Archive of Americana


“Humbugs and fol-de-rols!”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

This final release of plays from Nineteenth-Century American Drama includes a devastating assault on Abraham Lincoln, an all-female cast in a courtroom drama meant to ridicule women, and a “Negro sketch in two scenes.”


The Royal Ape. By William Russell Smith (1863)

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William Russell Smith was a U.S. congressman from Alabama who served from 1851 to 1857. He subsequently served as a member of the first and second Confederate Congresses. Smith was not the first, nor the last, to describe Lincoln as a simian. He wrote this “dramatic poem” after the Union’s defeat in the Battle of Manassas as the South preferred to call what the North called the First Battle of Bull Run. It is dated January 1, 1863, in anticipation of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Smith’s cast of characters—with the exception of two former slaves, two White House maids, and extras including officers, soldiers, citizens, and senators—are all prominent politicians and generals of the time. In following the action of the play, knowledge of the actual events of the time provides some perspective.

Act I, Scene I, occurs in the White House on the eve of the battle which Smith refers to as Manassas. We discover Mrs. Lincoln and her son Robert who would have been age 20. He has just returned from the House of Representatives and describes with gusto a physical fight that had broken out there.

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“Humbugs and fol-de-rols!”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

“The Drama Is—Rubbish”: The Early Impact of ‘The Black Crook,’ the Shocking and Scandalous American Musical

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“The Black Crook”—the progenitor of spectacular theater in the United States—opened at Niblo’s Garden, a 3,000-seat New York City playhouse, on September 12, 1866. Whether this American musical can be called the country’s first, “The Black Crook” had an immense impact on the future of popular entertainment in the U.S.  Its initial production ran for nearly 500 performances and created a nationwide mania, stimulated by the clergy who railed against its abundant display of female pulchritude.

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In his preface to “The Naked Truth!”: An Inside History of The Black Crook (1897), digitized from the holdings of the New-York Historical Society and found in American Pamphlets, Joseph Whitton wrote:

It is curious that the history of the Black Crook—the pioneer of the American Spectacular Drama, and greater in tinseled gorgeousness and money-drawing power than any of its followers—should never have been told, or, rather, truthfully told.

Whitton by his own account had a “connection with the financial department of Niblo’s Garden, previous to the production and during the run of the Crook,” which “enables him to know the facts…”

“The Drama Is—Rubbish”: The Early Impact of ‘The Black Crook,’ the Shocking and Scandalous American Musical

Secrets, Deception and Thwarted Love: Comediettas in Nineteenth-Century American Drama

Hundreds of plays in Nineteenth-Century American Drama are designated as comedies in their titles. Of these, there are scores of scripts subtitled as comedietta which oxforddictionaries.com defines as “a short comedy, typically light-hearted or farcical in tone or subject matter.” Some common themes are entwined in most comediettas. As seen in these examples, these themes include mistaken identity (accidental or deliberate), talking at cross purposes and other miscommunications, inheritances with conditions, and love triumphant.


Miss Madcap: A Comedietta in One Act

By Charles Townsend

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This comedy concerns a will with conditions that necessitate deception. When the curtain rises, Clara is sorting through her mail, opening a letter from her father. She reads it aloud.

“My dear daughter. Your aunt Charlotte is dead. She leaves her fortune to your cousin, Augustus Everson, and yourself—provided you two marry. If either of you refuse to marry, the property goes to the other. I have just seen Augustus. He looks like a dude, but he will hardly throw away a fortune by refusing to marry you, and, although he is a bitter pill—well, suit yourself. He is coming to see you. As ever, your loving father.”

Secrets, Deception and Thwarted Love: Comediettas in Nineteenth-Century American Drama

‘Every honest man in Montana’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

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The March release of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1765-1953, includes several items relating to the fascinating history of the Territory of Montana.


Clipping, on Calling of Political Convention (1866)

Born in Waterford, Ireland, Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-1867) led the Young Irelanders in the Rebellion of 1848. He was convicted of sedition and sentenced to death. Instead, Meagher was “transported for life” to Australia.

Escaping to the United States in 1852, he worked as a journalist, studied law, and lectured on Irish nationalism. At the outbreak of the Civil War Meagher joined the Army, eventually becoming a brigadier general. After the war President Andrew Johnson appointed Meagher as Montana’s Territorial Secretary of State; he also served as acting governor until Governor Green Clay Smith (1826-1895) arrived and assumed the executive duties.

Early in January 1866 the Montana Democrat reported:

Gov. Meagher has changed the time of the election of Delegates of the Convention, to Saturday, the 24th day of February, 1866, and the meeting of the same to Monday, the 26th day of March. The reasons for the change are given in connection with the Proclamation, which are quite satisfactory.

The Governor’s proclamation can also be found in this collection. Defending the Governor from accusations of political chicanery, the Montana Democrat continued:

‘Every honest man in Montana’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

“He saw the folly of it, and died”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

There are over 200 scripts whose authorship is credited to Anonymous in Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900. An examination of these titles suggests several categories into which many of these can be sorted. Thirty of these are “Ethiopian” or other less cautious euphemisms. Others are meant for school exercises or home entertainment, while still others are the scripts of unique college or club, church, and charity productions. Some of the dramas seem to have been commissioned for specific celebrations, usually political or historical. There are also scripts that deal with sensitive or social issues that were controversial in their time. These are among the most interesting plays attributed to Anonymous.


The Lost Spade; or, The Grave Digger’s Revenge (1864)

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This political drama was published when the American Civil War still raged. The title page offers a further subtitle: “A great political, martial, serio-comic legendary, romantic and farcial [sic] drama.” It also notes that it was “Written by the Happy Democratic Family, expressly for the Peace Democracy.” The Peace Democracy refers to the Copperheads who were also called Peace Democrats. These Democrats were opposed to the war and favored appeasing the Confederacy. In 1864 prominent Copperheads were put on trial for treason.

Because this script focuses on this dissident bloc of northern Democrats, some of whom were prone to violence, the author may well have had sufficient reason to write anonymously. He provides staging directions and a cast list.

“He saw the folly of it, and died”: Highlights from Nineteenth-Century American Drama

‘The Corrupt and Imbecile Administration’: Highlights from The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922

The March release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes speeches delivered in a Massachusetts church exalting the nation, in the Tennessee House of Representatives describing a conspiracy that divided the country, and in the U.S. Senate asking a fundamental question of the country’s citizenry.


De Profundis Clamavi: The Cause, the Crime, and the Cure of our National Suicide (1861)

By Daniel Steele

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On September 26, 1861, five months after the Civil War began, Pastor Daniel Steele (1824-1914) gave a sermon celebrating nationalism.

Nationality magnifies and exalts the insignificant individual, crowns him with dignity and honor, throws an arm of protecting power about him, and holds a broad shield over his defenseless head.

Steele then presents the first of several comparisons he uses to illustrate American superiority.

‘The Corrupt and Imbecile Administration’: Highlights from The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922

‘The Language and Sentiments of Treason’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

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The February release of Territorial Papers of the United States, 1765-1953, includes a Civil War-era warning of an impending invasion from Texas, a petition to allow black suffrage under the Colorado constitution, and reports of murder and robbery on the Mexican border.


Address of Legislature to Citizens, on Invasion from Texas, January 29, 1862

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In 1862 Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley led a brigade of volunteer cavalry to invade the Territory of New Mexico. By advancing north along the Rio Grande from Fort Bliss, he hoped to eventually seize the gold and silver mines in Colorado. In the days leading up to the attack, the Territorial Legislature of New Mexico issued an address to the citizenry, warning them of the coming incursion and alerting them to the dangers they faced.

‘The Language and Sentiments of Treason’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

‘Void of Sincerity’: Highlights from The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922

The February release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes three congressional speeches from 1862 in support of legislation that would allow the confiscation of rebel property and the emancipation of their slaves.


The Constitutionality and Expediency of Confiscation Vindicated

Speech of Hon. Lyman Trumbull of Illinois

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Lyman Trumbull (1813-1896) served as the Illinois Secretary of State, sat on the bench of the Illinois Supreme Court, was elected to the U.S. Senate, and co-wrote the Thirteenth Amendment.

On April 7, 1862, Trumbull offered two minor amendments to a “bill to confiscate the property and free the slaves of rebels” before directing his attention to the opposition’s attacks on the bill.

‘Void of Sincerity’: Highlights from The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922

‘They Should Be Removed and All United’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

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The January release of Territorial Papers of the Unites States, 1765-1953, includes Congressional Legislative Reports on the relocation of American Indian tribes, including the Winnebago, now recognized as the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. Also available this month are Territorial Legislative Reports from Alaska. Among the many topics covered are the establishment of Alaska's Pioneer Home system, the fear of sedition during World War I, and much more.

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28th Congress 1st Session; Bills, Resolutions, Reports, and Related Documents, December 18, 1843-June 11, 1844

‘They Should Be Removed and All United’: Highlights from Territorial Papers of the United States

‘Anarchy to be followed by Despotism’: Highlights from The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922

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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)

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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. 

‘Anarchy to be followed by Despotism’: Highlights from The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922

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