stolen two gloves and a ribbon from her, she slaps the slave's face. Meanwhile, Haley, Marks, and Loker follow the trail of the other runaway slave, George. Phineas recognizes him from a poster, sympathesizes with him as he did his wife, and succeeds in waylaying and trapping all three in a cellar, by which maneuver George is able to find Eliza and their son. While staying at the same house, Eva scolds Topsy for her dangerous pranks, who replies that she is glad to harm white folks for laughing at her. "When dey are passing under my winder, I trows dirty water on 'em, and dat spiles der complexions," she declares proudly. Meanwhile, Marks and Loker discover George and his protector, Phineas, amid rocks overhanging a cliff. When Loker is shot by George and thrown over the cliff by Phineas, a frightened Marks quickly escapes. Ailing with a cough and feeling her end near, Eva forces her father to promise he will free his slaves after her death. But after her death, St Clare is accidently stabbed to death by Simon Legree in a bar-room quarrel with Gumption Cute before he has a chance to free Uncle Tom. As a result, the slave becomes Simon's property and Ophelia returns to her home in Vermont along with a much improved Topsy, who has learned to love her mistress. In desperate poverty, Gumption reaches Vermont in the hope that Ophelia, a kinswoman of his, will help him. Instead, he insults her suitor, Deacon Perry, and is thrown out of the house by the irate mistress. He joins Marks in helping Shelby locate Uncle Tom amid the swamps of Louisiana. But before they can reach him, Simon strikes the slave down dead for insubordination with the butt end of his whip and is himself killed when Marks shoots him in self-defense.
Anna Cora Mowatt
Comedies are the key-note of early 19th century theatre, one of the best of which includes "Fashion" (1845) by Anna Cora Mowatt (1819–1870), a social satire on the blind adherence to foreign manners.
Time: 1840s. Place: USA.
Once a milliner, now a gentlewoman, Mrs Tiffany, intent on being in fashion, receives all her visits on a single day of the week. Twinkle, a poet, recites his verses. A second guest, Augustus Fogg, appears uninterested in anything. Mrs Tiffany and her daughter, Seraphina, wish especially to impress Count Jolimaître. They also welcome her husband's wealthy and honest friend, Trueman, amused at seeing such a load of pretentious behaviors and her finery. "I see you make it a point to carry half your husband's shop upon your back!" he remarks to his hostess. Her servant girl, Millinette, is startled to discover the count in the house. Both pretend not to recognize each other. Trueman remarks that, though richer, Mr Tiffany seems unhappier. Moreover, he does not like the look of Snobson, Tiffany's confidential clerk. Although it is thought that Seraphina will one day marry Jolimaître, he flirts instead with her friend and house-guest, Gertrude, in so crude a manner that Trueman hits him with a stick, which causes Mrs Tiffany to be "abimé with terror". From another friend of the family, Prudence, Trueman receives the false news that Seraphina favors Twinkle, but is well informed that Gertrude favors Colonel Howard. From Prudence's behavior, he guesses rightly that she herself has her eye on his own person. Despite her husband's financial woes, Mrs Tiffany moves forward with her grand ball. Tiffany agrees but, to her irritation, insists on inviting Snobson, he being "in the power of this man" and a convenient match for Seraphina, an idea his wife considers a "fow pas" (faux pas, "bad move"). When Snobson enters, she formally wishes him "Bung jure ("bonjour") and asks: "Comment vow porth, Monsur Snobson?" (bad French for "How do you do?). She moves him out of the way so that her daughter can speak with the count alone, who proposes marriage, to which Seraphina consents, though startled to learn it must be kept secret for the moment. When alone together, Millinette confronts Jolimaître. "Ah! trompeur! Vat for you fly from Paris?" she asks. "Vat for you leave me- and I love you so much? Ven you sick- you almost die- did I not stay by you- take care of you- and you have no else friend?" Their conversation is overheard by Gertrude, who agrees in keeping silent on the matter. During the ball, Mrs Tiffany is offended to see Gertrude dance with the count. To keep Millinette away from him, Gertrude proposes that she station herself with bouquets for the female guests, which the lady of the house considers a "recherchi idea", likely to be "all the rage in the bow-monde!" Fogg is also here, keen on eating suppers. Prudence surveys Gertrude, to her eyes acting suspiciously, and tells Trueman what she has noticed. In the darkness of a corner, Gertrude imitates Millinette's voice, by which her suspicions in regard to the count are confirmed. Trueman and Howard are downhearted at Gertrude's apparent frivolity and Mrs Tiffany, highly scandalized, orders her out of the house. Yet, the next day, reflecting a moment and glancing at Gertrude's letter of explanation as to her behavior, Trueman becomes convinced that her only intent was to expose the count as a fraud, a conclusion the colonel also tardily arrives at. Prudence is distraught at having to inform Mrs Tiffany that Seraphina has eloped with Jolimaître, to Mr Tiffany's despair but his wife's content. Now that Howard is found worthy of Gertrude, a match sure to have been made without the involvement of money, Trueman reveals she is his grand-daughter and a rich heiress. But Mrs Tiffany's confidence is shaken by Millinette's revelation of the count's true identity. On hearing of the elopement, Hobson drunkenly interrupts to expose Tiffany as a forgerer. To the surprise of all, Seraphina reappears, not quite married. "The clergyman wasn't at home- I came back for my jewels- the count said nobility couldn't get on without them," she explains. Elated, Tiffany begs her marry Snobson instead and also begs Trueman to give him the money needed to cover his forgeries. Trueman is ashamed of him. He wakes the drunk Snobson to inform him he is an accessory to the forgeries, at which he quickly disappears. The count is at last forced to admit he is an imposter. He agrees to marry Millinette and is hired by Trueman according to his true vocation: a cook.
Mrs Sidney Frances Bateman
Another play of interest is "Self" (1856) by Mrs Sidney Frances Bateman (1823-1881), a social satire on the blind adherence to one's self-interest.
Time: 1850s. Place: USA.
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Clemanthe Apex has been overspending and is unable to pay debts amounting to $12,000. When she asks her husband for money, he demurs. "There, madam, that is the rock on which you split," he declares. He specifies he is on the brink of bankruptcy, an answer she considers only a pretext. Desperate to achieve her aim, she asks Mary, her stepdaughter, for the money, the latter having recently received $15,000 from a dead aunt. Mary refuses as well, knowing her father would not approve of such a loan. Her father himself is truly in financial trouble and his pride does not permit him to ask a loan from his ex-partner, John Unit. "By a succession of unexpected circumstances, I am straitened for money," he tells Mary. She does not hesitate to give him a cheque for $15,000. Clemanthe receives more bad news when her son, Charles, loses $5,000 in a gambling debt that must soon be paid. Clemanthe says she cannot provide him with the money. "But, I tell you, you have brought me up badly, and the result will be disgrace to us both," Charles retorts. Clemanthe can only find one solution: forge his half-sister's $15,000 cheque. Charles anxiously obeys. Meanwhile, John hears about the $5,000 loss, but Mary begs him not to divulge it to her father. "An idle population, consuming and not producing, can never be made to pay!" exclaims John, but he reluctantly agrees. Though not needing it anymore, Apex discovers Mary's cheque has already been cashed and for safety asks her to give him the money. Suspecting that her signature has been forged by Charles, whom she chooses to protect, she declines. Incensed, Apex throws her out of the house, so that she is forced to live in a cheap boarding-house with only one servant to attend her. On learning of Mary's troubles, John proposes that she accuse Charles, but she refuses. Unwillingly, he lends her the money as an installment in advance of his will. On his 60th birthday, he discovers that he has made a "fatal mistake in the ledger of life". "The assets that benevolent actions towards our fellow beings leave in the shape of love, respect, and sympathy are the only ones worth having, the only things that pay," he concludes. On finding out his half-sister's disgraceful condition, Charles is stunned and, against his mother's wishes, reveals the forgery to his astonished father, but everything is resolved when John arrives with the money.