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Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

V. November Boughs

14. The Old Bowery

  • A Reminiscence of New York Plays and Acting Fifty Years Ago.
  • IN an article not long since, “Mrs. Siddons as Lady Macbeth,” in “The Nineteenth Century,” after describing the bitter regretfulness to mankind from the loss of those first-class poems, temples, pictures, gone and vanish’d from any record of men, the writer (Fleeming Jenkin) continues:
  • If this be our feeling as to the more durable works of art, what shall we say of those triumphs which, by their very nature, last no longer than the action which creates them—the triumphs of the orator, the singer or the actor? There is an anodyne in the words, “must be so,” “inevitable,” and there is even some absurdity in longing for the impossible. This anodyne and our sense of humor temper the unhappiness we feel when, after hearing some great performance, we leave the theatre and think, “Well, this great thing has been, and all that is now left of it is the feeble print upon my brain, the little thrill which memory will send along my nerves, mine and my neighbors, as we live longer the print and thrill must be feebler, and when we pass away the impress of the great artist will vanish from the world.” The regret that a great art should in its nature be transitory, explains the lively interest which many feel in reading anecdotes or descriptions of a great actor.
  • All this is emphatically my own feeling and reminiscence about the best dramatic and lyric artists I have seen in bygone days—for instance, Marietta Alboni, the elder Booth, Forrest, the tenor Bettini, the baritone Badiali, “old man Clarke”—(I could write a whole paper on the latter’s peerless rendering of the Ghost in “Hamlet” at the Park, when I was a young fellow)—an actor named Ranger, who appear’d in America forty years ago in genre characters; Henry Placide, and many others. But I will make a few memoranda at least of the best one I knew.

    For the elderly New Yorker of to-day, perhaps, nothing were more likely to start up memories of his early manhood than the mention of the Bowery and the elder Booth. At the date given, the more stylish and select theatre (prices, 50 cents pit, 1 boxes) was “The Park,” a large and well-appointed house on Park Row, opposite the present Post-office. English opera and the old comedies were often given in capital style; the principal foreign stars appear’d here, with Italian opera at wide intervals. The Park held a large part in my boyhood’s and young manhood’s life. Here I heard the English actor, Anderson, in “Charles de Moor,” and in the fine part of “Gisippus.” Here I heard Fanny Kemble, Charlotte Cushman, the Seguins, Daddy Rice, Hackett as Falstaff, Nimrod Wildfire, Rip Van Winkle, and in his Yankee characters. (See pages 19, 20, Specimen Days.) It was here (some years later than the date in the headline) I also heard Maric many times, and at his best. In such parts as Gennaro, in “Lucrezia Borgia,” he was inimitable—the sweetest of voices, a pure tenor, of considerable compass and respectable power. His wife, Grisi, was with him, no longer first-class or young—a fine Norma, though, to the last.

    Perhaps my dearest amusement reminiscences are those musical ones. I doubt if ever the senses and emotions of the future will be thrill’d as were the auditors of a generation ago by the deep passion of Alboni’s contralto (at the Broadway Theatre, south side, near Pearl street)—or by the trumpet notes of Badiali’s baritone, or Bettini’s pensive and incomparable tenor in Fernando in “Favorita,” or Marini’s bass in “Faliero,” among the Havana troupe, Castle Garden.

    But getting back more specifically to the date and theme I started from—the heavy tragedy business prevail’d more decidedly at the Bowery Theatre, where Booth and Forrest were frequently to be heard. Though Booth pere, then in his prime, ranging in age from 40 to 44 years (he was born in 1796,) was the loyal child and continuer of the traditions of orthodox English play-acting, he stood out “himself alone” in many respects beyond any of his kind on record, and with effects and ways that broke through all rules and all traditions. He has been well describ’d as an actor “whose instant and tremendous concentration of passion in his delineations overwhelm’d his audience, and wrought into it such enthusiasm that it partook of the fever of inspiration surging through his own veins.” He seems to have been of beautiful private character, very honorable, affectionate, good-natured, no arrogance, glad to give the other actors the best chances. He knew all stage points thoroughly, and curiously ignored the mere dignities. I once talk’d with a man who had seen him do the Second Actor in the mock play to Charles Kean’s Hamlet in Baltimore. He was a marvellous linguist. He play’d Shylock once in London, giving the dialogue in Hebrew, and in New Orleans Oreste (Racine’s “Andromaque”) in French. One trait of his habits, I have heard, was strict vegetarianism. He was exceptionally kind to the brute creation. Every once in a while he would make a break for solitude or wild freedom, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for days. (He illustrated Plato’s rule that to the forming an artist of the very highest rank a dash of sanity or what the world calls insanity is indispensable.) He was a small-sized man—yet sharp observers noticed that however crowded the stage might be in certain scenes, Booth never seem’d overtopt or hidden. He was singularly spontaneous and fluctuating; in the same part each rendering differ’d from any and all others. He had no stereotyped positions and made no arbitrary requirements on his fellow-performers.

    As is well known to old play-goers, Booth’s most effective part was Richard III. Either that, or Iago, or Shylock, or Pescara in “The Apostate,” was sure to draw a crowded house. (Remember heavy pieces were much more in demand those days than now.) He was also unapproachably grand in Sir Giles Overreach, in “A New Way to Pay Old Debts,” and the principal character in “The Iron Chest.”

    In any portraiture of Booth, those years, the Bowery Theatre, with its leading lights, and the lessee and manager, Thomas Hamblin, cannot be left out. It was at the Bowery I first saw Edwin Forrest (the play was John Howard Payne’s “Brutus, or the Fall of Tarquin,” and it affected me for weeks; or rather I might say permanently filter’d into my whole nature,) then in the zenith of his fame and ability. Sometimes (perhaps a veteran’s benefit night,) the Bowery would group together five or six of the first-class actors of those days—Booth, Forrest, Cooper, Hamblin, and John R. Scott, for instance. At that time and here George Jones (“Count Joannes”) was a young, handsome actor, and quite a favorite. I remember seeing him in the title role in “Julius Cæsar,” and a capital performance it was.

    To return specially to the manager. Thomas Hamblin made a first-rate foil to Booth, and was frequently cast with him. He had a large, shapely, imposing presence, and dark and flashing eyes. I remember well his rendering of the main role in Maturin’s “Bertram, or the Castle of St. Aldobrand.” But I thought Tom Hamblin’s best acting was in the comparatively minor part of Faulconbridge in “King John”—he himself evidently revell’d in the part, and took away the house’s applause from young Kean (the King) and Ellen Tree (Constance,) and everybody else on the stage—some time afterward at the Park. Some of the Bowery actresses were remarkably good. I remember Mrs. Pritchard in “Tour de Nesle,” and Mrs. McClure in “Fatal Curiosity,” and as Millwood in “George Barnwell.” (I wonder what old fellow reading these lines will recall the fine comedietta of “The Youth That Never Saw a Woman,” and the jolly acting in it of Mrs. Herring and old Gates.)

    The Bowery, now and then, was the place, too, for spectacular pieces, such as “The Last Days of Pompeii,” “The Lion-Doom’d” and the yet undying “Mazeppa.” At one time “Jonathan Bradford, or the Murder at the Roadside Inn,” had a long and crowded run; John Sefton and his brother William acted in it. I remember well the Frenchwoman Celeste, a splendid pantomimist, and her emotional “Wept of the Wishton-Wish.” But certainly the main “reason for being” of the Bowery Theatre those years was to furnish the public with Forrest’s and Booth’s performances—the latter having a popularity and circles of enthusiastic admirers and critics fully equal to the former—though people were divided as always. For some reason or other, neither Forrest nor Booth would accept engagements at the more fashionable theatre, the Park. And it is a curious reminiscence, but a true one, that both these great actors and their performances were taboo’d by “polite society” in New York and Boston at the time—probably as being too robustuous. But no such scruples affected the Bowery.

    Recalling from that period the occasion of either Forrest or Booth, any good night at the old Bowery, pack’d from ceiling to pit with its audience mainly of alert, well dress’d, full-blooded young and middle-aged men, the best average of American-born mechanics—the emotional nature of the whole mass arous’d by the power and magnetism of as mighty mimes as ever trod the stage—the whole crowded auditorium, and what seeth’d in it, and flush’d from its faces and eyes, to me as much a part of the show as any—bursting forth in one of those long-kept-up tempests of hand-clapping peculiar to the Bowery—no dainty kid-glove business, but electric force and muscle from perhaps 2000 full-sinew’d men—(the inimitable and chromatic tempest of one of those ovations to Edwin Forrest, welcoming him back after an absence, comes up to me this moment)—Such sounds and scenes as here resumed will surely afford to many old New Yorkers some fruitful recollections.

    I can yet remember (for I always scann’d an audience as rigidly as a play) the faces of the leading authors, poets, editors, of those times—Fenimore Cooper, Bryant, Paulding, Irving, Charles King, Watson Webb, N. P. Willis, Hoffman, Halleck, Mumford, Morris, Leggett, L. G. Clarke, R. A. Locke and others, occasionally peering from the first tier boxes; and even the great National Eminences, Presidents Adams, Jackson, Van Buren and Tyler, all made short visits there on their Eastern tours.

    Awhile after 1840 the character of the Bowery as hitherto described completely changed. Cheap prices and vulgar programmes came in. People who of after years saw the pandemonium of the pit and the doings on the boards must not gauge by them the times and characters I am describing. Not but what there was more or less rankness in the crowd even then. For types of sectional New York those days—the streets East of the Bowery, that intersect Division, Grand, and up to Third Avenue—types that never found their Dickens, or Hogarth, or Balzac, and have pass’d away unportraitured—the young ship-builders, cartmen, butchers, firemen (the old-time “soap-lock” or exaggerated “Mose” or “Sikesey,” of Chanfrau’s plays,) they, too, were always to be seen in these audiences, racy of the East River and the Dry Dock. Slang, wit, occasional shirt sleeves, and a picturesque freedom of looks and manners, with a rude good-nature and restless movement, were generally noticeable. Yet there never were audiences that paid a good actor or an interesting play the compliment of more sustain’d attention or quicker rapport. Then at times came the exceptionally decorous and intellectual congregations I have hinted at; for the Bowery really furnish’d plays and players you could get nowhere else. Notably, Booth always drew the best hearers; and to a specimen of his acting I will now attend in some detail.

    I happen’d to see what has been reckon’d by experts one of the most marvelous pieces of histrionism ever known. It must have been about 1834 or ’35. A favorite comedian and actress at the Bowery, Thomas Flynn and his wife, were to have a joint benefit, and, securing Booth for Richard, advertised the fact many days before-hand. The house fill’d early from top to bottom. There was some uneasiness behind the scenes, for the afternoon arrived, and Booth had not come from down in Maryland, where he lived. However, a few minutes before ringing-up time he made his appearance in lively condition.

    After a one-act farce over, as contrast and prelude, the curtain rising for the tragedy, I can, from my good seat in the pit, pretty well front, see again Booth’s quiet entrance from the side, as, with head bent, he slowly and in silence, (amid the tempest of boisterous hand-clapping,) walks down the stage to the footlights with that peculiar and abstracted gesture, musingly kicking his sword, which he holds off from him by its sash. Though fifty years have pass’d since then, I can hear the clank, and feel the perfect following hush of perhaps three thousand people waiting. (I never saw an actor who could make more of the said hush or wait, and hold the audience in an indescribable, half-delicious, half-irritating suspense.) And so throughout the entire play, all parts, voice, atmosphere, magnetism, from

  • “Now is the winter of our discontent,”
  • to the closing death fight with Richmond, were of the finest and grandest. The latter character was play’d by a stalwart young fellow named Ingersoll. Indeed, all the renderings were wonderfully good. But the great spell cast upon the mass of hearers came from Booth. Especially was the dream scene very impressive. A shudder went through every nervous system in the audience; it certainly did through mine.

    Without question Booth was royal heir and legitimate representative of the Garrick-Kemble-Siddons dramatic traditions; but he vitalized and gave an unnamable race to those traditions with his own electric personal idiosyncrasy. (As in all art-utterance it was the subtle and powerful something special to the individual that really conquer’d.)

    To me, too, Booth stands for much else besides theatricals. I consider that my seeing the man those years glimps’d for me, beyond all else, that inner spirit and form—the unquestionable charm and vivacity, but intrinsic sophistication and artificiality—crystallizing rapidly upon the English stage and literature at and after Shakspere’s time, and coming on accumulatively through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the beginning, fifty or forty years ago, of those disintegrating, decomposing processes now authoritatively going on. Yes; although Booth must be class’d in that antique, almost extinct school, inflated, stagy, rendering Shakspere (perhaps inevitably, appropriately) from the growth of arbitrary and often cockney conventions, his genius was to me one of the grandest revelations of my life, a lesson of artistic expression. The words fire, energy, abandon, found in him unprecedented meanings. I never heard a speaker or actor who could give such a sting to hauteur or the taunt. I never heard from any other the charm of unswervingly perfect vocalization without trenching at all on mere melody, the province of music.

    So much for a Thespian temple of New York fifty years since, where “sceptred tragedy went trailing by” under the gaze of the Dry Dock youth, and both players and auditors were of a character and like we shall never see again. And so much for the grandest histrion of modern times, as near as I can deliberately judge (and the phrenologists put my “caution” at 7)—grander, I believe, than Kean in the expression of electric passion, the prime eligibility of the tragic artist. For though those brilliant years had many fine and even magnificent actors, undoubtedly at Booth’s death (in 1852) went the last and by far the noblest Roman of them all.