Nineteenth-Century American Drama


‘Dramatic Effects’: 19th-Century Theater as Epicenters of Social Networking

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 reWatkins sm.jpgvealed, and she unpacked the little-known history of that “Railroad Rescue,” pointing out its significant political and social factors.

‘Dramatic Effects’: 19th-Century Theater as Epicenters of Social Networking

'Great Suds and Seeds!' Three Full-Length Plays by American Writers

 

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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

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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.

'Great Suds and Seeds!' Three Full-Length Plays by American Writers

Female Playwrights in Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Works by Clara Harriet Sherwood, Nellie H. Bradley, and More Than 100 Other Women Dramatists

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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.

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Female Playwrights in Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Works by Clara Harriet Sherwood, Nellie H. Bradley, and More Than 100 Other Women Dramatists

The Short Plays of Neglected Female Author Frances Aymar Mathews, a Contemporary of William Dean Howells and Edith Wharton

51e3GlaHyjL__SX338_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe 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 Short Plays of Neglected Female Author Frances Aymar Mathews, a Contemporary of William Dean Howells and Edith Wharton

The Theatrical Amuse-Bouches of William Dean Howells, the “Dean of American Letters”

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William Dean Howells, author, playwright, critic, was born in Martinsville, Ohio in 1837. During his childhood, Howells moved often around the state as his restless father took a series of jobs as newspaper editor and printer. Young Howells, who would come to be known as “The Dean of American Letters,” assisted his father from an early age acting as the printer’s devil.

He rose rapidly in political and literary circles. Having been elected to the position of clerk in the Ohio House of Representatives, he soon became a major contributor to the “Ohio State Journal” writing short stories, poems, and learning to translate articles from several European languages. His ambition led him to Boston at the age of twenty-three where he met with most of the literary aristocracy of the era. In 1871 he became editor of the “Atlantic Monthly.”

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Howells began publishing novels in 1872, but did not achieve fame until ten years later with the release of A Modern Instance. Subsequently, in 1885, his most widely known novel, The Rise and Fall of Silas Lapham, was published. Beginning in 1888, Howells produced a series of novels that came to be known as his “economic novels” and which mirrored his transition to a philosophy of socialism.

The Theatrical Amuse-Bouches of William Dean Howells, the “Dean of American Letters”

“A Rare Window into U.S. Culture” – 1-Minute Video on America’s Most Popular Form of Entertainment in the 19th Century

In the nineteenth century, drama became the most popular form of entertainment in the United States. Now a unique digital collection titled Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment is available to researchers worldwide. This new online resource sheds light on an enormous range of heavily studied topics, including daily life in the United States; politics, both local and national; culture in all of its forms; and the shifting and evolving tastes of Americans from across the country.

Learn more about this new digital collection in this 1-Minute Video:

 

Discussing this collection, English professor and theater scholar Robert Davis writes:

By making so many plays that have largely been forgotten available, Nineteenth-Century American Drama can bring back a vital part of U.S. cultural history. Its tragedies, poetic dramas, comedies, farces, sketches, and burlesques provide a rare window into nineteenth-century U.S. culture. Many of these works…were wildly successful at the time. Others formed parts of nineteenth-century social and political movements like abolitionism, temperance, and suffrage, making these plays key to understanding U.S. literary, political, and social history.

“A Rare Window into U.S. Culture” – 1-Minute Video on America’s Most Popular Form of Entertainment in the 19th Century

‘Too Much Johnson’ and Other Plays by William Gillette, Eminent American Actor, Playwright and Director

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It is likely that people remember William Gillette best for the whimsical castle he built in his retirement on the banks of the Connecticut River in East Haddam. The estate devolved to the state of Connecticut and today is a state park named for Gillette. The castle has been preserved, but its three-mile-long gauge railroad and complicated infrastructure is gone.

 

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Before building his castle, Gillette had a long and productive theater career as an actor, stage manager, director, producer, and playwright. He was born in 1853 into a family and community of wealth, privilege, and creativity in Hartford, Connecticut, one of the wealthiest cities in the United States for several decades following the Civil War. Gillette’s neighbors included Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Dudley Warner.

 

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‘Too Much Johnson’ and Other Plays by William Gillette, Eminent American Actor, Playwright and Director

"Using the Weed" and Other 19th-Century Plays for ‘Female Characters Only’

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This month’s release of Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900, adds several plays with all-female casts. Three such works are highlighted here.


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Written by George Melville Baker and first published in 1865, “Using the ‘Weed’” takes place in a small boarding school for young ladies. There are seven characters including Miss Betty Bookworm who is the principal of the school, her assistant Mrs. Starch, three young ladies, and the twin sister aunts of student Clarissa Harlowe Smithers.

Clarissa is a playful girl who takes pleasure in rattling her spinster guardians. To the distress of her classmates, she is dedicated to her sewing machine:

Mary. I declare, Clari, you will wear yourself out at the sewing machine.

Fanny. Your devoted attachment to that useful but tiresome instrument is really surprising.

Clarissa. Law, girls, I shall never tire of it. You know it is a novelty to me.

Fanny. Novelty! Why, I imagined there was not a family in the world without one.

Mary. Mother has had one ever since I can recollect.

Fanny. The idea that a young lady, with such a romantic name as Clarissa Harlowe Smithers, should become such a devoted slave to the needle and treadle is very surprising.

"Using the Weed" and Other 19th-Century Plays for ‘Female Characters Only’

“The illigant position of a man-shaver”: A Look at Three 19th-Century American Farces

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The third release of Nineteenth-Century American Drama includes plays that are self-identified as farces or comedietta, a more abstruse variation.

 


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A Little More Cider: A Farce was published in 1870 by George M. Baker. Here are the characters of this work, which is also identified as a temperance play:

Erastus Applejack, the cider-maker.

Zeb Applejack, his son.

Deacon Peachblossom.

Isaac Peachblossom, his son.

Hans Drinker.

Miss Patience Applejack.

Polly Applejack.

Hetty Mason.

Like many such productions, this one is written in a dialect. Unlike many, it is not so easy to identify it. An excerpt:

Zeb. Gosh all hemlock! Polly, what air yeou a thinkin’ on? Thinkin’ ‘bout some feller, I bet.

Polly. Wa’n’t doin’ nothin’ of the sort. I was thinkin’ ‘bout my new Sunday bunnet.

Zeb. Well, fashion or fellers, they’re all alike. When a gal gits thinkin’ ‘bout either on ‘em, she ain’t good for nothin’.

Polly. Precious little you know ‘bout either on ‘em. I heerd Sally Higgins say that your go-to-meetin’ coat looked as though it had been made in the Revolution.

“The illigant position of a man-shaver”: A Look at Three 19th-Century American Farces

Why de dickens?: The Lampooning of African Americans as an American Form of Entertainment

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Included in the second release of Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment, 1820-1900, are several minstrel plays. Developed in the United States beginning in the 1830s, minstrel shows mocked the appearances and language of black characters, reinforcing white views on race for more than a century.  This first example, An Elephant on Ice, is subtitled "An Ethiopian Interlude, in One Scene":

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Costumes

Sam Johnson.—Well worn grey pants and vest, a black patch covering entire seat of pants, with patches on knees; dark back, with huge red patch between the shoulders on vest; fancy striped shirt; large shoes; and battered white hat, high crowned.

Sol Squash.—Dandy dress, wig parted in the middle, silk hat, cane; kid gloves and eye glass.

An example of the dialogue as the play opens:

Scene.—A street in second or third grooves.

Enter Sam Johnson R., carrying a buck and saw on his shoulder.

Why de dickens?: The Lampooning of African Americans as an American Form of Entertainment

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