“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.
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…”
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.
On Sunday, January 27, Readex will host a special breakfast presentation titled “Dramatic Effects: The Impact of Theater on 19th-Century U.S. Culture and Society.” An open discussion will follow the talk by Amy E. Hughes, Associate Professor of Theater History and Criticism at Brooklyn College.
About the Presentation
From Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, U.S. theater has inspired fervent passion and intense loyalty in those who enjoy and study it. As architecture and activity, edifice and event, refuge and recreation, the theater is deeply beloved.
In this engaging talk, Prof. Amy Hughes—a leading authority on American drama—reveals some of the chaotic complexities of 19th-century theater culture. She brings to life the eclectic amusements staged in playhouses, the diverse work and workers involved, the dynamic camaraderie that sustained theatrical communities, and the lasting influence and impact of its most popular spectacles. To understand 19th-century theater fully, she argues, researchers must read surviving dramas and ephemera against the grain and between the lines.
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.
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.