28 August 2010

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle (Letter VIII)

By Washington Irving

[Once again, Oldstyle replies to his friend Andrew Quoz. Both men find additional things to say about New York’s drama reviewers. Is it any wonder that some of the theater journalists took exception to Irving’s statements?]

(published 8 February 1803)

[The following communication was received someone since, but accidently mislaid.]



I had just put on my spectacles and mended my pen, to give you an account of a visit I made some time since, with friend Quoz and my sister Dorothy, to a ball, when I was interrupted by the following letter from the former.

My friend Quoz, who is what the world calls a knowing man, is extremely fond of giving his opinion in every affair. He displays in this epistle more than usual knowledge of his subject, and seems to exert all his argumentative talents to enforce the importance of his advice. I give you his letter without further comment, and shall postpone my description of the ball to another opportunity.


My Dear Friend,

I once more address you on a subject that I fear will be found irksome, and may chafe that testy disposition (forgive my freedom) with which you are afflicted. Exert, however, the good humor of which at bottom I know you to have a plentiful stock, and hear me patiently through: It is the anxious fear I entertain of your sinking into the gloomy abyss of criticism, on the brink of which you are at present tottering, that urges me to write.

I would set before you the rights and wrongs of an actor, and by painting, in strong colors, the peculiarity of his situation, call your good sense into action.

The world, my friend Oldstyle, has ever been prone to consider the theatrical profession in a degraded point of view. What first gave rise to this opinion, I am at loss to conceive; but I consider it as the reliques of one of those ancient prejudices which the good sense of the world is daily discarding; and I flatter myself it will in a little time be totally exploded. Why the actor should be considered inferior in point of respectability to the poet, the painter, or any other person who exerts his talents in delineating character, or in exhibiting the various operations of the human mind, I cannot imagine. I know you, friend Oldstyle, to be a man of too liberal sentiments not to be superior to these little prejudices; and also one who regards an actor, provided his private character be good, with equal respect as the member of any other profession. Yet you are not quite aware of the important privileges solely attached to the dramatic performer. These I will endeavor to point out.

The works of a poet or painter you may freely criticise—nay, they offer them for that purpose—they listen attentively to your observations, and profit by your censures. But beware how you exercise such conduct towards an actor—he needs no instruction—his own impartial judgment is sufficient to detect and amend all his imperfections. Attempt to correct his errors and you ruin him at once—he'll starve to spite you—he is like a decayed substance, that crumbles at the touch.

No, sir—when an actor is on the stage he is in his own house—it is his castle—he then has you in his power—he may there bore you with his buffoonery, or insult you with his pointed remarks, with perfect impunity. You, my friend, who are rather apt to be dissatisfied, may call it hard treatment to be thus annoyed, and yet compensate the annoyer for his trouble. You may say, that as you pay an equivalent for your amusement, you should have the liberty of directing the actor in his attempts; and, as the Chinese does his ear-tickler, tell him when his instrument offends, and how he over-does himself in the operation. This is an egregious mistake: you are obliged to him for his condescension in exerting his talents for your instruction; and as to your money, why he only takes it to lessen in part the weight of your obligation.

An actor is, as I before observed, competent to judge of his own abilities—he may undertake whatever character he pleases—tragedy—comedy—or pantomime—however ill adapted his audience may think him to sustain it. He may rant and roar, and wink and grin, and fret and fume his hour upon the stage, and “who shall say nay?” He is paid by the manager for using his lungs and limbs, and the more he exerts them the better does he fulfil the engagement, and the harder does he work for his living—and who shall deprive him of his “hard-earned bread?”

How many an honest, lazy genius has been flogged by these unfeeling critics into a cultivation of his talents and attention to his profession!—how have they doomed him to hard study and unremitting exertion!—how have they prejudiced the public mind, so that what might once have put an audience in convulsions of laughter, now excites nothing but a slight pattering from the hands of the little shavers who are rewarded with seats in the gallery for their trouble in keeping the boxes. Oh! Mr. Oldstyle, it cuts me to the soul to see a poor actor stamp and storm, and slap his forehead, his breast, his pocket holes, all in vain: to see him throw himself in some attitude of distraction or despair, and there wait in fruitless expectation the applauses of his friends in the gallery. In such cases I always take care and clap him myself, to enable him to quit his posture, and resume his part with credit.

You was much irritated the other evening, at what you termed an ungenerous and unmanly attempt to bring forward an ancient maiden in a ridiculous point of view. But I don't see why that should be made a matter of complaint. Has it not been done time out of mind? Is it not sanctioned by daily custom in private life? Is not the character of aunt Tabitha, in the farce, the same we have laughed at in hundreds of dramatic pieces? Since, then, the author has but travelled in the same beaten track of character so many have trod before him, I see not why he should be blamed as severely as if he had all the guilt of originality upon his shoulders.

You may say that it is cruel to sport with the feelings of any class of society: that folly affords sufficient field for wit and satire to work upon, without resorting to misfortune for matter of ridicule: that female sensibility should ever be sacred from the lash of sarcasm, &c. But this is all stuff, all cant.

If an author is too indolent or too stupid, to seek new sources for remark, he is surely excuseable in employing the ideas of others, for his own use and benefit. But I find I have digressed, imperceptibly, into the “rights of authors,” so let us return to our subject.

An actor when he “holds the mirror up to nature,” may by his manœuvres, twist and turn it so, as to represent the object in any shape he pleases—nay, even give a caricature where the author intended a resemblance; he may blur it with his breath, or soil it with his dirty fingers, so that the object may have a colouring from the glass in which it is viewed, entirely different from its natural appearance. To be plain, my friend, an actor has a right whenever he thinks his author not sufficiently explicit to assist him by his own wit and abilities; and if by these means the character should become quite different from what was originally intended, and in fact belong more to the actor than the author, the actor deserves high credit for his ingenuity. And even tho’ his additions are quaint, and fulsome, yet his intention is highly praise worthy, and deserves ample encouragement.

Only think, my dear sir, how many snug little domestic arrangements are destroyed by the officious interference of these ever dissatisfied critics. The honest king of Scotland, who used to dress for market and theatre at the same time, and wear with his kelt and plaid his half boots and black breeches, looking half king, half cobbler, has been obliged totally to dismiss the former from his royal service; yet I am happy to find, so obstinate is his attachment to old habits, that all their efforts have not been sufficient to dislodge him from the strong hold he has in the latter. They may force him from the boots—but nothing shall drive him out of the breeches.

Consider, my friend, the puerile nature of such remarks. Is it not derogating from the elevated character of a Critic, to take notice of clubb’d wigs, red coats, black breeches and half boots! Fie, fie upon it! I blush for the Critics of the day, who consider it a matter of importance whether a Highlander should appear in breeches and boots, or an Otaheitan in the dress of a New-York coxcomb. Trust me, friend Oldstyle, it is to the manner, not the appearance of an actor, we are to look: and as long he performs his part well, (to use the words of my friend Sterne), “it shall not be enquired whether he did it in a black coat or a red.”

Believe me, friend Oldstyle, few of our modern critics can shew any substantial claim to the character they assume. Let me ask them one question—have they ever been in Europe? Have they ever seen a Garrick, a Kemble or a Siddons? If they have not, I can assure you (upon the words of two or three of my friends, the actors) they have no right to the title of critics.

They may talk as much as they please about judgment and taste, and feeling, but this is all nonsense. It has lately been determined, (at the theatre) that any one who attempts to decide upon such ridiculous principles, is an arrant goose, and deserves to be roasted.

Having thus, friend Oldstyle, endeavored in a feeble manner, to shew you a few of the rights of an actor, and of his wrongs; having mentioned his constant and disinterested endeavors to please the public; and how much better he knows what will please them than they do themselves; having also depicted the cruel and persecuting nature of a critic; the continual restraint he lays on the harmless irregularity of the performer, and the relentless manner in which he obliges him to attend sedulously to his professional duty, through fear of censure, let me entreat you to pause!—Open your eyes to the precipice on which you are tottering, and hearken to the earnest warning of your loving friend,


My friend Quoz certainly writes with feeling: every line evinces that acute sensibility for which he has ever been remarked.

I am, however, perfectly at a loss to conceive on what grounds he suspects me of a disposition to turn critic. My remarks hitherto have rather been the result of immediate impression than of critical examination. With my friend, Mr. Andrew Quoz, I begin to doubt the motives of our New-York Critics; especially since I have, in addition to these arguments, the assurances of two or three doubtless disinterested actors, and an editor, who, Mr. Quoz tells me is remarkable for his candor and veracity, that the Critics are the most ‘presumptuous,' ‘arrogant,' ‘malevolent,' ‘illiberal,' ‘ungentleman-like,' ‘malignant,' ‘rancorous,' ‘villainous,' ‘ungrateful,' ‘crippled,' ‘invidious,' ‘detracting,' ‘fabricating,' ‘personal,' ‘dogmatical,' ‘illegitimate,' ‘tyrannical,' ‘distorting,' ‘spindle-shanked moppets, designing villains, and upstart ignorants.'

These, I say, and many other equally high polished appellations, have awakened doubts in my mind respecting the sincerity and justice of the Critics; and lest my pen should unwittingly draw upon me the suspicion, of having a hankering after criticism, I now wipe it carefully—lock it safely up, and promise not to draw it forth again till, some new department of folly calls for my attention.


[The series was a great success for Irving, but his health was poor and his brothers financed a two-year trip to Europe from which he returned in 1806. He launched the satirical magazine Salmagundi (described as the Mad magazine of its day) in 1807. The magazine, which lasted until 1808, further established Irving as a writer of talent and appeal. (In the pages of Salmagundi, Irving coined the name Gotham—an Anglo-Saxon term that means ‘Goat’s Town’—for New York City.) He eventually followed this effort with the publication of The History of New York (1809), written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker—another word that came to mean ‘everything New York.’ From that point on, Irving’s prominence as a writer, one of the first Americans (with James Fenimore Cooper) to become famous in Europe as a writer, was firmly established.]

[Letter VIII is Irving’s last letter in the series that commented on theater. Letter IX, published on 23 April 1803, is about dueling, which was legal in the United States until later in the 19th century. Indeed, Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States and part-owner of the Morning Chronicle, fatally shot Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, on 11 July 1804; Hamilton died the next day. (Letter I, published on 15 November 1802, is a commentary of clothing fashions in the city; Letter II, 20 November, is a description of New York weddings.]

25 August 2010

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle (Letter VII)

By Washington Irving

[Continuing with his tactic of responding to Oldstyle’s friend Andrew Quoz, Irving’s alter ego returns to the theater for more experiences on which to comment. This time, Quoz is in attendance, too.]

(published 22 January 1803)


I mentioned in my last my intention of visiting the theatre on Monday night. I accordingly reached there, with the assistance of Jack Stylish, who procured for me in one of the boxes an uncomfortable and dirty seat, which, however, I found as good as any of my neighbours. In the pit I was determined never again to venture. The little Frenchman mentioned in my former remarks had adopted the same resolution; for on casting my eyes around the theatre, I recognised his sharp phiz, and pinched up cocked hat, peering over the ledge of the Shakspeare. The poor little fellow had not changed his place for the better; a brawny Irishman was leaning with arms akimbo on his shoulders, and coolly surveying the audience, unmindful of the writhings and expostulations of the irritated little Gaul, whose chin was pressed hard upon the front of the box, and his small black eyes twinkling with fury and suffocation. How he disengaged himself I don’t know, for my attention was just then called away by a different object, and on turning round some time afterwards, little Monsieur had disappeared.

I found every thing wore its old appearance. The same silence, order, and regularity prevailed as on my former visit. The central chandelier hung unmolested in the heavens, setting off to advantage the picture of Mr. Anybody, with which it is adorned, and shedding a melancholy ray into that den in which (if we may judge from the sounds that issue thence) so many troubled spirits are confined.

I had marched into the theatre through rows of tables heaped up with delicacies of every kind—here a pyramid of apples or oranges invited the playful palate of the dainty; while there a regiment of mince pies and custards promised a more substantial regale to the hungry. I entered the box, and looked round with astonishment—not a grinder but had its employment. The crackling of nuts and the craunching of apples saluted my ears on every side. Surely, thought I, never was an employment followed up with more assiduity than that of gormandizing; already it pervades every public place of amusement; nay, it even begins to steal into our churches, where many a mouthful is munched in private; and few have any more objection to eat than laugh in their sleeves.

The eating mania prevails through every class of society; not a soul but has caught the infection. Eating clubs are established in every street and alley, and it is impossible to turn a corner without hearing the hissing of frying pans, winding the savoury steams of roast and boiled, or seeing some hungry genius bolting raw oysters in the middle of the street. I expect we shall shortly carry our knives and forks, like the Chinese do their chop sticks, in our pockets.

I was interrupted in my meditations by Jack Stylish, who proposed that we might take a peep into the lounging room, the dashing appearance of which Jack described in high terms; I willingly agreed to his proposal.

The room perfectly answered my expectations, and was a piece with the rest of the theatre: the high finish of the walls, the windows fancifully decorated with red baize and painted canvass, and the sumptuous wooden benches placed around it, had a most inviting appearance.

I drew the end of one of them near to an elegant stove that stood in the centre of the room, and seating myself on it, stretched my lame leg over a chair; placing my hands on the head of my cane, and resting my chin upon them, I began to amuse myself by reconnoitering the company, and snuffing up the delightful perfume of French brandy, Holland gin, and Spanish segars.

I found myself in a circle of young gentry, who appeared to have something in agitation, by their winking and nodding: at the same time I heard a confused whispering around me, and could distinguish the words smoke his wig—twig his silver buckles—old quiz—cane—cock'd hat—queer phiz —and a variety of others, by which I soon found I was in bad quarters. Jack Stylish seemed equally uneasy as myself, for though he is fond of fun himself, yet I believe the young dog has too much love for his old relation, to make him the object of his mirth. To get me away, he told me my friend Quoz was at the lower end of the room, and seemed by his looks anxious to speak with me, we accordingly joined him, and finding that the curtain was about rising, we adjourned to the box together.

In our way I exclaimed against the indecorous manner of the young men of the present day; the impertinent remarks on the company in which they continually indulge; and the cant phrases with which their shallow conversation is generally interlarded. Jack observed that I had popp'd among a set of hard boys; yes, master Stylish said I, turning round to him abruptly, and I observed by your winks and grins that you are better acquainted with them than I could wish. Let me tell you honest friend, if ever I catch you indulging in such despicable fopperies, and hankering after the company of these disrespectful youngsters, be assured that I will discard you from my affections entirely. By this time we had reached our box: so I left my cousin Jack to digest what I had just said; and I hope it may have weight with him; though I fear, from the thoughtless gaiety of his disposition, and his knowledge of the strong hold he has in my foolish old heart, my menaces will make but little impression.

We found the play already commenced. I was particularly delighted with the appearance and manners of one of the female performers. What ease, what grace, what elegance of deportment—this is not acting, cousin Jack, said I—this is reality.

After the play, this lady again came forward and delivered a ludicrous epilogue. I was extremely sorry to find her step so far out of that graceful line of character in which she is calculated to shine; and I perceived by the countenances around me that the sentiment was universal.

Ah, said I, how much she forgets what is due to her dignity. That charming countenance was never made to be so unworthily distorted: nor that graceful person and carriage to represent the awkward movements of hobbling decrepitude—take this word of advice fair lady, from an old man and a friend: Never, if you wish to retain that character for elegance you so deservedly possess—never degrade yourself by assuming the part of a mimic.

The curtain rose for the after-piece. Out skipped a jolly Merry Andrew. Aha! said I, here is the Jack-pudding. I see he has forgot his broomstick and grid-iron; he'll compensate for these wants, I suppose, by his wit and humour. But where is his master, the Quack? He'll be here presently, said Jack Stylish; he's a queer old codger; his name's Puffaway; here's to be a rare roasting match, and this quizzical looking fellow turns the spit. The Merry Andrew now began to deal out his speeches with great rapidity; but, on a sudden, pulling off a black hood that covered his face, who should I recognise but my old acquaintance, the portly gentleman.

I started back with astonishment. Sic transit gloria mundi! exclaimed I, with a melancholy shake of the head. Here is a dreary, but true picture, of the vicissitudes of life—one night paraded in regal robes, surrounded with a splendid train of nobility; the next, degraded to a poor Jack-pudding, and without even a grid-iron to help himself. What think you of this, my friend Quoz? said I; think you an actor has any right to sport with the feelings of his audience, by presenting them with such distressing contrasts. Honest Quoz, who is of the melting mood, shook his head ruefully, and said nothing. I, however, saw the tear of sympathy tremble in his eye, and honored him for his sensibility.

The Merry Andrew went on with his part, and my pity encreased as he progressed; when all of a sudden he exclaimed, “And as to Oldstyle, I wish him to old nick.” My blood mounted into my cheeks at this insolent mention of my name. And what think you of this, friend Quoz? exclaimed I, vehemently; I presume this is one of your “rights of actors.” I suppose we are now to have the stage a vehicle for lampoons and slanders; on which, our fellow citizens are to be caricatured by the clumsy hand of every dauber who can hold a brush!

Let me tell you, Mr. Andrew Quoz, I have known the time when such insolence would have been hooted from the stage.

After some persuasion I resumed my seat, and attempted to listen patiently to the rest of the afterpiece; but I was so disgusted with the Merry Andrew, that in spite of all his skipping, and jumping, and turning on his heel, I could not yield him a smile.

Among the other original characters of the dramatis personæ, we were presented with an ancient maiden; and entertained with jests and remarks from the buffoon and his associates, containing equal wit and novelty. But jesting apart, I think these attempts to injure female happiness, at once cruel and unmanly. I have ever been an enthusiast in my attachment to the fair sex. I have ever thought them possessed of the strongest claims on our admiration, our tenderness and our protection. But when to these are added still stronger claims—when we see them aged and infirm, solitary and neglected, without a partner to support them down the descent of life—cold indeed must be that heart, and unmanly that spirit, that can point the shafts of ridicule at their defenceless bosoms—that can poison the few drops of comfort heaven has poured into their cup.

The form of my sister Dorothy presented itself to my imagination; her hair silvered by time; but her face unwrinkled by sorrow or care.

She “hath borne her faculties so meekly,” that age has marked no traces on her forehead: amiable sister of my heart! cried I, who hast jogged with me through so many years of existence, is this to be the recompense of all thy virtues; art thou who never, in thought or deed, injured the feelings of another, to have thy own massacred, by the jeering insults of those to whom thou shouldst look for honour and protection?

Away with such despicable trumpery—such shallow, worn-out attempts to obtain applause from the unfeeling. I'll no more of it; come along friend Quoz, if we stay much longer, I suppose we shall find our courts of justice insulted, and attempts to ridicule the characters of private persons. Jack Stylish entreated me to stay and see the addition the manager had made to his live stock, of an ass, a goose, and a monkey. Not I, said I, I'll see no more. I accordingly hobbled off with my friend Mr. Andrew Quoz, Jack declaring he would stay behind and see the end of the joke. On our way home, I asked friend Quoz, how he could justify such clumsy attempts at personal satire. He seemed, however, rather reserved in his answers, and informed me he would write his sentiments on the subject.

The next morning Jack Stylish related to me the conclusion of the piece. How several actors went into a wheel one after another, and after a little grinding, were converted into asses, geese and monkeys, except the Merry Andrew, who was found such a tough jockey, that the wheel could not digest him, so he came out as much a Jack-pudding as ever.


* * * *

[A further set of explanatory notes: the Shakspeare – The Shakespeare box, located at the front of the second tier in the Park Theatre; quiz – An odd or eccentric person, in character or appearance; the play already commencedThe Provoked Husband (1728) by John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), performed at the Park Theatre on 14 January 1803; grid-iron – A flat framework of parallel metal bars used for broiling meat or fish; old nick – the devil.

[The last letter in this series will appear on ROT in a few days.]

22 August 2010

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle (Letter VI)

By Washington Irving

[Beginning with Letter VI, Irving begins the conceit of Jonathan Oldstyle’s replying to the responses of a friend, Andrew Quoz. Quoz takes exception to some of Oldstyle’s remarks and writes his own letters to the editors of the Morning Chronicle which Oldstyle answers in turn. This allows Irving the opportunity of defending his own opinions at the same time that he continues his good-natured criticism of the theater scene in New York. As we’ll see, Iriving especially expands his remarks about the reviewers—a topic to which he will return in Letter VIII.]

(published 17 January 1803)

[The following communication from our correspondent, OLDSTYLE, and his friend, will, we hope, induce a number to attend the benefit performance this evening, and see the diverting farce alluded to in the latter part of Mr. Quoz’s letter]



As I was sitting quietly by my fireside the other morning, nursing my wounded shin, and reading to my cousin, Jack Stylish, a chapter or two from Chesterfield's Letters, I received the following epistle from my friend Andrew Quoz: who, hearing that I talked of paying the actors a visit, and shaking my cane over their heads, has written the following letter, part of which is strongly in their defence.



My Dear Friend,

I perceive by the late papers you have been entertaining the town with remarks on the Theatre. As you do not seem from your writings to be much of an adept in the Thespian arcana, permit me to give you a few hints for your information.

The theatre, you observe, begins to answer all the purposes of a coffee-house. Here you are right: it is the polite lounge, where the idle and curious resort, to pick up the news of the fashionable world; to meet their acquaintances, and to shew themselves off to advantage. As to the dull souls who go for the sake of the play, why if their attention is interrupted by the conversation of their neighbors, they must bear it with patience—it is a custom authorized by fashion. Persons who go for the purpose of chatting with their friends are not to be deprived of their amusement; they have paid their dollar, and have a right to entertain themselves as well as they can. As to those who are annoyed by their talking, why they need not listen to it—let them mind their own business.

You were surprized at so many persons using opera glasses; & wished to know whether they were all near sighted. Your cousin, Jack Stylish, has not explained that matter sufficiently—for though many mount glasses because it is the go, yet I am told that several do it to enable them to distinguish the countenances of their friends across our scantily illumined theatre. I was considerably amused the other evening with an honest tar, who had stationed himself in front of the gallery, with an air of affected foppishness, & was reconnoitering the house thro’ a pocket telescope. I could not but like his notion, for really the gods are so elevated among the clouds, that unless they are unusually strong of vision, I can't tell how they manage to discern with the naked eye what is passing in the little painted world below them.

I think you complain of the deficiency of the music; and say that we want a greater variety and more of it. But you must know that, though this might have been a grievance in old times, when people attended to the musicians, it is a thing of but little moment at present.—Our orchestra is kept principally for form sake. There is such a continual noise and bustle between the acts that it is difficult to hear a note; and if the musicians were to get up a new piece of the finest melody, so nicely tuned are the ears of their auditors, that I doubt whether nine hearers out of ten would not complain, on leaving the house, that they had been bored with the same old pieces they have heard these two or three years back. Indeed, many who go to the theatre carry their own music with them; and we are so often delighted with the crying of children by way of glee, and such coughing and sneezing from various parts of the house, by way of chorus—not to mention the regale of a sweet symphony from a sweep or two in the gallery—and occasionally a full piece, in which nasal, vocal, whistling and thumping powers are admirably exerted and blended, that what want we of an orchestra?

In your remarks on the actors, my dear friend let me beg of you to be cautious. I would not for the world that you should degenerate into a critic. The critics, my dear Jonathan, are the very pests of society: they rob the actor of his reputation; the public of their amusement: they open the eyes of their readers to a full perception of the faults of our performers, they reduce our feelings to a state of miserable refinement, and destroy entirely all the enjoyments in which our coarser sensations delighted. I can remember the time when I could hardly keep my seat thro’ laughing at the wretched buffoonery, the merry-andrew tricks, and the unnatural grimaces played off by one of our theatric Jack Puddings: when I was struck with awful admiration at the roaring and ranting of a buskined hero, and hung with rapture on every word, while he was “tearing a passion to tatters—to very rags!” I remember the time when he who could make the queerest mouth, roll his eyes, and twist his body with the most hideous distortions, was surest to please. Alas! how changed the times, or rather how changed the tastes. I can now sit with the gravest countenance, and look without a smile on all such mimicry; their skipping, their squinting, their shrugging, their snuffling, delight not me; and as to their ranting and roaring,

“I'd rather hear a brazen candlestick turned,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axle tree,”

than any such fustian efforts to attain a shallow gallery applause.

Now, though I confess these critics have reformed the manners of the actors as well as the tastes of the audience; so that these absurdities are almost banished from the New-York stage; yet do I think they have employed a most unwarrantable liberty.

A critic, my dear sir, has no more right to expose the faults of an actor, than he has to detect the deceptions of a juggler, or the impositions of a quack. All trades must live; and, as long as the public are satisfied to admire the tricks of the juggler, to swallow the drugs of the quack, or to applaud the fustian of the actor, whoever attempts to undeceive them, does but curtail the pleasures of the latter, and deprive the former of their bread.

Ods-bud, hath not an actor eyes and shall he not wink?—hath not an actor teeth and shall he not grin?—feet and shall he not stamp?—lungs and shall he not roar?—breast and shall he not slap it?—hair and shall he not club it? Is he not fed with plaudits from the gods? delighted with thumpings from the groundlings? annoyed by hisses from the boxes?

If you censure his follies, does he not complain? If you take away his bread will he not starve? If you starve him will he not die? And if you kill him will not his wife and seven small infants, six at her back and one at her breast, rise up and cry vengeance against you? Ponder these things seriously my friend Oldstyle, and you will agree with me that, as the actor is the most meritorious and faultless, so is the critic the most cruel and sanguinary character in the world. “As I will show you more fully in my next.” Your loving friend,


From the tenor and conclusion of these remarks of my friend Mr. Andrew Quoz, they may not improperly be called the “Rights of Actors;” his arguments are, I confess, very forcible, but, as they are entirely new to me, I shall not hastily make up my mind. In the mean time, as my leg is much better, I believe I shall hobble to the theatre on Monday evening, borrow a seat in a side-box, and observe how the actors conduct themselves.


* * * *

[A further set of explanatory notes: my wounded shin – The Morning Chronicle of two days before had carried the following item: “We have received a note from our correspondent Jonathan Oldstyle. The old gentleman . . . states that he has been confined to his house since the famous Battle of Hexham, in which engagement he received a broken shin, in a skirmish with some impudent boys, who assailed him for his check of admittance during the interval between the play and the farce”; Chesterfield's Letters Letters to His Son (1774) by Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), written to his illegitimate son, Philip Stanhope (1732-68); tar – sailor; regale – an entertainment or fête; merry-andrew – clown or buffoon; Jack Puddings – buffoon characters appearing in stage and street performances; buskined – wearing buskins, the traditional footwear of Greek tragedians; fustian – pretentious speech or writing; pompous language; Ods-bud – a corruption of “God’s blood,” an oath; club it – make into a knot or tail, a hairstyle common for men in the late 18th century.

[New York City had only 65,000 inhabitants at the time that Irving wrote these letters. The theater district was, of course, not located uptown (which didn’t even exist yet in any case); the Park Theater, which housed the play Jonathan Oldstyle first went to see, was downtown at 23 Park Row, between Beekman and Ann Streets. (The park in the name is what’s now City Hall Park. The theater, at one time the only one in New York City, opened in 1798 and burned down in 1848.) The last two letters I’ve selected to reproduce will be published on ROT within the next week. Please return to see how Irving wraps up his critical remarks about New York theater in the earliest years of the 19th century.]

19 August 2010

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle (Letter V)

By Washington Irving

[Letter V, the final one in Oldstyle’s series which Irving intended to address New York theater directly, continues to poke fun at several aspects of New York theater. Readers, however, were delighted and Charles Brockden Brown, a novelist and editor, even sought out Oldstyle to ask his help in starting a literary journal which Brown was planning to publish in Philadelphia. Oldstyle’s letters were Irving’s début in print and brought the 19-year-old his first recognition as a writer. All but the first of the Oldstyle letters were immediately republished, slightly revised and corrected, in the Chronicle Express, the paper’s country edition.]

(published 11 December 1802)

Mr. Editor,

I shall now conclude my remarks on the theatre, which I am afraid you will think are spun out to an unreasonable length; for this I can give no other excuse, than that it is the privilege of old folks to be tiresome, and so I shall proceed.

I had chosen a seat in the pit, as least subject to annoyance from a habit of talking loud that has lately crept into our theatres, and which particularly prevails in the boxes. In old times people went to the theatre for the sake of the play and acting; but I now find it begins to answer the purpose of a coffee-house, or fashionable lounge, where many indulge in loud conversation, without any regard to the pain it inflicts on their more attentive neighbors. As this conversation is generally of the most trifling kind, it seldom repays the latter for the inconvenience they suffer, of not hearing one half of the play.

I found, however, that I had not much bettered my situation; but that every part of the house has its share of evils. Besides those I had already suffered, I was yet to undergo a new kind of torment. I had got in the neighborhood of a very obliging personage, who had seen the play before, and was kindly anticipating every scene, and informing those about him what was to take place; to prevent, I suppose, any disagreeable surprise to which they would otherwise have been liable. Had there been any thing of a plot to the play, this might have been a serious inconvenience; but as the piece was entirely innocent of every thing of the kind, it was not of so much importance. As I generally contrive to extract amusement from every incident that happens, I now entertained myself with remarks on the self-important air with which he delivered his information, and the distressed and impatient looks of his unwilling auditors. I also observed that he made several mistakes in the course of his communications: “Now you’ll see,” said he, “the queen, in all her glory, surrounded with her courtiers, fine as fiddles, and ranged on each side of the stage, like rows of pewter dishes.” On the contrary, we were presented with the portly gentleman and his ragged regiment of banditti. Another time he promised us a regale from the fool; but we were presented with a very fine speech from the queen’s grinning counsellor.

My country neighbor was exceedingly delighted with the performance, though he did not half the time understand what was going forward. He sat staring with open mouth at the portly gentleman, as he strode across the stage, and in furious rage drew his sword on the white lion. “By George but that’s a brave fellow,” said he when the act was over, “that’s what you call first rate acting, I suppose.”

Yes, said I, it is what the critics of the present day admire, but it is not altogether what I like; you should have seen an actor of the old school do this part; he would have given it to some purpose; you’d have had such ranting and roaring, and stamping and storming; to be sure this honest man gives us a bounce now and then in the true old style, but in the main he seems to prefer walking on plain ground to strutting on the stilts used by the tragic heroes of my day.

This is the chief of what passed between me and my companion during the play and entertainment, except an observation of his, that it would be well if the manager was to drill his nobility and gentry now and then, to enable them to go through their evolution with more grace and spirit. This put me in mind of something my cousin Jack said to the same purpose, though he went too far in his zeal for reformation. He declared, “he wished sincerely, one of the critics of the day would take all the slab shabs of the theatre in a body (like cats in a bag) and twig the whole bunch.” I can’t say but I like Jack’s idea well enough, though it is rather a severe one.

He might have remarked another fault that prevails among our performers (though I don’t know whether it occurred this evening) of dressing for the same piece in the fashions of different ages and countries, so that while one actor is strutting about the stage in the cuirass and helmet of Alexander, another dressed up in a gold-laced coat and a bag-wig, with chapeau de bras under his arm, is taking snuff in the fashion of one or two centuries back, and perhaps a third figuring with Suwarrow boots, in the true style of modem buckism.

But what, pray, has become of the noble marquis of Montague, and earl of Warwick? (said the countryman, after the entertainments were concluded). Their names make a great appearance on the bill, but I do not recollect having seen them in the course of the evening.

Very true—I had quite forgot those worthy personages but I suspect they have been behind the scene, smoaking pipe with our other friends, incog. the Tripolitans. We must not be particular now-a-days, my friend. When we are presented with a Battle of Hexham without fighting, and a Tripolitan after-piece without even a Mahometan whisker, we need not be surprised at having an invisible marquis or two thrown into the bargain.

“But what is your opinion of the house,” said I, “don’t you think it a very substantial, solid-looking building, both inside and out? Observe what a fine effect the dark colouring of the wall has upon the white faces of the audience, which glare like the stars in a dark night. And then what can be more pretty than the paintings on the front of the boxes; those little masters and misses sucking their thumbs and making mouths at the audience?”

Very fine, upon my word—and what, pray, is the use of that chandelier, as you call it, that is hung up among the clouds, and has showered down its favors on my coat?

Oh, that is to illumine the heavens and to set off, to advantage, the little perriwig’d cupids, tumbling head over heels, with which the painter has decorated the dome. You see we have no need of the chandelier below, as here, the house is perfectly well illuminated: but I think it would have been a great saving of candle-light, if the manager had ordered the painter, among his other pretty designs, to paint a moon up there, or if he was to hang up that sun with whose intense light our eyes were greatly annoyed in the beginning of the after-piece.

But don’t you think, after all, there is rather a—sort of a—kind of a heavyishness about the house; don’t you think it has a little of an under groundish appearance.

To this I could make no answer: I must confess I have often thought myself the house had a dungeon-like look; so I proposed to him to make our exit, as the candles were putting out, and we should be left in the dark. Accordingly, groping our way through the dismal subterraneous passage that leads from the pit, and passing through the ragged bridewell looking anti-chamber, we once more emerged into the purer air of the park, when bidding my honest countryman good night, I repaired home considerably pleased with the amusements of the evening.

Thus, Mr. Editor, have I given you an account of the chief incidents that occurred in my visit to the theatre. I have shewn you a few of its accommodations and its imperfections. Those who visit it more frequently may be able to give you a better statement.

I shall conclude with a few words of advice for the benefit of every department of it.

I would recommend,

To the actors—less etiquette—less fustian—less buckram.
To the orchestra—new music and more of it.
To the pit—patience—clean benches and umbrellas.
To the boxes—less affectation—less noise—less coxcombs.
To the gallery—less grog and better constables—and,
To the whole house—inside and out, a total reformation.—-And so much for the theatre.


* * * *

[A further set of explanatory notes: the white lion – The Earl of Warwick in The Battle of Hexham; slab shabs – A glutton or foulmouthed person; possibly from the Dutch slabbaerd (one who cannot hold his spittle, a driveller, an idiot); plus the slang shab, a low fellow or mean trickster; twig – to beat with or as with a twig; Suwarrow boots – Cavalry boots named for the Russian field marshal Alexander Vasilyevich Suvarov (1720-1800; buckism – the practice of a ‘buck’ or dandy); making mouths – making scornful faces, being contemptuous.

[The sixth through eighth letters of Jonathan Oldstyle also deal with theater, though Irving’s tack is different. I’ll be posting the next three Oldstyle letters on ROT over the next several days.]

16 August 2010

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle (Letter IV)

By Washington Irving

[This is the second in Washington Irving’s 1802-03 series of letters to the Morning Chronicle that discusses theater. (The Morning Chronicle was party owned by Aaron Burr, then Thomas Jefferson’s vice president) In Letter III, the young writer made fun of the plays offered on New York’s stages; in Letter IV, Irving, under his pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle, takes on the playgoers.

[These letters, written when Irving was only 19, brought the budding humorist to the attention of American readers. Having begun the study of law, Irving found he wasn’t especially passionate about that field. The reception of the nine Jonathan Oldstyle letters. which began appearing on 15 November 1802, convinced him that he should focus his efforts on this occupation instead.

[When Irving mocked the theater, professionals in the theater center of New York City were irked. William Dunlap, manager of the Park Theater (where The Battle of Hexham, a subject of Letter III, had been staged), while he appreciated Oldstyle's remarks, reported that his actors were “excessively” irritated at the mockery. When Irving poked fun at the theater reviewers of the New York media, it rankled the working press of the theater district. Nonetheless, Irving, whose authorship was known despite the pen name, was delighted with the response. New York readers enjoyed the gentle criticism and Burr was so pleased that he sent copies of some of the letters to his daughter with laudatory comments.]

(published 4 December 1802)

Mr. Editor,

My last communication mentioned my visit to the theatre; the remarks it contained were chiefly confined to the play and the actors: I shall now extend them to the audience, who, I assure you, furnish no inconsiderable part of the entertainment.

As I entered the house, some time before the curtain rose, I had sufficient leisure to make some observations. I was much amused with the waggery and humor of the gallery, which, by the way, is kept in excellent order by the constables who are stationed there. The noise in this part of the house is somewhat similar to that which prevailed in Noah’s ark; for we have an imitation of the whistles and yells of every kind of animal.—This, in some measure, compensates for the want of music, (as the gentlemen of our orchestra are very economic of their favors). Some how or another the anger of the gods seemed to be aroused all of a sudden, and they commenced a discharge of apples, nuts & ginger-bread, on the heads of the honest folks in the pit, who had no possibility of retreating from this new kind of thunder-bolts. I can’t say but I was a little irritated at being saluted aside of my head with a rotten pippin, and was going to shake my cane at them; but I was prevented by a decent looking man behind me, who informed me it was useless to threaten or expostulate. They are only amusing themselves a little at our expence, said he, sit down quietly and bend your back to it. My kind neighbor was interrupted by a hard green apple that hit him between the shoulders—he made a wry face, but knowing it was all in joke, bore the blow like a philosopher. I soon saw the wisdom of this determination,—a stray thunder-bolt happened to light on the head of a little sharp-faced Frenchman, dress’d in a white coat and small cock’d hat, who sat two or three benches ahead of me, and seemed to be an irritable little animal: Monsieur was terribly exasperated; he jumped upon his seat, shook his fist at the gallery, and swore violently in bad English. This was all nuts to his merry persecutors, their attention was wholly turned on him, and he formed their target for the rest of the evening.

I found the ladies in the boxes, as usual, studious to please; their charms were set off to the greatest advantage; each box was a little battery in itself; and they all seemed eager to out do each other in the havoc they spread around. An arch glance in one box was rivalled by a smile in another, that smile by a simper in a third, and in a fourth, a most bewitching languish carried all before it.

I was surprised to see some persons reconnoitering the company through spy-glasses; and was in doubt whether these machines were used to remedy deficiencies of vision, or whether this was another of the eccentricities of fashion. Jack Stylish has since informed me that glasses were lately all the go; though hang it, says Jack, it is quite out at present; we used to mount glasses in great snuff but since so many tough jockies have followed the lead, the bucks have all cut the custom. I give you, Mr. Editor, the account in my dashing cousin’s own language. It is from a vocabulary I don’t well understand.

I was considerably amused by the queries of the countryman mentioned in my last, who was now making his first visit to the theatre. He kept constantly applying to me for information, and I readily communicated, as far as my own ignorance would permit.

As this honest man was casting his eye round the house, his attention was suddenly arrested. And pray, who are these? said he, pointing to a cluster of young fellows. These I suppose are the critics, of whom I have heard so much. They have, no doubt, got together to communicate their remarks, and compare notes; these are the persons through whom the audience exercise their judgments, and by whom they are told, when they are to applaud or to hiss. Critics! ha, ha, my dear sir, they trouble themselves as little about the elements of criticism as they do about other departments of science or belles lettres. These are the beaus of the present day, who meet here to lounge away an idle hour, and play off their little impertinencies for the entertainment of the public. They no more regard the merits of a play, or of the actors, than my cane. They even strive to appear inattentive; and I have seen one of them perch’d upon the front of the box with his back to the stage, sucking the head of his stick, and staring vacantly at the audience, insensible to the most interesting specimens of scenic representation: though the tear of sensibility was trembling in every eye around him.

I have heard that some have even gone so far in search of amusement, as to propose a game or two of cards, in the theatre, during the performance: the eyes of my neighbor sparkled at this information; his cane shook in his hand; the word, puppies, burst from his lips. Nay, said I, I don’t give this for absolute fact: my cousin Jack was, I believe, quizzing (as he terms it) when he gave me the information. But you seem quite indignant, said I to the decent looking man in my rear. It was from him the exclamation came; the honest countryman was gazing in gaping wonder on some new attraction. Believe me, said I, if you had them daily before your eyes, you would get quite used to them. Used to them! replied he, how is it possible for people of sense to relish such conduct. Bless you, my friend; people of sense have nothing to do with it; they merely endure it in silence. These young gentlemen live in an indulgent age. When I was a young man, such tricks and fopperies were held in proper contempt. Here I went a little too far; for upon better recollection I must own that a lapse of years has produced but little alteration in this department of folly and impertinence. But do the ladies admire these manners? truly I am not as conversant in female circles as formerly; but I should think it a poor compliment to my fair country women, to suppose them pleased with the stupid stare and cant phrases with which these votaries of fashion, add affected to real ignorance.

Our conversation was here interrupted by the ringing of a bell. Now for the play, said my companion. No, said I, it is only for the musicians. Those worthy gentlemen then came crawling out of their holes, and began with very solemn and important phizes, strumming and tuning their instruments in the usual style of discordance, to the great entertainment of the audience. What tune is that? asked my neighbor, covering his ears. This, said I, is no tune; it is only a pleasing symphony, with which we are regaled as a preparative. For my part, though I admire the effect of contrast, I think they might as well play it in their cavern under the stage. The bell rung a second time; and then began the tune in reality; but I could not help observing that the countryman was more diverted with the queer grimaces, and contortions of countenance exhibited by the musicians, than their melody.

What I heard of the music, I liked very well (though I was told by one of my neighbors that the same pieces have been played every night for these three years;) but it was often overpowered by the gentry in the gallery, who vociferated loudly for Moll in the wad, Tally ho the grinders, and several other airs more suited to their tastes.

I observed that every part of the house has its different department. The good folks of the gallery have all the trouble of ordering the music (their directions, however, are not more frequently followed than they deserve.) The mode by which they issue their mandates is stamping, hissing, roaring, whistling, and, when the musicians are refractory, groaning in cadence. They also have the privilege of demanding a bow from John (by which name they designate every servant at the theatre, who enters to move a table or snuff a candle;) and of detecting those cunning dogs who peep from behind the curtain.

By the bye, my honest country friend was much puzzled about the curtain itself. He wanted to know why that carpet was hung up in the theatre. I assured him it was no carpet, but a very fine curtain. And what, pray, may be the meaning of that gold head with the nose cut off that I see in front of it? The meaning—why really I can’t tell exactly—tho’ my cousin Jack stylish says there is a great deal of meaning in it. But surely you like the design of the curtain? The design—why really I can see no design about it, unless it is to be brought down about our ears by the weight of those gold heads and that heavy cornice with which it is garnished. I began now to be uneasy for the credit of our curtain, and was afraid he would perceive the mistake of the painter in putting a harp in the middle of the curtain, and calling it a mirror; but his attention was happily called away by the candle-grease from the chandelier, over the centre of the pit, dropping on his clothes. This he loudly complained of, and declared his coat was bran-new. How, my friend, said I, we must put up with a few trifling inconveniencies when in the pursuit of pleasure. True said he:—but I think I pay pretty dear for—first to give six shillings at the door, and then to have my head battered with rotten apples, and my coat spoiled by candle-grease: by and by I shall have my other clothes dirtied by sitting down, as I perceive every body mounted on the benches. I wonder if they could not see as well if they were all to stand upon the floor.

Here I could no longer defend our customs, for I could scarcely breathe while thus surmounted by a host of strapping fellows standing with their dirty boots on the seats of the benches. The little Frenchman who thus found a temporary helter from the missive compliments of his gallery friends, was the only person benefited. At last the bell again rung, and the cry of down, down—hats off, was the signal for the commencement of the play.

If, Mr. Editor, the garrulity of an old fellow is not tiresome, and you chuse to give this view of a New-York theatre, place in your paper, you may, perhaps, hear further from your friend,


* * * *

[Once again, let me provide a few words of explanation for the archaic references in this letter: in great snuff – Elated, in great spirits; tough jockies – Toughs, ruffians; ‘jockey’ was slang for ‘boy’ or ‘lad,’ especially from the working class, from Jock, a form of John or Jack; “Moll in the Wad,” “Tally Ho the Grinders” – Traditional popular songs; “Moll . . . Wad” (“Moll o’ the Wood”) was an Irish jig dating back at least to the late 18th century; harp . . . mirror – The curtain was of blue mohair, and in the center was a lyre with the motto: “To hold the Mirror up to Nature.”

[Letter V will be posted on ROT in a few days. Come back to see what else this emerging writer had to say about New York’s theater.]

13 August 2010

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle (Letter III)

By Washington Irving

[I recently posted two letters by Samuel Clemens, written in the mid-1850s for two newspapers (“Samuel L. Clemens’s Letter to the Muscatine Journal,” 18 May 2010; “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” 23 May 2010). Clemens, who hadn’t yet adopted the name Mark Twain, described, at some length in one letter, more briefly in the other, his impressions of the performances of plays he’d seen. Clemens wasn’t the first American literary figure to have made his thoughts about theater known in the form of letters to a newspaper (or to use a pseudonym for his writings). A half century earlier, another young writer of humor destined to become an important writer in this new country applied the same tactic.

[In 1802, a very young Washington Irving (1783-1859), under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle, began his writing career with a series of nine letters in which he discussed his views of many aspects of New York society. Irving’s third through eighth letters, written for New York’s Morning Chronicle which was edited by his brother Peter, were devoted to the theater—but not only the plays presented. The young writer also criticized reviewers and spectators. He followed the original three letters with three more, ostensibly responses to correspondence from a friend. I’ll be posting these six interesting glimpses into the American stage of the early 19th century separately, starting with Letter III. (The letters, first published in book form in 1824, are available in several Irving anthologies.)

[Readers should note that I haven’t edited Irving’s prose. You’ll encounter here both the quirky 19th-century spelling and diction as well as the idiosyncrasies of Jonathan Oldstyle, a gentleman of “the old school.” I think you’ll find. nevertheless, that Irving’s points still communicate to a 21st-century enthusiast. (Some expressions are defined following the text of the letter.)]

(published 1 December 1802)

Mr. Editor,

There is no place of public amusement of which I am so fond as the theatre. To enjoy this with the greater relish I go but seldom; and I find there is no play, however poor or ridiculous from which I cannot derive some entertainment.

I was very much taken with a play-bill of last week, announcing in large capitals

THE BATTLE OF HEXHAM, or days of old.

Here said I to myself will be something grand—days of old!—my fancy fired at the words. I pictured to myself all the gallantry of chivalry; here, thought I, will be a display of court manners and true politeness; the play will no doubt be garnished with tilts and tournaments: and as to those banditti whose names make such a formidable appearance on the bills, they will be hung up, every mother’s son, for the edification of the gallery.

With such impressions I took my seat in the pit, and was so impatient that I could hardly attend to the music, though I found it very good.

The curtain rose. Out walked the queen with great majesty, she answered my ideas, she was dressed well, she looked well, and she acted well. The queen was followed by a pretty gentleman, who from his winking and grinning I took to be the court fool. I soon found out my mistake. He was a courtier “high in trust,” and either general, colonel, or something of martial dignity.

They talked for some time, though I could not understand the drift of their discourse, so I amused myself with eating pea-nuts.

In one of the scenes I was diverted with the stupidity of a corporal and his men, who sung a dull song, and talked a great deal about nothing: though I found by their laughing, there was a great deal of fun in the corporal’s remarks.

What this scene had to do with the rest of the piece, I could not comprehend: I suspect it was a part of some other play thrust in here by accident.

I was then introduced to a cavern where there were several hard looking fellows, sitting round a table carousing. They told the audience they were banditti. They then sung a gallery song, of which I could understand nothing but two lines:

“The Welchman had lik’d to’ve been chok’d by a mouse,
“But he pulled him out by the tail!”

Just as they had ended this elegant song their banquet was disturbed by the melodious sound of a horn, and in march’d a portly gentleman, who I found was their captain. After this worthy gentleman had fumed his hour out: after he had slapped his breast and drawn his sword half a dozen times, the act ended.

In the course of the play I learnt that there had been, or was, or would be, a battle; but how, or when, or where I could not understand. The banditti once more made their appearance, and frighted the wife of the portly gentleman, who was dressed in man’s clothes, and was seeking her husband. I could not enough admire the dignity of her deportment, the sweetness of her countenance, and the unaffected gracefulness of her action; but who the captain really was, or why he ran away from his spouse, I could not understand. However, they seemed very glad to find one another again; and so at last the play ended by the falling of the curtain.

I wish the manager would use a drop scene at the close of the acts: we might then always ascertain the termination of the piece by the green curtain. On this occasion I was indebted to the polite bows of the actors for this pleasing information. I cannot say that I was entirely satisfied with the play, but I promised myself ample entertainment in the after-piece, which was called The Tripolitan Prize. Now, thought I, we shall have some sport for our money: we will no doubt see a few of those Tripolitan scoundrels spitted like turkeys for our amusement. Well, sir, the curtain rose—the trees waved in front of the stage, and the sea rolled in the rear. All things looked very pleasant and smiling. Presently I heard a bustling behind the scenes—here thought I comes a fierce band of Tripolitans with whiskers as long as my arm.—No such thing—they were only a party of village masters and- misses taking a walk for exercise, and very pretty behaved young gentry they were, I assure you; but it was cruel in the manager to dress them in buckram, as it deprived them entirely of the use of their limbs. They arranged themselves very orderly an each side of the stage; and sang something doubtless very affecting, for they all looked pitiful enough. By and by came up a most tremenduous storm: the lightning flash’d, the thunder roar’d, the rain descended in torrents; however, our pretty rustics stood gaping quietly at one another, till they must have been wet to the skin. I was surprised at their torpidity, till I found they were each one afraid to move first, through fear of being laughed at for their aukwardness. How they got off I do not recollect, but I advise the manager, in a similar case, to furnish every one with a trap door, through which to make his exit. Yet this would deprive the audience of much amusement: for nothing can be more laughable than to see a body of guards with their spears, or courtiers with their long robes get across the stage at our theatre.

Scene pass’d after scene. In vain I strained my eyes to catch a glimpse of a Mahometan phiz. I once heard a great bellowing behind the scenes, and expected to see a strapping Musselman come bouncing in; but was miserably disappointed, on distinguishing his voice, to find out by his swearing, that he was only a Christian. In he came—an American navy officer. Worsted stockings—olive velvet small clothes—scarlet vest—pea-jacket, and gold laced hat—dressed quite in character. I soon found out by his talk, that he was an American prize master: that, returning thro’ the Mediterranean with his Tripolitan prize, he was driven by a storm on the coast of England!

The honest gentleman seemed from his actions to be rather intoxicated: which I could account for in no other way than his having drank a great deal of salt water as he swam ashore.

Several following scenes were taken up with hallooing and huzzaing between the captain, his crew, and the gallery:—with several amusing tricks of the captain and his son, a very funny, mischievous little fellow. Then came the cream of the joke: the captain wanted to put to sea, and the young fellow, who had fallen desperately in love, to stay ashore. Here was a contest between love and honor—such piping of eyes, such blowing of noses, such slapping of pocket holes! But old Junk was inflexible.—What! an American tar desert his duty (three cheers from the gallery) impossible!—American tar forever!! True blue will never stain!! &c. &c. (a continual thundering among the gods).

Here was a scene of distress—here was bathos. The author seemed as much puzzled how to dispose of the young tar as old Junk was. It would not do to leave an American seaman on foreign ground; nor would it do to separate him from his mistress.

Scene the last opened—it seems that another Tripolitan cruiser had bore down on the prize as she lay about a mile off shore.—How a Barbary corsair had got in this part of the world—whether she had been driven there by the same storm, or whether she was cruising about to pick up a few English first rates, I could not learn. However, here she was—again were we conducted to the sea shore, where we found all the village gentry, in their buckram suits, ready assembled to be entertained with the rare show, of an American and Tripolitan engaged yard arm and yard arm. The battle was conducted with proper decency and decorum, and the Tripolitan very politely gave in—as it would be indecent to conquer in the face of an American audience.

After the engagement, the crew came ashore, joined with the captain and gallery in a few more huzzas, and the curtain fell. How old Junk, his son, and his son’s sweetheart settled it, I could not discover.

I was somewhat puzzled to understand the meaning and necessity of this engagement between the ships, till an honest old countryman at my elbow, said he supposed this was the battle of Hexham; as he recollected no fighting in the first piece.—With this explanation I was perfectly satisfied.

My remarks upon the audience I shall postpone to another opportunity.


* * * *

[The text I’ve used here is from the 1977 Twayne Publishers scholarly edition as reproduced in History, Tales and Sketches (Library of America, 1983). Standard American English continues to change and some practices 210 years ago were different from those we now use. In the 19h century, for instance, words, even in the same piece of writing, were spelled more than one way. Commas sometimes were used to express vocal phrasing, and capitalization was sometimes meant to give force to certain words.

[I don’t want to turn this into a collection of footnotes, but a few terms Irving used in his letters need explanation: Jonathan Oldstyle – Pen names like Irving’s were commonly used by contributors to journals specializing in witty essays and humor; “Oldstyle” is probably meant to suggest ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘out-of-date’; The Battle of Hexham – A romantic comedy by English dramatist George Colman the Younger (1762–1836), written in 1798 and set during the War of the Roses (1455-85); it was performed at New York’s Park Theater on 24 November 1802; the lyrics Irving quotes in the letter are from a song in Act 2, sung by a corporal of the Lancastrian forces; gallery song – Probably a popular song designed to gain applause from the spectators in the gallery; see ‘gallery gods,’ below; drop scene – An unframed curtain (a ‘drop’), lowered to a stage from the flies, used as the backdrop for a scene played while the set upstage is being changed; The Tripolitan Prize – A comic opera based on The Veteran Tar (1801) by composer Samuel James Arnold (1740-1802); the play was a patriotic piece concerning the First Barbary War (1801-03) between the United States and Tripoli; buckram – A stiff cloth made of cotton and occasionally linen used to stiffen clothes; Mahometan – Archaic form of Mohammedan, an obsolete alternative for ‘Muslim’; phiz – The face; colloquial contraction of ‘physiognomy’; Musselman – Archaic form of ‘Muslim’; small clothes (or ‘smallclothes’) – knee breeches or knickers; prize master – An officer in charge or command of a captured vessel; the gods – The “gallery gods” were spectators seated in the upper gallery, the cheapest, unreserved seats, near the clouds painted on the ceiling; known for direct and uncompromising reactions to the performances.

[Letters IV through VIII will follow over the next weeks. Come back to ROT to read what else Washington Irving, AKA Jonathan Oldstyle, had to say about New York theatergoers at the turn of the 19th century.]

08 August 2010

'A Disappearing Number' (Lincoln Center Festival 2010)

On Friday, 16 July, Diana and I met uptown at the David H. Koch Theater, the former New York State Theater, at Lincoln Center to see A Disappearing Number by the London-based theater troupe Complicite. (Home of New York City Ballet and New York City Opera, the Koch was renamed in 2008 when its renovation was initiated with a grant from the billionaire philanthropist. Part of the campus-wide reconstruction, the theater reopened in 2009.)

Founded in 1983 as the Théâtre de Complicité by Simon McBurney and two friends who were all trained in the physical theater style of Jacques Lecoq, Complicite has become the vision of McBurney, its artistic director. It works collectively to create its productions, usually based on non-dramatic material—though not always (Ionesco’s The Chairs was a hit on Broadway in 1998), but McBurney is nearly always the director and shaper of the stage performance. Complicite is firmly in the world of avant-garde and makes extensive use of multi-media and technical effects for its productions, especially projections. I last saw the company in ‘98 at an earlier Lincoln Center Festival with The Street of Crocodiles, the adaptation of a 1934 collection of surrealistic short stories by Polish writer Bruno Schultz, which I recall as being an amazing (and somewhat disorienting) experience. A Disappearing Number, inspired in part by G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (1941), won the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play.

The short description of Number, which first played in Britain in 2007, is that it’s the tale of self-taught Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) and his seven-year collaboration with Cambridge math (or “maths,” as the Brits have it) professor Godfrey Harold Hardy (1877-1947) from the years just before to just after World War I. (The character of Dr. Amita Ramanujan in the U.S. TV series Numb3rs was named for the Indian mathematician.) Like Proof and Jumpers, two other “math plays,” Number isn’t really about mathematics—though it is about numbers, in a philosophical sense. (Wait, it gets denser!) In fact, except for a brief opening set piece, you don’t even have to be able to add or subtract. (There is a math trick at the beginning, too, in which the audience is asked to do some of that—but it’s a demo and you don’t have to participate to get the point. Besides, it’s over quickly.)

Okay, I’m deliberately teasing you. I should say right away that I found this play wonderfully fascinating and intriguing—and I can’t balance my checkbook. I confess, I’m not sure what it’s about thematically—I have some guesses, which I’ll share momentarily, but I’m still searching. Theatrically, however, it’s one of the most engaging productions I’ve seen in a long time. If you’ve read some of my other articles on theater and performance, you’ve run into my personal criteria for “good theater”: it has to do more than tell a story, and it must be theatrical. (I’ve defined ‘theatrical’ before, too: using all the attributes of live performance. It’s akin to what Tennessee Williams called “plastic theater” except that he put it in the control of the dramatist and I put it in the hands of anyone who makes theater. See my essay “’The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theatre,” Tennessee Williams Annual Review no. 5 [2002], http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/archives/2002/3kramer.htm.) Well, A Disappearing Number meets these criteria in spades. (I should add that a performance can meet the criteria and still not be good theater—Teorema did, or tried to—but if it fails to meet one or both, it can’t be good theater, at least not for me.)

Not everyone agreed with me, though. Charles Isherwood called Number a “quietly mesmerizing play” and an “engrossing inquiry” in the Times, but Michael Feingold of the Village Voice, who doesn’t like Complicite—he characterized the troupe’s work as “a watery paste of image theater and narrative, usually with some kind of scientific or historical material dropped in to provide a hint of substance, and heavily decorated with multimedia effects”—concluded that the play’s “pretty patterns may all mean something mathematically; artistically, they don't.” (Feingold went on to raise objections like why Hardy didn’t hook Ramanujan up with other Indians in Britain and find him some British vegetarians—he named Shaw as a prominent example—to ease the Indian’s cultural disorientation. Please! What’s the point of asking such a question 100 years after the fact? It suffices that Hardy didn’t; that’s not Complicite’s fault! If Feingold wants to indict Hardy, he’s free to try, but it’s hardly a legit criticism of the play.)

The Complicite productions I know of aren’t linear narratives. (I’m not sure you can even discuss linearity in terms of Ionesco because he’s . . . well, absurd. Linearity doesn’t apply. Beckett’s Godot goes around in circles—is that linear? I say it’s apples and pedicabs . . . .) Nevertheless, there is a story—it’s just told . . . ummm, non-linearly. (Even McBurney’s program note is non-linear! I suspect he thinks that way.) Actually, there are two stories that wind together like a DNA helix. One is the factual history of Hardy (David Annen) and Ramanujan (Shane Shambhu) and the Indian mathematician’s odyssey from obscurity in India to prominence in England and back again to India for his death at 32 in 1920. Along the way, Ramanujan changes theoretical math forever in ways that are still being felt today. (Some of the ideas he proposed in 1913 are only now being fully explained.) The other tale is the modern, mid-life love story of Ruth Minnen (Saskia Reeves), a math lecturer at a British university, and Al Cooper (Firdous Bamji), an East Indian-American futures trader from L.A. Narrating both tales, and bridging them, is Aninda Rao (Paul Bhattacharjee), a physicist who, appropriately, specializes in string theory—otherwise known as “the theory of everything.” (I find that cognomen wonderfully arrogant.) The goal of string theory, as Rao explains, is to find how everything in the universe connects to everything else—a suitable perspective for the narrator of a play that jumps across time and space: between India and England; the second decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st; research, creativity, and love; discovery and loss; science and beauty (which, Hardy and the play assert, aren’t so very separate); numbers, words, and emotions; past, present, and future (distinctions, McBurney notes, Einstein said were illusions anyway); infinity and the finite; and other unlikely juxtapositions. In one way, at least, that the play is about math is apt: pure math, after all, deals with real numbers, imaginary numbers, irrational numbers . . . and infinity. An infinity of infinities, as Ruth points out. (I won’t go into it now, but while I found little in A Disappearing Number that connected to David Auburn’s 2000 play Proof, I did find myself thinking of Tom Stoppard’s 1972 Jumpers. In a very broad sense, Number explores dramatically what Jumpers looks at comically.)

Briefly, G. H. Hardy receives a letter in 1913 from a 26-year-old, 20-rupee-a-month clerk in the Madras Port Authority. Ramanujan had written to other mathematicians and been dismissed by every one until Hardy. Not only is he barely educated—he’d had to leave college because he couldn’t pass his non-math courses—with no formal training in math, but he’s proposing theorems that seem on the surface to be crack-brained. One, for instance, is that 1+2+3+4+5+ . . . = -1/12. To most people (like . . . well, me), this makes no sense—but Hardy recognizes it as the application of some advanced developments in Germany, which Ramanujan has apparently lit upon on his own. The Cantabrigian knows the Indian’s not a crank but a genius and invites Ramanujan to come to Cambridge, but Ramanujan’s Brahmin faith doesn’t permit him to travel abroad. Eventually, he finds a way around the restriction and spends seven years with Hardy, making mathematical history. The intuitive, instinctual Indian conjures the insights and the logical, formalist Englishman provides the proofs. Together they push pure math into new realms with discoveries that form the foundation of string theory in the present. Hardy, the painfully reserved don, writes that the collaboration is "the one romantic incident in my life." In 1920, Ramanujan returns to Madras where he becomes ill with a liver infection, which ironically he may have contracted in Britain, and dies before his thirty-third birthday.

Ramanujan, of course, is a truly displaced person: an outsider, an alien, an “other.” He’s an Indian among Brits, a dark-skinned Asian among white Europeans, a vegetarian among meat-eaters, a Hindu among Christians, an unschooled intuitive among highly educated formalists, a young man among the middle-aged. His new colleagues, including Hardy, know little about him beyond his name and, as Rao observes, they even get that wrong. (The Indian genius is called Ram-a-NOO-j’n in the play, though the name should probably be pronounced Ra-MAHN-u-jan—like the TV character.) He has trouble with the British diet, especially the scarcity of fresh vegetables, and the English climate, which is cold and damp for a man from subtropical southern India. While Ramanujan’s spiritual and a devout Hindu—he attributes his insights to his family goddess, Namagiri—Hardy’s a committed atheist. Ramanujan is diffident and a loner, but Hardy’s no help because the Englishman himself is shy and makes friends only with difficulty. Still, both men buck their respective establishments to form the collaboration. Ramanujan defies his Brahmin caste and travels across the ocean to England, making himself an outcast at home; Hardy sponsors his collaborator for a fellowship at the college and membership in the Royal Society despite opposition among his English colleagues because Ramanujan is young, foreign, and uneducated. The displacement disorients Ramanujan so much that he becomes ill and tries to commit suicide by jumping onto the tracks of the London Underground. Nonetheless, their partnership is characterized as the intellectual equivalent of Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay’s mountain-conquering alliance.

As this saga’s unfolding in discontinuous scenes, the story of Ruth and Al plays out. Ruth, who’s inspired by Ramanujan, has just finished lecturing when Al approaches her. He’s wandered into her session and finds himself taken with the math teacher even though he doesn’t understand a thing about numbers. Al pursues Ruth and they eventually marry; Ruth becomes pregnant, but she loses the baby, a tragedy with which she never comes to terms. She makes a solo trip to India to follow Ramanujan’s footsteps and collapses on a train, felled by a brain aneurysm. Al, whose parents were Indian (he was born in the U.S. and had never been to the land of his heritage), travels to India to scatter Ruth’s math books in the Cauvery River, “the Ganges of the South,” thinking it will bring her close to Ramanujan in death—and help him understand what captivated her so much about the math legend. (Feingold points out parenthetically that the play “perhaps unconsciously” links going to India with dying. Now, Al does meet Aninda Rao in India on a journey to do the same mitzva for his aunt’s ashes, but both Al and Rao have traveled to India without perishing! Also, you could say that leaving India is what killed Ramanujan. I’m not inclined to buy Feingold’s correlation.) The two narratives are almost parallels—both romances of a sort, one intellectual and one emotional—though the nationalities are reversed: the suitor in the math romance is British; the pursuer in the “heart” story is Indian(‑American). Further, they also travel in opposite directions: Ramanujan goes west from India to England and then returns home to die; Ruth goes east, followed after her death by Al who metaphorically returns “home.” The terms of the equation are inverted, you might say—but, according to the little math I remember, A+B = B+A. (It’s significant to note that these are patterns, a concept that will turn up momentarily.)

Michael Levine’s set for Number shape-shifts much as the play itself does. It opens on a lecture hall with a long whiteboard that stretches almost across the whole stage on which Ruth is writing an inscrutably complex and apparently endless equation, then morphs into Hardy’s office where he receives Ramanujan’s letter. Rao, who sometimes performs the function of Wilder’s Stage Manager in Our Town, demonstrates that nothing we see is real—except the math. (He amends his assertion quickly as Hiren Chate, the musician, emerges to set up his instruments: the music is real, too, Rao acknowledges.) He proceeds to shift the panels making up the walls, opens doors to nowhere, raises the whiteboard out of sight, and points out that all the people are really actors playing parts. Over the two-hour, intermissionless performance, the set mechanically reconfigures itself like the sci-fi movie Dark City without the menace, shifting from Cambridge to Madras to a hotel room in England to a train in India and to various locations beyond time and place, greatly assisted by Paul Anderson’s fluid lighting. All the while, videos of scenes (like a taxi ride through the streets of Madras), random images, silhouettes and shadows, or equations and numbers are projected on the back of the stage (courtesy of Sven Ortel’s conception). (The white-on-black digits, which one reviewer said seemed to “snow down across the walls” of the set, along with the voice over a PA system counting backwards, kept making me think of Tom Lehrer’s "Wernher von Braun": “’In German oder English, I know how to count down / Und I’m learning Chinese,’ says Wernher von Braun.”)

There is also Indian dance, performed by Shambhu, otherwise appearing as Ramanujan, and Divya Kasaturi, who plays other roles as well. More than the music, which underscores the action, the dance interludes function contrapuntally—moments of pure, but foreign, aesthetics amidst the relentless logic of the math. That the dancers are sometimes dressed in western garb makes the Indian dance sections more exotic and out of place—the way Ramanujan must have felt a lot of the time. The projections—which also include images from an overhead projector in Ruth’s lecture hall displaying images of Al’s hand and a bee he just swatted—aren’t just background pictures but an essential part of the production’s atmosphere and dynamic. The projections are usually accompanied by Indian music (composed by Nitin Sawhney), played live by Chate sitting just off the set at stage right, or the voice-over, sometimes in Hindi, which works like a soundtrack that’s integral to the production, not incidental to it. Together, the voice, music, dance, and projections form an alternative, parallel text. The effect of all the production elements is cumulative—the result, if you’ll pardon a mathematical metaphor, is greater than the sum of the parts. Everything adds a level and even if I can’t define or even describe the effect of each aspect—I may not even have noticed them all—removing one would diminish the whole the way taking off one of a car’s wheels destroys the vehicle’s effectiveness.

As I said, I’m not sure what Number is supposed to mean. Many of the reviews offered interpretations that I didn’t catch. I took away some thoughts I’m not sure were the intended point (which doesn’t make them invalid, or even unwanted—just not the main idea). Feingold of the Voice pretty much dismissed the whole effort, of course, and Isherwood bought into the idea that Rao articulates at the end: “All beautiful theorems require a very high degree of economy, unexpectedness and inevitability,” which Isherwood says is also true of theater and that McBurney meets the requirement. McBurney wrote that the play is as much “enquiry” as narrative “about our relentless compulsion to understand” (not far from what I contend is Stoppard’s prevailing theme), which allows me to free-float unreservedly. A lot of what I came away with—or sat there thinking about as I was watching and listening—were almost random thoughts. In most plays when my mind wanders, it’s because I’m bored or confused. Occasionally, it’s because the play sparks my imagination, starts me on a mental journey and, try as I might, I can’t stop myself. I don’t know if that’s good or bad—it certainly makes it hard to articulate later what I saw and heard—but it can be exhilarating. That’s what happened to me at A Disappearing Number.

I can’t sort all this out in any kind of cogent order, so I’m just going to ramble—the way my mind did while I was watching the show and right after as I was making my way home. (The New York Times reviews of both Number and Teorema came out the next day and I read them on the bus to Washington, starting me off again ruminating on the plays, especially Number.) Writing this report has spurred more thoughts, or connections among some I already had.

At the start of the play, Rao comes out while Ruth is lecturing on numerical series, scribbling ever more fantastical formulæ on the whiteboard. Before Rao shifts the set, he jokes that the play won’t all be like what the math prof is doing. Then he launches into the math gag I mentioned: Pick a number, he tells us. “Now double your number. Add 14 to the new number. Divide this number by 2. Finally, subtract the first number you thought of.” There were laughs in the audience when Rao reveals that we were all now thinking of the number seven. The math is pretty simple, of course (even I figured it out, after all), but the point seemed to be that numbers, even in so silly and simple an application, are magical. Like romance and creativity, they’re mysteries—and that’s what Number explores: the mystery of romance, both intellectual and emotional, and creativity, both artistic and scientific. Feingold complained that we never learn what attracts Al and Ruth to one another since they don’t share her obsession with math. I saw this as part of the mystery of numbers: Al is inexplicably but inexorably drawn first to her lecture, even though he doesn’t understand it, and then to her. Hardy proclaims, “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns” equating the creativity of logic with the creativity of art. Ruth continues the quotation: “[T]he mathematician's patterns must be beautiful.“

Feingold, of course, disparaged the claim to creativity: a math theorem can’t equal the accomplishment of painting Guernica or writing Leaves of Grass, he insisted. I’m not so sure: when I was in college, the hardest course in the curriculum was generally agreed to be organic chem. The prof, an amateur actor and playwright, used to give points on his exams for “elegance,” even if the answer was factually wrong. A scientist, he rewarded creative thinking even over correctness. I reject this particular distinction between science and art. (The debate surfaces even within art. There’s a persistent argument among some whether actors and directors are “creative” or “interpretive” artists. I say it’s an artificial dichotomy.) What Hardy was saying, and what Number illustrates, I believe, is that there are different kinds of creativity. One kind makes something where nothing existed before—that’s what artists do, as Feingold observed. But scientists engage in a different kind of creativity. They discover things that already exist, but they use creative methods to identify them, reveal them, explain them, and use them. How is it possibly not creative when a physicist predicts the existence of particles no one has ever seen because her mind made the logical and reasoned connections that revealed their presence? Or an astronomer who “discovers” a new planet even before it’s rendered visible because he’s interpreted the evidence of its existence creatively? How is it not creative to conceive of such a thing as an imaginary number? Here’s how McBurney reconstructs the conception (a word, you’ll note, we also use to decribe the creation of a baby):

[O]ne day some mathematician simply said, “. . . We need a square root of minus one, and if we imagine it, it will exist.” And so they did. It was a leap of the imagination and they called it “i,” the imaginary number. And this “leap” gave us complex numbers. And without complex numbers, we would not be able to describe electromagnetic behavior or create digital technology in the way that we have. We would have no radio, no television, nor the mobile phone . . . . A leap of the imagination.

It’s not what they discover—it’s how they get there. No, what Hardy’s saying, in McBurney’s rendering, and what the play is meant to show is that aesthetic creativity and intellectual creativity are aspects of the same impulse. We know, for instance, that music, which figures significantly in Number, and math are related; McBurney points out that in the middle ages, people saw music as audible arithmetic. But string theory posits that everything is connected—math and painting and poetry and music and perhaps even love and friendship. (In that TV series, Numb3rs, the main character, a math genius who uses his skills to solve crimes, actually wrote a popular book about the mathematics of friendship and there’s a book on store shelves called The Mathematics of Marriage.) The artist makes things that didn’t exist before; the scientist thinks things that no one had ever thought before. The creativity Hardy sees is the working of the human mind, not the human hand. Archimedes was creative; Columbus was creative; Copernicus was creative; Galileo was creative; Newton was creative; Einstein was creative; Heisenberg was creative; Hawking is creative. Feingold found this to be a “gap in Hardy’s reasoning,” but it’s his definition of creativity that’s crabbed and narrow—and that’s his problem.

The mystery of numbers is also elegant—in its symmetry for example. Whatever’s true on one side of zero is also true on the other. (As I noted, Ruth states that there are an infinity of infinities. For instance, there are an infinity of positive numbers and an infinity of negative numbers. QED.) Numbers are also mysterious and elegant in their vastness. Ruth also invokes the axiom that there are an infinity of numbers between 1 and 2: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, and so on. But there are also an infinity of numbers between 1.1 and 1.2: 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, and so forth. This is where I began flashing onto Jumpers: “Cantor’s proof that there is no greatest number ensures that there is no smallest fraction.”

Ruth carries this consideration further. She asserts to an incredulous Al that 1+1/2+1/4+1/8+1/16 . . . = 2. It’s not possible, insists Al (to the silent agreement of the audience, I’d wager). Of course, Ruth explains, only at infinity would the series equal 2, otherwise, it only gets closer and closer. Jumpers, again:

[I]t was precisely this notion of infinite series which in the sixth century BC led the Greek philosopher Zeno to conclude that since an arrow shot towards a target first had to cover half the distance, and then half the remainder, and then half the remainder after that, and so on ad infinitum, the result was . . . that though an arrow is always approaching its target, it never quite gets there, and Saint Sebastian died of fright.

Of course, there’s a bit more to this proposition than the mathematical mystery of it. The people in Number are always approaching one another but never quite connecting. Hardy and Ramanujan, though they differ in many significant respects, aren’t precise opposites. In addition to their shared passion for math, they are both solitary men. Yet they never become friends beyond their collaboration. Ruth and Al don’t seem suited to each other, but they do love one another. Yet they don’t really come together, either, sending Al off to search for the missing connection in India after Ruth dies. Like the fractions approaching 2, they never quite get there . . . .

It seems, however, that you can do anything with math, even if it defies ordinary logic and common sense. (And isn’t that magic?) In the world of math, however, it’s still true. And that’s another place my mind went. The infinty of fractions between 1 and 2, for instance, is the source of this thought from Jumpers:

Furthermore, . . . before reaching the half-way point, the arrow had to reach the quarter-mark, and before that the eighth, and before that the sixteenth, and so on, with the result, remembering Cantor's proof, that the arrow could not move at all!

Think about it. Perfectly logical, right? But impossible! The play sets up a dichotomy between pure math and the real world. In our regular existence, numbers represent mundane things we work with every day: money, telephone numbers, taxi registrations, room numbers, time on a digital clock. All those appear in Disappearing Number, some with more import than others. We know what all those mean to us and they don’t seem mysterious or inscrutable. They also don’t always follow the rules. In math, one and one make two. But in life, one woman and one man, say Ruth and Al, can combine to make three—and then, unlike the regular and predictable world of math, three reverts to two and then to one again. In the other narrative, one and one, Hardy and Ramanujan, make impossible discoveries that continue on into an unforeseeable future and proliferate beyond anyone’s ability to predict or even comprehend. The creativity that Feingold doesn’t recognize was the sum of Hardy’s discipline and precision plus Ramanujan’s insight and intuition—and it eventually helped give rise to “the theory of everything.” (How is that not as much a masterpiece of human creativity as Guernica or Leaves of Grass?) But without Hardy, Ramanujan was just a 20-rupee-a-month clerk; and without Ramanujan, Hardy was just a math don. (Hardy spent the remainder of his life after Ramanujan’s death—another 27 years—largely promoting the products of their remarkable collaboration.)

This doesn’t mean that the play is perfect. (McBurney did considerable retuning of the script and production between performances in Europe—where he played Al—and the transfer to the West End.) A few reviewers dismissed Number as insufficiently beefy, relying on too much intellectual verbiage and not enough drama. (This is short of Feingold, who rejected the entire effort.) Coincidentally, that’s the same criticism Tom Stoppard gets—and he’s one of my favorite playwrights. (For the record, I reject the judgment in both instances.) It wasn’t hard to sit for the two hours without intermission, but I always feel that the optimum length for a long one act is 90 minutes. The center of the script could be trimmed, eliminating some of the sections that don’t seem to contribute to the sweep of the play’s principal themes. There’s an extraneous discussion, for instance, of “colony collapse disorder” among bees in America that appears to be presented as a metaphor for the situation of the play, but the scene doesn’t really relate. There are also some ideas that were introduced but weren’t developed or used as strongly as they ought to have been. One, for example, is Al’s profession, a futures broker, which entails, he says, predicting the bad fortune of some enterprise and essentially betting on the failure—but in a play that contends so much with time, past and present in particular, the future orientation of Al’s work seems to have been dropped in for balance and then forgotten.

The star of this show is McBurney, who both conceived it after a friend introduced him to Hardy’s book over a decade ago and directed the company through the creation of the piece and in the resulting production. He’s very practiced, of course, at this kind of highly theatrical presentation; it’s what Complicite does. But that doesn’t mean the actors were mere automatons moved about the stage to make McBurney’s pictures come to life. (The cast did create the text together, after all.) The whole company was good; no one hit a false note, but a few deserve special commendation. Saskia Reeves portrays a touching and warm Ruth who, for all her scientific distance, wants to be a wife and mother—and wants her non-mathematician husband to understand and appreciate her subject. That they never connect makes her all the more engaging as a character. Reeves allows Ruth to be girly, despite the character’s age and intellectuality. Paul Bhattacharjee’s Rao is light-hearted and funny, in contrast with the profundity of his main subject—finding the connectedness of everything in the universe is surely a daunting responsibility!—and lends a palpable humanity to the story of Hardy and Ramanujan that it might otherwise miss. One of the best performances isn’t even visible. After Ruth’s death, Al tries to get her cell phone number (which she makes a deal of when they first meet) transferred to his name, to keep a part of her—a number—close to him. On the phone with “Barbara Jones” at the company’s customer service center, he is exasperated with the lack of comprehension he encounters. Of course, it turns out that “Barbara” is really Lakshmi in Bangalore and, as voiced by Chetna Pandya, provides a delightful progression of obliviousness, understanding, sympathy, and finally empathy with Al’s loss, for she has lost her job when the phone company relocates the call center back to Britain.

[A Disappearing Number was at the Lincoln Center Festival for only five performances, a disappointingly short stay. But it will be part of the National Theatre’s program of live broadcasts of performances to movie theaters (and other venues) worldwide on 14 October.]