[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)
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.]