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general impressions of early nineteenth century theatre audiences in America

The following essay is reprinted from The Romance of the American Theatre. Mary Caroline Crawford. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1913. pp. 250-65.

Tyrone Power, who played over here [America] during the years 1833, 1834, and 1835, in his delightful book, "Impressions of America," has given us several very illuminating glimpses of Americans as he saw them. At the outset of the book he distinctly disavows his intention of "boring his readers with a series of playbills, or a journal of his theatrical career." None the less, because he rightly feels that it would have been mere affectation to eschew the subject altogether, we do get bits of his adventures while touring the country, and particularly his impressions of the audiences he faced. He had been told that theatre-goers in New York had no taste whatever for Irish character, and as they had been accustomed to associate with representatives of the Emerald Isle a ruffian with a black eye and straw in his shoes, there would be absolutely no appreciation for a quiet and natural portrait of the well-disposed Irishman. Exactly the same warning, it is interesting to note, with which the delightful Irish Players, who have been so much enjoyed here in recent years, were at first met. Power, unafraid, determined to see for himself, and with no other engagement than one for twelve nights in New York, bravely crossed the Atlantic to test our taste. Of course he was full of anxiety on the night of his début (August 28, 1833), the more so since the day had been the hottest of a very hot season. Yet he was very well received when he made his bow at the Park. The house was exceedingly crowded -- "from pit to roof rose tier on tier one dark unbroken mass" -- and he made his first bow "amid greetings as hearty" as ever he had received in his life.

"I saw no coat off, no heels up, no legs over boxes," he records, evidently an allusion to the revolting description Mrs. Trollope had given of the theatre manners encountered during her visit over here a few years earlier. These times had passed away; "a more English audience I would not desire to act before."

The Park Theatre, Power describes as "of the horseshoe form, with three tiers of boxes; is handsome, and in all respects as well appointed as any theatre out of London. The orchestra is at present excellent, and under the direction of a very clever man -- Penson, formerly leader at Dublin. The company I found for my purpose a very fair one, my pieces requiring little save correctness from most of those concerned, except where old men occur and all such parts found an excellent representative in an American actor called Placide. Descended of a long line of talented players, he possesses a natural talent I have rarely seen surpassed, together with a chastity and simplicity of style that would do credit to the best school of comedy.... There is a representative of old women here, too, a native, Mrs. Wheatley, an inartificial, charming actress, with a perfect conception of all she does."

In Philadelphia, Power appeared at both the Walnut Street and the Chestnut Street houses.

"The Walnut is a summer theatre and the least fashionable," he writes, "and here it was my fortune to make my début to the Philadelphians with good success: a French company occupied at the same time the Chestnut, where, after a seven nights' engagement at the other house, I succeeded them; the proprietors being the same at both. These houses are large, handsome buildings, marble-fronted, having ample and well-arranged vomitories; and are not stuck in some obscure alley, as most of our theatres are, but standing in the finest streets of the city, and every way easy of approach: within they are fitted up plainly but conveniently, and very cleanly and well kept. I prefer the Chestnut as smaller and having a pit -- as I think all pits should be -- nearly on a level with the front of the stage, instead of being sunk deep below, looking, when filled, like a huge dark pool, covered with upturned faces.

"A crowded audience, Philadelphia, presents as large a proportion of pretty, attractive women as are anywhere to be seen; and the male part is singularly respectable and attentive.... The unreserved laughter in which they indulged I found abundant applause, and in well-fitted houses the best assurance that they were pleased. The company here was a very good one, and the pieces as well gotten up as anywhere in the States."

Concerning Boston, Power is similarly enthusiastic, though he finds it difficult to pause in his raptures over the Tremont Hotel long enough to give us even a brief description of the Tremont Theatre, just across the street.

"Immediately opposite the great hotel is the Tremont Theatre, certainly the most elegant exterior in the country, and with a very well-proportioned, but not well-arranged salle, or audience part. I commenced here on Monday the 30th of September, three days after the closing at Philadelphia, to a well-filled house, composed, however, chiefly of men. My welcome was cordial and kind in the extreme; but the audience, although attentive, appeared exceedingly cold. On the first night I did not heed this much, especially as report assured me they were very well pleased; but throughout the week this coldness appeared to me to increase rather than diminish, and so much was I affected by it, that, notwithstanding the house was very good, I, on the last day of my first engagement of six nights, declined positively to renew it, as was the custom in such cases, and as, in fact, the manager and myself had contemplated: on this night, however, the aspect of affairs brightened up amazingly; the house was crowded; a brilliant show of ladies graced the boxes; the performances were a repetition of two pieces which had been previously acted, and from first to last the mirth was electric; the good people appeared by common consent, to abandon themselves to the fun of the scene, and lauged à gorge deployée. At the fall of the curtain, after, in obedience to the call of the house, I had made my bow, the manager announced my re-engagement; and from this night forth I never drew a merrier or a pleasanter audience.

"It was quite in accordance with the character ascribed to the New Englanders," continues this very fair-minded observer, "that they should coolly and thoroughly examine and understand the novelty presented to their judgment, and that being satisfied and pleased, they should no longer set limits to the demonstration of their feelings. In matters of graver import they have always evinced the like deliberate judgment and apparent coldness of bearing; but beneath this prudential outward veil they have feelings capable of the highest degree of excitement and the most enduring enthusiasm.... Some of the kindest gentlest and the most hospitable friends I had were, as they say here, 'real Yankee, born and raised within sight of the State-house of Bosting.'"

During Powers second visit to New York, he went to look over the Opera House which had been built there very suddenly by subscription.

"It is about the size of the Lyceum; arranged after the French fashion, having stalls, a parterre, and balcon below; and above, two circles of private boxes, the property of subscribers. Some of these are fitted up on a style of extravagance I never saw attempted elsewhere. There has been a sort of rivalry exercised on this head, and it has been pursued with that regardlessness of cost which distinguishes a trading community where their amour propre is in question. Silks, velvets, damask, and gilt furniture form the material within many; and, as the parties consult only their own taste, the colours of these are various as their proprietors' fancies. I do not find the ensemble bad, however; whilst the shape and mounting of the salle are both unexceptionable.

"This effort, however, creditable to the good taste of the city, is premature, and must be doomed to more failures than one before it permanently succeeds. A refined taste for the best kind of music is not consequent upon the erection of an opera-house, nor is it a feeling to be created at will. Even in the metropolis of England, with a captial so disproportionate, and possessing such superior facilities for the attainment of novelty, did the continuance of this refined amusement depend solely upon the love of good music, it would quickly die, if not be forgotten. From time to time, a small but efficient and really good Italian troupe, will, without doubt, find liberal encouragement in the great northern cities, and also in New Orleans, provided they make a short stay in each; but, rapidly as events progress here, I will undertake to predict that a century must elapse before even New York can sustain a permanent operatic establishment." (Events, it is interesting to note, did, as a matter of fact, progress in this direction considerably more rapidly than Mr. Power thought possible.)

The theatre in Washington our visiting Irishman found "a most miserable looking place, the worst I met with in the country, ill-situated and difficult to access; but it was filled nightly by a very delightful audience and nothing could be more pleasant than to witness the perfect abandon with which the gravest of the senate laughed over the diplomacy of the 'Irish Ambassador.' They found allusions and adopted sayings applicable to a crisis when party feelings were carried to an extremity. The elaborate display of eloquence with which Sir Patrick seeks to bother the Spanish envoy was quoted as the very model of a speech for a non-committal orator, and recommended for the study of several gentlemen who were considered as aiming at this convenient position, very much to their amusement. The pieces were ill mounted, and the company unworthy the capital, with the exception of two very pretty and very clever native actresses, Mesdames Willis and Chapman. The latter I had the satisfaction of seeing soon transferred to New York, in which city she became a monstrous favourite, both in tragedy and comedy.... I acted in Washington seven nights on this occasion, and visited the city again in May, when I passed three or four weeks most agreeably. I had the pleasure, too, during this last visit, of seeing the plans for a theatre worthy the audience, and which, I trust, has by this time been happily erected as the greatest part of the fund needed was readily subscribed for."

Pittsburg, at the time of Power's visit, was without the many millionaires that now distinguish it; but it had the smoke from which they grew. Though the theatre of the place was not yet a year old, "the ornamental parts of the interior were already disfigured," we read.

"The smoke which fills the atmosphere day and night fully exonerates the people from the charge of being willfully regarded of neatness in the arrangement of their dwellings. I found the manager of the theatre, Mr. Wemyss, at his post, and all things in tolerable order. At night the house, calculated to contain about one thousand persons, was filled; though how the people made their way home again I do not know; even the short distance I had to explore on the line of the principal street, I found beset with perils; loose pavements, scaffold-poles, rubbish, and building materials of all kinds blocked up the sidewalk in several places, which had to be avoided by instinct, for light there was none, natural or artificial."

One non-theatrical adventure of Mr. Power, while in Pittzburg, must here be quoted, because it shows the temper of the man. While walking in the woods outside the city, he came upon a little colony of charcoal-burners.

"From their colour they might have been Iroquois, or negroes; but the first reply I got to my hail rendered any inquiry as to the country unnecessary.

"'Hola! my friend,' shouted I, at the top of my voice, as a tall, half-naked being stalked out of one of the huts, from which I was separated by a deep ravine; 'pray step this way for one moment.'

"The man did as I desired, without a word; a couple of attendant imps hanging on to the strings of his knees.

"'I'm sorry to trouble you,' I added, as he drew within easy speaking-distance; 'but the fact is, I have lost my road, and fear to lose my dinner.'

"I'I' faith, thin, sir, if you'll tell me whereabouts you lost the road I'll find you the dinner, and go back and look for the road while you're atein' it; with the blessing o' God, it will be the first road I seen since I've ben this side o' Pittsburg, to say the laste.'

"Maybe you've seen a fine aisy-goin' road betune Cork and Cove,' I replied, in the same accent.

"'Maybe I haven't,' grinned the pleased charcoal-burner, laughing from ear to ear. 'Och murder! You're the devil, sure! wasn't it the last ten miles I ever toed of Irish ground? Long life to you, sir! wait till I call the wife. Molly asthore, come out av id, for here's a witch of a gintleman here. Jem, you robber, go and bid your mammy stir herself and come here.'

"Away ran Jem and his brother, or rather flew. I laughed immoderately whilst my countryman, with the most puzzled air, exclaimed: 'Och murder! but it's the quarest thing alive. Sure you must have know'd us?'

"He was now joined by his wife and two or three others of the little family, who all appeared nearly of an age. Poor Molly, the Mistress, looked weak and haggard, and told me she 'had the shakes on her for the last six months.' She was affected to tears when her husband told her of my witchcraft, in knowing where they were from, and joined in begging that 'I'd come around and take a bite o' cake and a sup o' spirits and water, to keep me from feelin' faint till I got my dinner.'

"I requested, however, as my time was short, that one of the little ones might at once put me on the nearest track by which I would reach the bridge; so I left my friendly countrymen and with a 'God send you home, sir!' he turned to his humble dwelling, to think with a full heart of that distant home my chance visit had recalled in all its freshness, and which although he may never look to revisit, no son of poor Ireland ever forgets."

In Albany Mr. Power encountered one of those curiously hostile crowds which, from time to time, during the nineteenth century, turned out to make life wretched for visiting actors.

"I had been advised," he says, "not to visit this city professionally, but being strongly solicited by the worthy manager, I decided to go. 'Mischief lay in my way, and I found it.'... The only disagreement I ever had with an audience, in fact, occurred here, and, roundly, thus it happened: On the evening when I was advertised to make my début to an Albany audience, I at my usual hour walked to the house, dressed, and was ready; but when, half an hour after the time of beginning, I went on the stage, there were not ten persons in the house. The stage-director and myself now held a consultation on the unpromising aspect of our affairs. He ascribed the unusually deserted condition of the salle to the sultry and threatening state of the atmosphere which had deterred the neighbouring towns of Troy and Waterford from furnishing thier quota, -- those indeed being his chief dependencies. I was opposed, on policy, to throwing away our ammunition so unprofitably; and so after due deliberation, the manager agreed to state to the few persons in front, that 'with their permission' the performances intended for this night would be postponed until the evening after the next following; as, in consequence of the exceeding smallness of the audience, it was feared to be the play would prove dull to them, as it must be irksome to the actors. Nothing could be received with better feelings on the part of the persons assembled; not a breath of disapprobation was heard. They instantly went away; but soon after I reached home, I found, by report of one or two gentlemen who had since been at the theatre seeking admittance, that a considerable excitement prevailed, and that at the public bars of the neighborhood the affair was detailed in a way likely to produce unpleasant effects on my first appearance.

"The appointed night came, the house was filled with men and everything foreboded a violent outbreak; the manager appeared terrified out of his wits; but, as far as I can judge, behaved with infinite honesty.... It was now found that an actor or two needed in the piece were absent. These worthies, the chief agitators in this affair, were, in fact, in front of the house to assist in the expected assault upon a stranger and one of their own profession. On this being explained to the manager he said he was aware of it, and had threatened to discharge the individuals; but relying upon the affair terminating in my discomfiture, they did not fear being sustained by the same intelligence which they now directed against me.

"On my appearance the din was mighty and deafening; the volunteer champions of the public had come well prepared, and every invention for making the voice of humanity bestial was present in full use. The boxes I observed to be occupied by well-dressed men, who generally either remained neutral, or by signs sought that I should be heard. This, however, was out of the question; and after a long and patient abiding 'for patience is the badge of all our tribe,' I made my bow and retired, when the manager, who had on the night in question dismissed the house, made his bow, and after silence was obtained, begged that the audience would give me a hearing, assuring them on his own knowledge that I had not contemplated insulting them.

"I again came forward, and after some time, was permitted to say that I could in no way account for a simple matter of business being so misrepresented as to occasion this violent exhibition of their anger; that, before the audience in question was dismissed, its permission had been obtained; that, had I really contemplated insult, it is hardly probably I should wait two days to encounter the anger of those I had sought to offend. I further said that, on the common principle of what they professed, I was entitled to a hearing, since the sense of the majority was evidently with me; and that, if the disorder continued, I should, for the sake of that respectable majority, sincerely regret this, since the character of their city for justice and hospitality would be more impeached than my prospects be injured. After this the row was resumed with added fierceness: not a word of either play or farce was heard; but I persisted in going through with the performance, being determined not to dismiss a second time.

"The whole thing, I was afterwards assured, arose from stories most industriously circulated by one or two ill-conditioned actors, backed by inflammatory handbills and scurrilous print.... Yet I have never been able to regret a momentary vexation which obtained for me many friends, and made known to me the sterling good feeling existing in Albany, of which I might otherwise have remained ignorant.... I concluded my engagement, which was only for four nights, and left the theatre with a promise to return."

Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, and Columbus were in turn visited by the gifted Irishman, but he has little or nothing to say of his theatrical experiences in these places. In discussing New Orleans he is more communicative.

First he describes the American Theatre, which he found "a large, well-proportioned house, with three rows of boxes, a pit or parquette, as it is termed, sub-divided as in the French Theatre; each set is numbered, and, being taken at the box-office, is secured to the purchaser for any part of the evening. The company was a very tolerable one; and in the person of a nephew of Mr. Farren's, I found an adjunct of much importance to me -- an excellent old man.

"My next anxiety was about my audience, not its numbers, as I was assured every seat in the house was disposed of, and this as far as could be allowed for every night I might perform; but I felt solicitous with respect to its character and composition, of which I had received very discouraging reports.... On Tuesday I made my début; and never was man more agreeably surprised than myself when, after making my bow, I for the first time took a rapid survey of the aspect of the house: the parquettes and dress boxes were almost exclusively filled by ladies, coiffées with the taste which distinguishes French women in every country, and which becomes peculiarly striking here, where are to be seen the finest heads of dark hair in the world; many wore bonnets of the latest Parisian fashion, and all were more dressed than it is usual to be at theatres in America. This attention to costume on the part of the ladies, added to their occupying the pit, obliges the gentlemen to adopt a correspondent neatness; and hence it occurs that, when the New Orleans theatre is attended by the belles of the city, it presents decidedly the most elegant-looking auditory of this country. I found them in manner equal to their appearance; a greater degree of repose and gentility of demeanour I never remember to have noticed in any mixed assembly of any place. My first engagement was for twelve nights, four nights per week. On my return from Natchez I acted a like number more with equal patronage."

Of that famous institution, the French Opera House at New Orleans, Power has given us the following fascinating glimpse:

"I visited it several times and found it an exceedingly well-appointed, handsome place, with a company very superior to the American Theatre and having its pieces altogether better mounted. It is to this house the Creole families chiefly resort, as well, indeed, as the American ladies of the best class, most of whom are good French scholars; within this salle on any Sunday evening may be seen eyes as bright and forms as delicately proportioned as in la belle France itself.

"The building, whereof this theatre forms a part only, is a very extensive one, having as a part of its establishment a large ball-room, with supper rooms attached; and, in addition to this, a variety of hells, where gambling flourishes in full practice: from the salon where the wealthy Creole plays his five-hundred-dollar coup, to the obscure den where roulette does its work, with a pace slower but as sure, at the rate of half-dollar stakes. I have looked in on these places during the performances, and never without finding them full. Such establishments, ruinous and detestable under whatever guise and in whatsoever place they are permitted, become doubly dangerous when placed under the same roof and carried on in obvious connection with what should be at all times an innocent recreation, and which ought and might be one of a refined and moral tendency. The scenes of desperation and distress which gambling yearly have rise to in this place amongst a people whose temperament is perculiarly excitable, coupled with a recent and terrible exposé have at length roused the legislature of Louisiana to release themselves from the stigma of owing any portion of their revenue to a tax which legalized this worst species of robbery and assassination. This very session I had the gratification of seeing a bill brought into the House, and promptly carried through it, making gambling felony, and subjecting its followers to corresponding punishment. The French Theatre will henceforward, I hope forever, be freed from the disgrace which such an assocation necessarily reflected upon the drama and all concerned with it."

At Natchez Mr. Power's first advertised performance had to be put off, for the extraordinary reason that the oil of the theatre's lamplighter had been so affected by frost that it refused to burn at short notice. The actor had chanced to encounter one of the rare cold spells which occasionally grip this town in February.

Two days later "the weather was a little milder so I took a gallop into the country, dined early and about six walked out of town to the theatre preparatory to make my bow. The way was without a single passenger, and not a creature lingered about the outer doors of the house; the interior I found in the possession of a single lamplighter who was leisurely setting about his duties; of him I inquired the hour of beginning, and learnt that it was usual to commence about seven or eight o'clock -- a tolerable latitude; time was thus afforded me for a ramble, and out I sallied, taking the direction leading from the town. I had not proceeded far when I met several men riding together; a little further on another group, with a few ladies in company, passed leisurely by, all capitally mounted: others, I perceived, were fast approaching from the same direction. It now occurred to me that these were the persons destined to form the country quota of my auditory; upon looking back, my impression was confirmed by seeing them all halting in front of the rural theatre, and fastening their horses to the neighbouring rails and trees.

"I now hastened back to take a survey of the scene, and a very curious one it was: a number of the carriages were by this time arriving from the town, together with long lines of pedestrians.... The whole party having come up, and the horses being hitched in front of the building to their owners' satisfaction, all walked leisurely into the theatre, the men occupying the pit whilst in the boxes were several groups of pretty and well-dressed women. The demeanour of these border gallants was as orderly as could be desired; and their enjoyment, if one might judge from the heartiness of their laughter, exceeding.

"After the performance there was a general muster to horse; and away they rode in groups of from ten to twenty, as their way might lie together. These were the planters of the neighbouring country, many of whom came nightly to visit the theatre, and this from very considerable distances; forming such an audience as cannot be seen elsewhere in this hackney-coach age. Indeed, to look on so many fine horses, with their antique caparisons, piquetted about the theatre, recalled the palmy days of the Globe and Bear-garden."

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