Open Letters From New York


I THINK I notice in the dramas of the metropolis more of a romantic tendency, and an improvement in morality. The influence on the drama of the stranger within the gates is perhaps not enough attended to. The play is aimed, not only in our own metropolis but in others, largely at this leisurely person, lounging about the hotels, in the practice of spending money on his journey more freely than at home, and without the sense of responsibility to a community that knows him to weigh him down. The Pink Dominoes, Forbidden Fruits, and spectacular performances flourish best when he is most in town. But at present, owing to the pressure of the times, he is much less in town than usual. This makes a home constituency more of an object. Managers would like to attract the family, and the family must be delicately handled. The ballet and opera bouffe have languished, and you would have found if you had stayed through the piece that the entanglements in Marriage, which had an extremely awkward look more than once, were all explained to be entirely honorable previous alliances.

In the amusement columns one may fancy Sleary’s talking to the amusement caterers themselves. People can’t be always learning, you recollect the philosophic circus-rider says to Mr. Gradgrind, nor yet they can’t be always a-working. So the “ variety ” entertainments, that flourish in unusual numbers while their betters fail, seem to be saying that we can’t be always at psychology and archæology and social problems, and harrowed by the shrieks of mothers for their lost children. The farces of our fathers are demanded back. The Crushed Tragedian, an absurd medley by Mr. Dundreary Sothern at the Park, said to have for its principal feature the exact imitation of the appearance of a well-known eccentric character, the Count Johannes, is quoted as one of the most successful things of the season. The count went into court for redress, but only thus served to increase the interest in this new species of humor and apotheosis of practical joking. Managers are believed to be in a profoundly contemplative mood. They would like to reduce to a principle the secret of success in a play. They would like to recall the public, and put an end to the era of empty benches. I have been impressed by one item set forth as a contribution to a complete theory in these speculations. “ They [the public] go to laugh,” a manager is represented as saying, “but they would rather cry.” This is a confirmation, from an official source, of what I have long thought of the acceptability of the gulp in the throat and the moist handkerchief. It is not I alone who have been in the way of knowing of persons weeping as if all were lost at the pathos of Barrett’s unique Man o’ Airlie, and that such evenings as these were among the most delightful of their lives. There is a kind of delicious misery that its votaries would not exchange for any ecstasies of laughter. It looks as though the excitement of emotion were the object, and it made little difference in what direction it operated; as if, in fact, pleasure and pain were in their essence very much the same thing. There ought to be opportunities enough in every - day life for the carrying off of all superfluous sympathies. But in every-day life the element of doubt can never be quite got rid of, while in the literary work the circumstances of the character are completely presented. We know that it is just such and such a character we are pitying, and no other, and the emotion can be indulged without misgiving. The popularity of woe, since it is now openly declared to be popular, may be accounted for by the novelty of the artificial sensation to those who have little of their own. To those who have too much, it may act as a reassurance, in showing that the lot they thought exceptional is no more than the common heritage. The argument might be extended to books, particularly to some of those doleful terminations with which fault is found. A very little of it goes a great way “ in mine; ” but, I ask, is there not danger, in too rounded and cheerful a finish, of destroying the illusion, and with it the lessons it may have carried along, as an approximation to life as it is?

The evidence I can adduce to the prevalence of a more romantic tendency in the dramas of the day is rather negative than positive. It is not seen in an unusual number of romantic plays, or the striking success of any one of them; Miller’s Danites and Bret Ilarte and Mark Twain’s Ah Sin are the only two new ones I recall. It is rather in the decline of the society plays. Their chief temple, Mr. Augustin Daly’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, went into bankruptcy early in the season. The scene of Pique, Divorce, Surf, Saratoga, Frou-Frou, and Fernande came to echo to the strident rhapsodies of Parthenia and Ingomar, Fazio, and Guy Mannering in the mouth of “ the new American tragedienne,” Mary Anderson. This young lady, finding the great priestesses of the tragic muse dead and gone, did a very wise and practical thing in stepping into the vacant field and securing, in the diffidence of more reverential contemporaries, a nopoly of it. I saw her in Meg Merrilies. She paints swollen veins upon her round arms, clutches a forked stick, holds in with difficulty a false tooth, and manages her eyes with a glitter like a ray of moonlight on a new tin roof. Away! A way! ” she shrieks, at every favorable opportunity, and goes off the stage with a stagger, after mouthing, in a voice that tries hard to make a bassoprofundo of its natural pleasant soprano, an unmeaning couplet about

“ When Bertram’s might and Bertram’s right
Shall meet on Ellengowan’s height.”

She dies in the good old physical style: down at full length, dispatched by the smuggler’s bullet—up on one elbow — back on one knee — parting words — all the way up — comprehensive view of the scenery, with hands and head wavering — resounding collapse. Nobody lends the poor old woman a hand. They let her alone, — Bertram, the young heir, for whom she has sacrificed herself, like the rest. And yet one could not find it in his heart to blame Bertram and his friends so much for this, since it plainly appeared that no interference was desired in these well - calculated agonies. Never was gypsy, or what you will, so devoid of resemblance to a human being.

This you might see applauded and well paid for in the realistic precinct where Frou-Frou, the misguided pretty woman, in the impersonation of Miss Agnes Ethel, comes back after all her troubles to expire so sweetly in the arms of her friends, asking, with the ruling passion strong in death, to be arrayed in her bridal robes: “Then you shall see how pretty I will look.” They are of a very different order, it is true, but there is a truth to nature even in Calibans.

It was long a source of grief to those among whom an attachment for the old traditions of the stage still lingers to see the regular drama airily wafted to the wall by the modern emanations from fashionable parlors, and paled by the dazzle of mammoth sensuous spectacles. The latter, a flimsy frost-work, disappeared before the first breath of adversity; the domain of the former is much circumscribed, as has been said. You might suppose the traditionists would find themselves welt satisfied with the revenge of time. It is not altogether so. The society play is said to have paralyzed actors as well as acting. The ranks are decimated, and when it is a question of calling the regiment again into the field there is no source from which it can be recruited. The difference seems to be the old conflict between idealism and realism. If you want real society, drop in at the first drawing-room; if you want a real landscape, take the first train for the country. But on the stage and in the picture-gallery there must be nature and something more. If you are acting, I understand this view to be, let it so appear; as with the Irishman in regard to sleep, who put his mind upon it, and showed the tallest example on record by reposing for a week.

The legitimate actor accentuates passion. He is demonstrative in his doings. He is an elocutionist. He suits the action to the word with bold and voluminous gestures, he has acquired a stage walk, toe first and then heel; and practice upon the tight rope has not even been unknown, for greater steadiness. He has made dancing, fencing, languages, posing by the hour before a pierglass, his study. The profession was a liberal education; even more: the acquisition of noble sentiments was necessary. It will be found in The Art of Acting, by the Messrs. French, that “ no performer can personate a hero truly unless, did events favor him, he be capable of actually becoming a hero.” If you ask for names, we point with pride to the shades of those great exemplars of technique, Edwin Forrest, John Davenport, and Mrs. Bowers. The scenes of the dramas and melodramas in which, for the most part, they figured, lay in the remote past. Who could say that the manners of the periods were not such as they displayed them? Who had a right to say, judging from any modern standards he might take pains to compare them with, what they were?

Now take the society actor. It is the way of society to rule out the expression of emotion as much as possible. A blase calm is the thing. He wears a frockcoat, with a nosegay in the lapel; he has appropriate clothes — and very elegant they are — for every hour in the day. The society actress has more, but she does not keep herself in hand, in the matter of emotion, anything like as well. But can he wear a toga? that is the point. Can he wear a gaberdine to advantage, or trunk hose, and slash at miscreants with a buckler and broadsword? He walks about with his arms glued to his sides. Occasionally, he raises one to point a pistol or to order a mother-in-law out-of-doors; for he is a terrible fellow enough, I can tell you,— full of willfulness and sensibility, and a desperate courage when it is wanted, only we must divine it from fragmentary indications breaking through his imperturbable demeanor, instead of from the convulsions of Jack Cade and Metamora. His voice is low, with a tendency to a wearied drawl, as if he had seen so much, so much of life, and it was altogether tasteless. Can he bellow? Can he project stage whispers, to creep under the benches of the topmost gallery, like the subtle draughts from the corridor, and freeze the sanguine young blood of their occupants? I should think not. Society’s horror of a “ scene ” has stifled his capacity for energetic action. Nor is this the worst. Mark well: with this type, reinforced alternately by the stage and society, and established more absolutely in force, will not all impressibility, sentiment, emotion, vanish with the processes that gave them expression? just as in the selection of species and the survival of the fittest, functions are eliminated with the flaccid members that cease to respond to their impulse. If, therefore, the world find itself, in some few centuries from now, bereft of feeling, impotent to love, or hate, or glow with patriotism, or bow in reverence, it may turn to these pages, — which, 1 make no doubt, will not cease to be found in every well-regulated library, — and let it not say it was not forewarned.

A visit succeeding the departure of the young American tragedienne brought me into the presence of the Polish countess Modjeska, in the charming story of Adrienne Lecouvreur and the Marshal Saxe. It is a piece from which the makers of more modern society plays could learn. It has the rich dressing and furniture of the old regime, and a dialogue of considerable interest in itself, besides a love affair clearly intelligible and without morbidness, and a sufficiently exciting plot. Modjeska shows thorough training in the traditions we have been speaking of, without slavish subservience to them. She forms the third in the distinguished trio, consisting of Janauschek and Fechter, besides herself, who have learned our language at short notice, to give us a better appreciation of it and of the capabilities of their art. Janauschek and Fechtder also have played engagements, not far apart, at the Broadway, and in somewhat similar creations of Dickens, — Hortense from Bleak House, and Obenreizer from No Thoroughfare,—which gives them another point of contact. As a rule, it is not a much better plan to look at dramatizations of impressive literary characters than at book illustrations of them. It is rarely that they are not shorn of their proportions when brought before you face to face, out of the far vista at the end of which you have seen them mysteriously walking. In Jnnauschek almost alone I find no disappointment. I never expect to imagine anything more in the way of suppressed fury, of deadly venom struggling under a hysteric attempt at airy indifference, than she presents in this tigerish French maid. The reality is assisted by the aptness of her natural accent.

“ These are very long lies,” she says, with a scornful laugh, to Mr. Inspector Bucket, weaving the net of the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn, step by step, around her; “ you prose a great deal. Is it that you have almost finished, or are you speaking always? ” Her eyes are softly half closed; then they open with a startling snap, as if they launched a tangible bolt of destruction. You wonder not to see it take effect. It is worth a whole lunatic asylum of common rant. I do not think so well of Fee-liter’s Obenreizer. There is a likeness in these characters: the same cat-like stealthiness, the same impression of dread, conveyed by slight touches and intensified by something connected with their foreignness, with that strange side of Dickens’s genius that would remain if all he had in common with others were taken away, like the lime accretions in water-washed sandstone. Fechter violates probabilities; he scowls and blusters too much. Vendale could never have confided in such apparent villainy. Fechter is essentially of the dramatic and not of the subdued sort. He is of the days — if such days there were—when passion was more childish, and worked in the face and the whole person. I like him better in Lagardère, with his bold movements and his sword in his hand, and in the more demonstrative portions of Hamlet.

No Thoroughfare is a play it would be desirable to see imitated, if the romantic genre be indeed coming back. The characters and events are connected by a chain of fatality, to which the saying of Obenreizer, “ There are so few persons in the world that they continually cross and recross,” serves as a sort of formula. The action is simple but intensely sustained, the love-making honest, the humor enough and not too obtrusive, and the moral thoroughly good. An ingenious use is made of the powerful element of superstition, while appearing to allow it to influence only the character of the humblest class, Joey Ladle. A spot of the red fungus in the roof of the London wine vaults — travelers go to see still, in Saint Katherine’s docks, the veritable patch that served the author’s purpose

falling upon a person is made to be a premonition of death by murder. In the play, Obenreizer’s motive for Vendale’s destruction is reinforced by jealousy. He is represented as a lover of Marguerite’s, also. The crime of the piece is not mere brutal horror. It is invested by the circumstances with a kind of awful poetry. You remember the story. A forged receipt for a large sum of money, stolen in transit, is sent to Vendale from Neuchâtel. He must take it there, and afterwards, it happens, to Milan, to verify the writing as a means of detecting the thief. Obenreizer, ostensibly his warm friend, the unsuspected criminal, becomes his companion, with the design of getting possession of the tell-tale receipt. As they go along, the noises by the way and his own thoughts repeat to him in a sing-song tone, “ Rob him if you may; kill him if you must.” They come to Brigue, at the foot of the Simplon. Twice in the night attempts at robbery are frustrated by slight accidents. Then the time for robbery is past; it must be murder. In the morning there is danger, and the guides will not venture upon the mountain. They push on alone. Does not Obenreizer know this pass ? Was not his childhood passed here? — his childhood, of which he delights to speak with such a bitterness of mockery, betraying his malice towards the world. “ Our poor hut by the water-fall,” he says, “the cow-shed where I slept with the cows, my idiot half-brother limping down the pass to beg.” How much of Switzerland there is in this! He remembers the whistle of the whip, forsooth, while Vendale, sitting on his mother’s lap, in his father’s carriage, rolled through the rich London streets.

Do I not know this pass, too, my first piece of Swiss pedestrianism, — when the diligence was long in coming, — from Brigue to Berisal, and the pretty pedestrienne in scarlet stockings, leaning upon her alpenstock, as I came up to it? Ah, the fragrance and the grateful silence; the little spots of pasture, with their red châlets; the cool brooks trickling from the glaciers; the savage slopes of green, the snow summits peeping brightly above them of a July day! Something of this I see, though it is winter, as the travelers climb the theatrical pass of pasteboard and canvas. Indeed, it is not badly put upon the stage. They are in a region of precipices now, high above Berisal. White woolen cloths wrinkled over the foreground give a graphic idea of new-fallen snow. Flakes of paper sift thickly down upon their long cloaks. Vendale’s head is strangely heavy; he lias been drugged in his brandy, on the march. All at once the villain throws off his disguise.

“ I said I would guide you to your journey’s end,” he cries, in a ringing voice. “It is here. I am the thief. You are sleeping as you stand. In five minutes I shall take the paper from your lifeless body.”

Is that a situation, or is n’t it? — the nightmare feeling of the man falling helpless into his fate, seeing in one flash of retrospect all the circumstances that pointed to this conclusion if he had not been blind.

But the acute crisis of interest is yet to come. At the last moment he musters strength enough to roll himself over the precipice, — down, down upon the spring mattresses waiting out of sight to receive him, three feet below. Obenreizer is a murderer, and yet the paper has escaped him. Vendale, you may be sure, is nursed back to life, and ultimately marries Miss Jeffreys Lewis, as he always intended to do, while the villain receives his deserts.

It is a misfortune that ought never to happen but to your worst enemies, if they are in the dramatic line, to have their works presented for the first time by inferior companies. It. is hard not to identify the people of the piece somewhat with the manner of their representation. It is for this reason that I find it hard to strike the balance fairly between the Danites, which was put upon the boards at the Grand Opera House with a very good company, and Ah Sin, which had at the Fifth Avenue — Mr. Parsloe as the Chinaman excepted — quite an indifferent one. These are the Pacific-slope contributions to the subject. As such, they abound in the drawling dialect, the mining camps, vigilantes, Howling Wilderness saloons, San Francisco heiresses, and heathen Chinees natural to the style. The value of Ah Sin is in the piece of character-drawing in the Chinaman, as that of the Mighty Dollar is in the Honorable Bardwell Slote, and of the Gilded Age in Colonel Sellers. Mr. Miller aims more at a complete story with a pathetic interest. But for the lameness of the conclusion, in which the heroine, who has been so madly in love with Sandy all the way through, simply leaves him and goes off to Chicago without being in any way provided for sentimentally, he would have accomplished it. The conception of Nancy Williams, the last survivor of a family cut off one by one by the destroying Danites, is impressive, and probably well grounded historically. Driven from place to place, like the classic Io, by this mortal terror, she takes refuge in a mining camp, in the disguise of a boy. On the deep stage, in front of the great mountain range, in the first act, Miss Kitty Blanchard, with shining blonde hair enhanced by a simple black dress, tells her mournful story to Mr. McKee Rankin. Slow music accompanies the narrative, rising wildly as he starts up and relates her flight by night in the storm and darkness. When she reappears in the camp as a boy, no one but Sandy’s wife (for he has married in the mean time) discovers her secret. Some caresses between them, witnessed by Sandy, are the occasion for acute complications of jealousy, which test the nobility of several of the personages in a satisfactory manner. Apart from the central Chinaman, the piece seems more amusing, as well as more weighty, than Ah Sin, though one is prepared to distribute widely the credit for the details when he finds the whole of the capital stage-coach scene of the Danites in an early sketch by Habberton. As good a point as any is the sublime coolness of the parson who is rejected by the pretty school-mistress because he has another wife in the States, and takes it hard that a fellow should be thrown over for a little matter like that. In Ah Sin the melodramatic interest is supplied by an apparent murder: the lynching of the wrong man is about to take place for it, when the ostensible victim is produced by Ah Sin, who has brought him back to life, and kept him in reserve in his cabin.

These, I suppose, are examples, and No Thoroughfare still more, of what Mr. Boucicault intends in holding that it is movement, a succession of exciting events, that constitutes the value of a drama. According to him it is what the personages do that is important. According to me it is what they are. One differs with reluctance from an authority whose imposing formulation of the canons of the dramatic art from the days of Æschylus down, in the North American Review, and whose personation of Con, the Shaughraun, in a red wig, the living centre - piece of an Irish wake, he has seen in the same week; but I cannot abandon my belief that character is the subject of the most enlightened interest both in the play and the book. Incidents are of value only as they contribute to its elucidation. To make action the ideal is to imitate the example of the archaic frescoers in the Egyptian pyramids, who show all sorts of transactions, hunting, weaving, the grinding of grain, carried on by personages without a spark of individuality or portraiture. There are diverse tastes, and no one work can suit them all; but I think its rank in the scale can be determined as it conforms more or less to this requirement.

For this reason the Man of Success at the Union Square, and Mr. Steele Mackaye’s Won at Last at Wallack’s, with their faults in other directions, are attempts at something higher than the dramas depending upon intricate plots and startling adventures. In these it is the aim of the action not only to present character as it is, but to show it modified and at the end changed into something quite different from what it was in the beginning. The interest is in the conflict.going on in the interior personality of the leading character of each. The Union Square apparently recognizes in Paris, in the present era of division of labor, the most satisfactory source of supply for the drama as for the fashions. The Man of Success is simply one of the translations from the French which it is the specialty of this theatre frankly to present, as less troublesome and equally efficacious with the thin attempts at disguise of the same material too prevalent elsewhere. The Man of Success in person, and the hero of Won at Last, are men of the impassive, gentlemanly, coolly forcible sort I have characterized, and so well exemplified in the handsome actors Coghlan and Montague. The Man of Success has set his mind upon his own selfish aggrandizement and the pleasure of mastery. He sneers at affection, moral ideas, and sentiment of every sort. He turns his wife and children into the street when they thwart him. He shoots in a duel the son of his dead partner, whom he has wronged in a business transaction. But then he finds that he has a conscience after all; the demands of affection, now that he stands so completely alone, tug at his heartstrings. He makes restitution, goes off like Claude Melnotte to the army in Italy, — only this is the campaign of the third Napoleon instead of the first, — and returns to his family a redeemed man. Mountjoye maybe a little exaggerated, but he is certainly a type of something that prevails to a considerable extent, and he is a very legitimate person for stage purposes.

In the original play of Mr. Mackaye — if it be original, for charges of plagiarism fly so wildly at the heads of all the playwrights of the day that one knows not what to think — the idea is more finical. There must be hardened men of the world capable of snorting at it as incomprehensible rubbish. John Fleming is one of the blase kind. His experiences have left him only a heart of ashes. Having arrived at a certain age, he marries, in compliance with his deceased father’s request. Grace is a New England girl, described in the play-bill as “ a true woman.” After the wedding ceremony she chances to overhear him explaining his position to a friend. He has married her as a wife who is so-so, rather better than the average, one who has good principles and will not discredit him. He requests to know if he is taken for an idiot that he should be in love with anybody at this time of day. Her excessive adoration of him undergoes a reaction. She refuses to go with him to his home, but finally consents to do so for the sake of appearances, on the stipulation that they are to live in the same house, but to be nothing more to each other than formal acquaintances. This is such a new kind of woman to Fleming that, as the arrangement goes on, he becomes desperately in love.

Mr. Mackaye, who has followed Mr. Boucicault a little in the fashion of talking back to the critics, says he intends to show by this the need of a higher conception of the marriage relation, as opposed to the sensual view on the one hand and that of a mere worldly speculation on the other; and it is not a bad idea. Like the examples in Mr. John Brougham’s very conventional piece of the old English school, Flies in a Web, and unlike that in Mr. Henry James’s story of Madame de Mauves, this case of falling in love after marriage ends happily. Jealousy is artfully evoked by the introduction of apparent rivals on both sides. A new motive for suicide is shown in the magnanimity of Fleming, who twice attempts it for the purpose of freeing Grace from herities to him, that she may be happier elsewhere.

Over at Booth’s, at the same time, the great tragedian, returned for a short season to the fine theatre where his munificent presentation of Shakespeare as it should be proved the wreck of his fortunes, was showing in Richard 111. how woman can be won by a monster, steeped in the most heinous crimes both towards herself and others, by nothing more than a little smooth flattery of her charms. Ladies, is there one spark of truth in the hideous assumption, and shall we not set down this play at least to the invention of the knavish Baconians? What tokens of esteem could have remained to Lady Anne for such a one as Fleming? And what, I wonder, would have been the luck of the insinuating Richard with such a one as this exacting Grace?

Here is a desultory glimpse we have had together of the most obvious form of amusement the metropolis devises for itself as a solace for the winter evenings. We have seen tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, and society plays, —for this form, though scotched, is by no means dead, nor will it be while the upper classes delight to see upon the stage the manners and customs of life as they know it. Is there anything of it likely to endure, to be a permanent reminiscence longer than while we are drawing on our gloves and passing into the darkness from the illuminated lobby around which the hackney coaches are rumbling and the policemen shouting? If there be, it is the Brunhild of Janauschek. It rises out of its surroundings as Bartholdi’s statue is to do from Bedloe’s Island. I have already spoken of her Hortense; she plays Lady Dedlock, of course, in the same piece; but strong as these are, the other is greater by so much as the magnificent Amazonian princess of the heroic epic surpasses the serving-woman and the modern lady. How she swells with untamable pride, and fumes at the thwarting of a will that none heretofore has dared to contradict! Her arms weave a rhythm of stately gesture about her. I cannot speak in measured terms of her attitudes. She covers her face with her dark blue mantle, bordered with barbaric red, and every line is like the drapery of a stately statue. She casts herself upon a couch in an appalling abandon of grief, her veil of black hair spread widely over her shoulders. Again she stands with superb disdain, like Thusnelda in the procession of Germanicus. See her come down the palace steps to gloat over the dead body of Siegfried, slain for his insult to her. “ Aye, there you he. How proudly you held your head to-day! ” she scornfully begins. But she falters; there is a woman’s heart too in the haughty breast, and she has loved him better than all the rest. “ No,” she cries, “here is only unutterable woe,” and throws herself upon the bier. It is a great moment, and a very few like it go far to redeem the stage from the obloquy it is no small part of the doings of its own professional tenants to bring upon it.

Raymond Westbrook.