Bernhardt, Burghers, and Bears: New Items in American Pamphlets, 1820-1922
Below are three new works found in the May release of the digital edition of New-York Historical Society’s American Pamphlets collection.
The Palace Theater presents Madame Sarah Bernhardt in Vaudeville (1912)
“There are five kinds of actresses, said Mark Twain; “bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and Sarah Bernhardt.”
Thus begins this handsome promotional brochure announcing that The Palace, Broadway’s newest theatre at the time, had booked Sarah Bernhardt, an international star like no other. This work is generously illustrated with photographs of some of her triumphs, including “Lucrece Borgia” by Victor Hugo, Sardou’s “Theodora,” and “La Dame aux Camelias” by Alexandre Dumas. Near each photograph is a two-page “Outline of the Play.”
Both the photographs and the plays themselves may seem overblown and tiresome to a twenty-first century audience, but in 1912 they were the epitome of dramatic art and sensibility. Martin Beck, the vaudeville entrepreneur who built the theater and booked its shows, is also credited with creating this brochure. He answers the obvious question in his introduction: Why would Bernhardt agree to vaudeville? One “might as well attempt tempting Paderewski to compose ragtime or persuade Rodin to model ‘sand statuary’ in Atlantic City as to coax the ‘Divine Sarah’ into signing a vaudeville contract.” He tells us she did this because “she was convinced that to appear at moderate prices was to afford an opportunity of presenting herself to the vast multitude of play lovers to whom, on account of the fees charged for her previous performances here, Bernhardt had been but a glorious name.”
Beck does a neat job of whitewashing Madame’s personal history in a brief biography, stressing her time at a convent and her interest in taking the vows. He neglects to mention her work as a courtesan which had also been her mother’s vocation. But it was widely understood that Bernhardt was imaginative about describing her own history. The younger Dumas called her a “notorious liar.” But theater is all about illusion and suspension of disbelief, and there is little doubt that Sarah Bernhardt was one of the stage’s greatest stars ever.
Mynheer Van Schlichtenhorth and the Old Dutch Burghers: A Tale of Old and New Albany (1906)
Written by David M. Kinnear. Illustrated by Robert Sheridan.
The cover of this pamphlet is a richly colored illustration of two Dutch burghers enjoying their pipes while being served by a young woman. The dedication follows:
Mynheer Theodore Roosevelt
A lineal descendant of
Mynheer Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt
Who (Claes not Theodore) came from
(then New Amsterdam)
In his prose introduction to what is largely a poem, Kinnear makes clear his affection for the Dutch settlers of the New World and the far-reaching impact they have had on Albany, New York State, and the entire country; witness Mr. Roosevelt.
With pen-and-ink illustrations and some photographs disbursed among the verse, the poem begins:
Mynheer Van Schlichtenhorth one day
In good old-fashioned, old Dutch way
Came riding into Albany town
On trusty mare of chestnut brown;
Mynheer was squat and short and fat
Great breadth of beam and all of that,
With big round face of carmine hue
And beady little eyes of blue;
As he rides, he sings about the joys of a Dutchman’s life, eschewing bigots, preachers, soldiers and statesmen:
Give me my pipe, my schnapps and snuff,
Yah, yah, the Dutchman’s got enough.
When neighbors have joined the two burghers and made substantial merry, Van Schlichtenhorth reveals his experiment in brewing a quaff that “would bring a long sleep.”
Friends, out on Helderberg’s old hill
I’ve got my own, my private still;
There I have brewed, with anxious care,
A liquor wonderful and rare
That he who drinks, and drops all fears
Will sleep for just two hundred years.
And yet to him no change will come,
He’ll keep his present face and form.
Everyone is excited by this news, and after the brewer rhapsodizes about the world they will find in 1905 after two hundred years sleep, they clamor to go to the still and imbibe. And they do. And the curious will want to read more to see how this experiment ends.
Zoological Institute and Reading Room, no. 37 Bowery, (opposite the theatre). A Delineated Description and History of all the Beasts, Birds & Reptiles, contained therein (1837)
The admission price may seem steep for 1837—50 cents, children under 10 half price—but the table of contents promises many wonders: Brazilian Tigers, a Hindostan Bear, African Pelicans, Vultures of Ceylon, Leopards, Zebras, an Emue [sic] and Crane. Additionally, the pamphlet announces that “The Performance of the Circle will commence at 3 ½ and 8 P.M. The three Cages will be entered by Mr. Van Amburgh at 4 and 8 ½ o’clock P.M. Immediately after which, the Animals will be fed in presence of the audience.”
The Hall of Exhibition is glowingly described: “The living specimens of the animal kingdom are ranged in spacious and airy compartments on each side, and at the end of a magnificent hall, 225 feet long, 50 feet in width, and 20 feet high.” There are comfortable seats “capable of accommodating many hundred spectators,” chandeliers which “throw a splendid light over the whole, showing the interior of the residences of the animals, and bringing every object into bold and prominent relief.”
During exhibition hours a military band plays “national and favourite airs, which add much to the liveliness of the scene…” There is a Ladies Saloon, Refreshment Hall, and Reading Room. It all is made to sound Edenic, except of course, the animals are in what appear to be very small cages in the illustrations.
Most of the imprint is a guided tour of the exhibitions, cage by cage. Our modern sensibilities tell us this was not a good situation for the animals, no matter how carefully they were tended. But this was almost 200 years ago, and there is no evidence of cruelty or neglect. Rather, there is a tone of wonder and an ardent desire to convey this wonder to the spectators. An added pleasure of this imprint is the large number of illustrations.