Today in Theatre History: PAUL ROBESON AS OTHELLO–August 10, 1942

Paul and Uta share a lighter moment.

Uta and Paul share a lighter moment.

On this day in theatre history (August 10, 1942) one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, Paul Robeson, first performed what would eventually be recognized as among the greatest roles of his career:  Othell0.  Directed by the legendary Margaret Webster with Jose Ferrer as Iago and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, the production opened at the Brattle Street Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, becoming an instant hit.  The show soon moved to the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, where it ran an astounding 296 performances (from October 19, 1943 to July 1, 1944), setting the record for the longest run of any Shakespeare play on Broadway–a record that remains unbroken to this day.

Hewlett at Othello (1887)

Hewlett as Othello (from an 1887 reprint)

Most histories credit Robeson with being the first African-American to perform Othello on a professional American stage.  But this may not be the case.  While Robeson gets the credit, it’s likely that James Hewlett earned the honor back in 1821 while a leading actor with the African Grove Theatre in New York City.  The evidence is not entirely clear–Odell, for instance, fails to mention Hewitt in the role while acknowledging him as a popular Shakespearean actor.  But other secondary sources appear to confirm Hewlett’s singular achievement as the country’s first African-American Othello.  Whether the African Grove qualifies as a fully professional theatre is debatable, of course, but in no way diminishes its importance to American history or the significance of Hewlett’s performance.  And Hewlett as Othello must have been a remarkable experience for any 19th century audience–as impressive and bold, I would guess, as Robeson’s groundbreaking work in the 20th century.

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Today in Theatre History: THE FLAMMABLE BEGINNINGS OF CHICAGO THEATRE–February 24, 1834

Chicago in 1833, just before the theatrical explosion of 1834.

Chicago in 1833, prior to the theatrical explosion of 1834.  Looking very closely, one can just make out Steppenwolf’s first theatre in the upper lefthand corner.

It was on this very day in theatre history (February 24) that Chicago saw its very first documented theatrical performance back in 1834.  A “Mr. Bowers,” billed as a “professeur de tours amusant,” gave an evening’s performance on an improvised stage in the house of one “D. Graves.”  At the time, Chicago was the largest commercial settlement in Illinois with a population of 3200 inhabitants and fifty-one stores.  As described in some detail in the Chicago Democrat, Mr. Bowers performed a series of tricks that began with his impersonation of:  “Monsieur Chaubert, the celebrated Fire King, who so much astonished people of Europe, and go thro’ his wonderful Chemical Performance.  He will draw a red hot iron across his tongue, hands, &c. and will partake of a comfortable warm supper, by eating fire balls, burning sealing wax, live coals of fire, melted lead.  He will dip his fingers in melted lead, and make use of a red hot spoon to convey the same to his mouth.”  The second act consisted of Bowers introducing “many very amusing feats of Vantriloquism [sic] and Legerdemain, many of which are original, and too numerous to mention.  Admittance 50 cents, children half price.”  There is no indication if Mr. Bower’s performance was a success.  And nothing more was heard from him after this announcement.  But clearly it was a very short step from eating fire balls and displays of vantriloquism [sic] to the extraordinarily vibrant theatrical scene we find in Chicago today.   Within just a few months, in fact, the very first groups of university students were already setting up their storefront theatres on the northside in hopes of becoming the next “Mr. Bowers.”  I guess Chicago theatre had to start somewhere…

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Today in Theatre History: WHITE RATS ON STRIKE!–February 22, 1901

The original White Rats--preparing to take on the Keith-Albee vaudeville chain by posing for a photo.

The original White Rats–preparing to take on the Keith-Albee vaudeville chain by first posing for a photo.  Just look at all them beady little eyes…

On this day in theatre history (February 22) in 1901, a group of American vaudeville performers, fed up with the Keith-Albee conglomerate, staged a strike against the Vaudeville Managers Association (VMA)–which Keith-Albee controlled.  Their key complaint was the 5% fee (or kickback) performers were required to pay to VMA in order to secure booking at the most popular venues.  Known as “The White Rats,” the union was formed the year before as a way to protest the oppressive practices in an increasingly lucrative industry.  Curiously, the White Rats were surprisingly effective in this initial strike, considering they were not yet a fully recognized union (that wouldn’t happen until 1910 when the AFL granted them a charter), and given the general distaste big business had toward labor organization.  Within a few days, most of the VMA branches had acquiesced and agreed to drop the fee.  Within a month, Keith and Albee (yup, that’s Edward’s adoptive grandfather) both claimed to have always disliked the 5% kickback scheme anyway and the White Rats won.  Their success was probably due to their rather moderate demands and the fact that VMA was not keen to lose a cent of revenue to their strongest competitor–cinema.  But their luck wouldn’t last.  In 1916, the White Rats staged another strike and this time VMA was not in such a generous mood.  In retaliation, Albee announced a nationwide blacklist that barred any members of the union from being booked in any of the nearly 15,000 theatres under the control of the VMA.  After a year, the strike failed and the union disbanded.  It would take the famous 1919 strike by Actors’ Equity to finally turn the tide of unionized theatrical entertainment in the United States.  Nonetheless, the White Rats are remembered as one of the early attempts to improve the lives and working conditions of professional performers, though their efforts are now often forgotten by students of American theatre.

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Today in Theatre History: “MERDRE!” UBU BREAKS THE MOLD–December 10, 1896

Representation of Père Ubu by Alfred Jarry Deu...

King Ubu–looking like merdre.

On this very day in theatre history–December 10, 1896–23 year-old Alfred Jarry and his adolescent-minded buddies in Paris staged the world premiere of Ubu Roi–a deliberately shocking social farce meant to draw attention to the rise of aesthetic anarchy.   The piece was designed to destroy the staid precepts of conventional theatre and entertainment while opening up new ways to present art and critique traditional modern culture and aesthetics.  With its provocative opening line:  “Merdre!,” the play is generally regarded as the first significant salvo from the avant-garde in what would soon lead to Futurism, Dada, Surrealism and the other great nonconformist artistic movements of the early 20th century.   Among those in attendance that evening was William Butler Yeats who recognized the production’s importance as the beginning of an extraordinary revolution in theatre–a revolution that Yeats himself would soon contribute to through his own brand of unconventional writing.  Many claim that the play is a proto-Absurdist piece, though I think applying such a term is a bit anachronistic.  It was most certainly the start of anti-conventional expressionism in theatre and it would lead to a complete revision of the Aristotelian model of dramatic analysis and appreciation.  Not bad for a 23 year-old playwright whose opening line was shit.

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Today in Theatre History: THE ENGLISH PLAYHOUSE RESTORED; OR, “TENNIS ANYONE?”–November 8, 1660

Killigrew imagining how easy it would be to convert a tennis court into a playhouse.

Killigrew imagining how easy it would be to convert a tennis court into a playhouse–with man’s best friend by his side–Charles II.

It was on this day in theatre history–November 8, 1660–that the first major professional playhouse in London opened after the restoration of Charles II as King of England.  During the Puritan Interregnum, of course, commercial theatre was banned.  But in the spring of 1660, the Puritans gave up running the country, Charles II returned to England to continue the monarchy, and theatre was restored.  Given that most of the old playhouses from the early 1600s had been destroyed or ruined under Puritan rule, theatrical entrepreneur and courtier, Thomas Killigrew, decided to use an existing structure to house his King’s Company.  Like so many European cities at that time, London was fat with private indoor tennis courts.

Multiple French persons playing tennis in a potential playhouse.

A perfectly viable playhouse being used by multiple French persons for the playing of sport.

That’s how the game was played back then–indoors, like a double-sided version of racquetball, bouncing off the walls and over a slack net in the middle.  The game’s conventions dictated that courts be long and narrow, with high ceilings and built-in galleries along at least one wall and at the back, making a playhouse conversion that much easier.   Simply construct a raised stage at one end, take down the net, and VOILA!–you’ve got yourself an instant theatre, complete with box seating.  In fact, the term for such auditoria was known as “pit, box, and gallery,” reflecting the penchant of many 17th century theatre managers for adapting tennis courts for use as temporary playhouses–a lesson Killigrew undoubtedly picked up in France where the practice was quite common.  Killigrew’s Kings Company dominated the London theatre scene for almost three years.  But soon they began losing audiences to William D’Avenant’s new playhouse–another converted tennis court just around the corner in Lincoln’s Inn Fields called Lisle’s Tennis Court, housing the Duke’s Company.  Moreover, D’Avenant’s theatre had “moveable scenery” with a state-of-the-art wing and groove system.  Technology, it seems, wowed ‘em back then too.  So in 1663, Killigrew built a new playhouse–from scratch–on Bridges Street (what would become known as the Drury Lane Theatre) with all the latest scenic technology.  It didn’t last long, of course,  the Great Fire of 1666 burned everything down, including both theatres.  But by then, the age of the indoor playhouse, complete with the latest Italianate scenery, had been firmly establish in London.  And English theatre was now on the fast-track to utter ruin.  But that’s a story for another day…

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English: Frontispiece of the opening scene of ...

Very nearly losing it along the coast of Bermuda in 1609. The Earl of Oxford, back from the dead?

Today in theatre history–November 1, 1611–records the earliest known performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  It was staged at Whitehall Palace before James I and the royal court as part of the annual Hallowmas celebrations.  All Saints Day (or All Hallows Days), November 1, is one of the most important in the Anglican calendar, celebrating “the blessed who have not been canonized and who have no special feast day.”  It is a day to recognize saints and martyrs, known and unknown.  Many use the holiday to visit the graves and to place flowers in memory of relatives and friends.  But it is also a day to recognize the victory of life.   Given that The Tempest is very likely based on the published accounts in 1610 of the survivors of the shipwreck of the Virginia Company’s flagship, The Sea Venture, the year before in Bermuda, the play would seem a most fitting way to honor the victory of life over death.  I am especially fond of The Tempest from a purely historical standpoint–as it is the one Shakespeare play that thoroughly debunks the so-called Oxfordians (Shakespeare deniers).  The Earl of Oxford could not have possibly written a play based on a 1609 shipwreck when he died in 1604.  Or at the very least, it makes Oxford less likely to be the author, since death has a demonstrably debilitating effect on one’s ability to write full-length plays.  (On the other hand, perhaps the Oxfordians are right and that explains why The Tempest is the ideal play for the 1611 All Saints Day celebration–proof of the late Earl of Oxford’s victory over death.  Boo!)

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Today in Theatre History: “A WELL-REGULATED THEATRE”; OR, THE OPENING OF THE BOWERY–October 22, 1826

English: illustration of bowery theatre NYC

Most definitely not Hone’s idea of a “well-regulated theatre.”

With the rise in immigration and industrialization following the Napoleonic wars, New York’s neighborhoods began reaching farther northward and away from the traditional old city at the southern tip of Manhattan.  And as the city expanded, the wealthy found themselves moving farther north to avoid the crowds and working classes that were now filling up the old neighborhoods.  By the mid-1820s, the northerly migrating elite were demanding easier access to culture–the Park Theatre being too far south now and too close to the more unsavory elements flooding the city.  With the help of Henry Astor, a committee was formed to buy a site and build a new theatre within reach of the newly opened and fashionable Lafayette Street.  And it was on this day in theatre history–October 22, 1826–that the “New York Theatre” was opened.  The city mayor, Philip Hone, extolled the theatre’s latest features and encouraged the city’s elite to frequent the new facility in his opening day speech:  “It is therefore incumbent upon those whose standing in society enables them to control the opinions and direct the judgment of others, to encourage, by their countenance and support, a well-regulated theatre.”   And indeed, for the first couple of years, the “New York Theatre” was home to great plays, operas, and ballets.  Classy and well-regulated indeed.  But after burning down in 1828, a new management team took over– Thomas Hamblin and James H. Hackett.  They not only rebuilt the theatre but immediately recognized that the city was expanding faster than most had realized.  The working classes were beginning to move northward as well.  So the “New York Theatre” became the “Bowery Theatre” and began offering productions designed to appeal to a much larger audience–rejecting the Eurocentric fare of the earlier seasons and replacing it with nativist-Americanist melodramas and eventually blackface minstrelsy.   The Bowery became the seat of popular culture and the city’s working-classes, embracing the caricatures and stereotypes that would come to dominate American entertainment for decades.  Among the performers who were welcomed on the Bowery’s stage were Thomas D. Rice (the earliest and most famous of the Jim Crow blackface performers), Frank Chanfrau (whose “Bowery B’hoy” character became a fixture of New York culture), and George L. Fox (the great pantomime performer who remained one of the theatre’s top stars well into the 186os).  Eventually, the Bowery became home to a succession of immigrant audiences, reflecting the ever-changing demographics of New York City–Irish, German, Yiddish, Italian, and finally Chinese.  In 1929, the structure burned down for the last time and was not rebuilt–Broadway had moved well north, beyond the confines of the old city.  But the Bowery, and its many manifestations, had permanently changed the American theatre, providing working-class entertainment and identity, encouraging American plays, actors, caricatures and stereotypes, while altering the nature of popular culture well into the 20th century.  For better or worse, the Bowery was an iconic American institution.  And while it quickly abandoned Hone’s exhortation to become “a well-regulated theatre,” the Bowery instead established its own regulation in ways Hone could never imagine and would most likely never condone.

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