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
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
In the nineteenth century drama became the most popular form of entertainment in America while taking on myriad forms: historical plays, melodramas, political satires, black minstrel shows, comic operas, musical extravaganzas, parlor entertainments, adaptations of novels and more. All of these—more than 4,700 works in total—can be found in Nineteenth-Century American Drama: Popular Culture and Entertainment. This unique and comprehensive collection sheds new 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.