Tuesday, 4 March 2014

DECAY OF THE AMERICAN DRAMA.

THEATRES, OLD AND NEW. —
MODERN ACTING AND OLD-TIME ACTORS. —
NEW YORK AS IT WAS AND AS IT IS. —
SUICIDES, BUSINESS FAILURES, GOSSIP, ETC.
IN no one thing is the radical change observed in our city more than in the amusements of our people at the present time in contrast to what they were twenty-five to thirty years ago. New York has always had a large theatre-going population. In 1840, when the population was only a trifle over 400,000 there were seven full organised companies in operation, sustained by a corps of actors which it would be difficult to match at the present time. Not only have the actors deteriorated, but the drama itself has declined ; and instead of the wholesome, robust plays of thirty years ago, we are now inflicted with a namby-pamby sentimentalism, in the shape of society plays, from which every manly sentiment is expunged, which covers vice with the thinnest kind of veneer, and gilds the grossest sensualism and indecency with fine phrases and skilful double entendres. It may probably be true that the Keans, the Cooks, the Booths, the Ingersolls, Adamses, and men of their class, were in no sense paragons of morality; but there is one thing equally certain, and that is, that the plays they represented and the characters they sustained were morally among the grandest in our literature ; the moral and the example were something to be treasured and remembered, tending to a higher intellectual development and a nobler moral aspiration.
The first inroad made on the old time drama, by the so-called society plays, was in the introduction of the French play of "Camille," about twenty years ago. Never up to that time had any dramatist dared to effect such a public and shameful compromise with vice. Mothers, wives, and daughters, night after night, attended the theatre, and wept over the sorrows and disappointments of a creature that not one in a million would have dared to recognise in public, and applauded the final action of the hero when he disgraced himself and his family by making her his wife. This may be a very proper thing to do in Paris — it may be exceedingly popular in the atmosphere of the Jardin Mabille, or the Quartier Lorrette — but it should have been pelted off of every respectable stage in America, and the actors and actresses should have been hooted from the theatre who dared to give the immoral representation. The vicious taste has grown on our people. The indecencies of the French Opera-Bouffe have been supplemented by the vulgarisms of the concert-saloons of London, and step by step our theatres have retrograded till in all New York there is only one solitary theatre left which can be regarded as a proper exponent of a decent and wholesome drama. There was a time when the name of Wallack represented all that was good and noble in the play-house ; but now, season after season, we see that temple abandoned to the inanities of negro minstrels or the vulgar jokes and indecent exhibitions of second-class London concert singers, and after their purgation, when the public is in formed that the legitimate season is about to commence, they are treated to a hash called "Marriage," by Dion Boucicault, the bold grossness of which has had no parallel in the history of the American stage. Men whose associations have not been remarkable for purity or morality, in writing for the public, are apt to forget there is any higher standard of morals than their own. Jokes that would pass unquestioned in the society of the Argyle Rooms, or within the precincts of the Lotus Club, may be shocking to the ears of a modest mother or sister, and we sincerely trust that any of our friends visiting the great metropolis, accompanied by their wives and daughters, will not include the play of "Marriage" among their evening entertainments. In the presentation of these society plays, Augustin Daly, who recently failed at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, has much to answer for, and it will be a sincere satisfaction to know that his power for future evil is circumscribed, and that the stage of the principal city of the Union will be bettered by his expurgation.
It has become fashionable with some of the dish-water critics to sneer at the old-time pieces, and ventilate their slang about howling and Bowery actors. To many of us who recollect the history of the New York stage, this twaddle is simply amusing, and it may be news to some of those verdant knights of the quill to know that the first time I ever saw John Gilbert was as a member of the Bowery company, also Lester Wallack, now New York's petted darling, although the old rat is over sixty, and hosts of others who are now the best actors on the stage. Poor Ned Davenport, whom we laid peacefully to rest a few weeks ago, was a member of the Bowery company when I first knew it; and I recollect a cast of "Julius Caesar," something over thirty years ago, the like of which, with all due deference to the present age, we shall not see again. Forrest was the Brutus, Hamblin was Marc Anthony, and Junius Brutus Booth the great was the living embodiment of Cassius. Mrs. Shaw, then in the zenith of her beauty, was the Calphurnia. No stage revival of these latter days has equalled it, and I very much doubt if the American theatres will see such a performance in the present generation. The Union Square, under the management of Shook and Palmer, is about the only theatre in New York where there is a truly legitimate and respectable performance. The "Two Orphans," "The Danicheffs," and plays of like character, have run for months at a time, and the high moral tone of these pieces is something to be gratefully remembered. It has been a fostering school for American talent in contradistinction to every other metropolitan theatre, and prosperity has attended it from the first hour of its opening. The latest success has been found in the advent of the Williamsons in "Struck Oil." From the success of the piece it would appear as if all the parties had found a spouting well where the product is at least a thousand barrels a day. I have devoted this space to the stage, because I have always considered it as the assistant of the church. It is pretty well understood at the present time that it cannot be crushed out : let us endeavor then to elevate it, and give the people such a drama that dominies shall not be afraid to be seen in a side-box, or deacons and trustees occupying seats in the gallery or pit.

 2 February 1878,

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