05 March 2010

Mark Twain & The Little Church Around The Corner

On Tuesday, 20 December 1870, a well-known and beloved actor, George Holland, died at his home in New York City. Holland, born in London on 6 December 1791, began his acting career, after some years in the silk and lace trades, in 1817--at the relatively late age of 25. He remained on the stage for 53 years--despite a somewhat inauspicious start. In Holland’s third stage engagement, his appearance was so unsuited to the role he was playing, having allowed some “brother actors” to do his hair and make-up, that he was laughed off the stage and stayed away from acting for a time. He returned, however, and became one of London’s best-known actors. In 1826, Holland received an invitation from Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852), manager of New York’s Chatham Theater (and father of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth) who’d been touring England that year, to come to the United States to work. In 1827, Holland sailed for New York. His first U.S. appearance on 12 September at the Bowery Theatre in the role of Jerry, man of many disguises, in A Day after the Fair (a brief comic opera apparently of Holland’s own composition) was a hit with audiences and he continued to tour the country, playing theater cities like Boston, Louisville, Charleston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans (where he stayed for eight years). Before finding a permanent home, Holland toured for 16 years, becoming popular and famous for his comic singing and feats of ventriloquism. He associated with the best actors in the country, working with the likes of Charlotte Cushman. He returned to New York in 1843 and spent eight years as a member of the company at Mitchell’s Olympic Theatre; in 1855, he joined the company at Wallack’s Theatre in New York and performed burlesques and farces there for the most part until 1868 when he went to work for Augustin Daly. His last engagement, at Daly’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, was on 12 January 1870 in Olive Logan’s farce Surf. His age was telling on him, but even then his mere appearance on a stage was met with applause. At a benefit performance for him on 16 May, he uttered his last words from a stage: “God bless you!” Despite his popularity and acting success, Holland, the father of six children (four of whom also became actors, including his son Joseph Jefferson Holland), never accumulated wealth and lived in near poverty all his life. He was 79 when he died, a man, the New York Times observed, “without a stain on his name, or the performance of any part in the drama of life over the memory of which those who loved him need blush.”

On Thursday, 22 December, Holland’s long-time friend Joseph Jefferson (for whom Holland’s son was named), the renowned comic actor, and Holland’s second son, Edmund, tried to arrange for his funeral at the Church of the Atonement, an Episcopal church at Madison Avenue and 28th Street, where the actor’s widow was a parishioner. The rector, Rev. Dr. William Tufnell Sabine (1838-1913), however, wouldn't conduct the funeral service at his church because Jefferson’s friend was a “play-actor.” Jefferson then asked Sabine, “Well, sir, in this dilemma is there no other church to which you can direct me from which my friend can be buried?” The pastor recommended "a little church around the corner where they do that sort of thing." “Then, if this be so,” Jefferson responded, “God bless ‘the little church around the corner!’” That church, another Episcopal house of worship, was the Church of the Transfiguration at 5th and 29th, which became known thereafter as "The Little Church Around the Corner" and became the unofficial actors' chapel. There Rev. Dr. George Hendric Houghton (1820-97) agreed wholeheartedly to perform the funeral for Holland at his church. Holland was buried from the Little Church Around the Corner on Friday, 23 December, while “many a well-known comedian . . . sat silent and dejected in the gloom.” Accounts of the service described it as “thoroughly consonant with the life and character of the deceased . . . as plain and unostentatious as possible.”

Jefferson (1829-1905; actually Joseph Jefferson III) was the best-known member of an acting family that stretched back to the 18th century and a British actor curiously named Thomas Jefferson (1732-1807). One of the latter’s sons, Joseph Jefferson I (1774-1832), came to the United States in 1795 and stayed, becoming a popular and famous actor in New York. Joseph Jefferson III started on stage at the age of four and toured with his family until he went out on his own. He eventually became nationally known--and critically praised--for playing Rip Van Winkle in Dion Boucicault’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s story, which Jefferson first performed in London in 1865. (Jefferson had compiled his own adaptation from other plays as early as 1859.) The role remained Jefferson’s repertory mainstay for some 40 years. Four of his children also went on the stage.

In an interview published in the New York Times a week later, Rev. Sabine acknowledged that he “had a distaste for officiating” at the funerals of “play-actors.” He even stated that he “always warned professing members of my congregation to keep away from theatres and not to have anything to do with them.” (Sabine must have followed his own advice since he claimed not to have known the man he spoke to had been Joseph Jefferson, one of the country’s most beloved actors.) Though Sabine said that he didn’t think there was any general prohibition in the Episcopal Church against burying actors from the church--he’d been willing, he’d told Jefferson, to conduct a funeral service at Holland’s home--nor was he certain how other Episcopal clergy felt on the subject, he “did not care to be mixed up in” a church service for a “play-actor” because “I don’t think that [theaters] teach moral lessons.”

After Holland’s death and funeral, the tale made its way into the press. The New York Times reported it on 29 December and the story appeared in papers around the country. Another local paper denounced Sabine’s “insolence, bigotry and ignorance.” When actors were social outcasts in many circles, seen as dissolute, disreputable, and immoral people, Rev. Houghton's kindness appealed to the conscience of the nation. (Houghton, an avid abolitionist, had created a congregation that served the neglected, downtrodden, and oppressed of the city, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or nationality. Before emancipation, Houghton harbored runaway slaves and in 1863, during the draft riots, he gave sanctuary to African Americans hounded by the mobs. Actors were among the outcasts to whom Houghton ministered at his church.) Even though Houghton had no interest in theater himself, having attended a play only one time when he was 15, actors started coming to the church. Jefferson's description stuck (though there’s some dispute about what the famous comedian actually said), and soon songs and plays about "The Little Church Around the Corner" became popular. A number of famous theater folk were married or buried there, including Vernon and Irene Castle, the Astair/Rogers of their day (married), and Edwin Booth (buried, with Joseph Jefferson as a pallbearer).

Prompted by the incident, theater writer William Winter, the renowned (if highly conservative) reviewer for the New York Tribune, set about arranging a testimonial to Holland as a benefit for his widow and children. In his speech, Winter said of acting as a profession:

The art itself is as ancient as civilization, and is honorable with the honor of celestial gifts and of beautiful achievements. It has developed genius. It has fired patriotism. It has commemorated virtue. It has extolled freedom. It has stimulated culture. It has soothed the troubles of care-worn minds. It has stored literature with gems of thought and feeling; and it has enriched history and biography with character and wit.

No less a figure than Mark Twain was incensed by the episode and wrote a reproach in his regular column for the February 1871 issue of The Galaxy, a monthly magazine of literature and entertainment for which he worked in 1870-71. (The founders of Galaxy were William Conant Church and his brother Francis Pharcellus Church. Perhaps you recognize that latter: he became an editorial writer at the New York Sun, where brother William was an editor, and wrote the famous 1897 response, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" [see ROT, 25 December 2009].) The Times also published Twain’s essay on 17 January 1871, apparently in advance of the magazine’s appearance. In his essay, entitled “The Indignity Put upon the Remains of George Holland by the Rev. Mr. Sabine,” Twain railed against the “Cardiff giant of self-righteousness . . . crowded into [Sabine’s] pigmy skin.” (The Cardiff giant, which Twain invokes as a metaphor, was a famous hoax. It purported to be the petrified remains of a 10-foot-tall man unearthed in Cardiff, New York, in December 1869 but was revealed as a fake in February 1870.) While Twain excoriated Sabine for his uncharitable judgment of Holland, which he labeled “a ludicrous satire . . . upon Christian charity,” the writer lavishly praised the actor for “mak[ing] his audience go and do right, and be just, merciful, and charitable--because by his living, breathing, feeling pictures, he showed them what it was to do these things, and how to do them, and how instant and ample was the reward!” Twain went on to extend his defense of Holland’s moral stance to the whole of the theatrical field, arguing that plays like King Lear and Othello are more effective lessons on “filial ingratitude” and “harboring a pampered and unanalyzed jealousy” than “ever a sermon preached.”

Twain, in fact, “averred” that

nine-tenths of all the kindness and forbearance and Christian charity and generosity in the hearts of the American people to-day, got there by being filtered down from their fountain-head, the gospel of Christ, through dramas and tragedies and comedies on the stage, and through the despised novel and the Christmas story, and through the thousand and one lessons, suggestions, and narratives of generous deeds that stir the pulses, and exalt and augment the nobility of the nation day by day from the teeming columns of ten thousand newspapers, and NOT from the drowsy pulpit!

(We have to acknowledge, of course, that Twain was writing when theater was the popular entertainment of the age. Today we’d have to compare the priest’s presence to that of movies and, more obviously, TV. What would that do to Twain’s argument, I wonder? I wonder, too, what Twain would make of contemporary Hollywood in general and I keep thinking that he was deliberately overlooking Restoration comedy which celebrated naughtiness.)

While Twain denied that he was dismissing the good efforts of priests and preachers, he observed that the time preachers are before their audiences and can influence them (“twice a week--nearly two hours, altogether”) is minuscule by comparison to the access actors and playwrights have to their “large” audiences (“seven times a week--28 or 30 hours altogether”). The writer went on to include “the novels and newspapers [that] plead, and argue, and illustrate, stir, move, thrill, thunder, urge, persuade, and supplicate, at the feet of millions and millions of people every single day, and all day long, and far into the night.” Oh, Twain did “give the pulpit its full share of credit in elevating and ennobling the people” . . . by “boring” them “with uninflammable truisms about doing good” and so on, but he reserved his most extravagant praise for actors and, specifically, Holland:

Honored and honorable old George Holland, whose theatrical ministry had for fifty years softened hard hearts, bred generosity in cold ones, kindled emotion in dead ones, uplifted base ones, broadened bigoted ones, and made many and many a stricken one glad and filled it brim full of gratitude . . . .

Twain concluded by characterizing Sabine’s denial of funeral rites to Holland as the actor “figuratively spit upon in his unoffending coffin by this crawling, slimy, sanctimonious, self-righteous reptile!”

Sabine, by the way, went on to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1907! The Church of the Atonement, however, no longer stands; it merged with another church in 1880. On the other hand, the Church of the Transfiguration, which Houghton founded in 1848, prospered and has been expanded considerably. In 1923, the Episcopal Actors' Guild, of which many prominent actors in New York and Hollywood have been members, was founded and headquartered at the church and in 1973, the Little Church Around the Corner became a National Landmark.

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