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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Journalist’s Experience as a Playwright

By Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785–1851)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1785. Died in New York, N. Y., 1851. Letter to William Dunlap. 1832.—From Dunlap’s History of the American Theatre.]

FROM a boy, I was a regular attendant of the Chestnut Street theatre, during the management of Wignell and Reinagle, and made great efforts to compass the purchase of a season ticket, which I obtained generally of the treasurer, George Davis, for $18. Our habits through life are frequently governed and directed by our early steps. I seldom missed a night; and always retired to bed, after witnessing a good play, gratified and improved: and thus, probably, escaped the haunts of taverns, and the pursuits of depraved pleasures, which too frequently allure and destroy our young men; hence I was always the firm friend of the drama, and had an undoubted right to oppose my example through life to the horror and hostility expressed by sectarians to plays and playhouses generally. Independent of several of your plays which had obtained possession of the stage, and were duly incorporated in the legitimate drama, the first call to support the productions of a fellow-townsman was, I think, Barker’s opera of The Indian Princess. Charles Ingersoll had previously written a tragedy, a very able production for a very young man, which was supported by all the “good society;” but Barker, who was “one of us,” an amiable and intelligent young fellow, who owed nothing to hereditary rank, though his father was a whig, and a soldier of the revolution, was in reality a fine-spirited poet, a patriotic ode writer, and finally a gallant soldier of the late war. The managers gave Barker an excellent chance with all his plays, and he had merit and popularity to give them in return full houses.

About this time, I ventured to attempt a little melodrama, under the title of The Fortress of Sorrento, which, not having money enough to pay for printing, nor sufficient influence to have acted, I thrust the manuscript in my pocket, and having occasion to visit New York, I called in at David Longworth’s Dramatic Repository one day, spoke of the little piece, and struck a bargain with him, by giving him the manuscript in return for a copy of every play he had published, which at once furnished me with a tolerably large dramatic collection. I believe the play never was performed, and I was almost ashamed to own it; but it was my first regular attempt at dramatic composition.

In the year 1812, while in Charleston, S. C., Mr. Young requested me to write a piece for his wife’s benefit. You remember her, no doubt; remarkable as she was for her personal beauty and amiable deportment, it would have been very ungallant to have refused, particularly as he requested that it should be a “breeches part,” to use a green-room term, though she was equally attractive in every character. Poor Mrs. Young! she died last year in Philadelphia. When she first arrived in New York, from London, it was difficult to conceive a more perfect beauty; her complexion was of dazzling whiteness, her golden hair and ruddy complexion, figure somewhat embonpoint, and graceful carriage, made her a great favorite. I soon produced the little piece, which was called Paul and Alexis, or the Orphans of the Rhine. I was, at that period, a very active politician, and my political opponents did me the honor to go to the theatre the night it was performed, for the purpose of hissing it, which was not attempted until the curtain fell, and the piece was successful. After three years’ absence in Europe and Africa, I saw the same piece performed at the Park, under the title of The Wandering Boys, which even now holds possession of the stage. It seems Mr. Young sent the manuscript to London, where the title was changed, and the bantling cut up, altered, and considerably improved.

About this time, John Miller, the American bookseller in London, paid us a visit. Among the passengers in the same ship was a fine English girl of great talent and promise, Miss Leesugg, afterwards Mrs. Hackett. She was engaged at the Park as a singer, and Phillips, who was here about the same period fulfilling a most successful engagement, was decided and unqualified in his admiration of her talent. Every one took an interest in her success; she was gay, kind-hearted, and popular, always in excellent spirits, and always perfect. Anxious for her success, I ventured to write a play for her benefit, and in three days finished the patriotic piece of She would be a Soldier, or the Battle of Chippewa, which, I was happy to find, produced her an excellent house. Mrs. Hackett retired from the stage after her marriage, and lost six or seven years of profitable and unrivalled engagement.

After this play, I became in a manner domiciliated in the green-room. My friends, Price and Simpson, who had always been exceedingly kind and liberal, allowed me to stray about the premises like one of the family, and always anxious for their success, I ventured upon another attempt for a holiday occasion, and produced Marion, or the Hero of Lake George. It was played on the 25th of November—Evacuation day, and I bustled about among my military friends, to raise a party in support of a military play, and what with generals, staff-officers, rank and file, the Park theatre was so crammed, that not a word of the play was heard, which was a very fortunate affair for the author. The managers presented me with a pair of handsome silver pitchers, which I still retain as a memento of their good-will and friendly consideration. You must bear in mind that while I was thus employed in occasional attempts at play-writing, I was engaged in editing a daily journal, and in all the fierce contests of political strife; I had, therefore, but little time to devote to all that study and reflection so essential to the success of dramatic composition.

My next piece, I believe, was written for the benefit of a relative and friend, who wanted something to bring a house; and as the struggle for liberty in Greece was at that period the prevailing excitement, I finished the melodrama of The Grecian Captive, which was brought out with all the advantages of good scenery and music. As a “good house” was of more consequence to the actor than fame to the author, it was resolved that the hero of the piece should make his appearance on an elephant, and the heroine on a camel, which were procured from a neighboring menagerie, and the tout ensemble was sufficiently imposing, only it happened that the huge elephant, in shaking his skin, so rocked the castle on his back, that the Grecian general nearly lost his balance, and was in imminent danger of coming down from his “high estate,” to the infinite merriment of the audience. On this occasion, to use another significant phrase, a “gag” was hit upon of a new character altogether. The play was printed, and each auditor was presented with a copy gratis, as he entered the house. Figure to yourself a thousand people in a theatre, each with a book of the play in hand—imagine the turning over a thousand leaves simultaneously, the buzz and fluttering it produced, and you will readily believe that the actors entirely forgot their parts, and even the equanimity of the elephant and camel were essentially disturbed.

My last appearance as a dramatic writer was in another national piece, called The Siege of Tripoli, which the managers persuaded me to bring out for my own benefit, being my first attempt to derive any profit from dramatic efforts. The piece was elegantly got up—the house crowded with beauty and fashion—everything went off in the happiest manner; when a short time after the audience had retired, the Park theatre was discovered to be on fire, and in a short time was a heap of ruins. This conflagration burnt out all my dramatic fire and energy, since which I have been, as you well know, peaceably employed in settling the affairs of the nation, and mildly engaged in the political differences and disagreements which are so fruitful in our great state.

I still, however, retain a warm interest for the success of the drama, and all who are entitled to success engaged in sustaining it, and to none greater than to yourself, who have done more, in actual labor and successful efforts, than any man in America.