William Wells Brown–Playwright, novelist, lecturer, abolitionist leader (1814-1884)
Today in theatre history—January 30, 1858—William Wells Brown’s The Escape, or, A Leap for Freedom appeared in print. As the first play by an African-American to be published, it was initially conceived as a closet drama. But the work quickly received a number of important public readings and became a major contribution to abolitionist literature as well as a highly regarded work of American dramatic literature. The assessment of the play in The Auburn (NY) Daily Advertiser was typical of the critical reception: “a masterly refutation of all apologies for slavery, and abounds in wit, satire, philosophy, argument and facts, all ingeniously interwoven into one of the most interesting dramatic compositions of modern times.” Brown toured the country reading the play at various venues, celebrated as a leader of the growing abolitionist movement. He continued to write and lecture until his death in 1884 at the age of 70, becoming one of the most prolific and celebrated American authors of the nineteenth century.
Louisa Lane Drew as Mrs. Malaprop in the 1895 New York revival–reprehendedly pigmented.
Today in theatre history–January 28, 1775–Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s very first play, The Rivals, gets a re-do at Covent Garden. Originally performed on January 17, it was roundly criticized for being too long, over-written, and for including a widely unpopular character, “Sir Lucius O’Trigger,” perceived by many as too mean-spirited and an unfair portrayal of the Irish. After a quick revision and a judicious recasting of the actor playing O’Trigger, the play had its second “premiere” on January 28 and was an instant hit. The revised play quickly became one of the greatest comedies of the English stage and marked Sheridan as a major dramatist at the ripe old age of 23. It was The Rivals, of course, that introduced Mrs. Malaprop to world literature–one of the most contagious and affronted pigments ever reprehended on the stage.
Stone & Montgomery terrifying the kiddies in 1903
On this day in theatre history–January 20, 1903–the original staged version of The Wizard of Oz premièred on Broadway at the original Majestic Theatre on Columbus Circle (after its initial tryout a few months earlier in Chicago), running for 293 performances. Major characters included: Dorothy Gale, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman (called Niccolo Chopper who excelled at playing the piccolo), King Pastoria II, the Poppy Queen, Sophocles, Tryxie Tryffle (King Pastoria’s waitress girlfriend), Sir Dashemoff Daily, Cynthia Cynch (the Tin Woodman’s girlfriend–hence his search for a missing heart…) and Imogene the Cow (instead of Toto the Dog). Yes, that’s correct—Dorothy is accompanied to Oz by her pet cow. While the Witch of the North makes a brief appearance, the other witches do not–at least not in this production. And the Cowardly Lion, played by comic pantomime artist Arthur Hill, made a very brief cameo appearance.
From R to L: Dorothy, the Tin Woodman and Toto–er… Imogene the Cow.
But the show’s main attraction was the comic performance of the famed vaudeville team of Fred Stone and David C. Montgomery (playing the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman respectively) who were wooed by director Julian P. Mitchell with the promise of a Broadway hit. The highly edited and revised plot revolved around deposing the Wizard as monarch of the Emerald City and restoring King Pastoria II to his rightful place, with the Wizard escaping the mob in a balloon. While Dorothy has her ruby slippers, she’s also given a magic ring with three wishes that propel the story. The production also included a large number of songs co-written by Frank Baum and revised many times over in subsequent revivals in 1904, 1907, 1911, and 1917. The show went through so many revisions (some with Baum’s consent) that it hardly resembled his original 1900 novel. But it was, nonetheless, among the most popular shows on the American stage during the first decade of the twentieth century.
The dashing Arnold Daly in the role of Valentine in the Broadway premiere, 1905
On this day in theatre history–January 9, 1905–George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell premiered in New York City at the Garrick, running for 129 performances, after a triumphal run in London. American matinee idol, Arnold Daly, played the romantic lead Valentine. Though popular with Broadway audiences, William Winter (New York Tribune, Jan. 10, 1905, p. 7) gave it a less than enthusiastic review, calling Shaw “a third rate Ibsen… [and] a weak imitation of the greatest of living English dramatic authors, William S. Gilbert.” Of the play, Winter declared, “there is no viable purpose; no drift; no meaning–yet, all the while, a tremendous pretense of impending wisdom. This is Mr. Shaw’s custom–that he roars in the index, but points nonsense and leads to nothing.”
While Shaw’s reputation clearly survived Winter’s harsh attack, the exuberant praise for Gilbert’s work is unusual from an American perspective. Gilbert’s operettas with Sullivan notwithstanding, his solo dramatic pieces were never especially popular on the American stage. Of the two playwrights, Shaw and Gilbert, the latter eventually proved more worthy of being a “third rate Ibsen,” while Shaw is perhaps better described as one of England’s “greatest” dramatic authors. How times have changed.
Godot is late–again. Godot, in the original production, was played by the late Jules Berry…
On this day in theatre history–January 5, 1953–Beckett’s En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) premiered at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. Directed by Roger Blin, who also played Pozzo, the initial 30-day run was generally well-received. But the production was not without incident. During one performance the show came to a halt when 20 “well-dressed, but disgruntled spectators whistled and hooted derisively” during Lucky’s monologue–only delaying Godot’s arrival that much longer.
On this day in theatre history–January 3, 1866:
Booth as the melancholy Dane.
“Not only was every seat occupied, but every inch of standing-room was eagerly appropriated by the thronging multitude. Seldom, indeed, has any New-York theater been thus crowded, and never by an audience of a more intelligent class. Its welcome of Mr. Booth was significant, in no common sense of the word. Actuated by profound sympathy and admiration, it expressed itself in one long and almost deafening tumult of enthusiasm. Nine cheers, each round being followed by its particular and emphatic ‘tiger,’ hailed the melancholy Dane, and gave him, at the outset, due warrant to ‘cast his nightly color off.’”
From The New York Tribune (4 January 1866) writing about Edwin Booth’s courageous return to the New York stage at the Winter Garden the previous evening, some eight and a half months after his brother’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
MItchell’s Theatre, NYC, showing patrons rushing past the day’s matinee inside…
On this day in theatre history—Dec. 25, 1843—(yes, there was theatre history even on Christmas), British expat-turned-New York-theatre-producer, William Mitchell offered the world’s first known modern matinee performance* at his Olympic Theatre located on Broadway, between Grande and Howard Streets. Mitchell specialized in English-style burlesques and pantomimes, but found his finances and audiences eroding in the long depression that followed the Panic of 1837. Hoping to recoup some of his losses, Mitchell identified several days during the year when audiences seemed especially thin—one being Christmas, a day when New Yorkers traditionally traveled from house to house for holiday visits, especially in the evening. Rather than fight this tradition, Mitchell did something unheard of—he opened his theatre during the day instead, presenting burlesques in the afternoon. It worked. People loved the idea of getting out of the dark and dreary winter day in advance of their evening tarriances. Though the term “matinee” would not be applied to the practice until 1851, the afternoon theatrical experience was now a part of New York life.
(*This assumes, of course, that we don’t count the afternoon performances in the outdoor theatres during the Elizabethan age…)