Jean Racine’s Britannicus is considered by many to be his signature piece–a thoughtful, carefully structured tragedy solidly within the Neoclassical fold and a model of French literature. Its story of Nero’s rise to power in a corrupt Rome can be seen as a corrective contrast to the stability of Louis XIV’s France after the series of rebellions known as the Fronde (1649-53) led to the Sun King’s ultimate ascent as absolute monarch.

But there may be more to this play’s importance that is not generally covered in theatre history.  It was on this day–December 13, 1669–that Racine’s play first premiered at the Hotel de Bourgogne to a less than enthusiastic reception and showed Parisian audiences where the playwright stood on a popular scandal of the day.

One clue to both the mild reception and the work’s political importance can be found in the play’s title–Britannicus.  As the play’s story unfolds, it quickly becomes apparent that the title character is merely secondary to the corrupt machinations of Nero and his mother, Aggripine.  The point of this may be explained by an event that occurred earlier in the year and that might well have prompted Racine to write his masterpiece–the trial, torture, and execution of Roux de Marcilly in June of 1669.

Roux de Marcilly had been suspected of plotting the assassination of Louis XIV while arranging for the dissolution of several French provinces in favor of the legendary “Man in the Iron Mask”–Louis XIV’s alleged twin step-brother.  When the plot was discovered, Roux de Marcilly, who had been hiding in Switzerland, was kidnapped and returned to Paris where he was publicly tortured and executed.  Why Britannicus?  Roux de Marcilly had been plotting with the English in London.  Britannicus was a name given to the Roman emperor, Claudius (after his conquest of Britain), who then bestowed it upon his son.  And for Racine, the story of Nero’s half-brother, named after France’s great enemy must have seemed too convenient to pass up in the wake of the scandal against the king.

The tepid critical response to the play perhaps had less to do with its aesthetics than the author’s political implication that Britain (and hence Louis’s cousin, Charles II) was behind the failed plot.  Nonetheless, the play’s reputation quickly recovered as Louis’s political status solidified and Britannicus soon become one of the most studied and popular tragedies in French literature.

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Today in Theatre History: THE GREAT RICHMOND THEATRE FIRE–December 26, 1811

The great RIchmond theatre fire of 1811.

The great Richmond Theatre fire of 1811.

On this day in theatre history—December 26, 1811—occurred one of the greatest theatre calamities in American history: the infamous Richmond Theatre Fire. At the time, it was the worst urban disaster ever in the U.S., killing 72 in all. The fire started after the first act, when a young stagehand, apparently under the thoughtless direction of an overbearing actor, raised the front chandelier before extinguishing the candles. As the chandelier moved up into the fly loft, it set fire to hanging scenery (35 sets in all). The fire spread quickly, as most theatre fires do, filling the house with thick black smoke. The auditorium, nearly sold out, contained 518 adults and 80 children enjoying a Christmas pantomime that had been delayed from the 23rd,, ensuring a full house. Among the audience were a number of Virginia’s political and social elite. Though the facility contained several exits, the doors and hallways were too narrow to accommodate a sudden mass exodus. Many victims were pushed to their deaths from the upper galleries, while others were crushed in the panic downstairs. Among those killed was Virginia’s governor, G. W. Smith.

Monumental Church as it looks today on the site of the 1811 fire.

Monumental Church as it looks today on the site of the 1811 fire.

Helping to save as many as a dozen people, Gilbert Hunt—a blacksmith and slave whose shop was next door to the theatre—stood outside catching patrons as they jumped from the upper windows. In the immediate aftermath, overzealous ministers and moralists cited the disaster as concrete proof that the theatre was an evil institution and that God was clearly displeased by such frivolous entertainments in their city. As a memorial to those killed (and perhaps as an appeasement to an angry and anti-theatrical god), Monumental Church was built on the site in 1814 where it still stands today. A new theatre was constructed a few blocks away a few years later, this time with the latest technological innovation: gas lighting. But Richmond—once a popular center for the commercial stage (George Washington and his brother were regular attendees)—never regained its status as the South’s premiere theatrical city. Instead, Baltimore took over as the region’s top theatre city, where eventually a young John Wilkes Booth would quickly rise to become the most famous of southern matinee idols.

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Today in Theatre History: JEFFERSON’S RIP ON BROADWAY–December 24, 1860


Jefferson as Rip.

It was on this very day in theatre history–December 24, 1860–that Joseph Jefferson first performed his famed Rip van Winkle on the New York stage at the Winter Garden Theatre.  And the opening was a rough one.  Critics were tepid at best.  While many acknowledged Jefferson’s excellent comic abilities, some were skeptical that he was ready to become a leading star.   Worse still, the vehicle, adapted by Jefferson himself from Irving’s original, was deemed by acclamation to be less than stellar.  The New York Tribune, for example, called the script “weak and tame to an unexpected degree… overstrained and ineffective… utterly unworthy.”  Even worse, the New York Times declared that “comedians seldom succeed as stars,” and called Jefferson’s performance, “…cold and overwrought, going through the egoisms of a star engagement.  The applause was hollow, and will not, we fear, contribute to the fortunes of the engagement.”

Defying the critics, Jefferson persevered and both the play and the character would soon become one of the greatest successes on the American stage.  During the next 40 years, Jefferson toured the world, performing the play countless times–even recreating the role on film and recording Rip on early wax cylinders.  But admittedly, his success came at a price.  Jefferson was too often locked into the role by popular demand and soon became known as a “one-part actor.”  Francis Wilson noted that ultimately, “He was Rip and Rip was he.”  Despite having demonstrated a wide acting range and receiving praise for his abilities in other roles, the audiences continued to demand Rip night after night.  And thus, acknowledging the preference of his fans, he made his fortune playing the part for the rest of his life.  In doing so, Jefferson created one of the most enduring characters in popular American culture and reenforced both the viability and dangers of actors becoming identified with a single role.

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Today in Theatre History: BEFORE POOH, MILNE HIT THE DOVER ROAD–December 23, 1921

A.A. Milne, understandably pooped after writing so many plays.

A.A. Milne, understandably pooped after writing so many plays, took a short break to publish a couple of children’s stories.

On this day in theatre history–December 23, 1921–the author of Winnie-the-Pooh, the great A. A. Milne, saw the opening of his first major success on the Broadway stage, a lighthearted romp called The Dover Road.  Despite the popularity of the Pooh stories, Milne was not principally a children’s author.  He only wrote two Pooh books (in 1926 and 1928) while penning some 34 plays and screenplays during his prolific career.

The Dover Road was typical of the sort of mild sex farces that found their way onto the English and American stages in the post-WWI era.  Much like his chief theatrical rivals, Noel Coward and J. M. Barrie, Milne was known for writing clever and witty works about the foibles of British upper crust society.  In this piece, a pair of lovers are escaping to France via Dover but are waylaid by a faulty automobile and end up as guests of an eccentric estate owner who requires them to remain for a full seven days to see if they are genuinely in love and suitable for marriage.  Inevitably, things go wrong almost immediately and the happy couple soon learn that lust and love are two very different things.  The play was a raging success, running for over 200 performances at the Bijou Theatre on West 45th Street.  The New York Times called it, “one of the best examples of fine-textured high comedy to come out of England in the last ten years.”  The New York Tribune was a little less enthused, describing the play as a “quiet, intelligent diversion… a charming trifle…[but] one that you will enjoy.”  That the creator of Winnie, Piglet, Eeyore, and Christopher Robin, could also write such adult fare may come as a surprise to many.  But that’s how Milne made his living.  In fact, he was somewhat annoyed by the overwhelming success of his two children’s books, since he was rightly concerned that his reputation as a multi-genre writer would be subsumed by the popularity of the 100 Aker Wood.  For Milne, children’s books were a temporary digression.  While playwriting was clearly nothing to pooh-pooh.

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Today in Theatre History: WHY ACTING WITH ANIMALS IS A BAD IDEA–December 22, 1907

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A stuffed wolf or just a “method” actor who made a poor choice? In either case, probably not the one that attacked fellow actors on stage in 1907. (Although it was killed about that same time…)

On this day in theatre history, during a performance of the melodramatic spectacle, Daniel Boone, in the opera house in Rome, Georgia, two actors were injured when attacked by a real wolf that was on stage playing the part of a real wolf. According to the Virginia Daily Press, dated 24 December 1907, Teona Leslie was performing a scene during the show “where Daniel Boone [Oscar O’Shea] rescues his sweetheart [Leslie] from the den of wolves into which the Indian, ‘Black Fish,’ had thrown her. When Miss Leslie was thrown into the den the great wolf attacked… O’Shea leaped into the den and tore the girl from the wolf. The animal then turned on O’Shea and tore his leg. Bob Harris, a real Catawba Indian, who was standing near, rushed to their assistance and drove the animal back into his den. The audience witnessed the scene, and was stampeded when it realized that the attack of the wolf was a real one. The wolf had never been violent before.”  It was not entirely clear why Mr. Harris was standing nearby, though he may have been a casual acquaintance of the wolf.

Stanislavski pondering his "magic if" and the possibility of negative effects on performing wolves.

Stanislavski pondering his “magic if” and the possibility of negative effects on performing wolves.

While both actors recovered from their injuries and continued to perform, neither worked with a real wolf again for obvious reasons.  The disposition of the wolf is not known, though it is presumed his performance days were over and his contract with the company terminated since there is no evidence that real wolves were ever used again on stage for any performance of Daniel Boone.  For actors just starting out in the business–this is precisely why performing with live animals on stage is discouraged.  Clearly this particular wolf got a bit carried away with his role and didn’t know when to pull back or how to underplay the moment for dramatic effect.  Nonetheless, it is important to note that this example of realistic exuberance did occur just one year after Constantin Stanislavski began articulating his grammar for acting which would eventually result in his famous acting system, popularly known as “the method.”  What influence Stanislavsky’s “magic if” may have had on the actions of the wolf is purely speculative, although it is widely known that wolves were commonly found in Russia at the time.  The Meisner technique was soon developed to allow performers to be completely in the moment without resorting to biting each other.

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Today in Theatre History: THEATRE WINS THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION–October 17, 1777.

On this day (October 17) in 1777, British General John Burgoyne lost the Battle of Saratoga, surrendering over 6000 of his troops to the Continental Army and effectively turning the tide of the American Revolution in favor of the colonists. Many historians consider Burgoyne’s loss at Saratoga the beginning of the end of Great Britain’s effort to contain the growing rebellion, ultimately proving to be the turning point of the war.

Why did he lose and what did theatre have to do with it? Essentially, General Burgoyne was not one to travel light. Like many British officers at the time, he carried a lot of personal baggage with him wherever he went. He was also a renowned amateur thespian. The year before, for instance, during his occupation of Boston, he defied the local ban on theatre to stage shows for his troops–including a production of his own farce, The Blockade of Boston, that was interrupted when American forces attacked the city.

In his 1777 campaign, Burgoyne’s plan was to isolate New England from the southern colonies by attacking New York from Canada, marching south into the Hudson Valley. But his supply train was so weighted down and the terrain so difficult, it gave the Continental troops time to head him off at Saratoga. Among the 500 carts and wagons he hired to supply his army, no fewer than 30 were just for his personal possessions alone–including cases of champagne, his extensive wardrobe, household furniture, his mistress’s possessions (along with his mistress), and most likely scripts, costumes, props and other theatrical supplies he thought he would need once he arrived in New York City to meet up with his colleague and fellow amateur thespian, General William Howe.  Howe had already begun setting up a small theatre company in the old John Street Theatre that year in anticipation of Burgoyne’s arrival, eventually performing entire seasons of plays during the extended occupation.

Burgoyne learns the hard way that traveling light is important for any good theatre tour.

Burgoyne surrenders at Saratoga and learns the hard way that traveling light is essential for any good theatre tour.

But with his loss at Saratoga, Burgoyne’s military career was over, along with his plans for playing New York.  He was immediately sent home in disgrace where he spent the rest of his days writing mediocre plays for the Drury Lane Theatre.  Clearly, there were many reasons Burgoyne lost the Battle of Saratoga, but certainly his love of theatre played a vital role.

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Today in Theatre History: A NON-UPLIFTING VIRGINIA WOOLF HITS BROADWAY–October 13, 1962


Melinda Dillon, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard and Uta Hagen failing miserably at being uplifting.

On this day (October 13) in 1962, Edward Albee’s first major play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway at the Billy Rose Theatre. Directed by Alan Schneider and starring Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, Melinda Dillon and George Grizzard, the production was the hit of the 1962-63 season–eventually winning Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Director, Leading Actor and Leading Actress.  It was also the top selection by the drama jury for the Pulitzer Prize. But, in an infamously controversial move, the Board of Trustees at Columbia University overturned the decision and elected not to award a Pulitzer for Drama that year.  At the time, the university trustees served as the final arbiter of all Pulitzer Prizes.  In their view, the play was not sufficiently “uplifting,” owing to the adult themes and profanity.  Two of the jury members, John Mason Brown and John Gassner, quit in protest–Brown declaring “they made a farce out of the drama award.”  Not long afterwards, “uplifting” was dropped as a requirement for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama and few winners have been uplifting ever since…

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