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Volume 19, Number 3 Fall2007
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Volume 19, Number 3 Fall2007
What is It?: The Frontier, Melodrama, and Boucicault's Amalgamated
The Industry of Spectacle Entertainment: Imre Kiralfy's Grand
Dramatic Historical Productions of The Fall of Baqylon and Nero, or the
Destruction of Rome in Staten Island
Beyond the Caricature: Harrigan, Hart, and Braham's Music and
the Construction of New York Irish Identity
Hard Travel: American Encounters with the Modern Russian Theatre
Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon,- or, Life in Louisiana, a racial melodrama
about a tragic mulatta named Zoe and her doomed interracial relation-
ship with the young white gallant, George Peyton, opened at the Winter
Garden Theatre in New York City on 6 December 1859, four nights after
John Brown was hanged, and on the very same night that a pro-Southern
candidate was elected mayor of New York City. Boucicault's drama of
tragic, cross-racial love, interracial murder, and sensational catastrophes
was therefore exquisitely timed to cause a stir, and if the New York Times
of 15 December is to be believed, it did: "Everybody talks about the
'Octoroon,' wonders about the ' Octoroon,' goes to see the 'Octoroon;'
and the 'Octoroon' thus becomes, in point of fact, the work of the pub-
lic mind."
Boucicault, in short, knew how to cause a theatrical sensation.
Not only had he introduced a play that dealt with the issues of cross-
racial "amalgamation," murder, and slavery,z but just a day before the play
opened, his wife Agnes Robertson, an accomplished actress playing the
title role, received an anonymous letter stating that if she essayed the part
of Zoe, she would be shot. "In all probability," suggests one of
Boucicault's biographers, Richard Fawkes, "the letter was written by her
husband, but its mere existence enabled Boucicault to gain column inch-
es of free publicity."3 Like his contemporary, the master showman, P. T.
Barnum, Dion Boucicault was an apt manipulator of public sentiment,
and the play, in no small part because of Boucicault's craftsmanship,
became the hot topic.
Yet The Octoroon not only aimed to cause a sensation, but it was
also, as Boucicault himself argued, invested in social change. "I believe
the drama to be a proper and very effective instrument to use in the dis-
1 New York Times, 15 December 1859,4.
2 The term "miscegenation," with which we are more familiar, originated after
Boucicault's play, in 1864. Boucicault's auclience would have known the kind of interra-
cial identity that Zoe represents, therefore, not as miscegenation but as "amalgamation."
For more on these terms, see Debra J. Rosenthal, Race Mixture in Nineteenth-Century U.S.
and Spanish American Fiction: Gender, Culture, and Nation Building (Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 2004), 4.
3R.ichard Fawkes, Dion Boucicault:A Biograpo/(London: Quartet Books, 1979), 107.
section of all social matters," Boucicault declared. "It is by such means
that the drama can be elevated into the social importance it deserves to
enjoy."4 More specifically, as he expostulated on why the octoroon must
die at the end of the play, drinking poison to avoid becoming the forced
concubine of the evil overseer, Jacob M'Closky, Boucicault states: "In the
death of the octoroon lies the moral and teaching of the whole work.
Had this girl been saved, and the drama brought to a happy end, the hor-
rors of her position, irremediable from the very nature of the institution
of slavery, would subside into the condition of a temporary annoyance."s
In fact, the text Boucicault himself cites as a source for his play ends in
a dramatically different way than does The Octoroon. "A young and wealthy
planter in Louisiana," Boucicault recalls,
fell deeply and sincerely in love with a Quadroon girl of
great beauty and purity. The lovers found their union
opposed by the law; but love knows no obstacles. The
young man, in the presence of two friends, who served
as witnesses, opened a vein in his arm and introduced
into it a few drops of his mistress's blood; thus he was
able to make oath that he had black blood in his veins,
and being attested the marriage was performed.6
Boucicault thus clearly saw his play-one that ends not in benign mar-
riage but in the death of the octoroon-as critically engaged in the
debate over the institution of slavery. While he may not have been attack-
ing the South per se, his scripting of Zoe as a tragic mulatta demanded that
the audience engage with the issue of slavery and the construction of
black subjectivity on the very eve of national schism.
However, while many American newspapers blasted Boucicault
for "misrepresent[ing] and vilify[ing] the South" and for creating in Zoe
an amalgamated racial identity that was "preposterous, unnatural, and
profane,"7 many critics saw the play as merely entertaining, taking no real
position in the slavery debates-a vision that seems to trouble
4 Dion Boucicault, "Letter from the Author of 'The Octoroon' to the Editor
of the Herald," NeJIJ York Herald, 7 December 1859, 5.
5 Dion Boucicault, "Letter to the Editor," LontkJn Tinm, 20 November 1861, 5.
6 Quoted in Jennifer Devere Brody, Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and
Victorian Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 47.
7 Spirit of the Times, 17 December 1859, 529.
Boucicault's claims to his drama's social activism. Joseph Jefferson, who
played Salem Scudder in the Winter Garden production, recounted in his
memoir that "the truth of the matter is, [the play] was non-committal."B
Likewise, a later review of Boucicault's work on 15 December 1859 in the
New York Times echoed this sentiment: "we own ourselves still unable to
see what possible reason or common sense there can be in regarding [the
play] as a formidable political engine," the reviewer states. "It seemed and
seems to me to be merely a cleverly-constructed, perfectly impartial, not
to say non-committal, picture of life as it is in Louisiana. Its negroes are
negroes, and nothing more-with the least imaginable likeness to TOUS-
SAINT L'OUVERTURE or DOMINICK VESEY" By insisting that the
play was "non-committal," these sources index how the death of the
octoroon, while gesturing towards the potentially explosive issue of slav-
ery, ultimately defused it by eliminating the disruptive figure of the mulat-
ta from the play's racial calculus. With the death of the mixed-raced fig-
ure of Zoe, in other words, the play underscored its essentialized racial
ideology-"its negroes were negroes," as the reviewer noted, "and noth-
ing more."9
As critics have suggested, therefore, Boucicault's reliance on the
tragic mulatta plot helped reinforce a debilitating scheme of racial differ-
ence, one that writers like Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, and
William Wells Brown were actively working against in antebellum
America.JO For all of its subversive potential and tantalizing gestures to
the contrary, The Octoroon is a play, according to Jennifer Devere Brody,
that is "continually concerned with the maintenance and production of
civilized subjects," and by disappearing from the play's final scene, the
potentially problematic Zoe "ultimately serves to establish the establish-
ment."ll Underscoring this point further, Daphne A. Brooks contends
that the text's potentially disruptive critique is smoothed over by its "visu-
8 Joseph Jefferson, The Autobiograpf.[y of Joseph Jefferson (New York: Century,
1890), 162.
9 Review, New York Times, 15 December 1859.
10 Nancy Bentley argues that while the mulatta has "a potentially disruptive"
character, a tragic mulatta like Zoe uses the "humiliation" of her body as a kind of social
policing; see "White Slaves: The Mulatto Hero in Antebellum Fiction," American LJterafllre
65.3 (September 1993): 503, 505. P. Gabrielle Foreman suggests that Boucicault's play pop-
ularized a "scheme of racial difference" that demanded the suicide of Zoe at the end; see
"Who's Your Mama? 'White' Mulatta Genealogies, Early Photography, and Anti-Passing
Narratives of Slavery and Freedom," American Literary History 14.3 (Fall 2002): 521.
II Brody, Impossible Pun.ties, 55-7.
ally policing racial liminality." As Brooks summarizes, "Boucicault's play
aims to rein in the very excess it had produced in its title character ....
The Octoroon worked toward the ultimate reinstatement of social stability
and 'clarity."'12 While Boucicault might have been interested in critiquing
the enactment of racial power, it seems that his play's form-melodrama
invested in visually clear binary oppositions-undermined its politics.
Even when the tragic mulatta plot was replaced in its British ver-
sion by one that ends in marriage, not death, in an effort to please an
audience much less anxious about the specter of slavery, the play's the-
matic investment still muddied its political content. For no matter where
The Octoroon was put on to entertain audiences, the scene of the play's
action was always the same: it always unfolded on "the selvage of civi-
lization."13 For Joseph Roach, the word "selvage"-the interwoven edge
of a piece of fabric-is a key for unlocking what is at work in this play,
for the selvage "more figuratively suggests a margin, a boundary, or a
perimeter that by opposition defines the center-in short, a frontier."
This play, continues Roach, is "constructed on a number of frontiers, real
and imagined, between 'white' and 'black,' 'civilization' and 'savagery,'
'justice' and 'revenge."'14 Like its source text, Mayne Reid's The Quadroon,
which in one of its early editions changed its subtitle from A Lover's
Adventures in Louisiana to Adventures in the Far West, Boucicault's work con-
sistently references itself as a frontier play. Salem Scudder, one of the key
figures in it, defines the "here" of the play as the "wilds of the West':
(486), and unhesitatingly dubs its action as "our Western life" (485). For
Roach, the play "thematize[s] the 'law' of manifest destiny and the doc-
trine of monoculturalism that it inscribes" even as it gestures to "the his-
toric opportunity to accept or reject an alternative to the bloody frontier
of conquest and forced assimilation." Like Brody and Brooks, Roach
argues that this play stands as a spectacular failure, for it is unable to abide
what it entertains for the briefest of moments, namely "a plural frontier
of multiple encounters, another version of 'Life in Louisiana."'1S The
play's formal investment in melodrama and its thematic development of
12 Daphne A. Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and
Freedom, 1850-1910 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 38, 41.
13 Dion Boucicault, The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana, in Ear!J Amencan Drama,
ed. Jeffrey H. Richards (New York: Penguin, 1997), 491. All further quotations from the
play come from this edition and use its pagination.
14 Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1996), 179.
15 Ibid., 182.
its setting thus seem to give the lie to the social critique that Boucicault
was so keen to make.
Yet, it is precisely the way Boucicault maintained the play's the-
matic development of the frontier setting, and mobilized it to inflect the
formal shape of the text, no matter where the play was staged in the
transatlantic world, that substantiates Boucicault's claims about the play's
social and political critique. In other words, by reading the way theme
engages form, and vice versa, I will argue that The Octoroon actually lives
up to Boucicault's claims in two ways. First, he pulls the curtain back on
the politics of melodrama, linking its "black-or-white" mode to the suf-
fering of the hero and heroine in the main plot. By reading racial identi-
ty construction through melodramatic performance, Boucicault's play
dramatizes Saidiya V Hartman's argument that "the corporeal enactment
of blackness [is] a pained one," that melodrama's logic of suffering in
antebellum American theatre was often racially coded, and depended on
that codifying to generate its power.
6 However, by attending carefully to
the formal maneuvers of the main plot, we shall see how Boucicault
draws our attention as audience members to this racial encoding in an
effort not only to distance us critically from the melodramatic mecha-
nisms of oppression operating within the main plot, but also to italicize
its artificial claims to authority. In this sense, while the tragic mulatta plot
may be "non-committal," resting on an essentialized, damaging notion of
racial subjectivity, Boucicault problematizes this plot by metatheatrically
highlighting and puncturing its claims to authority.
If The Octoroon's main plot alienates its audience members from
the melodramatic enactment of racial violence, then its subplot, involv-
ing a frontier character (the Indian Wahnotee) uses an ideologically loose
and aesthetically blurry fantasy of the frontier to offer a productive coun-
termand to melodrama's power play. In other words, by focusing on the
subplot and the way Wahnotee shadows Zoe in terms of identity con-
struction, aesthetic characterization, and dramatic action, we shall see
how Boucicault's play- read in its totality- does not buy into a coding of
the frontier as an extension of American imperial power, as Roach insists.
Rather, through the particular fantasy of the frontier Boucicault gener-
ates, it gestures towards what I will call an amalgamated drama that does not
suffer from the "black-or-white" modalities of melodrama.
Finally, by placing Wahnotee in context and reading his character
through the play's performance at P. T. Barnum's American Museum in
16 Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in
Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 27.
1860, which was also exhibiting the showman's "nondescript," "What is
It?"-a half-man, half-ape creature from the "Wilds of the Prairie"-!
will show how this double bill (re)focuses our attention on the perform-
ance of identity. By tracing how both Barnum and Boucicault re-envision
the frontier on stage, I will reveal how their two "creatures" helped craft
a "black-and-white" mode that exchanges melodrama's politics of suffer-
ing for the liberating effects of what Boucicault called the "pleasure" of
"amalgamated" performance. Boucicault complicates the notion that the
frontier on the nineteenth-century stage was only an extension of impe-
rial ideology, as critics have suggested.17 He employs the frontier not as a
means of reinforcing the codings of "savage" versus "civilized," "black"
versus "white," but rather as a way to advance a new performative prac-
tice that found pleasure in "black-and-white" identity politics, and thus
also served as a vehicle for re-imagining what it meant to perform
America that way. "What is It?" is a question, therefore, that could be
asked not just of Barnum's creature and of Boucicault's play, but of an
American nation confronting a host of amalgamated identities on the eve
of the Civil War.
I Suffer, Therefore I Am
The hero of The Octoroon, George Peyton, seems to embody perfectly the
melodramatic hero, for when he is making love to Zoe, George's language
reveals all of the traits of melodramatic virtue. "I shall see this estate pass
from me without a sigh," declares George, "for it possesses no charm for
me; the wealth I covet is the love of those around me- eyes that are rich
in fond looks, lips that breathe endearing words; the only estate I value is
the heart of one true woman, and the slaves I'd have are her thoughts"
(465). A melodramatic lover's speech par excellence, George's statement of
sentiment eschews all qualifications and makes his character, as Robert B.
Heilman suggests about melodrama generally, "monopathic."IS All the
hero wants is love, or as George phrases it, "the heart of one true
woman." The melodramatic mode that George emblemizes so directly
rests on a dynamic of "black-or-white" systemic formations, on what
See Werner Sollors' treatment of the Indian play in Bryond Ethnicity: Consent
and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) and, particu-
larly, Roger Hall's assessment of mid-nineteenth century stagings of the frontier as only
helping to bolster American's "own sense of righteousness and destiny," Performing tht
American Frontier, 1870-1906 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 228.
18 Robert B. Heilman, Traget[y and Melodrama (Seattle: University of Washington
Press, 1968), 85.
Peter Brooks has called melodrama's "polarized" mode. In this mode,
characters attempt to make the "moral occult" completely visible, either
by performing its goodness whole-heartedly, as its heroes and heroines
do, or by attempting to subvert it whole-heartedly, as do its villains.
9 In
this instance from Boucicault's play, therefore, George is the consummate
melodramatic lover; his goodness is, to use Linda Williams' term, a kind
of "moral stereotyping,"20 for its love is unchecked and admits no excep-
Boucicault demonstrates the "black-and-white" nature of
George's identity even more emphatically just before the revelation that
Zoe is a slave. Torn between his love for the octoroon and his devotion
to his family, and realizing that a strategic marriage to Dora Sunnyside
would save his plantation, George proclaims: "My dear mother-Mr.
Scudder-you teach me what I ought to do; if Miss Sunnyside will accept
me as I am, Terrebonne shall be saved: I will sell myself, but the slaves
shall be protected." George's melodramatic exaggeration here meets with
his ever-practical mother's retort: "Sell yourself, George! Is not Dora
worth any man's-" which Scudder then interrupts, chiding her, "Don't
say that, ma'am; don't say that to a man that loves another gal. He's going
to do an heroic act; don't spile it" (472-3).
What we see here is a disjuncture of modes, a disjuncture that
gestures towards both the tenuous authority of the melodramatic form
and the way that form helps limn the American color line all the more
clearly. Take, for instance, Salem Scudder's response to Mrs. Peyton. His
admonishment that George is engaging in a heroic act that should not be
"spited" makes plain that what we are witnessing is not so much an act of
heroism, but rather a melodramatic effect aimed at constructing George
as a hero-a fragile act that could be easily derailed by Mrs. Peyton's fail-
ure to play along. Moreover, George has recently returned to the
Terrebonne Plantation from Paris, the birthplace of Rousseau's milodrame
and the home of Guy de Pixerecourt, one of the most influential figures
19 Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and
the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 4-5. Also see theatre histo-
rian David Grimsted, who notes melodrama's "black-or-white" formation. "No one
argued that melodrama was true to life," Grimsted insists, "but the moral was always
there, writ large and obviously. Every spectator knew who was good and who bad and
how the final chips of poetical justice would fall," Melodrama Unveiled: American Theater and
Culture, 1800-1850 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 41.
20 Linda Williams, PltfYing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White From Uncle
Tom to 0.]. Simpson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001 ), 40.
in the American melodramatic theatre.21 George thus comes to embody
not only the melodramatic hero, but also the very form of melodrama
itself. Scudder's dramaturgical self-reflexivity, therefore, works to alienate
us-as Brecht would later do more dynamically-from the action of the
play's melodramatic hero. By critically denaturalizing the melodramatic
mode in this way, Boucicault questions the logic involved in characteriz-
ing George as the dashing hero of a typical nineteenth-century melodra-
Boucicault undermines the "black-or-white" dialectic of melo-
drama in yet another way when George speaks of either selling himself
or retaining his integrity, either letting the slaves be abused or protecting
them. To be heroic thus involves not only personal sacrifice, but also the
public declaration of how he will suffer because of his choice. The kind
of suffering George is invoking was required of melodramatic subjects,
for as Linda Williams argues, the melodramatic mode defined itself by
"staging virtue through adversity and suffering."22 As we have already
noted, melodrama trades in a kind of "moral stereotyping"-a "black-or-
white" bifurcation of virtue and villainy-but it needs a means by which
to make that moral division visible. Suffering provides just such a means,
not only separating virtue from villainy, but also equating virtue with a
highly visible kind of victimhood as a way of marking the hero as hero-
ic. As Boucicault was aware, one of the bedrock principles of melodra-
ma is that heroism emerges from virtue's suffering.
In the nineteenth century, that understanding of heroism, and
thus, of identity, was codified by the theatrical predecessor of The
Octoroon-the stage blockbuster Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851) . "From the
moment Simon Legree's whip first lent Uncle Tom a paradoxical visibili-
ty and dignity as a suffering, and thus worthy, human being," Linda
Williams insists, "the political power of pain and suffering has been a key
mechanism of melodrama's rhetorical power."
3 The move from white to
21 For more on the influence of Pixen!court and other French melodramatists
on the American theatre, see Bruce A. McConachie, Melodramatic Formations: American
Theatre and Society, 1820-1870 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992), 29-68.
22 Williams, Playing the Race Card, 15.
23 Ibid., 43. Williams's assessment of melodrama's dependence on pain builds
on Saidiya V. Hartman's argument that blackness in antebellum America was frequently
established-and managed-by the violence enacted on the black body. In melodrama,
she writes, "the battle of good and evil was waged at the cite of the tortured and chaste
black body; suffering announced virtue;" see Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes if Subjection:
Terror, Slavery, and Se!f-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford Universiry
Press, 1997), 28.
black suffering in Uncle Tom effectively recalibrated identity, making that
suffering the defining feature of hitherto disenfranchised individuals: "I
suffer, therefore I am," the speaker suggests. When George thus pro-
claims, "I will sell myself, but the slaves shall be protected" (472), he is
embracing this method of identity formation, metaphorically "blacking
up" by representing himself as a piece of chattel like Uncle Tom that can
be "sold" in order to simultaneously insert himself into a tradition of suf-
fering, melodramatic heroes.
The problem with George's performing this melodramatic suf-
fering, however, is that he is no Uncle Tom: George is not a slave; he is
not subject to the whip of Simon Legree, nor does he suffer from the
humiliation of servitude. Uncle Tom's heroic suffering helped construct
a fraught version of black subjectivity through melodrama, whereas
George's self-inflicted wound, by contrast, is an attempt to construct his
heroic self by taking over the suffering, melodramatic identity of the
slave. Since George is a privileged member of the white southern aris-
tocracy, his heroic statement that he will "sell" himself can be read as a
kind of performative slumming, a fact underscored literally in the text by
Mrs. Peyton's immediate, instinctive response: "Sell yourself, George!"
(472). By highlighting the exact term central to George's performance,
Mrs. Peyton's comment draws our attention as audience members to the
way melodrama is implicated in the repressive structures of racial power.
George's appropriation of the role of a suffering, black melodramatic hero
can only occur through his expropriation of one of the few modes of iden-
tity construction accorded black chattel slaves. George's "blacking up"
works, in other words, not to address the inequalities and devastating
ironies such a cross-racial performance reveals, but rather to use these
very inequalities to reveal his character as a melodramatic hero.
If Boucicault wants to make us critically aware of his play as a
melodrama and of George as its heavy-handed hero, then he equally
wants us to see the title character, the famous octoroon, together with the
"tragic mulatta" plot she inhabits, in a critical light. Like the previous
exchange, Zoe's revelation of her true identity to George at the climax of
the play creates a slippage in the modal configuration of the play, a slip-
page that also implicates the melodramatic mode in the enactment of
racial power. In this scene, Zoe tells George, "There is a gulf between us,
as wide as your love, as deep as my despair." When George then insists
that she explain herself, Zoe produces a litany of signs of her own abjec-
tion, ending the list by proclaiming: "I am an unclean thing-forbidden
by the laws-I'm an Octoroon!" (466-7). At this exact moment when the
future of the characters in this play hangs in the balance, George seems
unwilling to let Zoe suffer as the tragic mulatta; he is unwilling, in other
words, to abide by the rules of melodramatic suffering.24 In fact, in a
moment that has escaped critics' attention, George seems willing to toss
aside Zoe's definition as an octoroon because of love, declaring, "Zoe, I
love you none the less; this knowledge brings no revolt to my heart, and
I can overcome the obstacle" (467). George's about-face in terms of
character-from melodramatic champion to melodramatic challenger-
becomes a device used by Boucicault to suggest not only how fluid and
non-monopathic dramatic characters can be, but also how artificially con-
ditioned melodramatic characters are. In this instant, after all, the play
could end happily, as Reid's narrative does with Edward and Aurore liv-
ing a "tranquil" life together.zs Yet this dramatic possibility is quashed by
Zoe's very next line, "But I cannot" (467). George's momentary dismissal
of the melodramatic plot for one that might avoid its calamitous conclu-
sion is thus abruptly undercut by Zoe's declaration. Her emphasis on "I,"
moreover, not only highlights that she disagrees with George, but figura-
tively underscores that it is precisely Zoe's mulatta identity for which the
play is named that forecloses any possibility of avoiding a tragic end. She
is the tragic mulatta, she insists, and her reproach to George indicates that
he has "misread" her scripted end. Like the scene between George, Mrs.
Peyton, and Scudder, this exchange between melodramatic hero and
heroine introduces a critical self-consciousness. Just when the audience
watching this production would be most heavily invested in the melodra-
matic nature of the play, Boucicault creates a slippage that allows a criti-
cal space to develop for them within the confines of the drama itself.
What we see in this critical moment is that if Zoe will play the
tragic mulatta triumphantly, she will have to suffer as the result of this
choice precisely because of her commitment to melodramatic perform-
ance and the identity it entails. Nancy Bentley argues that "the idea of the
inviolate soul in [mulatta] fiction modulates all too easily into notions of
a soul that thrives upon, or even requires, the humiliation of the body. By
definition, the tragic Mulatta is granted her most pronounced symbolic
power by virtue of her worldly suffering."26 Russ Castronovo goes fur-
24 It is worth noting that in Reid's novel, Edward Rutherford, the melodramat-
ic hero, responds to the lament of the tragic mulatta, Aurore, by boldly dismissing her
"stigma" of mixed-race identity, saying, "in the eyes of Love, rank loses its fictitious
charm-titles seemed trivial things"; see Mayne Reid, The Quadroon; or, A Lover's Adventures
in Louisiana (New York: Robert M. De Witt, 1856), 97.
5 Ibid., 379.
26 Nancy Bentley, ''"White Slaves: The Mulatto Hero in Antebellum Fiction,"
ther, stating that figures like Zoe can only achieve freedom through suf-
fering a tragic death since death "liberates the subject from social mean-
ings of race."2
Lauren Berlant has recently argued, however, that melo-
dramatic suffering, like Zoe's, became a means not of erasing identity, but
of ironically-if not unproblematically-mapping out a new kind of
personhood. Starting in the early nineteenth century, when the sentimen-
tal mode's stock was on the rise, its appeal to the emotions, Berlant
argues, created a new way to conceptualize identity. It worked to bind
people to the nation not by deploying a rhetoric of citizenship or of indi-
vidual rights, but rather by creating a rhetoric that depended on "the
capacity for suffering and trauma at the citizen's core."28 To make oneself
into a true citizen, as we see Zoe do, involved identification with pain and
suffering, and, more importantly, the embracing of this "identification"
as "identity."
Zoe's desire to suffer as the melodramatic "tragic mulatta" can
be read as a desire for identity, for mixed race women like Zoe were not
officially recognized as "mixed" in the nineteenth century, but were
instead identified as "black," and thus considered chattel property.29
Brooks argues that Zoe is "blackened by the act of suffering,"30 and while
Boucicault's play does stage this argument, the playwright is likewise keen
to draw his audience's attention to how the very form of melodrama-
with its reliance on suffering-is implicated in the scripting of the play's
tragic end. Zoe's desire to suffer, in other words, marks her blackness but
also seals her fate, for not ten lines after Zoe's melodramatic declaration
of intent, George attempts to dissuade her, asking if they must "immo-
late" their lives to the societal prejudice around them. Zoe can only insist:
''Yes, for I'd rather be black than ungrateful! Ah, George, our race has at
least one virtue-it knows how to suffer!" (467). By embracing a racial
understanding of herself, Zoe thus also embraces the ne plus ultra of
melodramatic identity, the capacity for suffering, not as a plot device but
as a conduit to personhood. Yet, as Boucicault reveals, her melodramatic
American Literature 65.3 (September 1993): 505.
2? Russ Castronovo, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the
Nineteenth-Century United States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 42.
28 Lauren Berlant, ''Poor Eliza," American Literature 70.3 (1998): 636. See also
Berlant, "The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics," in Cultural Studies and
Political Theory, ed. Jodi Dean (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 42-62.
29 Bentley, "White Slaves," 503-4.
30 Brooks, Bodies in Dissent, 41.
understanding of who she is in a genre that makes everything "black-or-
white" drives her to freight her blackness, her suffering "race," with the
responsibility for her suffering.
Like George's performance of heroism, Zoe's playing the suffer-
ing victim shows how implicated the form of melodrama is in the rein-
forcement of the racism of antebellum America. Ironically, to wrap her-
self in the mantle of the suffering melodramatic heroine, Zoe must first
figuratively "black up," just as her paramour, George, did earlier. In Zoe's
case, however, such a choice also dismisses the complexity of her para-
doxical nature as "black-and-white," and in doing so, denies that racial
identity can be anything other than an enslaved-and enslaving- stereo-
type. In other words, while Zoe's pathologizing of her black blood as the
reason for her suffering gives her access to the melodramatic equation of
suffering with subjectivity, this same melodramatic indictment simultane-
ously buttresses the idea that her identity as a hybrid is profane, patho-
logical, and thus, unacceptable. Zoe scripts her own tragedy when she
makes her "black-and-white" identity visible in the "black-or-white"
world of melodrama, a world that cannot and will not admit the blend-
ing of those, or any, categories. Through George's repeated theatrical dis-
ruptions of the otherwise seamless melodramatic scripting of the play,
disruptions that occur at the most crucial moments in the main plot's for-
mal justifications-his willingness, even eagerness, to undercut the melo-
dramatic power play-Boucicault clears a space formally for his audience
to entertain alternative forms of theatrical self-definition that might be
able to accept an amalgamated identity like Zoe's. If Boucicault scripts
Zoe's dependence on melodrama's "poetics of pain," as Brooks calls it,
leading to her ultimate destruction, then his play's main plot repeatedly
highlights and questions melodrama's shadowy but nonetheless founda-
tional role in the nefarious logic of racism in America.3t
The Pleasure of Bad Taste
The melodramatic mode that Boucicault problematizes was already start-
ing to lose its popular appeal with audiences by the mid-nineteenth cen-
tury. By 1859, the American theatre was in the midst of change, shaking
off an old transcendent form of melodrama stemming from the French
plays of Pixerecourt and latching onto a new, more parochial-and more
"realistic"-form of drama originating with the works of Eugene
Boucicault himself reflects this shift in an essay written in 1877,
3! Ibid., 37.
32 See McConachie, Melodramatic Formations, 225-7.
where he insists that there are two kinds of drama: the first is what he
calls the "contemporaneous or realistic drama, which is a reflex of the features
of the period, where the personages are life-size, the language partakes of
their reality, and the incidents are natural," while the second is what he
calls the "transcendental or unreal drama, where the personages are larger
than life-size, their ideas and language more exalted than human conver-
sation, and the incidents more important than we meet with in ordinary
life."33 Well before the crystallization of dramatic "realism" by James
Herne's Margaret Fleming in 1882, Boucicault defines the competing
modes of drama as "realistic" and "transcendental," which from the way
Boucicault describes it, is melodrama.
However, while Boucicault saw his contemporary drama devel-
oping in two distinct ways, his own play exists at some distance from both
of these definitions. From what we have seen, The Octoroon is a problem-
atic melodrama, and even if we look no further than Boucicault's own
defmition of realism, we can see how this play is likewise not "realistic."
The Octoroon, in other words, was moving in a new direction, and
Boucicault attempted to lay the groundwork for this move by imagining
what this new style of drama might consist. In an article for the North
American RevieJV in 1875, he defines this new dramaturgical style, arguing
that the "liberty of imagination should not be sacrificed to arbitrary
restrictions and traditions that lead to dullness and formality. Art is not a
church; it is the philosophy of pleasure."34 Here we see the theoretical
basis for Boucicault's reluctance to write dramas that were either "tran-
scendental" or "realistic," in the vein of Pixerecourt or Scribe. Following
the playwright's suggestion, we can read The Octoroon as not only repro-
ducing while criticizing melodrama, but also using the critical space
carved out from melodrama to stage what he calls "the philosophy of
While Boucicault's statement does help us see his discomfort
with the dramaturgical modes available to him, it only gestures towards
what his new style might look like. To discover what might be "pleasura-
ble" about The Octoroon, therefore, we need to situate it more fully within
its theatrical moment. On 15 September 1859, the NeJV York Herald noted
that the newly renovated Winter Garden had eliminated a good portion
of the stalls to make room for the parquette, or what we would call
33 Dion Boucicault, "The Decline of the Drama," North American Review 125
(September 1877): 236.
Dion Boucicault, "The Art of Dramatic Composition," North American
Review 126 Ganuary 1878): 52.
"orchestra seating." Just three months before the opening of Boucicault's
play, in the very same theatre where it would be staged, this remapping of
space simultaneously remapped the class dynamics of the theatre. This
"new" theatrical space, in effect, catered more to the burgeoning bour-
geois audience who would have been put off by "the pit" of the older
theatre. Moreover, the Herald suggests that what really defined the new
Winter Garden was "the exceeding good taste which has prevailed in all
the arrangement, and the liberally lavish way in which everything has
been done .... The house is sumptuous, elegant, and tasteful through-
out."35 This emphasis on "taste," twice mentioned, illustrates two distinct
trends. First, it indicates the increasing desire among theatre managers to
offer more "respectable" theatrical fare. Unlike the Bowery theatre expe-
rience-"no dainty kid-gloved business," Walt Whitman recalled, "but
electric force and muscle from perhaps 2000 full-sinew'd men"-the the-
atrical entertainments of mid-century aimed to be more "respectable"
and, what is equally clear, less working-class. By midcentury, in other
words, the tasteful applause at the Winter Garden had replaced the "long-
kept-up tempests of hand-clapping peculiar to the Bowery."36 Second, the
emphasis on "taste" indexes the burgeoning middle-class' investment in
it as a means of constructing their identity by simultaneously enforcing
class lines and racial boundaries. In a mid-nineteenth-century social mix,
when social mobility threatened clearly delineated class divisions, one
could perform one's "good taste," and thus one's superior class, by see-
ing and being seen at "tasteful" performancesY
In contrast, The Octoroon was a play in bad taste. Boucicault's
dramaturgy not only demurred from engaging fully in the "tradition[al]"
mode of melodrama, but actively went about undermining its legitimacy.
35 New York Herald, 15 September, 1859: 7. By 1873, suggests Bruce
McConachie, most urban playhouses, in fact, had "eliminated the pit, shoved the remain-
ing boxes nearer the proscenium, and adopted orchestra/balcony seating for most spec-
tators. The pricing and reserve seating policies of the bourgeois theatres kept most of the
orchestra and first balcony seats within the reach of modest business-class households,
but beyond the means and the planning of most workers, who sat in the upper balcony
if they attended at all," Melodramatic Formations, 200.
36WaJt Whitman, "The Old Bowery," N ovember Boughs in Walt Whitman: Complete
Poetry and Collected Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 1189.
For more on this phenomenon, consult Karen Halttunen, Co'!fidence Men and
Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in Amenl:a, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1986), Lawrence Levine, Highbr01v/ Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural
Hierarcfy in Amenca (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), and David Nasaw, Going
Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
WHAT IS lT? 19
However, the play was not a realistic piece bien faite either, as Scribe's drama
came to be called. Thus, his play chafed at the "arbitrary restrictions"
guiding both melodrama and the well-made play. Yet, because of its bad
taste, The Octoroon ironically offered its audience a taste of something new,
a less restricted, more amalgamated idea of what drama-as well as iden-
tity-could entail. And nowhere is this more explicit than in the play's rel-
atively unexplored subplot. By exploring this plot's interaction with the
main plot, and the way the characters from this subplot resist having their
performances conditioned by the "arbitrary restrictions and traditions"
of the melodramatic mode, we will see how Boucicault traded the melo-
dramatic aesthetic of "tasteful" suffering for a new aesthetic of "black-
and-white" pleasure, the result of which is what I am calling Boucicault's
amalgamated drama.
Boucicault's Amalgamated Drama
Up to this point, our investigation of Boucicault's demystification of
racism and identity in the melodramatic mode has only attended to the
main plot, a plot that William Winter, a contemporary theatre critic, was
focusing on when he said that Boucicault was "more adroit than origi-
nal."38 Yet, it must be remembered that intersecting the main plot's north-
south axis of shrewd Yankees and plantation overseers is a subplot run-
ning east-west and centered on the frontier figure of the Indian,
Wahnotee, a part that Boucicault himself played in the drama's first run.
His Indian was unprecedented in mulatta stories, but its real importance
lay not so much in its novelty as in the way Boucicault employed a fron-
tier aesthetic to incarnate-quite literally-in Wahnotee his dramaturgy
of pleasure.
Boucicault gestures towards this aesthetic when he introduces
the Indian in the first act. Just as Boucicault reinforces his equation of
George with melodrama by noting his association with Paris, the play-
wright likewise associates Wahnotee with the frontier by having him
come from a "nation out West" (457). Wahnotee thus embodies the fron-
tier. While most of the characters from the main plot want to send him
back there, Zoe objects.
Wahnotee is a gende, honest creature, and remains here
because he loves [the slave boy, Paul] with the tender-
ness of a woman. When Paul was taken down with the
William Winter, Other Dcgs: Being Chronicles and Memoirs rf the Stage (New
York: Moffat, Yard, and Company, 1908), 132.
swamp fever the Indian sat outside the hut, and neither
ate, slept, or spoke for five days, till the child could rec-
ognize and call him to his bedside (457).
What has been overlooked by critics is the fact that The Octoroon features
a second interracial union that also ends with the death of one of the char-
acters. However, if the tension of the main plot is generated by the
inability of the interracial couple to transcend melodrama's prescribed
suffering, the subplot highlights an interracial union that sidesteps melo-
drama entirely, and in doing so, flourishes. In fact, while both plots end
with the death of one of the partners, it should be noted that Zoe choos-
es her suicide, while Paul's death comes at the hands of M'Closky. Unlike
the relationship between Zoe and George, that between Wahnotee and
Paul would have continued if it had not been cut short.
These two plots of the play parallel each other in another way as
well, for both Zoe and Wahnotee are hybrids. While Wahnotee later plays
the avenging, "masculine" hero, who hunts down and kills the villain of
the play, he seems comfortable before then playing the "woman," as Zoe
observes, by tending to Paul. Unlike Zoe's internal schism between black
slave and white heroine, however, Wahnotee seamlessly joins together
two competing gender performances, playing the masculinized character
of the violent savage at the end of the play just as he easily portrays the
maternal caregiver to a slave at the beginning. Even Wahnotee's language
reflects his hybridity, for while Zoe mouths the pure language of the
melodramatic heroine, Paul recounts that Wahnotee "speaks a mash-up
of Indian and Mexican" (457). Unlike George and Zoe who suffer from
the "black-or-white" scripting of melodrama, Wahnotee lovingly
embraces his "black-and-white" identity just as he both loves and avenges
Paul. Unlike George and Zoe's representation and embodiment of melo-
drama, therefore, Wahnotee's incarnation of a "mashed-up" frontier
stages a provocative alternative to the main plot.
Boucicault fine-tunes Wahnotee as an avatar of an alternative
frontier dramaturgy by drawing a sharp contrast between character devel-
opment in the main and in the subplot. We can see this by recalling how
fully and uncritically Zoe emb.races her role as the tragic mulatta, and as
such, how she repeats the mantra, "I suffer, therefore I am," right up to
her death. George also seems to manifest fully this same adherence to
melodrama's equation of identity and suffering. Thus, in the scene where
Zoe has just been sold to the lascivious M'Closky, George leaps at the vil-
lain, knife in hand, snarling, "Yelping hound-take that." M'Closky
quickly draws his own knife, and for a moment, the hero and villain are
poised to fight-the melodramatic agon of the play thrust center stage.
Yet that tense moment is deflated as Scudder darts between them, saying:
"Hold on, George Peyton-stand back. This is your own house; we are
under your uncle's roof; recollect yourself" (482). The knives are
replaced, the conflict is forgotten, and the plot moves forward. Despite
what has happened, George will not become an avenger: he must not dis-
patch the sole impediment to his life with Zoe. Instead, he must heed
Scudder's advice-he must "recollect" himself-and learn to suffer more
visibly for us if we are to see him as the melodramatic hero.
To "recollect" oneself can be understood in this context in at
least two distinct ways. In one sense, Scudder advises George to "recol-
lect," or remember, himself. like Scudder's commentary earlier in the scene
between Mrs. Peyton and George, this term allows us to see how
Boucicault is drawing attention to the limits of the melodramatic mode:
George seems to have forgotten that he is playing the hero, and by heed-
ing Scudder's advice, as an actor would a director's, he will remember that
he must suffer in order to be one. Boucicault's use of Scudder in this
instance calls attention to the self-hatred at the core of the melodramat-
ic imagination. However, in addition to understanding "recollect" as
remember, the term also means, literally, to collect onese!f again, to "re-collect"
oneself. Reading the term in this way does not so much illustrate the
nature of melodramatic identity as show the ways that identity is man-
aged. To be a melodramatic hero means not only embracing one's identi-
ty as victim, but also relentlessly policing it. Melodrama, in other words,
is not so much about revealing one's emotions, as our contemporary
understanding of melodrama might suggest it is. It is rather about reveal-
ing and displaying the right emotions. As Boucicault's culture insisted,
melodrama was about the "tasteful" display of emotions. Letting go of
your emotions, as George was about to do, is tantamount to letting go of
your identity in Boucicault's bourgeois America. Only through constant-
ly "re-collecting" himself as the suffering, stoic hero, keeping a lid on his
more fervent passions, will George be able to perform his "tasteful"
melodramatic self.
By contrast, Wahnotee feels no such need to recollect and police
his own identity. Whereas George understands suffering as something to
be embraced, Wahnotee understands it as something to be resisted and
overcome. Boucicault dramatizes this difference, moreover, when
Wahnotee, like George and Zoe, is made to suffer. At the Peytons'
request, Wahnotee and his partner, Paul, go down to the dock to get the
letter that, unbeknownst to them, will save Terrebonne Plantation and
thwart M'Closky's dastardly plans to buy it, its slaves, and most impor-
22 REBHORl'l
tantly, Zoe. When Wahnotee and Paul later find a camera that Scudder
was using to take pictures of Dora, Paul insists that Wahnotee take his
picture. After bribing him with the promise of "fire water," Paul con-
vinces him to do it. As soon as Wahnotee has done his part, he runs off
to get his drink. Paul, meanwhile, sits waiting for the picture to develop,
and as he does so, M'Closky discovers him, takes up Wahnotee's toma-
hawk, and kills the young boy in order to get the letter. M'Closky then
escapes, assuring himself and the audience that the Indian will take the
fall for the death of the boy. When Wahnotee comes back on stage, he
sees Paul and mistakenly thinks he is still alive. Believing Paul is "sham-
ming sleep," the Indian "gesticulates and jabbers," gives him a nudge with
his foot, and then "kneels down to rouse him." To his "horror,"
Wahnotee discovers that Paul is dead, and as the stage directions indicate,
he "expresses great grief" (469).
Like Zoe and George, Wahnotee suffers here. Rather than sim-
ply embracing it, however, he lashes out. Instead of stymieing the flow of
emotions as George did, he expresses his fury passionately. Seeing the
camera, he lets out a "savage growl, seizes [his] tomahawk and smashes
[the] camera to pieces" (469). On the one hand, Wahnotee's smashing of
the camera seems futile-a far cry, for instance, from what would have
been the potentially deadly and plot-altering result of George's tussle
with M'Closky. On the other hand, while he does not sink a dagger into
the villain's heart, Wahnotee's passionate outburst stands in stark opposi-
tion to George's inert rage. When it matters most, when the plot of the
play hangs in the balance between a melodramatic ending and one that
rejects this aesthetic, George retreats into the melodramatic formula of
suffering heroism. Wahnotee, on the other hand, when his actions mean
little, when suffering would indeed allow him a modicum of melodra-
matic heroism-and the identity it provides- explodes in passion. What
we see in this contrast are distinctly different aesthetics and modes of
self-definition: recollecting the self versus releasing the self; meaningless
words versus wordless meaning. By comparing these two suffering fig-
ures-as Boucicault intends us to do-we see the glimmer of an aes-
thetic alternative to melodrama's command that its practitioners script
their own destruction. Tending to the subplot, we see a mode of expres-
sion that encourages its artists to resist the problematic "black-or-white"
semantics of melodrama's formulation.
As this alternative mode's key figure, Wahnotee does, in fact,
avoid the sinister effects of operating within the melodramatic mode in a
way that George, and Zoe in particular, do not. While we understood ear-
lier how Zoe was incapable of sustaining an amalgamated identity-how
WHAT IS l T? 23
she in fact constructed her identity through the problematic denial of her
hybridity in order to perform the tragic mulatta of melodrama-we can
see how Wahnotee avoids this self-destructive construction of identity by
embracing exactly what Zoe's melodramatic mode did not allow.
Boucicault highlights the amalgamated nature of Wahnotee's identity
most clearly in his "haunting" of M'Closky after he discovers in the play's
trial scene that it was indeed M'Closky who killed Paul. Wahnotee is a
"mashed-up" character, and as he begins pursuing M'Closky through the
swamp, the Indian's hybridity is what terrorizes the villain. "In some
form, human, or wild beast, or ghost," M'Closky enunciates breathlessly,
"it has tracked me through the night. I fled; it followed" (491). Boucicault
underscores how Wahnotee's identity is hybrid here in two ways. First, in
the dialogue, we see how the Indian's identity becomes not only an "it"
rather than a "him," but how he also becomes both a "human" and a
"wild beast." Second, as David C. Miller has shown, the swamp through
which Wahnotee pursues M'Closky was a space of terror in the minds of
white antebellum America because its uncontainable geography-simul-
taneously both fluid and solid, fecund and decaying-symbolically
reflected the terrifying uncontainability of the ever-increasing numbers
of violent, murderous slave rebels, like Nat Turner, who found the
swamp a perfect location from which to organize their attacks39 Through
both dialogue and setting, Boucicault codes Wahnotee as not only hybrid
and unsettled, but because of this Yery hybridity, also terrifying and
unsettling to someone like M'Closky. Thus, although Wahnotee and Zoe
are both hybrids, Wahnotee's identity remains hybrid, while Zoe restricts
hers to the black "taint" of her body. For Zoe, in effect, hybrid identity
leads to her own destruction, while for Wahnotee, his hybrid identity
effects a kind of moral justice. If Zoe is haunted by the persistent pres-
ence of the black blood in her veins, M'Closky is haunted by the almost
absent Indian who is nevertheless persistently present in his imagination.
Certainly, Wahnotee is, in many ways, the stereotypical stage
Indian, just as Zoe is, in many ways, the stereotypical tragic mulatta, but
whereas Zoe suffers because of the melodramatic role she accepts,
Wahnotee resists the "black-or-white" mode of melodrama. Boucicault's
Indian is pointedly not the inhuman villain of manifest destiny, killing set-
tlers and terrorizing the nation. He is not the monstrous "bogeyman," the
"ruthless savage" demonized in the American imagination during this
0 While George can only helplessly and mutely record the tragedy
39 See David C. Miller, Dark Eden: The Swamp in Nineteenth-Century American
Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 77-104.
of Zoe's death, Wahnotee acts, his humanity fully displayed as he
responds with passion to the death of Paul. That being said, Wahnotee is
not a version of the staged noble savage either, heroically helping imper-
iled white citizens and then leaving the scene at the end of the play.4t
Wahnotee's violent acts and feelings, his "savagery," are in fact neither
condemned nor dismissed in the play, but are rather celebrated, for it is
the Indian and not George who dispatches the villain and restores moral
order. In this way, Boucicault avoids essentializing Wahnotee's identity,
allowing him to operate within both the subplot with Paul and, substan-
tially, in the main plot with M'Closky.
In the first run of the play, the fact that Boucicault himself per-
formed the role of Wahnotee helped underscore the character's easy
hybridity, for the playwright himself was a hybrid: he was an Irishman of
French descent writing an play as well as being a "white"
man playing a "red" one, a "civilized" European playing an American
"savage." Part of the pleasure the audience experienced in Boucicault's
performance must have come from the staging of his "mashed-up" iden-
tity, an identity that underscored what Wahnotee stands for in the play. In
this way, I want to suggest, the playwright's receding of how the frontier
was performed clarifies what he meant when he wrote that drama should
entail a "philosophy of pleasure." Distancing his play from melodrama's
0 Michael Paul Rogin insists that during and after the Indian Removal Act of
1830, "Indians were the bogeymen who frightened children in early America," and it was
their supposed savagery that was the key to this representational scare tactic, Fathers and
Children: Andreu; Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (New York: Knopf, 197 5),
120. Jeffrey D. Mason suggests that the history of the printing of Henry Trumball's History
of the Discovery of America indexes exactly how prevalent the notion of the savage, blood-
thirsty Indian was in the mid-nineteenth century. Between 1802 and 1831, this work, which
details the savage atrocities enacted by Native American peoples, went through thirteen
printings, and its successor, History of the Indian Wars, went through seven printings between
1841 and 1854; see Melodrama and the Myth of America (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1993), 31. Competing with the noble savage, in other words, was the ruthless sav-
age, epitomized on stage by works like Louisa Medina's staging of Robert Montgomery
Bird's Nick of the Woods (1837), which Bird himself imagined as a rebuttal of James
Fenimore Cooper's Uncas and Chingachgook. For more on this distinction, see Don B.
Wilmeth, "Noble or Ruthless Savage?: The American Indian on Stage and in the Drama,"
Journal of American Drama and Theatre 1.1 (Spring 1989): 39-78.
4t On the staging of the noble savage, see Shari M. Huhndorf, Going Native:
Indians in the American Cultural Imagination (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001) and
Susan Scheckel, The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century
American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). For more on the symbol-
ic architecture of the noble savage narrative, see Werner Sollors, Bryond Ethnicity: Consent
and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 102-30.
fetishizing of "suffering," Boucicault imagines the frontier embodied in
Wahnotee as a pleasurable and non-essentialized shuttling between vari-
ous overlapping and interweaving performances of the self-an amalga-
mated drama where the fluidity of this frontier fantasy stands in stark con-
trast to the monopathic characters of the main plot. Unlike Zoe's anxious
role-playing that limits her to her blackness and trades on her suffering,
Wahnotee's performance stitches together a range of identities that allow
him both to feel passionately for Paul and to avenge him. The pleasure
involved in this performance springs from all of the ways it avoids melo-
drama's insistence on "re-collecting" one's suffering self as one goes
down the path to self-destruction. For an antebellum American audience
dependent on the melodramatic fetishizing of good taste, Wahnotee
offered this audience another flavor of American identity.
The Frontier Freak
When The Octoroon finished its brief initial run at the Winter Garden in
New York City in 1859, and after simultaneous performances at both the
Old and the New Bowery Theatres in 1860, it traveled uptown to the
stage at P. T. Barnum's American Museum. As theatre historian George
C. D. Odell suggests, it landed at Barnum's Museum "to reap the golden
harvest of provincial awe," for it "ran comfortably to mid-March, large-
ly aided by the presence in the hall of freaks of Barnum's What is it? a
'most marvelous living creature found near the source of the River
Gambia,' a combination of gorilla body and human intelligence."
As we can see in the figures that follow, taken from a rare dou-
ble-sided theatrical broadside, part of the "pleasure" of going to
Barnum's Museum on 10 March 1860 was not only seeing Boucicault's
popular work, but also encountering Barnum's equally popular freak.
They were two sides, as it were, of the same aesthetic experience. As we
can see from these images, what attracted audience members to the play
was not only the drama's sensational steamboat fires and the relentless
hunting of the villain by a tomahawk-wielding Indian, such as we see in
Figure 1, but also the strange and perplexing creature we see in Figure 2.
For as the broadside relates, this creature, presented as the "Missing
Link" in human evolution, would be displayed in between the acts of the
melodrama about cross-racial love on the southern frontier. What you
got as an audience member, I want to suggest, was a two-for-one deal:
two "freaks" for the price of one.
42 George C. D. Odell, Annals of the Nnv York Stage, volume 8: 1857-1865 (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1931), 254.
Figure 1: Broadside from Boucicault's The Octoroon at Barnum's
Museum, 10 March 1860, front. Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre
Collection, Houghton Library.
Figure 2: Broadside from Boucicault's The Octoroon at Barnum's
Museum, 10 March 1860, back. Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre
Collection, Houghton Library.
Figure 3: Detail from the front of the broadside pictured in Figure 1.
Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.
Half-man, half-ape, Barnum's What is It? drew a crowd because
it was an amalgamation, and Boucicault's play is perfectly paired with it
because the play is also an amalgamation. There are the amalgamations
that are Zoe and Wahnotee, but the play itself, with its two different plots,
was a generic hybrid, an amalgamation, as welL The main plot was a
melodrama, though a self-conscious one, scripting character and action as
natural and essentialized, and deploying standard character types and set
pieces. The subplot, by contrast, was a new mode of drama, trafficking
in a more performative conceptualization of identity in the context of
the frontier, recalibrating the meaning such stereotypical figures as the
Indian could have on/ for the ideology of the play. In short, like the
nature of its melodramatic heroine, The Octoroon was both "black-and-
If we turn our attention to the broadside again and focus on the
section of it directly below Figure 1, we can see how the presence of
Barnum's freak has permeated, quite literally Boucicault's play (Figure 3).
In this space, where The Octoroon's cast is enumerated, we see an inverted
image of What is It? that has bled through the paper and becomes, as
Wahnotee did to M'Closky, a ghostly presence haunting the characters of
Boucicault's play. While this is, of course, inadvertent, and can be traced
to the printer's failure to have used sufficiently thick paper stock or to
have put too much ink on the press, we cannot also help but read this tan-
talizing mistake symbolically: hybridity defmes not just What is It?, Zoe,
and Wahnotee, but all of the characters in this play, and by extension, all
of the people seeing this performance. "What is It?" was the question
Barnum insisted his audience ask of his creature, but it was also the ques-
tion that both Barnum's and Boucicault's shows made their audience ask
of themselves.
What is also evident about both performances is that the drive
to question one's own identity was at least partially generated by redefm-
ing what the frontier might mean in antebellum America. For, in addition
to being sold as a freakish creature who refused categorization, Barnum's
"amalgamation" was also sold, in several instances, as "The Wild Man of
the Prairies," a creature discovered in "the wilds of California," where
"for the last 10 months it has been living with a tribe of Indians."43 The
broadside gestures towards this same idea, for at the bottom of Figure 3,
we can see how it is being paired with a "Black Sea Lion" and a "Grizzly
Bear," both "just arrived from California." All of these attractions,
Barnum suggests, are frontier creatures, even if What is It? is the most
important in that it fixates directly on the notion of human identity. To
be sure, Barnum often changed the supposed origin of What is It? to cap-
italize on the interests of different audiences, but what is important here
is the parallel between Barnum's frontier amalgamation and Boucicault's
Wahnotee, who was one as well. Showcasing What is It? between the acts
of The Octoroon thus made sense aesthetically. Just as Wahnotee's per-
formance resisted the melodramatic ideology of the frontier-noble sav-
age versus ruthless killer-What is It? pushed against the same ideology
that insisted on a clear "black-or-white" line dividing savagery from civi-
What is It?, however, also achieved something as an entr'acte
spectacle that Wahnotee could never do. Barnum's freak radically altered
the stage machinery that insulated its audience from the presence of this
performative identity, bringing them face to face with a kind of radically
"nondescript" performance of the self. In Currier and Ives' print of
What is It? at Barnum's American Museum (Figure 4), we encounter a
performance with none of The Octoroon's formal mechanics to work
through, no plot twists to account for, no character development to fol-
low. As James W Cook has shown, What is It? was a black man from New
York City; unlike other Barnum freaks-the Siamese twins, Chang and
3 James W Cook, The Arts rf Deception: Plqying With Fraud in the Age rf Barnum
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 133.
Figure 4: Circus Poster, "What is It?" or "Man Monkey," ca. 1860, lithograph by
Currier and Ives. Courtesy of the Collection of The New York Historical Society.
Eng, or the dwarf, Tom Thumb, for instance-the various actors who
played What is It? throughout its tenure at the American Museum, were,
as a contemporary writer noted of one of them, "unexceptional."44 The
identity of What is It? as a freak was entirely a matter of performance,
and thus when he thrilled audience members, he was simultaneously
highlighting how performative identity really was. If, in other words,
Boucicault's dramaturgical innovation involved the aesthetic encounter
between the main plot and subplot, What is It? energized audiences by
confronting them clirecdy and tangibly with the question of identity-an
identity, as the lithograph illustrates, that could be observed, experienced,
and even touched by an entire middle-class family. Moreover, Barnum's
refusal to pin down What is It?-it was both man and ape, African and
Western, black and white-helped accentuate not the terror of social
blurriness, but rather the pleasure of performative identity, for as the lith-
ograph's caption states of Barnum's creature: "He is playful as a Kitten and
in every wqy pleasinl,J intereslinl,J and amusing. "This language may have been
used to alleviate middle-class fears of amalgamation: the caption oblique-
ly reassures us that What is It? is not the savage black rapist of the white
American imagination. Instead, it is presented as being as playful as a kit-
44 Ibid., 128.
ten, but a creature nevertheless "pleasing, interesting, and amusing" for
all of the ways it flirted with identity itself as an amalgamation. like
Barnum's exhibit, therefore, Boucicault's self-conscious melodrama was
pleasurable precisely because it offered to its audience in its vibrant sub-
plot what this same group of citizens had been told would not be toler-
ated in the main plot: identity as an amalgamated, "black-and-white" per-
In this way, Boucicault's play, like the spectacle of What is It?,
used its critical distance from the melodrama, with its black-or-white ide-
ology, to develop a new kind of performative practice, one epitomized in
a scene that occurs at the end of the play. In this scene, Salem Scudder
condemns a group of white settlers who are bent on lynching Wahnotee
for the murder of Paul.
Here's a pictur' for a civilized community to afford: yon-
der, a poor, ignorant savage, and round him a circle of
hearts, white with revenge and hate, thirsting for his
blood: you call yourselves judges-you ain't- you're a
jury of executioners. It is such scenes as these that bring
disgrace upon our Western life (485).
Here, Boucicault again complicates the "moral stereotyping" of melo-
drama, for it is the settlers, not the Indian, who are the "savages" in their
"thirsting for .. . blood." With this kind of role-swapping and racial
remarking, the scene undercuts the melodramatic ideology of the fron-
tier even as it gestures towards a new kind of performative practice that
understood subjectivity itself as something "black-and-white."
Moreover, by dubbing this moment both a "pictur"' and a
"scene" - a kind of theatrical spectacle-Boucicault also highlights the
self-consciously theatrical nature of the "Western life" Scudder outlines:
the frontier is not so much a historical or geographical boundary as a set
of performative practices inflected by history and geography. By pre-
senting the frontier as something always already a "scene," The Octoroon
usefully illustrates one configuration of these performative practices, a
configuration that offers both an alternative to the melodramatic mode
and evidence of exactly how fungible the concept of the frontier really
was. In linking frontier performance to hybrid identity, What is It? also
coded the frontier as a performative practice. To see What is It?, in other
words, was to see the frontier enacted. More important, Barnum's refusal
to categorize the creature by referring to it as a "nondescript" effectively
avoided the scripting of the frontier as the ideological extension of man-
Figure 5:Carte de visite, "What is It? and Leopard Boy." Courtesy of the Harvard
Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.
ifest destiny r ~ d Americar1 imperial power.
In essence, Boucicault's play did three things simultaneously.
First, it destabilized the melodramatic mode by alienating the audience
from the main plot's melodramatic investments, and pointed up the way
melodrama's "black-or-white" mode, which could not tolerate figures
who were "black-and-white," had become the common language for the
articulation of racial power in America. Second, the pleasure involved in
undermining the melodramatic mode laid the groundwork for the way
Boucicault then receded the frontier through Wahnotee as an alternative
to the melodramatic modes of identity. Finally, by focusing on the fact
that the play was put on in the same venue where Barnum presented
What is It?, we see how Boucicault's version of the frontier generated a
new kind of performative practice that opened up the meaning of the
frontier even as it substantively framed identity differently. If "[e]very-
body talk[ed] about the 'Octoroon,' wonder[ed] about the 'Octoroon,'
[and went] to see the 'Octoroon,"' as the reviewer for the New York Times
stated, then this drama played a vital role in revealing antebellum America
to itself. Punctuated by the entr'acte spectacle of What is It?, Boucicault's
play showed its audience how a stage performance could re-script what it
meant to perform or "act" as an American off-stage as well.
If we study the carte de visite from Barnum's American Museum,
(Figure 5), then we see both the kind of amalgamated identity being per-
formed and the tenor of its performance. On the right we see What is
It?, kitted out in boxing gloves and his "wild man" suit, and to the left we
see Barnum's "Leopard Boy," a young black boy whose body was covered
with white splotches, generated by a rare form of albinism, also sporting
boxing gloves. Taken as a whole, this image is a blur of racial categoriza-
tion: the white boxing gloves on the otherwise dark figure of What is It?
highlight his racial mixing by figuring him, literally, as both black-and-
white. To an even greater degree, Leopard Boy reinforces this racial amal-
gamation by again, literally, figuring in his body the racial mixing going
on- he is, as was abundantly clear to Barnum's audience, both black-and-
white. Yet it is the arrangement and narrative of the scene that most dra-
matically punctuates the effect of both Barnum's freaks and Boucicault's
"freak." As with The Octoroon, the scene of this image is natural and wild,
not Africanized or exotic, a cognate for the frontier in the antebellum
American imagination, thus helping to code both of Barnum's freaks as
frontier figures. What is even more startling about this image, however, is
the narrative they perform. While it is clearly meant to evoke a boxing
match, it is also clearly not about their sparring with each other, or, for
that matter, their involvement with each other. If it is a boxing match, in
other words, it is evidently not about the contest between the two figures.
With their three-quarter profiles, and the directness, even aggressiveness,
of their body language- particularly Leopard Boy's crossed arms-the
image suggests a kind of combativeness with the viewer, a steady and
unflinching return of the viewer's gaze. What this image captures is far
different from the Currier and Ives' depiction of What is It? as safe and
"playful as a kitten" (Figure 4); rather, it frames these figures as danger-
ous, aggressive, and self-aware, aware of their own socially problematic
identity as "black-and-white" and, through the performance involved in
this image, committed to pushing that identity right up in the face of the
viewer. Like Wahnotee's smashing of the camera, these figures don't play
by the rules of melodramatic identity-they are not content to espouse
the black or white dictums of melodrama. Rather, if we look at the pen-
dant hanging from the chest of What is I t? depicting both the profile and
name of George Washington, perhaps the most celebrated of American
figures, we see how these figures are making a claim to Americanness,
aggressively performing another idea of what it means to "act"
American, this time in black and white. If the performance of figures like
Wahnotee, Leopard Boy, and What is It? were "pleasurable," therefore,
these pleasurable performances were also provocative and political. And
unlike the doomed octoroon who perishes at the end of Boucicault's play,
these two aggressive figures subversively refuse to disappear from an
American social scene that was always already "amalgamated."
One of the most enduring and pervasive idioms that emerged in nine-
teenth-century post-bellum American culture was spectacle performance.
The exuberant scale of these illusionary shows is greatly indebted to the
tradition of nineteenth-century grand spectacle drama, circus "specs,"
and public amusements that entertained a growing working and middle
class whose appetite for leisure activities created new cultural outlets.
Spurred on by a robust economy of consumers, theatrical entrepreneurs
sought amplified special effects and novel sensations in order to stay
competitive and attract large audiences. Cultural historian Jack Kasson
notes that urban modernization and mass culture in the United States
were produced, in part, by a gro\ entertainment and amusement
As a theatrical medium, spectacle production was flexible and
constantly being reinvigorated. The dramaturgy of spectacle staging
bridged all levels of theatrical production, from the pictorialism of Steele
Mackaye to the refined naturalism of David Belasco, from Wild West
Shows to live action, proto-cinematic extravaganzas like Ben Hur.z
I Jack F Kasson, Amusing the Million: Conry Island at the Turn of the Century (New
York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 109.
Ben Hur followed the stupendous staging of Quo Vadis? at the Broadway
Theatre, New York. Both productions arrived on stages in England and America during
the 1899-1900 season. Quo Vadis? was a dramatization of Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel on
the decline of Rome and the persecution of Christians. It was staged simultaneously in
some cities. Ben Hur was adapted from a best-selling novel by Lew Wallace on the life of
Christ. It depicted the birth of Christianity on a gloriously bloody scale. One of its chief
attractions was a live-action chariot race. After running a season in New York, it was taken
on the road by numerous companies. Quo Vadis? was first filmed in 1913, while Ben Hur
was produced as a short in 1907; both were made into feature films by 1925. Barnard
Hewitt, Theatre U.S.A. 1665-1957 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1959), 273; Nicholas A.
Vardac, Stage to Screen: Theatrical Origins of Ear!J Film. From David Gamck to D. W. Griffith
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949), 76-80, 89-151. For studies of early film
technique, see David Robinson, From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 136, 155, and Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs,
Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Ear!J Fealllre Film (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1997), 3-17.
Nineteenth-century spectacle performance introduced sophisticated
technical advances to stage production, created complex, multilayered
scenic action, and induced emotional excitement and visual stimulation,
as well as a sense of movement and actuality, especially as realistic flour-
ish became more and more pronounced. The appeal of spectacles
spanned civic performances, amusement centers, commercial theatre, and
early cinema by developing modes of visual media accessible to all strata
of society.
Two of the leading spectacle producers of the late nineteenth
century were brothers Imre (1845-1919) and Bolossy (1847-1932) Kiralfy.
Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, the I<:iralfy Brothers, as they billed them-
selves, started their careers touring Europe as specialty dancers. Shortly
after arriving in the United States, they started choreographing and pro-
ducing spectacles in which visual narrative and dance predominated,
beginning with a revival of the scandalous burlesque The Black Crook
(1873). The production ran eighteen seasons at Niblo's Garden Theatre.3
The brothers had a bitter breakup in 1887 which neither publicly
addressed, although Bolossy intimated that his brother was making busi-
ness deals behind his back.
Working independently, Bolossy leaned
toward fantasy and fable; Imre embraced the progressive era armed with
science, technology, and the industrial machinery that accelerated eco-
nomic growth and individual enterprise.
In the summer of 1887, Imre brought spectacle entertainment to
new levels of technical sophistication with a blockbuster outdoor staging
of The Fall of a ~ l o n at St. George, Staten Island. The following summer,
he returned to produce Nero, or the Destruction of Rome on an even grander
scale. The productions advanced electronic and technical features of
staging with eye-popping effects. They employed thousands and cost
upwards of half a million dollars. Hundreds of thousands of spectators
traveled to St. George from June to August to watch Babylon fall and
Rome burn. The widespread appeal of open-air commercial spectacles,
such as a ~ l o n and Nero, translated Judeo-Christian religious narratives
into edifying popular performance. These pseudo-biblical stories of reli-
3 Lincoln Kirstein, Dance: A Short History of Classical Theatrical Dancing (New
York: Dance Horizons, 1969), 348.
The dissolution of their partnership at the end of the theatrical season was
publicly announced in March 1887. Imre reportedly entered into partnership with
Edward G. Gilmore of Niblo's Garden Theatre. "Theatrical Gossip," New York Times, 10
March 1887, 5. For Bolossy's account of the breakup and his career, see "Bolossy Tells
His Side" New York Times, 22 August 1888, 3, and Bolossy Kiralfy, Bofossy Kirafy, Creator of
Great Musical Spectacles: An Autobiography, ed. Barbara M. Barker (Ann Arbor: UMI
Research Press, 1988).
gious persecution, perseverance, and the spiritual advent of civilized
humanity offered a pageantry of history that valorized the struggle of
"outsiders" seeking the promise of freedom. Dramatic dance-spectacle
eliminated concentration on the spoken word, replacing speech with a
universal language of embodied motion through time and space. The
immediacy of episodic, panoramic action, and the experiential thrill of
watching spellbinding tales, fed the popular imagination with a historical
mythology that promoted the moral backbone of a new empire.
In these two productions, Imre K.iralfy harnessed both produc-
tion and distribution methods. The Kiralfy style engineered an aesthetic
of industrial entertainment. The latter's enlargement exemplifies a mesh
of commercial motivations, experimentation, and cross-fertilization
among art, industry, and mass culture, which established conventions that
shaped mainstream American attitudes toward art and culture. In an age
when industrialization, urbanization, and immigration were transforming
American life, the merger of art, science, and industry spawned institu-
tional systems dedicated to the cultural improvement and social advance-
ment of all classes.s Commercial entertainment was no exception. Imre
Kiralfy's ambitious productions of Babylon and Nero signaled the ascen-
dancy of an industrial art form.
Between 1870 and 1900, the United States asserted itself as
world leader in industry, manufacturing, and mining. Economic invest-
ment in transportation, raw resources, technology, and low-cost energy
fueled industrialization, and a large, cheap labor force accelerated its
growth. According to census data from 1850 to 1930, the foreign-born
population of the United States increased from 2.2 million to 14.2 mil-
lion, reflecting large-scale immigration from Europe during most of this
period.6 Records indicate that almost half of New York City's nearly one
5 In the later half of the nineteenth century, educational institutes were found-
ed by industrial tycoons to train young men and women in applied sciences and art. They
were guided by philanthropic principles devoted to advancing common cultural values
and social betterment through policies of open enrollment and insrruction in commercial
art, architecture, and engineering. Two that have endured are Cooper Union in New York
and The Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. In 1859, Peter Cooper opened the Cooper
Institute (later the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art). One of the
first board members of the institute was William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York
Evening Post. Anthony]. Drexel founded the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Indusrry
in 1891. See ''The Copper Union," Harper's Week{y, 30 March 1861: 200.
6 Campbell]. Gibson and Emily Lennon, "Hisrorical Census Statistics on the
Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-1990," Population Division Working
Paper No. 29 (February 1999), U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division,
http:/ / (accessed October 15, 2006).
million people in 1870 were immigrants.? By 1880, 6.6 million of the
more than fifty million people in the United States were foreign born.
Within this national environment of swelling ethnic diversity and mod-
ernization, the transnational sensibilities of an eclectic mainstream
launched an economic engine in the entertainment industry that would,
in turn, model universal values and the cultural design of nationhood.
Imre and Bolossy Kiralfy, ages twenty-two and eighteen, along
with two brothers and three sisters sailed into New York harbor in 1869.
Their first appearance was in George L. Fox's Hickory Dickory Dock. 8 Led
by the two elder brothers, the family of dancers performed Hungarian
folk dances. While touring European cities, the brothers schooled them-
selves in the Paris boulevard theatres and variety theatres in London and
they also studied the grander confections of the Paris Opera and English
pantomimes. With cultural trade in European novelties increasing during
the era, the climate was immediately apparent to Imre. On his arrival in
New York City, Imre recalled that "I saw instantly that the great popular
want in America was spectacle, spectacle that was more or less familiar to
Europeans. Spectacular dramas there were, but they were on a very small
scale, and greatly deficient in either colour or magnificence."9
In partnership, the brothers traveled back and forth to Europe to
purchase exclusive rights to popular productions, to contract English,
French, Italian, and German dancers, or to import sets and costumes, and
to hire Italian and French ballet masters to choreograph the ballets. A
Kiralfy production always promoted its continental credentials. In fact,
the family motto was ''All the World's a Stage."lO The early ballets
employed two hundred or more dancers, with the action of the episodes
characteristically expressed in mime or tableaux against extravagant, pic-
turesque panoramas. Glamorous, leggy, high kicking "belles" executing
precision choreography earned Imre an epitaph as the "pioneer of 'girl'
shows of the first rank."
By the 1880s, the name Kiralfy was not only
Ibid. 44.5 percent of the city's 942,292 inhabitants were foreign-born.
8 The family of dancers included brothers .Arnold and Ronald and sisters
Haniola, Katie, and Emilie.
9 Imre Kiralfy, "My Reminiscences," The Strand 37.222 (June 1909): 646.
10 Imre Kiralfy, Clippings, Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public
Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center.
11 "Imre Kiralfy's Work," Dallas Morning News, 15 June 1919, 2; "Masks and
Faces," The Nah'onal Police Gazette 53.598, 2 March 1889, 2.
synonymous with quality dance spectacle but was attached to ebullient,
bustling scenes around town and effervescent literature; as "gay as a
Kiralfy spectacle," and of the "Kiralfy species" became comparative
The Kiralfy's pluck and enterprise garnered a meteoric rise as
the most sought after spectacle producers of their generation. They not
only embodied the storied myth of meritocracy in the land of opportu-
nity, they transformed it into spectacle.
Dance historian Barbara Barker observes that Imre understood
American audiences, "especially the steadily growing immigrant audience
with its multiplicity of languages, its need for affordable entertainment,
and its love of spectacle and visual theatre."13 Imre was famous for his
ability to generate rhythm and patterns with enormous numbers of peo-
ple on stage. He combined fantastic tableaux and transformation
scenes-popular in English pantomimes-with a keen eye for visual nar-
rative. Behind the dizzying array of moving effects, storylines unfolded
tales of democratization through the virtues of patriotism, religious tol-
erance, and moral fortitude. Imre participated in the national celebration
commemorating the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's "found-
ing" of America with a production in 1892 of Columbus, and the Discovery
of America at the Madison Square Garden Theatre. Fifteen thousand spec-
tators saw the production.
4The ballets reinforced the emergent histori-
cal narrative of American progress with scenic parades personifying
modern conveniences, such as Edison's Electric Light and the Fulton
steamer. The following year it was featured at the Auditorium Theatre at
the Chicago World's Colombian Exposition. The international exposition
was a focal point of the national anniversary, showcasing American inge-
nuity and its increasing power.
In the competitive establishment of New York theatre managers
and producers, Imre was a "Midas among showmen," writes Edward
Marks.ts His shows turned profits for his backers and himself and he was
"Buffalo Bill's Good-bye," New York Times, 1 April 1887, 8; "Books and
Authors," Christian Union 45.26, 25 June 1892, 1259.
3 Barbara Barker, "Imre Kiralfy's Patriotic Spectacles: Columbus, and the
Discovuy of America (1892-1 893) and America (1893)," Dance Chronicle 17.2 (1994): 152.
For a detailed account of the production, see ibid. See also David Glassberg,
American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Earfy Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 27.
15 Edward B. Marks, They All Had Glamour: From the Swedish Nightingale to the
Naked Latfy (New York: J. Messner, 1944), 22.
described as "ingenious and shrewd."t6 Irrue believed himself "a great
chef who placed before his customers a superb meal, rather than simply
a jumble of rich food."t
The organization, labor, and coordination of
mounting and producing these feasts was itself part of the spectacle.
When Imre's production of America arrived at the Metropolitan Opera
House in 1893, following its premiere at the Chicago World's Fair, Lzje
magazine lauded it as an intoxication of color, light, and form in which
"Kiralfy out-Kiralfy's himself."tB
As a youth, Irrue studied magic, music, and civil engineering. He
relates that by the age of twelve, he spent "hours and days studying the
railway locomotives," resulting in an attempt to build a motor for a horse-
less vehicle.t9 The "color of prismatic effects" and "all kinds of specta-
cle" fascinated him.
0 One enduring impression was a visit to the
International Exhibition in the Champ de Mars, Paris, in 1867. Forty
years later he wrote: "This was the supreme achievement in the way of
pageants and exhibitions. Not a single detail escaped me. I went about
daily viewing this great spectacle, in whole and in parts from every point
of view."2t With his brother, Irrue began to erect theatrical exhibitions-
live animated tracks of swirling pageantry that consolidated hundreds of
chorus girls into dazzling, mechanized loops, spirals, and blocks.
One of the Kiralfys' flrst explosive successes was their 1883 bal-
let-spectacle Excelsior which opened in the three-thousand seat Niblo's
Garden Theatre. First created under the direction of the Italian ballet
master Luigi Manzotti at La Scala, Milan, it was imported to the Eden
Theatre, Paris, before reaching New York. Excelsior employed over four
hundred people. It was touted to cost $75,000 and boasted of advancing
"the stage at least one hundred years."22 An allegory of civilization,
16 "Mr. Gilmore's Plans," New York Times, 10 April1887, 9.
17 Barker, "Imre K.iralfy's Parriotic Spectacles," 152.
18 Lift 22.573, 21 December 1893: 399. Imre rransported his worldview
throughout Western Europe. He easily adapted the political content depending on the
counrry he was working in. In 1895, he celebrated British colonial rule in India as part of
his "Empire of India" Exhibition at Earl's Court, London, with a massive production of
India staged in the six-thousand seat Empress Thearre. See John M. McKenzie, Orienta/ism:
History, Theory and the Arts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 196-197.
19 Imre Kiralfy, "My Reminiscences," 646.
20 Ibid.
2! Ibid.
22 Excelsior, Program, Niblo's Garden Theatre, 21 August 1883, Billy Rose
Excelsior tracked the "progress of science, thought, mechanics, freedom,
invention, art, and civilization" from the beginning of time to the current
age, the age of illurnination-electricity.23 Episodes traveled over time
and across countries personifying a struggle between Light (Madelaine
Nani) and Darkness (Ettore Coppini), between the grace of freedom and
the tyranny of repression. Civilization literally danced forward, but
progress was laborious and fraught with the threat of failure and danger
at every turn. Recent feats of human invention, from the telegraph to the
opening of the Suez Canal (in 1869) unfolded, illustrating the advance of
engineering, transportation, technology, and communication. The rustic
countryside and the sand-whipped desert gave way to travel by steamship
and harmonious trade among nations. The recently completed Mount
Cenis tunnel-the first railroad tunnel connecting France and Italy-was
depicted from start to finish with a train of flag-waving passengers
appearing out of it.2
Scenic displays were synchronized with live action
and grand, act-ending ballets to symbolize the beauty of modernization.
Civil progress was not only the great commonality uniting all races and
religions, but it also championed the moral choice to change the world.
The monumental finale, illustrating the "Triumph of Light over
Darkness" and the "Peaceful Union of Nations" promoted electricity as
the next revelatory invention. The Kiralfys' enlisted the help of the
Edison Electric Light Company for the final "Ballet of Light." Five hun-
dred glass globes were lowered from the ceiling while the sets sank and a
young woman representing mankind's hope-Excelsior-rose on a huge
earth. Hundreds of dancers with "electrified costumes" held battery
powered wands that illuminated the stage with incandescent light.25
Characteristic of the Kiralfy style was condensing disparate com-
ponents of mythic personifications, historical events and artifacts, and
contemporary references into a kaleidoscope of sensate effects. The
physical actuality of changing patterns and forms shifted against moving
panoramas of temporal phenomena. A reporter for the Brookfyn Eagle
wryly noted empirical and factual discrepancies in the scenographic illu-
Theatre Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center.
23 Ibid.
24 Mount Cenis was operational by 1871.
25 Reputedly, Thomas Edison himself oversaw the installations for the pro-
duction. See Bolossy K.iralfy, Bolos!] Kira!fj, 117. See also Kirstein, Dance.
One scene represents the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge
looks about three feet wide and 600 feet high. Several
scores of ships in full sail are moving briskly under it.
Palm trees grow on either shore and Indians sit on pic-
turesque rocks around the Brooklyn entrance. At the
New York end of the bridge is the capital at
Stepping out of Niblo's Garden Theatre in lower Manhattan, audiences
could marvel at the bounty of modern inventions occurring outside the
auditorium. Towering over the streets stood the newest feat of American
engineering, the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883. The new city
was taking shape. Excelsior infused the encroaching chaotic and jagged
experience of cosmopolitan growth, and of national and religious differ-
ences, with the dreamy luminosity of infinite possibility.
Reflecting back over his life in theatre, Imre felt gratified by the
"thought that I may have helped to raise the standard of spectacular
entertainment and that I have contributed something to the artistic needs,
as well as to the gaiety of the nations."
When, in 1887, Imre was enlist-
ed to direct the outdoor summer dramatic offering at St. George, Staten
Island, he was inspired to experiment beyond the constraints of indoor
architecture: "no theatre would serve to exploit the vast pictures which I
began to conceive in my mind," he wrote of this period.28The scope of
Imre's vision moved beyond interior spaces. It now emerged out of the
landscape itself.
Kiralfy was contracted by Canadian-born businessman Erastus
Wiman (1834-1904). Wiman was a staunch advocate of commercial
union, or unrestricted reciprocity (free trade), between Canada and the
U.S. and served as director of the Western Union telegraph company. A
committed family man, he lived on Staten Island where he was instru-
mental in developing bridge and rail lines to and around the island in
partnership with Robert Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio
Railroad.29 With transportation and ferry service under his control,
26 Brook!Jn Eagle, 19 August 1883, 2.
27 Imre Kiralfy, "My Reminiscences," 649.
28 Ibid., 646.
29 They constructed a railway bridge to New Jersey. ''Wiman, Erastus,"
Dictionary of Canadian Biograpi?J Online, Library and Archives Canada, http:/ /www.collec- (accessed 17 July, 2006)
Wiman opened the Staten Island Amusement Company in the mid 1880s.
Day-trippers could ferry over to the island to watch the Metropolitan
Baseball Club, attend the circus-laid out on 11 acres-or, by evening,
see wholesome entertainment.
For his ftrst season at St. George, Imre planned the "Grand
Historical Biblical Dramatic Musical Spectacle," The Fall o/ Babylon. Both
Bai?Jlon and the following year's spectacle Nero, or the Destruction o/ Rome
originated in Ohio with the Order of Cincinnatus. The Order was named
after the legendary Roman general/ farmer, who was held in post-revolu-
tionary America as a symbol of republican virtue. The civic organization
sponsored extravagant outdoor historical pageants and parades. Christian
values and democratic ideals underscored themes of "civilizing" mis-
sions. Works produced for the Cincinnati festivals, such as Montezuma and
the Conquest o/ Mexico and The Fall o/ Babylon, struck chords of righteous
conquest over barbaric, pagan cultures.30 These civic spectacles were the
creation of John Rettig, an artist and scene designer. Imre magnified
Rettig's design into a living landscape that engulfed the spectator in his-
torical phenomena.
Babylon was based on the Book of Daniel from the Old
Testament and it illustrated events surrounding Daniel's prophecy of the
city's destruction "tolerably strictly."31 Great care was taken to sanction
what was seen as accurate and educate the public with lengthy program
notes detailing the history of Babylon. The program highlighted descrip-
tions of the enslavement of the Jews as well as the divine design of that
civilization's destruction. Like a storybook, action scenes blended into
visual tableaux and vice versa. Three sequential parts brought viewers to
the city, led them inside the city, and let them witness its fall- all within
two hours. These sensational vistas allowed spectators to arrive at the
exterior of the city in time for the grand entrance of Belsahzzar, who was
fttst seen returning from the hunt before the mythical walls of the city.
Suddenly, great numbers of Persians appeared in red and blue, preparing
to attack the city, and during the ensuing battle, the soldiers "discharged
a copious flight of arrows at the orchestra."32 In the second section, the
30 Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry, 27. The order produced numerous
large-scale spectacles for the city of Cincinnati. See The Fall if Balrylon, Programs, Billy
Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln
Center; "The Cincinnati Festival," New York Times, 7 September 1883, 5; "The Ballet Girls
Struck," New York Times, 18 June 1890, 1.
31 "Fall of Babylon," New York Times, 17 June 1887, 2. The ballet director for
both productions was Errore Coppini.
32 "Babylon's Fall," New York Times, 26 June 1887, 5.
walls "disappeared" before spectators, who gained entrance to a magnif-
icent palace, lake, and legendary Tower of Babel. Within, there were vic-
tory and wedding processions. Scenes of drunken orgies ornamented
with dancing girls were juxtaposed with the desecration of religious icons
and lamentations of the Jews by the riverbank, while a variety of mes-
merizing interludes passed over the stage before the viewing stands,
including sports and races, dancing, choruses, and even a parade of
''Africans with animals." Finally, came the "wild" feast of Belsahzzar. The
frenzy escalated to the sudden illumination of the Writing on the Wall.
Daniel entered to decipher the Hebrew script, delivering the divine judg-
ment: "Thou hast been weighed in the balance and found wanting." With
that the Euphrates was drained, the Persians physically attacked the city
with catapults, the great walls fell, and the city burned.33
The production promised to be the "finest ever scene in this
country," and did not disappoint.34 It opened on 22 June with plenty of
advance buzz. The immensity of the undertaking included a running tally
of the army of labor and huge costs involved. K.iralfy transported the
sets from Cincinnati to Staten Island in five train cars. In addition to man-
aging a cast of over one thousand performers, three hundred carpenters
were involved in building a 450 by 250 foot stage and mounting twenty
carloads of scenery.35 Estimates on lighting equipment alone ranged from
$20,000 to $150,000, which included a centralized system for regulating
electric lights.36 One report noted that the payroll exceeded $27,000 week-
ly.37 Technical problems hounded many of K.iralfy's productions and on
opening night, the show was delayed one hour, the much-anticipated fiery
blaze consuming the city fizzled, only a few palaces flamed, the tower did
not burn down, and there was merely a "slight change before the walls
slid in."38
33 Compiled from program notes. The Fall of Bal!Jion, Program, 1889, Programs,
Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln
Center. The production opened on 25 June 1887.
34 "Staten Island Attractions," New York Times, 24 April1887, 7.
35 "Watching Babylon Fall," New York Times, 19 June 1887, 9; ~ c i e n t
Babylon's Fall," New York Times, 12 June 1887, 9.
36 See for example, "Making Great Preparations," New York Times, 23 June 1887.
37 "Watching Babylon Fall," 9.
38 "Babylon's Fall," 5.
Once corrected, Babylon fell gloriously throughout the rest of
the summer. It was the event. It had everything: sumptuous colors, scant-
ily clad showgirls, and, to some, moral fiber. It earned praise for its "intel-
ligence" and gained the respect of the social elite, who filled the grand-
stand nightly.39 Six nights a week thousands of people shuttled over to the
island to attend and extra ferries were added to accommodate the
crowds.40 Group excursions from surrounding counties became com-
mon, including a contingent from the Order of Cinncinatus, who
remounted a more Kiralfyesque Barylon in Ohio the following summer.
"Great as the success of this experiment was," Imre stated, "I
had something still more ambitious in my mind. This was Nero."41
Carrying a cast of two thousand, the format of Nero followed the same
montage-like momentum, shifting from massive patterns of rhythm and
colors to intimate close-ups or action packed battles, Olympic Games,
and chariot races. Like Barylon, Nero brought to life a time and place,
"where luxury and crime ran riot."42 The cautionary tale intensified vio-
lence and bloodshed with heroic gladiatorial combats and the ominous
slaughter of Christians in the Circus Maximus. It concluded with Nero
dying as the city dissolves in flames. Alongside history culled from
Tacitus and Seutonis, Nero introduced fictional characters and tragic
romance in order to enable "all who view this remarkable spectacle to be
transported in imagination to Early Rome and read through the ryesight, a
novel of love, adventure, cruelty, slavery, gladiatorial efforts, and tortures
of the early Christians."
It followed the story of Thirza, a Christian vir-
gin who successfully fends off the Emperor Nero by having her brother
kill her rather than become Nero's mistress. Unlike Thirza- the virtuous
virgin-Rome falls. All the pagan decadence of the city is swept away in
39 "A Wonderful Spectacle," New York Times, 17 July 1887, 9.
40 Attendance figures over the summer range from ten- to fifty-thousand peo-
ple, but it is not clear whether these are daily or weekly averages.
Imre Kiralfy, "My Reminiscences," 647. The brothers bickered publicly over
their roles in Nero, even after their breakup. Bolossy credited John Rettig of Cincinnati
with the creation of Nero, minus the ballet, and insisted that the staging and ballet were
his. The Order of Cincinnatus later sued Imre over copyright infringement. "Bolossy
Tells his Side," New York Times, 22 August 1888, 3; "Imre Kiralfy Sued," New York Times,
25 September 1888, 2.
42 Nero, or the Destruction of Rome, Program, 1890, Programs, Billy Rose Theatre
Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center.
3 Ibid.
the fiery flames of eternal purgatory as an illuminated cross and one hun-
dred floating angels, symbolizing the "Dawn of Christianity," ascend over
the blazing stage.
Imre wanted to create the feeling of being in a Roman amphithe-
atre for this production and he devised new means to realize this vision.
The proscenium opening of the stage was 465 feet wide. A chariot track
was set up around the stage. In order to expedite communication among
crew, section "heads," and pe.rformers over such a huge distance he set
up a central control from where he could "conduct" the performance.
"To do this," he explained, "I caused thirty electric bells, invisible and
inaudible to the public, to be placed on the stage at intervals, and so, by
a code of signals operated from a gigantic keyboard, I was master of the
situation." By pressing one button, he rang numerous bells in order to
keep all the singers and dancers in unison, which "greatly mystified the
S However, in practice, the performers could not always hear
the bells over the music of the orchestra. In order to shift massive
scenery, some of which was rwo to three stories high, Ki.ralfy built a cir-
cular rail track 800 feet in circumference far upstage to roll sets on stage.
The panoramic device trucked in fully loaded "pictures." One such won-
der was a riotous scene outside Nero's palace. Five hundred singers,
dancers, and extras positioned on steps and terraces were assembled in
the wings, then rolled on stage.46
Average attendance to Nero in July was reported as fifteen thou-
sand people a week.
7 This influx of consumers was a bonanza for trans-
portation systems and the economy of New York. For Nero, special trains
were arranged to bring people from Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, and
Pittsburgh or from Washington, D.C. , Baltimore, and Boston. The round-
trip fare included hotel and admission to grandstand seating. In addition,
rwo new ferries were constructed to carry thirty-five hundred people
each. The time schedule of the show (8:30-1 0:00) was geared to allow
ample time for the crowds to arrive and end early enough so that people
could be home at a comfortable hour. No less significant was P.T.
Barnum's interest. He snatched up both productions, hiring Kiralfy to
4 Advance press provided detailed accounts of the massive preparations. See
"Summer at St. George," New York Times, 25 April 1888, 5. "Rome Upon Rails," New York
Times, 8 June 1888, 9; "Kiralfy's Big Spectacle," New York Times, 24 June 1888, 3.
45 lmre Kiralfy, "My Reminiscences," 648.
6 Ibid.
47 "England Wants Nero," New York Times, 1 July 1888, 16.
package Nero into an action-packed circus spec for the London premiere
of "The Greatest Show on Earth" in 1889.
Imre demonstrated that he could transpose any production to
suit both given architectural or environmental space and audience. The
Olympia exhibition hall held seating for twelve-thousand people. Imre
had a stage installed along one-half of the great hall across from the
viewing stands. It was reportedly half a mile long. Over one-thousand
performers, danced, paraded, and battled across the arena. Camels joined
at least a dozen elephants in the menagerie of animals on view. The sheer
"audacity" of the show bedazzled London crowds.48 The "titanic" spec-
tacle was again transplanted to the New York Polo Grounds as the fea-
ture attraction opening the famed circus's 1890 season. 49 By this time, the
machinery of Rome's destruction had acquired the "agreeable habit of
falling with persistent regularity to the intense delight of thousands of
That summer, Babylon launched Barnum's own outdoor amuse-
ment center located in Oakland Gardens, Boston.5
The resort area was
also strategically situated near a transportation hub in order to move
thousands of people a day to and from the amusement park. The pro-
duction played twice a day for three months. Special viewing stands were
built with seating for ten thousand people. The stage was so long one
amused reporter noted that "by the time Daniel made his way across the
huge stage to the wall, the writing on it had long disappeared."S2
Clergy of all denominations attended both Babylon and Nero.
Wiman invited them and their families personally by letter with the offer
of free tickets. One pastor found Babylon blasphemous, protesting over
8 The production ran three months. "Nero," London Evening News and Post, 12
November 1889. Review quoted in A.H. Saxon, PT. Barnum: The Legend and the Man (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 320.
49 The spectacle was billed as "A Titanic, Imperial, Historical Spectacle of
Colossal Dramatic Realism, Gladiatorial Combats and Olympian Displays. Indisputably,
Immeasurably, Over-whelmingly the Most Majestic, Entrancing, and Surpassingly
Splendid and Realistic Spectacle of Any Age." The production reportedly grossed over
one million dollars. From Fred D. Pfening, Jr. "Spec-ology of the Circus, Part I,"
Bandwagon 47.6 (November-December 2003): 4-20. See also Saxon, PT. Barnum, 323.
50 "The Fall of Rome," New York Times, 9 April 1890, 8.
51 For a description of performances, see James S. Moy, "Imre Kiralfy's 1890
Boston Production of The Fall of Bai!Jion," Theatre History Studies 1 (1981): 20-28.
52 Quoted in Saxon, P. T. Barnum, 323.
the "slurring of the handwriting on the wall by a hundred chorus girls"
in the pages of the New York Evangelist. "The climax of the piece," he
charged, "is not God's hand but their legs."53 In his invitation to Nero, Wiman
The closing scenes of the life of Nero have always had
a special interest for the Christian world. The final tri-
umph of the cross is a sermon in itself, rising as it does,
amid the strains of the "Stabat Mater" above the ruins
of the great city whose terrible destruction is so vividly
set forth. 54
Within the Christian community there appears to have been more
charges of vulgarity. In response to those "short-sighted persons" who
were not won over by such spiritual refreshment, an article appeared in
Life claiming that Brother Wiman and Brother Kiralfy "deserve the grat-
itude of the Christian world for the evangelical propaganda they have
established on Staten Island in the grand ballet, Nero."55 It is a striking
statement, since J(jralfy and his family were Jewish. Yet both onstage and
off, the effort to exert respectability was rigorously upheld. During Nero's
run, three hundred male extras were fired for inappropriate behavior
toward female cast members.56
The stage was a medium of faith for Imre. To understand his
worldview, one only has the evidence of his earliest memories as a child
growing up in Budapest, where he not only experienced ethnic discrimi-
nation but witnessed from his doorstep the 1849 Austrian invasion and
occupation of his homeland. Terror and totalitarianism were repressive
forces to unite against. But he also came of age in the abundance of
European artistic experiment and scientific advance. The statuesque
merger of technology and art, symbolized by the Eiffel Tower (1889),
announced the wonders of modern life. Imre's work consistently per-
sonified a forward-looking spirit of optimism, independence, and com-
monality that could overcome intolerance, enslavement, and fear.
Imre Iillalfy fed the historical imagination with the splendors of
an emergent nationhood that consolidated democratic ideals of inde-
53 "The Fall of Babylon," New York Evangelist, 21 July 1887, 5.
54 Life, 20 September 1888.
55 Ibid.
56 "No Nonsense Tolerated at Nero," New York Times, 22 August 1888, 8.
pendence, possibility, and virtue in a contemporaneous idiom. With
Bai?Jion and Nero, he served his audiences a banquet. Industry and ideol-
ogy were assimilated into symbols of beauty and moral order. As ferries
shuttled back and forth in New York harbor to St. George, the recently
dedicated Statue of Liberty (1886) watched over the masses assembling
on the shore. At that very moment, on stage and off, the crowds could
feel the United States taking its place within western civilization. Imre
gave his audiences the popular want, the exhilaration of feeling a shared his-
tory, the immediacy of a land created out of individual labor and sacri-
fice, the sensation of hope, of a commonality that allowed a multitude of
people to believe that they were part of this new wondrous world, part
of its future, part of the myth.
On 1 December 1882, Freund's Dai/y Music and Drama inserted a short
paragraph in its general news section commenting on Irish-Americans
and the theatre. It reported that "the Irish are a curious people from a
theatrical point of view. Misrepresent any other nationality upon the
stage and there is a public protest immediately; but the Irish seem to
enjoy being caricatured. They pay their caricaturists liberally; the worse
the libel the greater the Irish popularity of the dramatist and actor."
Though the author's tone seems ironic, the comment also suggests both
his genuine puzzlement at the Irish-American community's apparent will-
ingness to see itself mocked, as well as his view that the stage Irishman
negatively depicted Irish-American culture. Yet I would argue that a more
local and nuanced reading of the late nineteenth-century stage
Irishman-especially as represented by the popular duo Harrigan and
Hart-shows how the Irish-American community learned to adapt its
identity to the demands of a diasporic culture as well as to the cosmo-
politan and often hostile environment of nineteenth-century New York.
Harrigan and Hart's songs reflect not only knowledge of local New York
Irish life, but also a fluid form that smoothly integrated other outside
influences. The resultant hybrid "stage Irishness" might have appeared
similar to its stage Irish ancestors, but it was in fact much more complex
and multi-faceted. Through their repeated performance, the songs syn-
thesized Irish and New York influences into a composite Irish-American
Beginning in 1871, Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart created
comedy sketches that displayed a range of ethnic types.
From 1879 to
I Freund's Dai!J Music and Drama, 1 December 1882, 2.
2 While Harrigan and Hart both reached the height of their popularity as part-
ners, contemporary critics and historians tend to primarily focus on Harrigan. Harrigan
wrote the play texts and song lyrics, which are both available for analysis. While critics
praised Hart for his blackface and women roles, Hart's influence on the team's success
seems more difficult to gauge due to the fleeting nature of performance. As a result of
the lasting written record of Harrigan's contribution, for the most part, this study will
focus on him. For more information on the pair, see Richard Moody, Ned Harrigan: From
Cor/ear's Hook to Herald Square (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1980).
their separation in 1885, Harrigan and Hart performed in full length plays
that generally featured the New York Irish as the heroes. Each play con-
tained four to six songs with lyrics written by Harrigan and music com-
posed by Harrigan's father-in-law, David Braham.3 These songs tran-
scended their dramatic context to create memorable and popular stage
characters that circulated widely in New York's diverse racial and ethnic
In "The Invention of Ethnicity," Kathleen Neils Conzen et al.
claim that collaboration within and between immigrant communities cre-
ates ethnic identities through a process of ex-pollination and contrast.
The authors suggest that these interactions compel immigrant communi-
ties to create, reinterpret, and renegotiate their symbols of ethnic identi-
ty. Harrigan and Braham's songs identified such tangible significant sym-
bols of Irish-American ethnic identity.
By establishing a sense of histo-
ry and community and by reestablishing "traditional" Irish male roles, the
images in the popular songs of Harrigan and Braham reconstructed Irish
ethnoculture even while they adapted it to specific New York City living
conditions. The establishment of New York Irish identity also involved
recognizing the influence of other groups on its formation. Thus, the tra-
ditional stage Irishman found his stage patois flavored with the rhythms
of his German, African American, and Italian neighbors, or found his
recollections of home juxtaposed with similar diasporic longings. "By
depicting the compatibility" of the often marginalized and denigrated
aspects of Irish-American life and culture, Harrigan and Braham's songs
"defuse[d] the hostility" of the dominant Anglo-American Protestant
middle and upper classes.s The attenuation of hostility (illustrated
through the shift in both critical attention and audience composition) led
to a degree of acceptance for Harrigan's New York Irish characters.
In t his essay, I explore how Harrigan and Braham's songs con-
structed New York Irish identity. In order to understand how these songs
functioned, I investigate the composition of the New York Irish com-
munity in Harrigan and Hart's heyday between 1879 and 1885 as well as
3 Ibid.
4 The authors of "The Invention of Ethnicity" focus on intra- and inter-immi-
grant group interaction and immigrant group relations with the dominant Anglo-
American classes. They claim that all of these interactions contribute to the creation of
the ethnic group and cause it to create, reinterpret, and renegotiate its symbols of eth-
nicity. Kathleen Neils Conzen et al., "The Invention of Ethnicity," Journal of American
Ethnic History 12 (Fall1992): 3-41. In my analysis, a sociological definition of identity will
be used because it provides a way to include outside influences, such as music.
5 Conzen et al., "The Invention of Ethnicity," 6.
question why the late nineteenth century was a particularly ripe time for
identity "invention" among Irish immigrants. I also examine the compo-
sition of the dominant classes that Harrigan and Braham's songs helped
Late-Nineteenth Century New York and Irish-America
Once in America, Irish immigrants negotiated their "dual immigrant aspi-
rations of simultaneous identity with homeland and adopted land."G This
process required a delicate balancing act and thus two main symbols of
Irish-American identity, among others, emerged in America, a hybrid
Irish-American nationalism that created a kind of bifurcated patriotism
and a new brand of Catholicism that greatly influenced the American
Catholic Church. Irish-American nationalism united Irish immigrants
who had been divided by local allegiances. This process of ethnicization
occurred for many immigrant groups in America, merging "provincial
Old World identities into 'nationalities' in the New World."7 For the Irish
immigrants, this Irish-American nationalism developed into a passionate
dedication to achieving Irish land reform, home rule, and independence
6 William Leonard Joyce, "Editors and Ethnicity: A History of the Irish-
American Press, 1848-1883" (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1974), 12. Upon arrival
in America, these young Irish immigrants needed to establish a new identity both to meet
the demands of immigration officials and to help them fit into their adopted home. The
authors of "Invention of Ethnicity'' claim that it is a "truism of immigration historiog-
raphy that the masses of immigrants brought no sense of nationality to America with
them, only local identities and allegiances" (Conzen eta!., 9) . Though this "truism" may
be debatable, it certainly seems to have applied to the experiences of Irish immigrants
whose native, social, and economic structures helped to construct strong local, rather
than national, identities. Although it would be incorrect to suggest that for Irish peasants
"an Irish nation was a phrase to which no real meaning was attached," as one Irish nation-
alist claimed in 1883, the internal focus of Irish communities led to the development of
a language of signs and symbols grounded in shared ties of family, marriage networks,
and religious traditions strongly influenced by local folkways. Thomas N. Brown, Irish-
American Nationalism 1870-1890 (New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1966), xviii. Thus,
many locally rooted conceptions of Irish identity existed before emigration. Kerby Miller,
Emigrants and Exiles (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 347, 353; Robert James
Scally, The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine and Emigration (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1995), 133-5. After emigration to America, Irish immigrants were forced
to reconcile their notions of Irish identity with the other visions of Ireland they encoun-
tered in their American communities as well as with their new diasporic perspective. This
need for reconciliation allowed for a new conscious and performative construction of
7 Russell A. Kazal, "Revisiting Assimilation: The Rise, Fall, and Reappraisal of
a Concept in American Ethnic History," American Historical Review 100.2 (April 199 5): 439.
from Britain as immigrants applied American patriotic rhetoric and con-
cepts of American agency to their own lives and experience. A "redirec-
tion" of this rhetoric and these concepts towards Irish culture created a
curiously hybrid Irish-American nationalism that allowed immigrants to
embrace simultaneously their new American identity, even while affirm-
ing their Irish one. As historian William Joyce notes, Irish-American
newspapers, including the Irish-Amencan and the Irish World, helped con-
struct and propagate this nationalism among immigrants.
For on 3
January 1878, the Insh-American illustrated the contradictory impulses of
this nationalist sentiment and immigrants' loyalty to their new home. The
paper proclaimed that Irish-Americans owed "a duty to Ireland" and
"though American by nationality we are yet Irish by race."9
In part, the adoption of Irish nationalism and an Irish-American
identity depended on the class of the Irish immigrant. In this period
(1871-1885), the Irish-American working class provided the most sup-
port for the Irish nationalist movement. For example, during the Land
War (1879-1882), the Irish used primarily passive forms of resistance to
convince the British government to end the landlord system.10 Irish-
American workers sent the majority of the donations to assist their fight-
ing countrymen.1
The New York Times claimed that "the money that has
kept the Land League together has come mostly from the day laborers
and servant maids of America."t2
By contrast, until the goals of the nationalist movement shifted
in the mid-1880s, few middle and upper class Irish-Americans openly
supported the movement. In part, the lack of middle- and upper-class
support for Irish-American nationalism reflected some Irish-Americans'
fear of expressing their Irish ethnicity, an identity perceived at odds with
gentility and class mobility.13 William Carroll, a middle-class Irishman,
noted that dedication to Irish nationalism "cost a good man serious hours
8 Joyce, "Editors and Ethnicity," 74-5.
9 Irish-American, 3 January 1878, 4.
10 Lawrence McCaffrey, The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America (Washington D.C.:
Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 159.
11 Kerby Miller, E migrants and Exiles (New York: Oxford University Press,
1985), 548.
12 Neu; York Times, 1881; quoted in Miller, Emigrants and E xiles, 548.
13 Brown, Irish American Nationalism 1870-1890, 169.
of trial and despondency, to say nothing of wreck of life or fortune."
To avoid Protestant American accusations of disloyalty to America, the
middle- and upper-class Irish saw the expression of their ethnicity as
"more safely absorbed in a devout Catholic consciousness."
5 As a result,
expressions of Catholic traditions "threatened to eclipse in popularity
more specifically Irish celebrations."16 Although some middle- and upper-
class Irish-Americans, including politicians and Irish-American newspa-
per editors, supported the nationalist movement, in general, the middle-
and upper-class Irish tried to associate themselves with the dominant
classes and to detach themselves from their stigmatized lower-class coun-
trymen. 17
In addition to Irish-American nationalism, Catholicism emerged
as another symbol of Irish-American identity. The church was so perva-
sive that despite a considerable number of Protestant Irish immigrants.
"Irish" in nineteenth-century America became synonymous with
"Catholic" to many outside the community.18 Unifying the Irish in
America and assuaging the fears of the dominant classes, Catholicism
"became the central institution of Irish life and primary source and
4 William Carroll, to John Devoy, 1879; quoted in Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 544.
15 Ibid., 547.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid. According to Joyce Anne Flynn, the term "dominant class" refers to
the "collectivity within a society which has preeminent authority to function both as
guardians and sustainers of the controlling value system, and as prime allocators of
rewards in the society." Joyce Anne Flynn, "Ethnicity After Sea-change: The Irish
Dramatic Tradition in 19th Century American Drama" (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University,
1985), 10. In the nineteenth century, books and newspapers referred to this community
as "natives" and they were the city's acknowledged arbiters of taste and social privilege.
By the 1870s and 1880s, some middle- and upper-class Irish-Americans had joined the
"dominant'' class, but, generally, Dutch-American and Anglo-American Protestants who
had resided in New York for generations comprised its majority. Occupying the highest
political offices and owning the city's largest companies, the dominant classes held power
socially and economically over both middle-class and working-class Irish. Edwin Burrows
and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999), 712-730, 1156.
Harrigan and Hart's performances breached the separation between the upper,
middle, and lower classes, including the class divisions \.Vithin the Irish-American com-
munity. Although the working class dominated their performances from 1871-9, from
1879 until their separation in 1885, middle- and upper-class Irish-Americans and the
"dominant" classes also began to attend Harrigan and Hart shows. E.J. Kahn, The Merry
Partners: The Age and Stage of Harrigan and Hart (New York: Random House, 1955), 17.
18 Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 525-6.
expression of Irish identity."l9 According to Lawrence ]. McCaffrey in
The Irish Catholic Diaspora in Amenca, the church acted as "a means to
bridge Old and New Worlds" and "provided a focus for unity in the Irish
ghettos, creating an Irish-American community out of a people who
arrived in the United States with diverse loyalties to parish, townland, and
county."20 The dual function of the American Catholic church as both a
means of forging Irish and American identities made it an appealing sym-
bol for all classes of Irish-Americans.
Similar to the symbolic function of Catholicism, Harrigan and
Hart's shows also provided symbols that allowed I rish-Americans to
assume both Irish and American identities. The dominant classes, includ-
ing many of their Irish-American members, exercised an implicit and
explicit pressure in the Irish-American community to assimilate into
American culture by either excising or conceding those traits, beliefs, or
practices that made them discernibly "Irish." Perhaps what was so revo-
lutionary about Harrigan and Hart and the songs of Harrigan and
Braham was that they created a safe public space for the Irish to be Irish
in America. Harrigan, Hart, and Braham made Irish-American culture,
beliefs, and practices as well as Irish tenement life, into performances of
ethnic identity to be celebrated rather than hidden.
The Heyday of Harrigan, Hart, and Braham: 1879-1885
Stage Irish caricatures played a central role in Harrigan, Hart, and
Braham's performances of ethnic identity. While Harrigan's New York
Irish "frequently touched on caricature," there also existed "a truthful-
ness and compassion to Harrigan's portraits that constantly raised them
above caricature and made them a rarity on contemporary stages."2
Reviewers supported this assertion in a variety of newspapers and maga-
zines. The Illustrated American claimed Harrigan's work held a "fidelity to
nature" while Montrose Moses in Theatre Arts Month!J wrote that
"American drama offers no more graphic record of contemporary life
than the mass of manuscripts left by Edward Harrigan."22 The critic
19 Ibid., 526.
20 McCaffrey, The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America, 7.
21 Gerald Bordman, American Musical Comet!J: From Adonis To Dreamgirls (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 46.
22 Illustrated American, 1891, Edward Harrigan Papers, *T-Mss 1941-003, Billy
Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 398;
Montrose Moses, "Edward Harrigan," Theatre Arts Monthfy 10.3 (March 1926): 176.
William Dean Howells echoed these sentiments, praising Harrigan and
Hart for depicting "faithful representations of life."23 Praise for
Harrigan's characters' "realism" recognized that his work reflected "artis-
tically the social milieu of the working-class poor, not that they con-
form[ed] precisely to everyday life."24 However, in the eyes of reviewers,
"Harrigan's willingness to write almost exclusively about tenement
dwellers marked him as a realist, as opposed to those writing historical
dramas or about the wealthy."25 The frequent mention of this quality of
Harrigan's work appears to mark it as unique for its time.
Harrigan and Hart became the "most popular team in contem-
porary variety" in part because their working class audiences enjoyed
watching representations of themselves onstage.z6 The team's popularity
also made their songs' New York Irish images visible to large portions of
the New York community. Biographer Richard Moody claims that
Harrigan and Hart became so inseparable in the public mind that audi-
ences "believed they were named Harriganandhart."27 Despite Harrigan
and Hart's previous success as one of the top variety teams in New York,
their rise to the peak of popularity began with The Mulligan Guard Ball
(1879). The Mulligan Guard Ball changed the character of Dan Mulligan
from a drunken Irish stereotype (in The Mulligan Guard sketch, 1873) into
a respectable New York Irishman. This play was part of a nine play series
that contained some of Harrigan and Hart's biggest hits. During this
time, theatre practitioners called a run of a month "extended," but four-
teen of Harrigan and Hart's plays "ran for over 100 performances" only
to return a few seasons later to more packed houses.28 Critics compared
23 William Dean Howells, "Edward Harrigan's Comedies," Harpe,.'s Week,& Guly
1886); quoted in Alicia Koger, ''A Critical Analysis of Edward Harrigan's Comedy" (Ph.D.
diss., University of Michigan, 1984), 147.
Edward Harrigan, "Holding the Mirror Up To Nature," Peanon's Magazine,
November 1903: 2-6; Jon Finson, "Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American
Musical Theater: The Songs of Edward Harrigan and David Braham," in Edward
Harrigan and David Braham, Collected Songs I. 1873-1882, ed. Jon W. Finson (Madison, WI:
A-R Editions, Inc., 1997), xxiii.
25 Finson, "Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater,"
26 Bordman, Anmican Musical Comec!J, 36.
27 Moody, Ned Hamgan, 32.
Finson, "Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater," 1;
Koger, ''A Critical Analysis of Edward Harrigan's Comedy," 5.
Harrigan to Dickens, Hogarth, and Moliere, all accepted artists of the
dominant classes.29
Reviews of Harrigan and Hart's plays reflected their popularity
with New York audiences. For example, the Irish-Amencan claimed that
"the famous ball of the 'Guards' has out rivaled the 'Pinafore' mania, and
is attended at each performance by packed houses."30 As a result, "it is
almost impossible to get a chance to see it unless you secure your ticket
a week in advance."3
As the show's popularity continued, the paper
claimed that "the crowded houses that are to be seen there at every per-
formance are the wonder of the town" and that "despite the lateness of
the season [May], the audiences show no signs of falling off in point of
numbers or enthusiasm."32 Reviews of subsequent Mulhgan Guard plays
record similar audience reactions. Referring to the Mu/hgan Guard Surpnse,
the Irish-American claimed that "it is necessary to go to the Theatre
Comique early, and after that you will be sure to go often."33 Consistent
overflowing houses were so frequent that '"standing room only"' became
"the motto of the Theatre Comique."3
Even their non-Mulligan Guard
plays, such as McSorlrys ltiflation, drew crowded houses. The Irish-American
9 Koger, ''A Critical Analysis of Edward Harrigan's Comedy," S-6. For further
reading on Harrigan, class, and Irish-American identity in the period after his partnership
with Hart, see Rezl!J and the Four Hundred (1890). Since Rezl(y and the Four Hundred was writ-
ten after Harrigan's separation with Hart and after Harrigan had become accepted by
middle and upper classes audiences, it falls outside the parameters of this study. The show
was also performed at The Harrigan Theatre, a new uptown theatre, which, it can be
argued, catered to a different audience and attempted to produce shows with a higher
level of "artistic skill" than the shows performed in the two Theatre Comiques by
Harrigan and Hart. See interview with William and Nedda Harrigan, scrapbook, E.J.
Kahn Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox
and Tilden Foundations, New York. The E.J. Kahn Papers contain transcripts of inter-
views with Harrigan's children as well as Kahn's research notes from his Harrigan biog-
raphy. The Papers were valuable resources for this article as well as for my other projects
on Harrigan and Hart.
30 Irish-American, 22 February 1879, 5. Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore
began an English comic opera sensation in America and opened two nights after Harrigan
and Hart's first full length Mulligan Guard play, The Mulligan Guard Ball, in 1879. Bordman,
American Musical Comedy, 37.
31 Irish-American, 22 February 1879, 5.
32 Insh-American, 3 and 24 May 1879.
33 Irish-Ameni:an, 28 August 1880, 5.
34 Irish-American, 26 October 1880, 5.
claimed on 13 January 1883, that "the 'boom' that the public has given
Harrigan's new local comedy . . . is unprecedented and from present
appearances the play will go on 'booming' for months to come."35 As a
result of his cleverly constructed scripts and lyrics, Harrigan received
much of the credit for this popularity, but Hart's performances played a
critical role in their success as well. A review in the New York Times of his
performance as Bridget McSorley claimed "it would be hard to suggest
how his representation of such a character could be irnproved."36
The popularity of Harrigan and Hart extended to their music.37
Based on sheet music sales, six of Harrigan and Braham's songs made the
~ l l Time Hit Parade" as compiled by David Ewen. These songs includ-
ed "The Babies on Our Block" (1879), "The Mulligan Braves" (1880),
"The Skidmore Masquerade" (1880), "Paddy Duffy's Cart" (1881), "My
Dad's Dinner Pail" (1883), and "Poverty's Tears Ebb and Flow" (1885).38
During this time, publishing houses sold Harrigan and Hart songsters
(small books that contained song lyrics). The vast number of songsters
published suggests that their songs "may have been more popular than
the shows themselves."39
Audience behavior at Harrigan and Hart shows highlights the
important, pervasive character of Harrigan and Hart's music. Newsboys
were among the team's most devoted fans and left work early to ensure
front gallery seats for Harrigan and Hart performances. According to
Harrigan and Hart biographer E.J. Kahn, "there was scarcely a newsboy
in New York who would not gladly forgo a night's lodging if he could
thereby afford an evening at the theatre."40 On opening night, these boys
might also have saved a dime to purchase songbooks with the lyrics of
Harrigan and Braham's newest songs.41 The boys often committed the
35 Irish-American, 13 January 1883, 5.
36 New York Timer, 28 November 1882.
37 Koger, "A Critical Analysis of Edward Harrigan's Comedy," 173.
38 David Ewen, American Popular Songs: From the Revolutionary War to the Present
(New York: Random House, 1966), Appendix, "The All Time Hit Parade," 472.
39 Koger, "A Critical Analysis of Edward Harrigan's Comedy," 175. Even the
titles of these songs suggest Harrigan and Hart's ability to synthesize traditional Irish cul-
ture "Paddy Duffy's Cart" with the New York immigrants' experience ("Babies on our
Block" and "Poverty's Tears Ebb and Flow").
40 Kahn, The Merry Partners, 17.
1 Ibid., 19.
lyrics to memory:
After a Harrigan and Hart show had been running a few
days, the newsboys were familiar with the lyrics and did-
n't need songbooks. As David Braham's thirteen man
orchestra struck up the overture, the gallery fans would
attempt shrilly to fit some of the words before them to
the tunes emanating from the orchestra pit. This some-
times resulted in a good deal of scrapping, inasmuch as
one faction would try to accommodate one set of words
to a brand-new tune, while a nearby faction would
choose another set.42
The entire gallery echoed the newsboys' enthusiasm for
Harrigan and Hart's music. According to the New York Times, the five new
songs in McSorlty's Inflation "were received by a heel and toe accompani-
ment in the gallery, which sufficiently indicated their 'catching measures'
3 Despite enthusiasm for all of the songs, "The Charleston
Blues" became the hit of the night as the audience demanded it "again
and again."44 Another review from the New York Clipper about Cordelia's
Aspirations recorded the "crush at the Theatre Comique on the night of
Nov. 5, the fact that it was election-eve having no deterrent effect upon
the patrons of this house."45 The reviewer notes that the pleasure of the
audience at the new songs was "beyond doubt" since "double and triple
encores were common."46 Although the comedy of Harrigan and Hart
drew audiences, the popularity of their songs in the theatre contributed
immeasurably to the team's success. Newsboys worked from sunrise to
sunset to make an average of fifty cents a day.
7 The New York Irish
working class also struggled to make ends meet and often made financial
sacrifices to send remittances home to families abroad.48Yet, perhaps out
43 NeJv York Times, 28 November 1882.
"Cordelia's Aspirations," New York Clipper, 10 November 1883.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
47 Kahn, The Merry Partners, 18-19.
48 Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 292.
of the desire for the community or sense of belonging offered by the
shows' memorable characters and popular songs, the New York Irish
willingly sacrificed for the opportunity to attend Harrigan and Hart's
Outside of the theatre, these songs pervaded audiences' lives as
well. Harrigan and Hart's songs, both new and old, "were heard every-
where."49 Street musicians played them on hand-organs and bands played
them at Walking through tenement neighborhoods on the
Lower East Side, "a playback of Comique highlights was available on the
neighborhood corner, or with improvements, in the local saloon."5
Kahn claims, "in the seventies and eighties, it would have been a rare
experience to stroll past a row of tenement houses on a summer night
without hearing one or another of [Braham's] melodies being soothingly
intoned within."5
The New York Ciry American commented that "in each
of these plays there was some one song . . . which set the town a-
whistling."53 Writing in Theatre Arts Month!J, Montrose Moses declared
that "the fickle whistle of the street gamin used to consecrate its breath
to the Harrigan songs, so much enamored was the scurvy lip of the news-
boy of the tunes of Dave Braham's composition."54 Reviews of Harrigan
and Hart's plays also mentioned the pervasive nature of their music. The
Irish-American prophesied that "the music and song 'McNally's Row of
Flats,' 'The Charleston Blues,' and 'I Never Drink Behind the Bar,' will
quickly gain popularity, and within six weeks will undoubtedly be
hummed all over the city."55 The prevalence of Harrigan's songs outside
of the theatre haunted him on his days off:
A Judge W E. Horton from Detroit recalled that, when
he went to Manhattan Beach with Harrigan on a Sunday
afternoon in July, the leader of Gilmore's Band spotted
49 Moody, Ned Harrigan, 77.
50 Illustrated American, 397.
51 Moody, Ned Hamgan, 77.
52 Kahn, The Merry Partners, 153.
53 "Ned Harrigan dies at 65," New York Ci!J American, 7 June 1911.
54 Moses, "Edward Harrigan," 177-8.
55 Irish American, 28 November 1882, 5.
Harrigan and struck up "Babies on Our Block." A
dozen bathers joined in immediately and, within fifteen
minutes, as the band retraced the melody, "over one
thousand were whisking around on the sand, singing the
By negotiating an identity rooted in both Irish and American
symbols, the songs of Harrigan and Hart synthesized notions of Irish
history and community with the culture of New York's diverse ethnic and
racial communities to assuage the fears of the dominant classes and cre-
ate a safe public space for the New York Irish. Their songs helped to
reconstruct Irish ethnoculture-including Irish history-in New York.
Although a variety of social, political, and economic organizations, such
as the Irish National League of America and the Irish Catholic
Benevolent Society helped Irish immigrants combat the trauma of immi-
gration, loss of family, and discrimination from native Americans, the
songs offered the New York Irish a cultural connection to Ireland that
also showed them how to synthesize their Irish heritage with their new
American identity.
Harrigan and Braham's songs acted to establish a sense of Irish
heritage and helped create New York Irish identity based on the charac-
ters' relations to their homeland. For example, in Inflation
(1882), Bridget McSorley (originally played by Tony Hart) sings "The Old
Feather Bed." In the song, the bed becomes a site of Irish tradition, nos-
talgically recalling ties with home and family left behind.57 In the first
verse, Bridget establishes her lineage to County Mayo and her connection
to past generations through the bed. She sings, "in County Mayo, long,
long ago, Me Father himself took a wife I 'Twas all understood he would
do what he could, I To provide for me mother through life I His father,
old Dougherty, gave all the crockery, I His table to eat of their bread I
Her mother, God save her! I Said all she could lave her I As a token of
love was her old feather bed."S8 Aside from evoking the memory of her
56 Moody, Ned Hanigan, 87.
57 Williams also refers to the importance of this connection through "Old
Feather Bed." He claims "Harrigan's songs [represent how] family ties spread down
through the generations represented by some object." William H.A. Williams, Tll!as On!J
an Irishman} Dream: The Image o/ Ireland and the In"sh in American Popular Song Ly rics, 1800-
1920 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 167.
58 Edward Harrigan, "The Old Feather Bed," in Collected Songs 11: 1883-1896, ed.
Jon W Finson (Maclison, WI: A-R Editions, Inc., 1997), 18-9.
grandparents, the bed also reminds Bridget of good times she spent with
her family. In the chorus, she remembers, "Me father and mother, me sis-
ter and brother, I Me granny and aunty, and big cousin Ted, I Me uncle
a sailor, his nephew a tailor, I All slept on the big, bouncing down feath-
er bed."S9 Bridget also sings about bringing the bed to America.
Throughout the process of emigration and resettlement, it comforted her
and her husband. The beds survival becomes a source of pride that both
highlights the transatlantic bonds of family and symbolizes "a triumph
over the pressure of immigrant poverty."60
Harrigan and Braham's songs also establish a sense of commu-
nity among those immigrants transplanted from Ireland to the tenement
communities of New York City. The majority of Irish immigrants came
from the Western rural communities of Ireland where community and
family took precedence over the individual.61 Coming from small com-
munal towns, new young immigrants settled in populous tenements
where they often remained anonymous. Additionally, America's capitalist
focus on the individual contrasted with immigrants' past experiences of
a more community-based economic structure.62 Harrigan and Hart's
songs established Irish ideas of community in this lonely and threatening
New World. Although local loyalties to "parish, townland, and county"
divided Irish immigrants, most Irish immigrants shared the common
experience of the tight-knit Irish community.63
One of Harrigan and Hart's most famous songs, "The Babies on
Our Block," provides the best example of how their songs helped to
reconstruct Irish community. In the ftrst verse, the character Dan
Mulligan sings, "If you want for information, I Or in need of merriment,
I Come over with me socially I To Murphy's tenement; I He owns a row
of houses I In the First ward, near the dock, I Where Ireland's repre-
sented I By the Babies on our Block."
The lyrics list the neighbors
including, "the Phalens and the Whalens I From sweet Dunochadee, I
59 Harrigan, ''The Old Feather Bed," 19.
60 Williams, Twas On!J an Dream, 167.
61 Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 125.
62 Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 1112.
63 McCaffrey, The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America, 7; Miller, Emigrants and Exiles,
347, 353; Scally, The End of Hidden Ireland, 133-5.
64 Harrigan, "The Babies on Our Block," in Collected Songs I, 72-3.
They are sitting on the railings with their children on their knee; I Ali
gossiping and talking with their neighbors in a f1ock."6S The list of names,
along with the gossiping outside the houses, suggests the familiar "sense
of community that Harrigan sought to depict."66 The song becomes play-
ful when Harrigan mentions the children singing songs such as "Little
Sally Waters," a popular street song at the time, and "Gravel Greeny
Gravel."67 The other verses also mention the noisy games that resound-
ed throughout the community. The Irish children's freedom and carefree
attitude highlight one main difference between Irish and New York Irish
communities. Unlike Ireland, Harrigan's "block" appears free from gen-
erational oppression. This idealized New York Irish neighborhood omits
many of the realities of tenement life in New York (such as the other
non-Irish immigrants in the neighborhood). As a result, the song depicts
an idyllic New York version of the rural townland, even mentioning a
landlord in the third verse. The third verse describes how "it's good
morning to you, landlord; I Come, now how are you today? I When
Patrick Murphy, Esquire, I Comes down the alley way, I With his shiny
silken beaver, I He's as solid as a rock, the envy of the neighbors' boys I
A-living off our block."
Although it is difficult to deduce how this verse
was interpreted by the New York Irish, the verse appears to have two
meanings. The verse either presents a possible, more prosperous future
reality for the singing children and babies, or it transplants a familiar
social structure from Ireland to New York. I suggest it may represent
both simultaneously. The ambiguous nature of this verse suggests the
symbolic nature of these songs. While constructing Irish ethnoculture,
the song also creates new images that could be applied to immigrants'
everyday lives. This song, as one of the biggest musical hits of the 1880s,
was a particularly potent symbol of how the Irish-American community
imagined itself in the US.69
Aside from their evolving sense of history and community,
Harrigan and Hart's songs, including "My Dad's Dinner Pail" and "I'll
Wear the Trousers OH!" (1883), also helped establish the role of the tra-
65 Ibid., 73-4.
66 Williams, Twas On!J an Dream, 164.
67 Pinson, ''Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater," xxv.
68 Harrigan, "The Babies on Our Block," in Collected Songs J, 72-3.
69 Williams also credits Harrigan as one of the first to "recognize working-class
Irish America as a community." Williams, Twas On!J an Dream, 164.
ditional Irish male in New York. Irish Studies historians, such as Robert
Scally, have argued that emigration shattered familiar notions of Irish
The strongest figures, who thought themselves able to
defy the power of the law, had been exposed as hope-
less and deluded. Parting them from the townland
would now strip them of their only remaining claim to
authority and respect in the eyes of their dependants
and possibly their own. Hunger and fear of eviction had
reduced them to secret beseechers and writers of hope-
less petitions. In these, the false and resentful humility
that would become a permanent part of their demeanor
as emigrants was already visibleJO
This shattered masculinity became characteristic of Irishmen in popular
culture, appearing in books such as A Tree Grows in Brook!Jn (1943) and in
films such as Little Annie Roonry (1925). Harrigan's Mulligan Guard series
provided New York Irish men with a figure (Dan Mulligan) who had not
lost his authority or self-respect after his immigration. Although like
many Irish male immigrants, he also struggled with his masculinity upon
arrival in New YorkJl For example, throughout the Mulligan Guard plays,
Dan's wife Cordelia often subverts accepted notions of patriarchy
through her actions, such as controlling of the family finances and mak-
ing major life-altering decisions for her family. Through Dan's relation-
ship with his stubborn and assertive wife, Harrigan and Braham's songs
illustrate Dan's uneasiness with his masculinity, which Dan blames specif-
ically on the alteration of gender roles after emigration.
"My Dad's Dinner Pail," sung by Dan Mulligan in Cordelia's
Aspirations (1883), establishes a connection between the communal male
society of Ireland and the continuation of this tradition in New YorkJ2
Despite Dan's financial success, Dan and his wife Cordelia still live in the
Irish tenement community of Mulligan Alley among their friends. After
70 Scally, The End of Hidden Ireland, 160.
71 Harrigan, "Cordelia's Aspirations, 1883," Play Manuscript, Edward Harrigan
Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox
and Tilden Foundations, New York.
72 Koger, "A Critical Analysis of Edward Harrigan's Comedy," 240. Some
scholars, inducting Koger and Gerald Bordman, refer to Cordelia's Aspirations as Harrigan's
returning from a visit to her family in Ireland, Cordelia decides that their
home should reflect Dan's success, so she sells their house in the alley to
buy one on Madison Avenue. Determined to rid herself of any memo-
ries of her former station, she holds an auction to sell all of their pos-
sessions. When Dan sees the auctioneer approach his dad's dinner pail, he
attempts to save itJ3 Grabbing the pail from the auctioneer, Dan sings of
its value and connection to his father back in Ireland. Similar to "My Old
Feather Bed," "My Dad's Dinner Pail" laments an old family heirloom.
Dan pleads, "Preserve that old kettle, so blackened and worn, I It
belonged to my father before I was born, it hung in a corner beyant on a
nail, I 'Twas emblem of labor, was Dad's dinner pail."74 The lyrics evoke
scenes of rural male bonding, family life, and the community's emphasis
on the importance of sharing. For example, when Dan's father ate lunch,
he "ate with the workmen about on the ground, I He'd share wid ala-
b'rer ... You would ne'er reach the bottom of Dad's dinner pail."7S The
song highlights the virtues of the working classes, including their "gen-
erosity, patience, solidarity, and industry."
6 These lyrics establish a male
tradition passed down through the dinner pail. Yet through Cordelia's
attempt to sell the pail at auction, she participates in the subversion of
this Irish male tradition.
A later song, "I'll Wear the Trousers OH!," marks the decision by
Dan to reassert manly Irish traditions and take control of his home and
life in New York. This song appeared in The Mulligan Guard Surprise (1880)
and became such an audience favorite that Harrigan had no qualms
reusing it in Cordelia's A.pirationsJ7 While in Ireland, Dan speaks of "wear-
ing the trousers" in his marriage. Yet, in the second verse, Dan sings of
how emigration altered his marriage. Dan tells of how "we sailed away to
America I My troubles did begin sir ... from that day out you'd hear her
shout: she'd wear the trousers, oh!"
8 The third verse reiterates this point
73 Ibid.
74 Harrigan, "My Dad's Dinner Pail," in Collected Songs II, 48.
75 Ibid.
76 Finson, "Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater," x.xvii.
77 Harrigan, "Mulligan Guard Surprise, 1880," Play Manuscript, Edward
Harrigan Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library,
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, New York.
78 Harrigan, "I'll Wear the Trousers OH!," in Collected Songs I, 132-3.
claiming, "When I complain my wife explain: I She wear the trousers
oh!"79 These verses clearly express the emasculation felt by many Irish
men after their emigration. That is why Dan must reassert his dominance
by singing, "home rule for me/ My wife shall see, /I'll wear the trousers
oh! / I'll wear the trousers oh! I I'll wear the trousers oh! I So every man
do all ye can to wear the trousers oh!"80 After Cordelia spends all of their
money, Dan heroically steps in and rescues Cordelia. He reassumes his
"rightful" position as head of the household and by so doing reestab-
lishes Irish male tradition as proper behavior in New York.81
Although primarily focusing on the lyrics of Harrigan and Hart's
songs, I must make some mention of Braham's music. Like Harrigan's
lyrics, Braham's music simultaneously evokes the past and creates a New
York tradition. Although Braham used minstrel, pseudo-spiritual, and
cakewalk two-step musical themes, he also used Irish jigs in the con-
struction of his New York Irish songs, especially in those that focused on
Irish nostalgia.82 For example, in "Old Feather Bed," Braham uses "com-
pound meter and dotted rhythms of a jig, although much slowed in
tempo."83 Similar musical motifs run through "My Dad's Dinner Pail."
The melody of "McNally's Row of Flats" resembles "The Irish Riding
Car." Even Harrigan and Braham's most famous song, "The Mulligan
Guard," "quotes the Irish folk tune, 'St. Pat's Day in the Morning."'8
borrowing of Irish musical traditions would not have gone unnoticed by
recent, second, and even third generation immigrants. Yet while main-
taining I rish musical traditions, Harrigan and Braham also helped pioneer
a new American song genre. Their songs were among the "first popular
songs from musical shows (as opposed to the vaudeville and minstrel
stage) to find success in sheet music."8S Singing these songs on the streets,
audience members not only revealed their Irish past, but also signaled
emerging theatrical genres and future of the New York stage.
79 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
81 Harrigan, "Cordelia's Aspirations, 1883," Play Manuscript, Edward Harrigan
82 Finson, "Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater,"
83 Ibid., xxvii.
84 Ibid.
85 Williams, Twas Only an Irishman's Dream, 163.
Aside from helping to construct Irish ethnoculture, Harrigan
and Braham's songs also depicted immigrant interaction. Irish immi-
grants' daily interaction with surrounding immigrant groups strongly
influenced the construction of their identities.86 Harrigan and Hart's
songs make this interaction between ethnic groups a fundamental aspect
of their plays and music. Despite the centrality of Harrigan and Hart's
New York Irish characters, Germans, African Americans, Jews, Italians,
and Chinese filled Harrigan and Hart's shows as well. The characters
existed as "relative equals in a Lower East Side neighborhood, cooperat-
ing and co-existing despite their cultural differences."8
"McNally's Row of Flats" (from McSorlry's Inflation 1882) pro-
vides the best musical example of the interaction between the New York
Irish and surrounding immigrant groups. The chorus discusses the ten-
ants who "occupy the buildings called McNally's Row of Flats."8
It tells
of how "it's Ireland and Italy, Jerusalem and Germany, I Oh, Chinamen
and nagers, and a paradise for cats, I All jumbled up togather in the snow
or rainy weather, I They represent the tenants in McNally's row of
flats."89 The second verse places the Irish in direct interaction with these
other groups stating, "the great conglomeration of men from ev'ry
nation, I the Babylonian tower oh! I It could not equal that; I Peculiar
institution, where brogues without dilution, I were rattled off together in
McNally's row of flats."
0 Along with sharing living spaces, these groups
share similar fates. When the tenants fail to pay their rent, the landlord
tosses them all out into the street together. As a result, in contrast to
"Babies on Our Block," "McNally's Row of Flats" does not idealize the
Irish tenement experience as a happy homogenous Irish community. The
song clearly highlights the daily interaction between ethnic and racial
groups in New York tenement communities and acknowledges the influ-
ence of these groups on the construction of New York Irish identity.
Critics echoed these sentiments. One reviewer from Theatre Magazine
claimed, "the social point of view, if it could be called a point of view,
was democratic in the extreme."9
William Williams describes "McNally's
86 Conzen et al., "The Invention of Ethnicity," 4-5.
87 Koger, ''A Critical Analysis of Edward Harrigan's Comedy," 170.
88 Harrigan, "McNally's Row of Flats," in Collected Songs II, 16.
90 Ibid., 15-6.
91 Cited in Koger, ''A Critical Analysis of Edward Harrigan's Comedy," 170.
Row of Flats" as representative of "the evolution of a particular kind of
American cosmopolitanism so central to the emerging Irish-American
culture, combining assimilation-'We're all Americans'-with strong eth-
nic identity- 'We're Irish as well."'92
In addition to dealing with intra-ethnic and intra-class issues, the
ethnic symbols in Harrigan and Hart's songs also deflected "the hostility
of the mainstream ethnoculture by depicting the compatibility of the side
stream ethnoculture ... with American principles and ideals."93 To some
extent, the attenuation of hostility through Harrigan and Braham's songs
allowed for the acceptance of Harrigan's New York Irish by the middle
and upper classes. Through their lyrics, the songs depicted the struggle
between Irish ethnoculture and Protestant middle- and upper-class
beliefs, particularly around the issue of drinking. Drinking played a cen-
tral role in Irish and New York Irish social relations and relaxation. In the
late nineteenth century, the drunken Irishman was already an established
stereotype. Many middle- and upper-class Anglo-American Protestants,
including supporters of the temperance movement, viewed alcohol as
one reason for the New York Irish's lower class status.
intellectual elites also advocated against drinking. For example, the Irish-
American ran a short article entided, "What Drinking Does," quoted in
part from the London Times:
Under the accumulating influence of alcohol ... the
honest man turns knave, the respectable man suddenly
loses principle and self-respect, the wise man is utterly
foolish, the rigidly moral man forgets his mask ... some
poor wife or friend has long been doing the best that
could be done to check, to cure, and at all events, to
hide, till the truth would be out. ... It would be much
more to the purpose to take warning and do something
toward staying the huge mischief which, in one way or
another, confounds us all, and may for we cannot be
92 Williams, Twas On!J an Irishman's Dream, 169.
93 Conzcn et al., "The Invention of Ethnicity," 6.
Koger, "A Critical Analysis of Edward Harrigan's Comedy," 33; Burrows and
Wallace, Gotham, 1156. A common criticism of the Irish, even until the present day, has
been that they lack "the Puritan virtues of thrift and sobriety as much as those of appli-
cation and forethought." E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New
York: Vintage, 1961), 435.
sure--crush and ruin any one of us.95
The article's inclusion in the Irish-Amen'can reflects its editors' belief that
drinking created problems in Irish-American communities. The inclusion
of the article also illustrates the effort of the middle class Irish-American
editors to distance themselves from the irresponsible, drunken Irish
stereotype and the social habits of the New York Irish working class.
Walking a fine line between constructing legitimate ethnoculrure
and courting acceptance from the dominant classes, Harrigan's songs
negotiated the two views by presenting a combination of both. In some
respects, songs such as "The Pitcher of Beer," "John Riley's Always Dry,"
and ''A Night Cap, A Night Cap," reinforce the Irish stereotype of the
hard- drinking male in a saloon. "The Pitcher of Beer" places drinking in
a family setting reminiscent of a traditional Irish pub. Welcoming friends
and visitors to his warm fire to share in his "loaf" and "bone," Dan
Mulligan sings of "each night in the week and week in the year, with a
heart and a conscience that's clear I I've a friend and a glass for to let the
past pass, I As we drink from our pitcher of beer."96The song centers on
the family's hospitality, epitomized by sharing the beer. Other songs such
as "John Riley's Always Dry" and ''A Night-Cap, A Night-Cap" do not
place drinking in a family context. To some Dutch- and Anglo-
Americans, the songs' images showed stereotypical reasons for the lower
class status of the Irish.97 For some middle- and upper-class New York
Irish, the songs depicted characteristics they did not want to be associat-
ed with for fear of losing their hard-earned, respected positions.9B For
example, "John Riley's Always Dry" describes Riley and how no drink
ever satisfies his "thirst." The chorus sums the song up nicely, explaining
how "Bass's ale by the pail, I He would order Rosanna to go out and buy,
I Dublin Stout he would shout, I Keep drinking and never say die. I
Whiskey prime, gin and wine, I He would hand down a bottle and mer-
rily cry, / My Rose Ann, flll the can, I For honest John Riley's dry."99 ''A
Night-Cap, A Night-Cap" similarly celebrates drinking till dawn with
95 "What Drinking Does," Irish Amen'can, 4 February 1882, 5.
96 Harrigan, "The Pitcher of Beer," in Collected Songs I, 110-1.
97 Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 1156; Thompson, The Making of the English
Working Class, 434-5.
98 Miller, Emigrants and Exiles, 544-47.
99 Harrigan, "John Riley's Always Dry," in Collected Songs I, 206-7.
friends in the local bar. The chorus calls for ''A night-cap, a night-cap, and
then we're off to bed, I A night-cap, a night-cap, I 'Twill fit most any
head, I A night-cap, a night-cap, the last drink socially, I Now Jack and
Joe, oh here's a go, I It's better, boys than tea."IOO This song as well as
"John Riley" makes drinking not only something for celebration, but also
part of the ritual of life. In addition, the last line of ''A Night Cap," which
compares drink to tea, can be seen as a jibe at upper-class propriety.
Despite these strong statements in favor of drinking, Harrigan
also celebrates restraint and highlights the woes of alcoholism. In "I
Never Drink Behind the Bar," Pete McSorley discusses the good times in
his old saloon and brags about his skill at mixing drinks. Yet despite the
urgings of his patrons to join them, he repeatedly refuses a drink claim-
ing, "I never drink behind the bar, I but I will take, a mild cigar, I I'll take
a sip of polinar, I I never drink behind the bar."IOt Constructed so the
men on stage, and presumably the audience, would join him in the cho-
rus, this song is a communal drinking song about not drinking. It shows a
solid business man with an "upstanding character" who retains self con-
trol despite all temptations.I02 "Poverty's Tears Ebb and Flow" treats
drinking in a less celebratory manner, highlighting it as the "root of
unhappiness."I03 The last verse describes how "the wine cup, it's laden
with sin and deceit, I Be careful, my friends, how you quaff; I While
merry and jolly its bitter is sweet. I There's a deep hidden sting in its
laugh. I Ohman is a fool when drink rides the mind, I Not knowing a
friend from a foe; I Believing and trusting, he falls on behind, I when
poverty's tears ebb and flow."
04 Harrigan and Hart's Irishmen espouse
both joy in drinking and restraint and awareness of its dangers. By pre-
senting two perspectives on drinking, Harrigan's Irishmen satisfy two
audiences. The songs celebrate Irish immigrant leisure activities and allow
the middle and upper classes to respect Harrigan's Irish for exhibiting
characteristics that go against the despised Irish stereotype.
Harrigan wrote his cautionary drinking songs towards the end of
his career with Hart. This transition from fun, rowdy drinking songs to
100 Harrigan, "A Night-Cap," in Collected Songs I, 181-2.
101 Harrigan, "I Never Drink Behind the Bar," in Collected Songs II, 11-2.
102 Pinson, "Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater,"
103 Ibid., xxviii.
104 Harrigan, "Poverty Tears Ebb and Flow," in Collected Songs II, 122-4.
cautionary drinking songs highlights Harrigan's effort to please a new
upper-class segment of his growing audience. By showing both a fun and
respectable side, Harrigan's Irishmen gained a level of acceptance from
the dominant classes. The shift in critical attention reflects this increasing
acceptance of Harrigan's Irishman.
Between 1871 and 1879, immigrants and African Americans
from Lower East Side tenement communities were the primary audience
for Harrigan and Hart's variety sketches. Working-class papers and peri-
odicals included reviews and notices of their shows, but upper-class
newspapers did not review them. After Harrigan and Hart began per-
forming in full-length shows in 1879, papers such as the Spirit of the Times
began to view and review Harrigan and Hart as "legitimate" theatre or
rather as worthy of their attention, unlike other forms of lowbrow enter-
tainment. lOS After 1879, the New York Times regularly began to review
Harrigan and Hart's full length plays and the pair also began receiving
reviews from respected theatre critics such as Nym Crinkle, William
Winter, and Brander Matthews.106 Harrigan and Hart's entertainments
received much of their validation as "legitimate" theatre from "the Dean
of American literary criticism," William Dean Howells.107 Howells praised
Harrigan's entertainments repeatedly for their "realism" and "saw in
Harrigan's plays the seeds of that new trend in the theatre."lOB Historian
Alicia Koger credits Howells with bringing "Harrigan to the fore as a
playwright for all classes of Americans."J09
Harrigan and Hart's audience moved from a predominantly
working-class audience to a combination of the working class, middle
class, and upper class. This middle- and upper-class group included Irish-
Americans as well as Protestant Dutch- and Anglo-Americans.llO Reviews
of the period repeatedly noted this shift. In 1882, the New York Times
noted how "the excellent quality of the audience-at least that part of it
which occupied the best seats-was significant."111 One New York Times
105 Koger, ''A Critical Analysis of Edward Harrigan's Comedy," 18-19.
106 Ibid., 132.
107 Ibid.
lOS Ibid.
109 Ibid.
110 Kahn, The Merry Partners, 15-26.
Ill New York Times, 10 January 1882, 4.
critic described how "the orchestra was filled by a grade of persons much
higher than that usually seen at this theatre ... [and] a large measure of
12 The noted appearance of ladies indicated the level of
respectability that Harrigan and Hart had achieved. Yet the working class-
es never abandoned the shows of the comic duo and Harrigan and Hart
remained loyal to their original audience. Despite high demands for
Harrigan and Hart tickets, Harrigan deliberately kept ticket prices low to
enable the working class to attend.t13 Signey Rose, who wrote an incom-
plete and unpublished study of the pair, describes Harrigan and Hart's
mixed audience during the early 1880s:
No theatre in New York drew a more miscellaneous
clientele. "Society" had not yet recognized the Harrigan
plays as formal "functions" and attended them without
ceremony in a spirit of high adventure. It was only with
the higher criticism of the literateurs that a larger leaven
of the social elect in full regalia began to patronize these
An article on Harrigan in The Biographer, Illustrated (1883) painted a simi-
lar picture:
All sorts and conditions of people are represented in the
audience of Theatre Comique, New York. The gallery
and the boxes are occupied by persons of the opposite
extremes in social positions, and the accommodations
intermediate between these are filled by people belong-
ing to the middle classes of society. In this particular of
its being a resort and favored by all classes, the Cornique
is unique among the theatres of the metropolis.m
Freund's Dai!J Music and Drama (November 1882) spoke of how McSoriry's
Inflation "drew a great house at the Theatre Comique, last evening. Every
112 New York Times, 18 February 1880, 5.
113 Moody, Ned Harrigan, 123.
114 Signey Rose, Edward Harrigan and His Plqys, TMs, n.d., 88.
115 The Biographer Illustrated: Edward Harrigan, May 1883, Edward Harrigan
Papers, *T-Mss 1941-003, 62, Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public
Library for the Performing Arts.
inch of room was occupied. The newsboys hung over the gallery rail; the
swells from Delmonico's filled the private boxes; the aristocracies of
Murray Hill and the Fourth Ward mingled in the orchestra and dress cir-
cle."ll6 In this quote, Freund's Dai!J Music and Drama highlights the diverse
audience of the duo by contrasting one of the richest areas of the city,
Murray Hill, home of the Astors and frnancer J. P. Morgan, with the
Fourth Ward, the most densely populated tenement neighborhood in the
city made infamous by Jacob Riis in his book How the Other Ha!f Lives
(1890).111 As these quotes suggest, Harrigan's theatre was apparently
unique for its cross-class audience. Without some acceptance of
Harrigan and Hart's images, it is doubtful that their middle- and upper-
class audience would have so drastically increased. The willingness of the
rising Irish middle-class to be seen at Harrigan and Hart shows testifies
not only to the pair's "respectability," but, to a certain extent, to the Irish-
American community's acceptance of Harrigan and Hart's representation
of their experience.11s
The middle and upper classes went to the theatre to hear
Harrigan and Hart songs and also brought the songs into their homes.
While newsboys had bought Harrigan and Hart songbooks in the 1870s,
by the 1880s, the market for their work expanded to include a middle-
class community, able to afford parlors and pianos and eager to cultivate
the pleasures of the private domestic sphere. Sheet music sales for the
duo skyrocketed during this period and records suggest that the bulk of
the sales were to middle and upper class homes.ll 9 Harrigan and Hart's
best sellers included songs that sentimentalized the life of the New York
Irish, including "The Babies on Our Block," "Paddy Duffy's Cart," and
"My Dad's Dinner Pail."120 The image of middle-class families singing
these songs in their parlors appears as the ultimate symbol of the accept-
ance of Harrigan's Irishmen. By generating sympathy for the New York
Irish, the songs and their appropriation for after-dinner entertainment
played an important role in the relations between the New York Irish and
116 Freund's Daify Music and Drama, 28 November 1882.
7 Jacob Riis, Ho111the Other Ha!f Lives: St11dies Among the Tenemmfs of Ne111 York
(1890; repr., New York: Penguin Books, 1997).
118 Rose, Ed:vard Harrigan and His Plays, 87-8.
119 Dale Cockrell, "Nineteenth Century Popular Music," The Cambridge History of
Amencan Music, ed. David Nicholls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 189.
120 Ewen, American Popular Songs, Appendix, "The All Time Hit Parade," 472.
the dominant class. Harrigan and Hart's songs did not eradicate the upper
classes' pretense of ethnic and class superiority, but these moments of
cross-cultural negotiation began to break down some of the strong eth-
nic prejudices.12
Despite the songs' construction of New York Irish identity
through the construction of fundamental Irish ethnoculture, reflection
of immigrant interaction, and defusion of hostility towards Harrigan's
New York Irish, images and symbols that help construct identity emerge
and fade.1z2 Harrigan and Hart followed this trend. They "invented" sym-
bols of New York Irish identity at a time when New York accepted such
local symbols. After Harrigan and Hart split in 1885, Harrigan continued
to revive his old hits and create new ones. He had his last big success with
Reil!J and the Four Hundred in 1890. Yet, Harrigan and his songs fell "out
of fashion" by the 1890s.123 The images no longer resonated as "the
frame of reference for ethnicity changed."l24 Ethnicity's "scope was no
longer local, but national" as "the industry of entertainment entered the
national arena."125 In part, this shift to entertainment on a national scale
occurred with the establishment of Keith and Albee's national vaudeville
circuit in the late 1880s and early 1890s.126 Popular ethnic songs now
focused on Irish-Americans in general instead of referring to specific
localities such as New York.127
In the wake of these shifts, Harrigan and Hart's songs appear
unique for capturing a sense of New York Irish identity before Irish iden-
tity became nationally constructed. Despite Harrigan and Hart's immense
popularity, New Yorkers soon forgot their songs and plays. At the height
of Harrigan and Hart's popularity in the late 1870s and 1880s, the very
idea of forgetting Harrigan would have baffled audiences and critics. An
article in Echoes of the Week claimed, "if anybody should ever run away
Finson, "Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater," xxix.
122 Conzen eta!., "The Invention of Ethnicity," 3-41.
123 Finson, "Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater," xxi.
124 Ibid.
125 Ibid., xxi, xxxvii.
26 Richard Butsch, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television,
1750-1990 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 110.
7 Finson, "Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater,"
xxi, xxxvii.
with the idea that Mr. Harrigan isn't one of the men of the century, that
person wants to be stopped and incarcerated until he has time to look
over his record and contemplate through his mind's eye what Mr.
Harrigan has accomplished."t28 After Harrigan's death in 1911, the New
York City Globe wrote that "Probably not a man, woman, or child who
ever saw Harrigan's plays will forget them, and no one will be unable to
recall the famous songs of Dave Braham."t29
Despite the omission of Harrigan or Hart in countless history
books on musical theatre, their music and images resonated with their
audience long after their disappearance from New York theatres. Isaac
Goldberg described this resonance in American Mercury:
Once in a while you meet an old-timer who knew these
entertainments in the flesh; he will run his cane across
his bended knee as if coaxing the whine out of an
androgynous 'cello, and sing you sad and unfamiliar
words as if they were songs of Araby. They are songs
out of his departed youth; the secret of their appeal to
him, however, is precisely the secret of their hold upon
the author. At the core of Harrigan's doggerel burns a
vitalizing sincerity; these verses, whether in single exam-
ple or as a historical collection, depict an era; Harrigan
in his unpretentious way, was the folksinger of an
epoch, remembering its days and ways and setting them
down in simple language,l30
The New York Times also noted the impact of Harrigan and Braham's
Odd lines of old songs have been hummed these last
few days, springing out of nooks and corners of brains
which had hardly suspected their existence for many a
year. What a good song Ned Harrigan could write-
how catchy a melody Dave Braham could set down to
28 "Somebodies at Home-IV: The Dickens of the New York Stage," Echoes of
the Week, 5 March 1891.
129 New York City Globe, 6 June 1911.
130 Issac Goldberg, "Harrigan and Hart-and Braham," American Mercury: A
Month(y Review 26.2 (February 1929): 205.
his comrade's lines- what a fine, jovial time that was
forty years ago when Harrigan and Hart played a part in
the city's life. . . . When Harrigan drew his types they
were men and women known to all his audience. l31
Although elderly audience members fondly remembered Harrigan and
Hart, Harrigan and Hart's songs represented an identity no longer recog-
nized by subsequent generations. Perhaps this lack of recognition result-
ed from a shifting sense of identification, with immigrants beginning to
identify themselves as Irish-American, instead of New York Irish.132
Along with changing upper and middle class attitudes towards
Irish-Americans as well as the move of many Irish-Americans into the
middle class, ironically, the popularity of Harrigan, Hart, and Braham's
songs might have helped lead to their short-lived impact by successfully
negotiating a safe public space for the New York Irish. If the songs
repeated values and cultural connections firmly established within Irish-
American communities by the end of the nineteenth century, perhaps the
songs also were no longer needed as symbols of identity and cultural
unity. Yet Harrigan and Braham's songs appear important precisely for
their limited period of extreme popularity because they reflect a transi-
tion point for the Irish image in America as well as window into the local-
ly constructed identity of the New York Irish. In the decades before
Harrigan and Hart, Irish immigrants were depicted as simian creatures in
cartoons, newspapers, and on the American stage. Yet in the early twen-
tieth-century musicals of George M. Cohan, among others, that involved
Irish-American characters or stars, .it was no longer contradictory for an
Irish-American to be recognized as the quintessential loyal American
patriot. I suggest that Harrigan, Hart, and Braham's songs played a vital
and often unrecognized role in this transition of the Irish-American
image. The songs not only capture this moment of negotiation, but also
display the importance of local communities and identities in the shifting
image of the Irish in America. Their songs' role highlights how an explo-
ration of the local and nuanced construction of the stage Irishman as
well as other stage caricatures can illuminate previously unnoticed aspects
of theatre and audience history.
"In the Good Old Days of Harrigan and Hart: The Death of Edward
Harrigan Brings Back to the Older Theatregoers Recollections of the Most Famous
Comedians of their Time in NY," New York City Times, 11 June 1911.
32 Pinson, "Realism in Late Nineteenth-Century American Musical Theater," xxii.
In September 1917, Oliver M. Sayler, dramatic editor for the Indianapolis
News, boarded a ship bound for Russia via the Pacific Ocean, intent on
collecting a firsthand account of the Russian theatre before "the pressure
of revolution should bear too harshly upon it."l After a brief layover in
Japan and a rough train ride through Siberia, he arrived in Moscow in the
midst of the Bolshevik revolution armed with only a loaf of rye bread, a
mediocre Russian-English pocket dictionary, and a highly valuable
American passport. Sayler entered the turbulent Russian city one week
prior to the ProYisional Government's surrender to the Bolsheviks and
witnessed for six months the chaos and danger of a nation in transition
while stubbornly amassing records of theatrical activity in Moscow and
St. Petersburg.
Sayler ultimately published his experiences of the theatre in The
Russian Theatre Under the Revolution (1920) and his experiences of Russia
during the revolution in Russia Red or White (1919), though articles
appearing in the books first appeared in the North Ame1ican Review, the
New Republic, the S aturdqy Evening Post, the Indianapolis News, the Boston
Evening Transmpt, and Vaniry Fair. Thus, his views on the revolution, the
theatre, and the Russian people reached a broad and interested American
readership. His publications helped establish the terms for understanding
Russia, its people, and its art. Both Sayler's trip and his work are steeped
in the discourses of modernism, and particularly the language of travel,
which emphasized a sense of displacement, cultural contrast, and nostal-
gia for an older, more aesthetic world in the midst of decay.
Like Sayler, Hallie Flanagan traveled to Russia to see for herself
the state of Russian theatre, though her trip came eleven years after the
Revolution. Both she and Sayler reported their personal accounts with
authority to their American audiences and greatly influenced the way
Americans came to appreciate the Russian theatre and even began to
approach theatrical production. Their texts, of course, worked within a
complex network of intertextuality that included popular images of
Russians pre- and post-revolution, narratives of modernity and mod-
ernism, current events played out in the press, modes of advertising, per-
formances of Russian artists on tour, and nineteenth- and twentieth-cen-
1 Oli\-er M. Sayler, Rtwia White or Red (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company,
1919), ix.
tury Russian literature. Significantly, their writing reveals a reliance on the
strategies of travel narratives, an extremely popular genre in the 1920s
and 1930s, which enabled them to consider their own American identi-
ties as they sought to define the Russians they encountered, and to under-
stand the new Russia in relation to the old. As with travel writing, their
works are as preoccupied with their own homeland as they are with
Russia and its theatre. An exploration of the works of Flanagan and
Sayler reveals some of the ways Americans became familiar with the
Russian theatre in relation to the modernist principles regulating cultural
American interest in Russian theatre occurred long before the
famed Moscow Art Theatre tour in 1923 and escalated in the last half of
the 1920s. Although a couple of Russian performers had toured
American in the early 1900s, it was Gordon Craig who sparked wide-
spread American interest in Russian performance with an article on the
Moscow Art Theatre in his magazine, The Mask in 1909.
The American
tours of Anna Pavlova, beginning in 1910, and the vast publicity sur-
rounding them helped make Russian performance synonymous with
"high art." Diaghilev's Ballet Russe increased interest in Russian per-
formance and theatrical design among the elite during its United States
tours in 1916-1917. In 1919, Michel Fokine earned the highest salary of
any choreographer when he staged the dances for the Broadway specta-
cle Aphrodite, a testament to the popularity of the Russian artist. The
Russian-emigre and American theatrical impresario, Morris Gest, backed
by the millionaire financier Otto Kahn, contributed to the developing
interest in Russian theatre when he sponsored the wildly popular tours of
Balieff's Chauve-Souris cabaret theatre beginning in 1922 and extending
into the early 1930s. The two men also enabled the important tours of
the Moscow Art Theatre in 1923 and 1924 and the Moscow Art Theatre
Music Studio in 1925. The 1926 performances of the Habima, the
Hebrew theatre from Moscow, also garnered the attention of American
theatre artists and audiences, especially those interested in theatrical
experimentation. All of these performances helped to generate an
increasing interest in the Russian theatre, as even a quick glance through
Theatre Arts magazine during these years will attest. These tours and the
excessive publicity surrounding them helped to defme Russia for
Americans and they served as important background for American the-
atre scholars, critics, and artists writing about the Russian theatre during
See Laurence Senelick, "The American Tour of Orlenev and Nazimova,
1905-1906" in Wandering Stars: Rllssian Emigre Theatre, 1905-1940, ed. Laurence Senelick
(lowa City: University of Iowa, 1992) for a discussion of the early Russian tours.
the 1920s and 1930s. Both Sayler and Flanagan reference these tours in
their books on the Russian theatre.
It is important to point out that by the 1920s the term "Russian"
had taken on a variety of complex and often contradictory meanings
influenced by Russian-American diplomatic relations, the high rate of
Russian emigration to the United States, the 1919 Red Scare, and
America's increasing contact with nineteenth-century Russian literature,
art, music, and theatre. For example, even as Americans perceived
Russians as backward and barbaric, inefficient and dangerous, they por-
trayed them as highly intellectual, cunning, and deeply spiritual.
Immigration officials invented statistics to "prove" that Russians were
among the least intelligent foreigners present in America and the least
likely to be integrated into American culture, but progressives saw them
as artistic and literary geniuses.3 Numerous Russians found positions as
teachers of art, music, and performance when they emigrated to the
United States.
Certainly, though, due to the government's Red Scare tac-
tics as played out in the popular press with headlines and articles in the
New York Times screaming that Russians were going to overthrow the
United States government and end all religion, the majority of Americans
were developing mistrust and fear of Russians, who represented a poten-
tial threat to American freedoms and values.
Though there were dozens of articles written about the Russian
theatre in the 1920s, there were very few lengthy studies available in
English in the first decade after the revolution. Oliver M. Sayler published
his first book length study, Russian Theatre Under the Revolution in 1920, and
expanded it as The Russian Theatre in 1922. He also wrote Inside the Moscow
Art Theatre, published in 1925. The British writer, Huntly Carter, pub-
lished his The New Theatre and Cinema of Soviet Russia in 1923 and The New
Spirit in the Russian Theatre in 1928. In 1924, Harvard professor Leo
Wiener wrote The Contemporary Drama of Russia and in 1928 Hallie
Flanagan focused a third of her study, Shifting Scenes of the Modern European
Theatre on the theatre in Soviet Russia.
In this paper I am interested in looking at the works of Oliver
M. Sayler and Hallie Flanagan as they worked specifically to define
Russian theatre and Russians in general for Americans in terms of their
own American and modernist sensibilities. Unlike Wiener, whose irnper-
3 Arthur The Jews in America (New York: Columbia University Press,
1997), 226.
4 See the many advertisements in Theatre Magazine, Dance Magazine, and Dance
Magazine in the 1920s to get a sense of the number of Russians who were teach-
ing acting, dance, and scenic design.
sonal dramatic cntlctsm largely obscures his national interests, both
Flanagan and Sayler foreground themselves as Americans, clearly desig-
nate their implied readers as American, and establish an us/them
approach to analysis. Additionally, both authors traveled to Russia fol-
lowing the revolution and exploit the narrative strategies of travel texts in
defining the Russian as "other" (even as they hoped to clispel some pop-
ular images of Russians as portrayed in the press and to encourage cul-
tural exchange between Russians and Americans).
Oliver M. Sayler figures dominantly in the history of American
interest and understancling of the Russian theatre and of the Moscow Art
Theatre in particular. Huntly Carter, in his 1928 work on the Russian the-
atre, noted that Sayler "has come to be known as the historian of the
Moscow Art Academic Theatre;" however, Carter rightly questions some
of Sayler's analysis.s Sayler worked as a publicist for Morris Gest for the
tours of the Chauve-Souris and the Moscow Art Theatre and his enthu-
siasm for the Moscow Art Theatre and Stanislavsky, in particular, often
distorts his work. As part of the publicity for these ventures, Sayler had
several articles published, revised, and re-issued in his book of the
Russian theatre under the revolution, and then wrote Inside the Moscow Art
Theatre. His later books set out to educate Americans about Russian the-
atre in part to attract them to performances. In these works, Sayler
emphasizes the "artistic spirit of the Russian," attempts to alleviate
American suspicions of the touring artists by de-politicizing them, com-
pares and contrasts the "natures" of Russians and Americans, and insists
that there is great value in cultural exchange between artists of the two
In his work, The Russian Theatre (an expansion of Russian Theatre
Under the Revolution), Sayler is chiefly interested in raising American inter-
est in Russian theatre by revealing the vitality of Russian performance by
emphasizing the continuity of pre-revolutionary impulses. Though he
establishes the revolution as a framework for his study, partly to height-
en the sense of danger that his research involved, it is little more than a
painted backdrop (sometimes a nuisance) to the story of the "spirit of
Russian art" and its masters.6 He bases most of his discussions and
observations primarily on his personal meetings with Russian artists, vis-
its to theatres, and the sometimes (he admits) sketchy production histo-
5 Huntly Carter, The New Spin/ in the Ruuian Theatre, 19111928 (New York:
Brentano's, 1929), 306.
6 This is partly due to his decision to write a separate account of the revolution
in Russia White or Red.
ries he collected during the several months he spent in Russia in late 1917
and early 1918.7 Ultimately, as his new chapter, "The Russian Theatre in
America," might suggest, his work aims to encourage cultural exchange
between the artists of both nations (and help sell tickets to the Moscow
Art Theatre production). Throughout the book and in his conclusion,
Sayler argues that Americans have much to learn from "these more
mature but still fresh and unspoiled preceptors."B As Sayler hoped, this
work served as an important early tutorial for Americans who wanted to
understand and model their work on the theatre of the Russians.
In The Russian Theatre, Sayler adopts the strategies of travel writ-
ing to describe the theatre he experienced in Russia. For example, Sayler
speaks with a distinctively American narrative voice, expresses a roman-
tic nostalgia for old Russia, continuously makes comparisons between
home and abroad, relegates the Russian people to a time other than his
own, and describes them with lists of features. He also suggests that his
travels are dangerous and presents himself, from time to time, as one of
them. These are some of the characteristic features of travel writing as
analyzed by Mary Suzanne Schriber. In her work, she argues that the
observations of other lands and other people served the construction of
American identity by reference to the other.
Sayler's book works in a
similar manner as he defines the Russian theatre and Russians in general
in terms of his American identity.
Sayler speaks with a distinctly American narrative voice through-
out The Russian Theatre. In the preface, he tells his readers that he hopes
this book will help to establish permanent contact between "our own the-
atre and the Russian."10 In chapter one, as he establishes that he went to
the theatre as often as possible for his research, he explains that he
bought his tickets to the Art Theatre "on Thanksgiving Day." Also in
chapter one, he interjects, "I must be very American, indeed," with little
purpose other than to establish the fact that he is in a world quite unlike
his own.
He re-establishes this narrative voice at the beginning of near-
ly every chapter and at times within the chapters, though his voice shifts
7 Sayler, The Russian Theatre (New York: Brentano's, 1922), 9 and 263.
8 Ibid., 329.
9 Mary Suzanne Schriber, Writing Home: American Women A broad, 1930-1920
(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 21.
10 Sayler, The RJmian Theatre, x.
11 Ibid., 4.
to that of the objective critic as he begins to detail the plays on stage.
Sayler continues to apply the strategies of travel writing by estab-
lishing early on and repeatedly reminding his readers that his research was
dangerous. In this way, Sayler becomes heroic in his efforts to chronicle
the Russian theatre, like the adventurers and travel writers before him.
Chapter one begins:
It wasn't a promising prospect for a winter of calm con-
sideration of the Russian theatre, as I sat one morning
in November, 1917, in the Yaroslavl station .. . . Down
by the Kremlin the big guns had been booming ever
since my journey across Siberia had come to an end.t2
Two pages later, he writes, "During a bloody week of violent civil strife
and another week of nervous uncertainty ... , the prospect of studying
Russian theatre was dark enough." He adds that he was advised to leave
as the embassies were doing, but he refused, enlisting Meyerhold and oth-
ers who "promised to keep [him] in hiding for two years if necessary, in
case the Germans should come."t3 His tactic of explaining his dangerous
situation serves to heighten the sense of his heroism, but it also points
out to his readers that he is out of place. The danger of Russia constantly
reminds him of home, where he is safe to go to the theatre, mediocre as
it may be.
Over the course of The Russian Theatre, as Sayler works to assuage
American fears of Russians by minimizing, and sometimes excluding
altogether, notions of a relationship between Russian political and artis-
tic life, he reinforces pre-revolutionary, non-threatening images of
Russians by nonchalantly listing their features in various anecdotes and
descriptions. After piecing together scattered references regarding
Russian nature, Sayler's American readers are reminded that Russians are
"dilatory" (like the Mexicans, he suggests), crude and rough, dramatic,
gloomy, slow-moving, self-abasing, naive, gentle, and brilliantly creative.t4
Even his description of Stanislavsky relies on assumptions about typical
Russian behavior. Sayler says that Stanislavsky is "indeed Russian in the
gentleness and simplicity of his ways, in the beauty of spirit which
inheres alike in the artist and the man."ts Sayler also attributes what he
Ibid., 1.
13 Ibid., 10.
Ibid., 9.
perceives as Stanislavsky's lack of confidence and authority, as well as his
inability to speak English or French fluently, to his Russian nationality,
suggesting that Russians were not very worldly. "Transplant him, as you
could a man of the world, and he would perish."16 However, he calls
Stanislavsky "thoroughly un-Russian" in "his capacity for work" and "his
grasp of detail."
(And here, of course, Sayler means that Stanislavsky
resembles an American in this sense.) Sayler's depiction of characteristic
Russian behavior enables him to alleviate American fear of the Russians
while establishing them as quite unlike, though compatible with,
Sayler's views of Russians in contrast to Americans is stated
directly in the first chapters of Inside the Moscow Art Theatre, which he
wrote after a second visit to Moscow following the company's US tours.
Like The Russian Theatre, the later work explores Russian theatre in rela-
tion to American theatre and culture and serves to identify specific
American traits through contrast with the Russian. Sayler argues that
both the Russian artists and American audiences benefited from the cul-
tural exchange provided by those tours. He claims unabashedly that the
Moscow Art Theatre became more orderly, efficient, speedy, and adapt-
able following its visit to the United States. IS He argues relentlessly that,
"until these pampered and privileged Russians visited us, ... they resent-
ed change," and that they learned the value of work from the
9 He writes that the Russians especially took to heart the
American slogans, "Do it now," "Everything is possible," "I'll try any-
thing once," and "time is money."20 By comparison, the Americans, hard-
working and efficient, though "superficial, impatient and spoilt," learned
patience and the value of beauty and art from the Russians.21 As in The
Russian Theatre, Sayler's 1925 book points out the differences between the
two cultures in order to insist on the benefits of cultural exchange.
Obviously, in Sayler's mind, the Americans could use an aesthetic educa-
15 Ibid., 15.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Sayler, Inside the Moscow Art Theatre (Westport, Cf: Greenwood Press, 1925), 3.
20 Sayler, The Russian Theatre, 4
21 Ibid.
cion while the Russians needed a lesson in the values of modern
American capitalism.
While constituting himself as an outsider and adventurer in The
Russian Theatre, Sayler sometimes represents himself as "one of them."
For example, at one point he writes, ''Along with other hundreds in that
crowded playhouse, my body was torn with hunger and my soul flayed
with sickness and pity and despair. Yet there we sat, willingly, eagerly,
plunging the knife of spiritual torture still deeper in the wound."22 By
becoming one of them, (one of those tortured Russian souls who is quite
at home with despair), Sayler reveals to his readers that he has gone
beyond mere tourism to become an insider and thereby can be viewed as
an authority on his subject. As a member of a Russian audience, he has
been enabled to feel more deeply than most Americans ever do. Such an
experience, he suggests implicitly throughout the work, would grant
those childish Americans a moment of spiritual and aesthetic maturity.
Ultimately, Sayler provided the most comprehensive and detailed
account of the Russian theatre available to Americans at the time. In
doing so, he encouraged pre-revolutionary stereotypes of Russians and
constructed an American identity in contrast to those stereotypes.
However, Sayler also suggested similarities between Russians and
Americans in order to encourage cultural exchange. Sayler asserted that it
was because the people of both nations were capable of great sensitivity
and deep emotion that they were able to transcend cultural barriers to
share the best traits of their souls.23 In his books and publicity for
Russian performance in the United States, Sayler insisted that it was
through art that the American and Russian people could achieve greater
understanding of the other. In a souvenir program for both the Chauve-
Sow:is and the Moscow Art Theatre entitled, "The Russian Players in
America," Sayler declared that "the peaceful invasion" of these compa-
nies "had done more to reveal to each other the Russian and the
American people, to establish their essential kinship and common
humanity, than all the guns of generals and deception of diplomats."24
His work certainly did a great deal to establish relationships between
Russians and Americans by generating American interest in Russian per-
formance while helping to set the terms for the discussion of Russian art
22 Ibid., 7.
3 Ibid., 4.
24 Sayler, "The Russian Players in America," Souvenir program (New York:
Bernhardt Wall, 1923).
and performance in America.
Sayler's The &tssian Theatre and Hallie Flanagan's Shifting Scenes
operate in very similar ways, as they work to create American interest in
Russian theatre, as they explore Americanness even as they work to
define Russianness, and as they borrow the strategies of travel writing.
Flanagan's book works more like a travel text than Sayler's and could actu-
ally be called a travel narrative. It covers her impressions of the theatres
across Europe and, as a log of her Guggenheim-sponsored journey, fea-
tures many more aspects of travel itself. Flanagan discusses the variety of
vehicles, the geography, smells and tastes, architecture, and history of the
places she visits; she regularly references the literature of the culture; and
she locks t he portrayals of the many people she meets into distinct events
(much more frequently than Sayler). All of these elements of travel cap-
ture Flanagan's attention as she writes about the theatre in Russia. Her
primary goal is to reveal the vitality of Russian performance in response
to (rather than in spite of) the Revolution, so the world outside the walls
of the theatre figures more prominently in her text than in Sayler's.
An interesting feature of Flanagan's work, which is consistent
with women's travel writing, is her humble apology. In the preface, she
calls her work a "dramatic diary" in which she allows the "actors" speak
for themselves.zs Those actors are listed as "Dramatis Personae" in the
first pages of her book and include Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Gordon
Craig, and other important European theatre artists and theorists. "My
part," she writes, "has been merely to set the stage and now and then
speak a few lines for the chorus."26 As Sidonie Smith notes women trav-
el writers often muted the narrative "I" to "avoid the impropriety of self-
preoccupation and self-promotion."27 Flanagan's apology decenters her
from her narrative by making others t he heroes of her narrative, quite in
contrast to Sayler, who inserts himself heroically into his. Throughout
the work, Flanagan remains self-effacing and without heroism though her
first-hand accounts establish her authority on her subject.
Following her apology, Flanagan composes her fairly brief and
eventful impressions of the dominant figures in theatre across Europe
before she arrives in Russia, where she lingers for an extended stay.
Flanagan sets out to see for herself what part theatre plays in the new
25 Hallie Flanagan, Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (New York:
Coward-McCann, I nc., 1928), iii-iY.
6 I bid.
27 Sidonie Smith, Moving Lives: Twentieth Century Womens Travel Writing
(Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001 ), 18.
order, and her discussion of the theatre in Soviet Russia begins with a
rebuttal of the mass of information circulating outside Russia about what
was happening inside Russia.zs She writes,
I was told, among other things, that it was useless to go
in at all because I would be allowed to see only what
"They" wanted me to see; that I would be under espi-
onage, day and night; . .. that I should be led to think
that everyone in Russia was in favor of the Soviet, .. .
that it would be impossible for me to talk with anyone
in English, German, or French, because all the people
who formerly spoke these languages had been exiled,
shot, or placed under terror; ... that the only people one
met in Russia to-day were ignorant and loutish peasants;
that all churches in Russia were either demolished or
closed by order of the Soviet; that streets were so unsafe
that a woman could not walk about alone; ... that it was
useless to go to Russia to study the theatre, since the
drama, together with all other art, was dead.29
After listing this series of warnings, she proceeds in the next five chap-
ters to counter them. She describes walking alone at night, unnoticed; she
portrays intelligent artists, scientists and workers able to speak several lan-
guages arguing the fine points of the new regime; and she very excitedly
details the vitality of the audiences in the theatre.
Unlike Sayler, Flanagan focuses on the changes in Russian the-
atre, and Russia in general, following the revolution. Throughout her
work, Flanagan discusses her experiences and encounters in terms of
whether they represent the old Russia or the new Russia. Flanagan
depicts old Russia with great nostalgia and respect, while she presents the
new Russia as one might present a younger sibling. In one anecdote that
demonstrates her views of the old and new, she dramatizes what she calls,
"the difference between the old and the new Russian courtesy." This
becomes a quick, farcical episode between a doorman of the old order,
"a whitehaired old aristocrat," and two young hotel workers, whom she
calls "comrades."30 In the episode, Flanagan struggles to put on her
28 Flanagan, Shifting Scenes, 82.
29 Ibid., 83.
30 Ibid. , 90.
galoshes and the young men simply stare "stupidly" at her without offer-
ing to assist her. She shrugs off their refusal to help her with the thought
that "this is Soviet Russia- why should any person put on the galoshes
of any other person?" Finally, she writes, the old man, representing pre-
revolutionary courtesy:
utters a furious ejaculation, strides into the cloakroom,
seizes the two comrades, and with an avalanche of
Russian terrifying to the ears, knocks their heads togeth-
er, bangs them against the wall, flings them limp and
stunned in a heap on the floor, spits upon them,
advances to me as I sit petrified, ... with a magnificent
gesture, to put on my galoshes.3
As this anecdote indicates, Flanagan often longs for the more personal
grandeur of the pre-revolutionary Russia of her imagination, created by
encounters with nineteenth-century Russian novelists and at least a few
farces. In fact, Flanagan regularly compares the Russians she encounters
with the characters from pre-revolutionary Russian literature.32
Though less farcically, Flanagan continues to construct her
impressions of Russia in terms of the new--a youthful, fast-paced, curt,
active, but somewhat drab world-and the old-inert and geriatric but
beautiful, colorful, and deeply spiritual world-accompanied by nostalgic
sighs of the writer and her characters. Stanislavsky and his theatre repre-
sent the best of the old. Her description of the history of Russian theatre
accompanies her chapter on Stanislavsky, whom she describes (after tak-
ing a moment of meditation) as a spiritually incorruptible man with the
greatest artistic integrity (perhaps she was influenced by Sayler?).33
Meyerhold, for Flanagan, represents the best of the new. Note
the clues of motion and modernity in her description of him, which I
have italicized for emphasis:
This tall man with a shock of gray brown hair tossed
carelessly back from a face at once magnetic and sinister
meets with electrical response from his actors. He is
31 Ibid.
32 See ibid., 83-85 for lengthy comparisons revealing the degree to which
Russian literature, music, and performance have influenced her reading of Russian culture.
33 Flanagan, Shifting Scenes, 125.
t[ynamic as one of his own machines, as free and released as
his own stage.34
Her most detailed descriptions of communism and the new Russian soci-
ety as she views it accompany her chapter on "Red Theatre" in which
Meyerhold emerges as the hero.
Throughout her book, places, like individuals, are described in
the terms she establishes to divide the new and the old. The countryside
brings Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov to her mind, but both Moscow
and St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time of her writing) are mixtures of
the "splendor of the old" and "the strangeness of the new."3S For her,
"St. Petersburg" still exists, though it now shares the same space with
"Leningrad." She represents the coexistence of the new and the old in
this city with images of the beautiful churches and the Russian architec-
ture and art of the ages in the Hermitage in juxtaposition to images of
throngs of active, rowdy workers dressed in sensible, but drab, coarse
clothing, eating plain and bland foods.
Like Sayler, Flanagan performs her role as the American amid
the Russians by adopting a distinctively American voice. For example, at
one point, she writes that her Russian host "touches with childlike admi-
ration (her] American clothes."36 And in a particularly telling episode,
Flanagan tells us she was called upon by the host of an impromptu
cabaret performance in St. Petersburg to describe the state of theatre in
America. She writes, "I have never been able to recall exactly what I said,
but I have vague memories of responding in the name of all profession-
al theatres of New York, all the experimental theatres of America, and of
adding a personal word of greeting from the white house."37 As a travel-
er in Russia, Flanagan becomes the voice of America.
Flanagan never forgets the American nationality of her implied
reader as she explains the significance of events in Russia and Russian
theatre with comparisons to events in America. For instance, she com-
pares the Russian response to Mikhail Bulgakov's Dqys if the Turbins to
the American reaction to What Price Glory?JB Later, she notes that Tairov's
Ibid., 113.
35 Ibid., 87.
Ibid., 161.
37 Ibid., 175.
production of O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms departed from the original
production at Provincetown, assuming her readers' knowledge of the
original. 39
Flanagan also assumes that her reader is familiar with the many
harsh accounts of Soviet Russia in the American press and shares the
American sense of superiority over Russian society. She critiques this elit-
ism lightly on several occasions. The ftrst time she undermines this atti-
tude is in her discussion of the slow advancement of technology in
Russia. "We cry, these people are not efficient, they will never get any-
where. By this we mean they will not get where we are. Nor will they, nor,
inconceivable as it may seem to us, do they wish to."
0 Here, Flanagan's
attitude starkly contrasts Sayler's, for she does not hope to see a Russia
sharing the entrepreneurial spirit of America as it is tied to technology
and the rapid movement of time. Flanagan again critiques American soci-
ety when she describes the homeless children of Russia. With irony, she
writes, "We have no such children in America. Lord, we thank Thee we
are not as Russia-and a sudden memory of a New York street with well
dressed men and women descending from motors, while around the cor-
ner children lay gasping on fire-escapes."4J In both instances, Flanagan
not only plays on the prejudices of her American readership to deflate its
elitist attitude over her subject matter, but also to critique American cap-
italism. In doing so, Flanagan hopes to reveal the oversimplification of
Russian society by the press and US government as absurd and unrea-
Like Sayler, though much more prominently, she also becomes
one of them. Starting by appropriating the Russian language, she inserts
several Russian words throughout her account, particularly claiming the
word "tovarish" or comrade, which she considers "the most significant
word in Soviet Russia."42 Her increasing use of this word and others
reveals that she is growing more comfortable in Russia and beginning to
masquerade as Russian. But she does this more directly in a chapter enti-
tled, "Hard," in which she describes riding "hard," or third class, from
Moscow to Leningrad. This chapter makes no single mention of the the-
38 Ibid., 130.
39 I bid., 152.
0 Ibid., 157.
4! I bid., 177.
2 Ibid., 89.
atre. Instead, it highlights differences between Americans and Russians as
she imagines herself to be a Russian on this journey. She writes that the
advantage of traveling this way is that she becomes "one of them and
they accept me as such."
3 She boards the train, noting the strangeness of
the three Russians who share her cabin: a woman in "mysterious head-
wrappings," a Soviet officer who is writing a bloody play, and a worker
who doesn't speak but continuously offers the others apples.
By the
time night falls on their overnight trip, however, the cultural barriers have
dissolved. Flanagan writes, "Here am I, eating the apples of one comrade,
sleeping upon the coat of another and in momentary danger of being
annihilated by the collapse of the third. Tovarish, indeed! I am at last
becoming a part of Russia."4S Although the gulf between the Russians
and their American narrator dissolves in the anecdote, the episode serves
to highlight the differences in the way of life between the two.
Later in the episode, the train stops for several hours and at first
Flanagan is indignant because as an American, she considers such delays
unacceptable. But then, she explains,
Gradually I sink into a sort of Russian-ness, born of
moonlight on snow, and the rise and fall of Slavic voic-
es. After all, what is time? What matter whether we
reach our destination tomorrow, or on some deferred
tomorrow? Time is nothing ... time is nothing.46
Even as she imagines herself as a Russian in this anecdote, her
Americanness never dissolves. New Russian time might be quicker than
old Russian time, but it is still slower than American time. This example
also points to another feature of American travel writing by characteriz-
ing the local inhabitants as living in a distinctly different time than the
American traveler.47 However, unlike the nineteenth-century travel writ-
ers who depict the slow time of the other as a means of portraying the
superiority of American culture, Flanagan reverses the criticism. She
comments that Americans have become "slaves of time" unlike the
patient (and free) Russians, who measure time in centuries rather than in
43 Ibid., 153.
44 Ibid., 154.
45 Ibid., 155.
6 Ibid., 156.
47 Schriber, Writing Home, 77.
train schedules and desk calendars.
Essentially, Flanagan's test serves to bridge the gap between the
grandeur of the nineteenth-century Russia of the American imagination
and the modern Russia, which she presents sympathetically in order to
combat American dismissive prejudices. Of course, Flanagan cannot
escape her American prejudices entirely and, like Sayler, sometimes pres-
ents Russians as childlike and backward. Nevertheless, like Sayler,
Flanagan worked to alleviate Americans' fears of Russians, which she saw
as unwarranted and even ridiculous, in the hopes that Russian artists and
audiences might serve as tutors for American theatre practitioners and
audience members.
Both Oliver Sayler's and Hallie Flanagan's travels to Russia and
their accounts of the Russian theatre had a significant impact on the
American theatre. Sayler helped to depoliticize the work of the Moscow
Art Theatre artists in particular so that they might be more easily accept-
ed by American audiences and theatre workers. Hallie Flanagan's work
appeared in separate articles in Theatre Arts, the Tanager, and the SaturdC!J
Review of L"terature, and in book form, undoubtedly reaching a broad
readership. Her experiences with Russian theatre also informed her work
in the theatre at Vassar College and later as head of the Federal Theatre
Project in the late 1930s. Sayler helped to cement the status of
Stanislavksy as an artist whose work transcended politics and could easi-
ly be adapted for American use, while Flanagan raised interest in more
experimental forms devised by Meyerhold and the Blue Blouse groups,
without devaluing Stanislavsky's status in the United States.
Significantly, both writers, using the narrative strategies of travel
writing, sought to construct Russians (old and new) as other than "us,"
while at the same time pointing out what this "other" had to offer. They
maintained, through their comments regarding time, travel, and work,
that Americans were essentially more modern than their Russian coun-
terparts, but that the Russian artist offered a spiritual and aesthetic sensi-
bility unknown in the American theatre. They masqueraded as Russians
while remaining firmly American and encouraged their fellow American
artists to follow in their footsteps. Few can question whether or not they
48 Ibid., 156.
MICHELLE GRANSHAW is currently a doctoral student in the School of
Drama at the University of Washington. She has an J\iA in Theatre and
Performance Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Her article is based on research she conducted for her Masters thesis enti-
tled "'What do ye allow a baboon like that on the stage for?': Protest,
Irish-American Identity, and the Works of Harrigan, Hart, and Braham."
VALLERI J. HOHMAN is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at the
University of Illinois, where she teaches courses in Dramaturgy and
Dramatic Literature. Her areas of focus include literary adaptation and
Russian performance in America from 1900-1930. Valleri's work appears
in New England Theatre Journal, African American Dramatists, The Encyclopedia
of Modern Drama, and the Dictionary of Literary Biograpf?y.
MATTHEW REBHORN is an assistant professor of English at James
Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. His work has appeared or
is forthcoming in Queen: A Journal of Rhetoric and Power, Callaloo,
Comparative Drama, Modern Drama, and Studies in the NoveL He is currently
completing a manuscript on the staging and performance of the frontier
on the nineteenth-century American stage.
Su sAN TENNERIELLO is assistant professor of Theatre in the Fine and
Performing Arts Department at Baruch College. She writes extensively
on theatre, dance, and visual arts, pursuing interdisciplinary work in cul-
tural aesthetics. Her current research project examines history, culture,
and the idea of nationhood in nineteenth-century American mass enter-
@ Rel\114rd: The Ahsent-Mlncled Lover
@ Destouche.: The Conceited Count
@ I., CJ,......;.,: The feoluonabl.e Prejud!""
@ L.tqa:ThefriendoltheL.two
The Heirs of
Translated and Edited by:
Marvin Carlson
This volume contains four
representative French comedies of
the period from the death of Moliere
to the French Revolution: Regnard's
The Absent-Minded Lover,
Destouches's The Conceited Count,
La Chaussee's The Fashionable
Prejudice, and Laya's The Friend of
the Laws.
Translated in a poetic form that
seeks to capture the wit and spirit of
the originals, these four plays
suggest something of the range of
the Moliere inheritance, from
comedy of character through the
highly popular sentimental comedy
of the mid eighteenth century, to
comedy that employs the Moliere
tradition for more contemporary
political ends.
In addition to their humor, these comedies provide fascinating social documents that
show changing ideas about such perennial social concerns as class, gender, and
politics through the turbulent century that ended in the revolutions that gave birth to
the modern era.
USA $20.00 plus shipping $3.00 USA, $6.00 International
Please make payments in U.S. Dollars payable to:
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Mail checks or money orders to:
Circulation Manager
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309
Visit our web-site at:!mestcl
Contact: or 212-817-1868
DA L G ao D MAa 1 CAnso
Four Melodramas
Translated and Edited by:
Daniel Gerould
Marvin Carlson
This volume contains four of
Pixerecourt's most important
melodramas: The Ruins of Babylon,
or Jafar and Zaida, The Dog of
Montatgis, or The Forest of Bondy,
Christopher Columbus, or The
Discovery of the New World, and
Alice, or The Scottish Gravediggers,
as well as Charles Nodier's
"Introduction" to the 1843 Collected
Edition of Pixerecourt's plays and
the two theoretical essays by tbe
playwright, "Melodrama," and
"Final Reflections on Melodrama."
"Pixerecourt furnished the Theatre of Marvels with its most stunning effects, and
brought the classic situations of fairground comedy up-to-date. He determined the
structure of a popular theatre which was to last through the 19th century ...
Pixerecourt determined that scenery, music, dance, lighting and the very movements
of his actors should no longer be left to chance but made integral parts of his play."
Hannah Winter, The Theatre of Marvels
USA $20.00 plus shipping $3.00 USA, $6.00 International
Please make payments in U.S. Dollars payable to:
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Mail checks or money orders to:
Circulation Manager
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 100164309
Visit our web-site at:
Contact: or 212-817-1868
Witkiewicz: Seven Plays
Translated and Edited
by Daniel Gerould
This volume contains seven of
Witkiewicz's most important
plays: The Pragmatists, Tumor
Brainiowicz, Gyubal Wahazar,
The Anonymous Work, The
Cuttlefish, Dainty Shapes and
Hairy Apes, and The Beelzebub
Sonata, as well as two of his
theoretical essays, "Theoretical
Introduction" and "A Few Words
about the Role of the Actor in the
Theatre of Pure Form."
Witkiewicz . . . takes up and
continues the vein of dream and
grotesque fantasy exemplified by
the late Strindberg or by
Wedekind; his ideas are closely paralleled by those of the surrealists and
Antonin Artaud which culminated in the masterpeices of the dramatists of the
absurd- Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Arrabal-of the late nineteen forties and the
nineteen fifties. It is high time that this major playwright should become better
known in the English-speaking world.
Martin Esslin
USA $20.00 PLUS SIDPPING $3.00 USA, $6.00 International
Please make payments in U.S. Dollars payable to:
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Mail checks or money orders to:
Circulation Manager
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309
Visit our web-site at:
Contact: or 212-817-1868
The Arab Oedipus:
Four Plays
Marvin Carlson
Marvin Carlson
Dalia Basiouny
William Maynard Hutchins
Pierre Cachia
Desmond O' Grady
Admer Gouryh
With Introductions By:
Marvin Carlson, Tawfiq Al-Hakim,
& Dalia Basiouny
This volume contains four plays based on the
Oedipus legend by four leading dramatists of the
Arab world: Tawfiq Al-Hakim's King Oedipus, Ali
Ahmad Bakathir's The Tragedy of Oedipus, Ali
Salim's The Comedy of Oedipus, and Walid
lkhlasi's Oedipus.
The volume also includes Al-Hakim's preface to his Oedipus, on the subject of Arabic tragedy, a
preface on translating Bakathir by Dalia Basiouny, and a general introduction by Marvin Carlson.
An awareness of the rich tradition of modern Arabic theatre has only recently begun to be felt by the
Western theatre community, and we hope that this collection will contribute to that awareness.
USA $20.00 plus shipping $3.00 USA, $6.00 International
Please make payments in U.S. Dollars payable to:
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.
Mail checks or money orders to:
Circulation Manager
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309
Visit our web-site at:
Contact: or 212-817-1868
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A Bibliography
Meghan Duffy
Senior Editor
Daniel Gerould
Initiated by
Stuart Baker, Michael Early,
& David Nicolson
This bibliography is intended for scholars,
teachers, students, artists, and general
readers interested in the theory and
practice of comedy. It is a concise
bibliography, focusing exclusively on
drama, theatre, and performance, and
includes only published works written
in English or appearing in English
Comedy is designed to supplement older, existing bibliographies by including new areas
of research in the theory and practice of comedy and by listing the large number of new
studies that have appeared in the past quarter of a century.
USA $10.00 plus shipping $3.00 USA, $6.00 International
Please make payments in U.S. Dollars payable to:
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.
Mail checks or money orders to:
Circulation Manager
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309
Visit our web-site at:
Contact: or 212-817-1868
Contemporary Theatre in Egypt contains the proceedings of a Symposium on
this subject held at the CUNY Graduate Center in February of 1999 along with
the first English translations of three short plays by leading Egyptian play-
wrights who spoke at the Symposium, Alfred Farag, Gamal Maqsoud, and
Lenin EI-Rarnley. It concludes with a bibliography of English translations and
secondary articles on the theatre in Egypt since 1955.
(USA $15.00 plus $3.00 shipping. Foreign $12.00 plus $6.00 shipping)
Zeami and the No Theatre in the World, edited by Benito Ortolani and Samuel
Leiter, contains the proceedings of the "Zeami and the No Theatre in the World
Symposium" held in New York City in October !997 in conjunction with the
"Japanese Theatre in the World" exhibit at the Japan Society. The book contains
an introduction and fifteen essays, organized into sections on "Zearni's Theories
and Aesthetics," "Zearni and Drama," "Zeami and Acting," and "Zeami and the
(USA $15.00 plus $3.00 shipping. Foreign S 15.00 plus $6.00 shipping)
Four Works for the Theatre by Hugo Claus contains translations of four plays
by the foremost contemporary writer of Dutch language theatre, poetry, and
prose. Flemish by birth and upbringing, Claus is the author of some ninety
plays, novels, and collections of poetry. The plays collected here with an intro-
duction by David Willinger include The Temptation, Friday, Serenade, and The
Hair of the Dog.
(USA $15.00 plus $3.00 shipping. Foreign $15.00 plus $6.00 shipping)
Theatre Research Resources in New York City is the most comprehensive cata-
logue of New York City research facilities available to theatre scholars, including
public and private libraries, museums, historical societies, university and college
collections, ethnic and language associations, theatre companies, acting schools,
and film archives. Each entry features an outline of the facility's holdings as well
as contact information, hours, services, and access procedures.
(USA $10.00 plus $3.00 shipping. Foreign $10.00 plus $6.00 shipping)
Please make payments in U.S. Dollars payable to: Ma rti n E. Segal Theatre Center .
Mail checks or money orders to:
Circulation Manager
Mar tin E. Segal Theatre Center
The CUNY Graduat e Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309
Visit our web-site at:
Contact: or 212-817-1868