Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 13. The Theatres of the Eighties in New York

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVIII. The Drama, 1860–1918

§ 13. The Theatres of the Eighties in New York

By the eighties there had been established in New York the nucleus of what was to be known as the modern American theatre. Daniel Frohman was at the Madison Square, his brother Charles was on the road with Wallack successes, and was thus early exhibiting his ability to pick plays and players by corralling Bronson Howard’s Shenandoah (9 September, 1889)—his first real production in New York. William Gillette began his career as playwright in 1881; while it was 1889 before Augustus Thomas entered the field. The gradual rise of Richard Mansfield was identified with the names of Palmer and Wallack; and though he cannot be said to have been a patron of the American dramatist, his early appearances were in pieces like Hjalmar Boyesen’s Alpine Roses (Madison Square Theatre, 31 January, 1884) and Henry Guy Carleton’s Victor Durand (Wallack’s Theatre, 18 December, 1884). But these were merely pieces of the theatre, like Cazauran’s adaptation of a play by Octave Feuillet, called A Parisian Romance, in which Mansfield first attained prominent recognition (Union Square Theatre, 11 January, 1883). It was not until some while afterwards—in 1890, to be exact—that he offered Clyde Fitch the opportunity to collaborate with him in Beau Brummell (Madison re Theatre, 17 May, 1890), and this may be accounted Fitch’s beginning, followed directly afterward by a one-act sketch, Frèdèric Lemaître (1 December, 1890), written for Henry Miller.

Up to the time of the appearance of these names in the history of American playwriting, it is difficult to give coherence to the development of American dramatic consciousness. The style in theatre management was “stock,” until business combination began to assert itself. And such names as Bartley Campbell (1843–1888), Henry Guy Carlton (1856–1910), Edgar Fawcett (1847–1904) mean nothing in the way of native feeling for drama, however much Campbell’s My Partner reflected Western melodrama. Even James A. Herne, who had a career as actor in San Francisco which presaged greater work to come, did not arrive in New York until later, though he had begun his playwriting when Hearts of Oak was given at Baldwin’s Theatre, San Francisco, 9 September, 1879. And we are rightly inclined to regard Herne as our first exponent of reality in the sense of getting close to the soil. Edward Harrigan’s (1845–1911) plays—the best of which were Squatter Sovereignty (Theatre Comique, 9 January, 1882), Old Lavender (Theatre Comique, 3 September, 1877), The Mulligan Guard Ball (Theatre Comique, 9 February, 1879)—were varied in their local colour, as were the farces of Charles Hoyt (1859–1900), who began playwriting with A Bunch of Keys (Newark, 13 December, 1883) and created such pieces of the political and social moment as A Parlor Match, A Rag Baby, A Texas Steer; or, Money Makes the Mare Go, A Trip to Chinatown, A Milk White Flag, and A Temperance Town.

By 1880 the modern period of American drama was in the bud: a journalistic sense had entered the American theatre, and entered to good purpose, for it had given Howard a sense of reality. It has stayed in the theatre and has deprived it, in later exponents, of a logical completeness of idea. It has in most cases kept our drama external.