Nineteenth-Century American Drama


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

Illuminating Our Own Moment (Nineteenth-Century American Drama): A Conversation with Professor Amy E. Hughes

Amy E. Hughes is Associate Professor of Theater History and Criticism at Brooklyn College (CUNY). In this January 2019 interview, she discusses how the study of theater deepens our understanding of history and society; what happens in the classroom when students use these kinds of primary sources; and what the digitization of collections like Nineteenth-Century America Drama has meant to her.

 

 

Prof. Hughes’ first book, Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America, received the 2013 Barnard Hewitt Award from the American Society for Theatre Research. Her latest book is A Player and a Gentleman: The Diary of Harry Watkins, Nineteenth-Century U.S. American Actor (2018), a critical and digital edition of the pre-Civil War diary of actor-playwright Harry Watkins, coedited with Naomi J. Stubbs.


For more information about Nineteenth-Century American Drama, please contact Readex Marketing.

Illuminating Our Own Moment (Nineteenth-Century American Drama): A Conversation with Professor Amy E. Hughes

“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

‘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

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