Think about this word: melodrama. What image comes to mind?
Brooklyn College theater historian Amy E. Hughes began her presentation at the 2019 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting with that short thought experiment, asking attendees to picture melodrama.
Did you “see” what they did?
Many in the audience had envisioned something akin to the “Railroad Rescue,” a scene that originated in Augustin Daily’s Under the Gaslight, a popular play which premiered in New York City in 1867. But as Hughes would reveal, the “Railroad Sensation”—as it was called then—has a “surprisingly complicated and convoluted history.” View the full presentation.
Throughout her talk, titled “Dramatic Effects: The Impact of Theater on 19th-Century U.S. Culture and Society,” Prof. Hughes provided a fascinating overview of the 19th-century theater industry. She shared some of the discoveries her recent research has revealed, and she unpacked the little-known history of that “Railroad Rescue,” pointing out its significant political and social factors.
The January release of The American Civil Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes a trove of reflections on the Civil War and its aftermath. Also found in this release is the influential ten-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln co-written by his two personal secretaries during the Civil War.
Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (1875)
Whether celebrated for his role in the Vicksburg and Chattanooga Campaigns or criticized for his scorched-earth policy through Georgia and South Carolina, William Tecumseh Sherman (1821-1891) offers essential, firsthand perspective on the American Civil War.
Sherman disputes the conventional wisdom on the Battle of Shiloh, writing:
General Grant did not make an official report of the battle of Shiloh, but all its incidents and events were covered by the reports of division commanders and subordinates. Probably no single battle of the war gave rise to such wild and damaging reports. It was publicly asserted at the North that our army was taken completely by surprise; that the rebels caught us in our tents; bayoneted the men in their beds; that General Grant was drunk; that Buell’s opportune arrival save the Army of the Tennessee from utter annihilation, etc.
Previous monthly release announcements of Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900, have primarily highlighted one-act plays. This has not been by design. Although there are hundreds of short works in this digital collection—including farces, comediettas, black sketches, and plays intended for home or private performances—many multi-act plays may also be found. Three longer scripts are highlighted below.
The County Fair: A Comedy in Four Acts
By Charles Barnard and Neil Burgess
Substantial biographical information about Charles Barnard is not readily found. Bartleby.com provides the following: “Barnard, Charles. An American journalist and author; born in Boston, Feb. 13, 1838; died in 1920. His most popular play is ‘The County Fair’ (1888). Author of ‘The Tone-Masters’ (New York, 1871); ‘Knights of Today’ (1881); ‘The Whistling Buoy’ (1887); dramas, and books on gardening and electricity.” The Library of Congress does not reference his playwriting but credits him with a book entitled Mozart and Mendelssohn.
The December release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes an array of primary source material. These valuable items range from shorter imprints, such as sermons delivered during the war, to lengthier political histories and biographies published years later.
Our Duty Under Reverse: A Sermon (1861)
By John Fothergill Waterhouse Ware
One week after the First Battle of Bull Run, Unitarian clergyman John Fothergill Waterhouse Ware (1818-1881) delivered this sermon in the Boston church of “Cambridgeport Parish.” He begins by acknowledging the favor Providence has shown the country, and then addresses the nation’s failure to live up to the duties accompanying that blessing. He identifies the fault that led to the country’s current conflict.
Among the playwrights in Nineteenth-Century American Drama there are scores of women. The genres of their plays are as varied as those of their male counterparts, although more of the works for children and classrooms are by women. Many of the temperance plays are by women which is not surprising given the prominent role of women in the temperance movement. Some of the women were prolific. Still, it is more difficult to find biographical information about many of the female playwrights.
Little seems to be recorded about the life of Clara Harriet Sherwood, author of three plays included in this digital collection. These three plays all signal an acute social awareness and a ready wit. As with many other women dramatists, Sherwood is concerned with the social nuances of courtship.
The November release of Early American Imprints, Series II: Supplement 3 from the American Antiquity Society includes an olio of rare imprints which are representative of the overall collection. Highlighted here are an advertisement for a mineral springs resort, a broadside promoting an evening’s theatrical entertainment, and another broadside reporting on the meeting of the Republican Party in New York City and county.
The proprietor of the beautiful and interesting situation above represented, and of the mineral springs connected with it, informs his friends and the public at large, that he has in the course of the last season, greatly extended his establishment. (1815)
This imprint is adorned with a handsome intaglio print which presents a restful view of the Connecticut resort. The proprietor, Samuel Willard, has made what may be extravagant claims about the efficacy of his mineral springs.
For nearly fifty years past, the Mineral Waters of Stafford have been held in high estimation as a remedy in various complaints, affecting the human body. They are a rich and powerful chalybeate.
The November release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes a speech on the limitations of citizens to change the federal government, a defense of pacifism, and an abolitionist’s autobiography.
The Rebellion Cannot Abate the State Governments (1862)
Speech of Hon. A.G. Riddle, of Ohio, in the House of Representatives, May 20, 1862
Mr. Speaker, in the wide sea and chaos of blood, tears, and convulsion, the bare, barren, dry land begins to loom up, and the great end to appear. Soon the patient statistician will gather up his facts, and by his tables will show us the exact thousands of lives squandered in this wide waste, and the innumerable millions of substance consumed in the great conflagration. The curious and industrious annalist will swell his huge volumes of the amazing incidents whose frequent recurrence has robbed us of the power of being astonished even. The moralist will go forth in melancholy to mourn the wide-spread licentiousness and demoralization growing out of this huge war, whose irradicable ulcers shall be the last to cicatrize.
This most recent release of Early American Imprints, Series II: Supplement 3 from the American Antiquarian Society includes a number of the rarest American broadsides from 200 years ago. These range from the pathos of an honorable man’s petition to the court for protection from his creditors to a peculiar promotion for an evening of entertainment in Augusta, Georgia.
To the Honorable Superior Court to be held at Hartford....The Petition of George Robinson, of Marlborough, in the County of Hartford, humbly sheweth— (1817)
In the early 19th century it was not unusual for an indebted person to publish a broadside acknowledging his debts and his creditors. George Robinson of Connecticut did exactly that in 1817. Of interest is his specificity and the striking contrasts in the amounts he owed to contemporary creditor. The largest debts were “Orlando Raymond two thousand five hundred dollars” and several for one or two hundred dollars. Many of his obligations were for a few dollars and sometimes for ten and twenty dollars. Robinson appears to support his claim to integrity in the details he provides.
The most recent release of Nineteenth-Century American Drama includes most of the short plays, or comediettas in one act, by the prolific Frances Aymar Mathews. This understudied author was born in New York City in the middle of the 19th-century. She began publishing in the 1880s. In addition to plays, her written output included feature articles, short stories and such novels as My Lady Peggy Goes to Town and Allee Same.
Eighteen of Mathews’ shorter plays are included in this release. When reading her works, Edith Wharton comes to mind. They were contemporaries, shared a Manhattan upbringing during the Gilded Age, and were sensitive to class distinctions and social niceties. It may be something of a stretch to compare Mathews to Jane Austen, but both women are close observers of the foibles of the prosperous and employ a satirical view of them. There is one more comparison to make, to wit, William Dean Howells. Again, this may be a stretch, but the famous Howells and the obscure Mathews wrote short plays which, as previously noted here, featured wealthy people with ample time to expand upon largely trivial events.
The October release of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia includes Civil War era works such as a speech from the floor of the House on the subject of slavery and pamphlets from the Loyal Publication Society focused on a faction of the Democratic Party, the Copperheads.
Slavery in the Capital of the Republic (1862)
Speech of Hon. Edward Henry Rollins, of New Hampshire
Edward Henry Rollins (1824-1889) served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives prior to the Civil War, in the U.S. House during the war, and in the U.S. Senate after the war. On April 11, 1862, arguing in favor of “the bill for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,” he declared:
The historian who writes the deeds of nations for future generations to read, will not fail to record the truth that slavery put itself front to front with liberty, in the great rebellion of the nineteenth century. Let it be our care that men shall not blush to read that we sought to shun the real foe, and flesh our swords in some spectral horror.