The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 17. The Realistic New York Drama
Another interesting development is represented in the local drama representing actual conditions, frequently of lower life, in the larger cities. The date of the first production of such a play would be hard to determine. Dunlap speaks of Life in New York, or The Fireman on Duty, before 1832. As early as 1829 Hackett appeared in a play called The Times or Life in New York, in which he acted a Yankee character. From the cast, however, as given in Ireland, it seems hardly likely that there was much realism in this play, however interesting it is as a point of connection with the species just described. More promising is the description of The New York Merchant and His Clerks, performed in 1843, with scenery “representing the Battery, Wall St., Chatham Square and the Lunatic Asylum”. These plays, however, have not survived, but there can be little doubt that when F. J. Chanfrau made his great success in A Glance at New York in 1848, the public had been prepared to enjoy the type of play he furnished. The story of the building of this play is an interesting one. It was written by Benjamin A. Baker, the prompter at the Olympic Theatre, who when Mitchell, the manager, had refused to produce it, insisted on its production at his own benefit and had the satisfaction of witnessing the tumultuous reception that Chanfrau received in the part of Mose, the New York fireman. Chanfrau had made a number of imitations of firemen before on the stage, and the play was, therefore, a growth. It is melodramatic, but there is a reality about the scenes in the dives and streets that points forward rather than backward. Baker continued in New York as It Is (1848) to exploit Mose, and the interest in that form of play was capitalized immediately by other writers and actors. Philadelphia as It Is appeared in 1849, and in Boston George Campbell produced in 1848 a local drama in which a scene in a police court was introduced.
The vogue of these plays continued to the end of our period and beyond, and there is little distinction, so far as type is concerned, to be made between them and such a later play as Augustin Daly’s Under the Gaslight. Such titles as The Dry Goods Clerk of New York (1851), The Seamstress of New York (1851), New York by Gaslight (1856), The Poor of New York (1857), Life in Brooklyn, its Lights and Shades, its Virtues and Vices (1858) illustrate the nature of the species perhaps sufficiently, while Mose in California (1849) and Mose in China (1850) show how cosmopolitan that gentleman became.