[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)
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.]