He’s a Real Nowhere Man

All photos of this bust courtesy of Tom Dietzel.



This bust of George Washington stands over the entrance to the vestry at the Old North Church, a historic landmark here in Boston which is best known for its involvement with the beginning of the American Revolution. The bust is a particular point of pride at a site that certainly isn’t short of fascinating and important features. It’s different from other depictions of Washington, more realistic and less idealized. The Marquis de Lafayette, one of Washington’s wartime lieutenants, is said to have proclaimed, “Yes, that is the man I knew and more like him than any other portrait,” when he saw it as an old man in the 1820s.

So why am I writing about it in a theatre history blog?

I spent last summer working as an educator at the Old North Church, and I was told early on that the bust was probably (though not definitively) the work of Christian Gullager. Gullager’s not very well known, but he seems to have done alright for himself as a portrait painter in Boston, New York, and Philly at the end of the 18th century and into the 19th. The part that got my attention, however, was the fact that he was also a scenic designer. Boston’s early history doesn’t feature much theatre, since its founding fathers were vehemently opposed to it on religious and moral grounds (and really, who can blame them? we can be a bit much), so I was eager to find out more.

I finally got around to doing some quick research on Gullager, but a funny thing happened: the more I read about him, the murkier the details of his life seemed, and the more questions I had about him. For instance, all of the paintings that I’ve been able to find of his (the Worcester Art Museum has a good collection) are portraits, which wouldn’t seem to be an obvious qualification for someone who was being hired to paint scenery. He was born in Denmark and apparently was living in Boston by 1789 (according to this useful rundown of his life), and on November 9, 1793, he signed this contract, which is in the Boston Theatre (Federal Street) Records in the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection at the Boston Public Library:

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Rare Books

The contract says that Gullager “will paint in a complete and handsome manner to the best of his skill eight scenes for the Boston Theatre.” The Boston Theatre was one of the first in the city, located on Federal Street. The eight scenes were mostly generic: there was to be a “back Street scene,” “one inside Palace scene,” “one forest scene,” “one cultivated Garden scene,” “one drawing room scene,” “one parlor with Library,” “one Sea view & rocks scene.” It makes sense that the scenes would be generic, since they cost a lot of money and would have to be reused over and over for the theatre to get its money’s worth. The only specific one was “one Front Street” scene, which is to say that the theatre wanted him to paint at least one scene that Bostonians would recognize as a unique depiction of their own city streets. Gullager was supposed to deliver at least four of the scenes by January 1, 1794, and he was supposed to get three more to the theatre for every two months until he was done. He’d get £45 for each one (that’s not a typo: I’m honestly not sure why they didn’t say dollars – was it a “it’s 17 years since independence and I’m still writing ‘pounds’ on all my checks!” kind of situation?), which was pretty good money – a reasonably well-off artisan like Paul Revere could expect to make about £80-85 a year in the colonial era, and he was comfortably upper-middle-class.

So no problem, right? Gullager was a painter, he was getting paid good money to do his job, and everything should have worked out. But it didn’t. The minutes for a meeting of the theatre’s trustees on February 21, 1795 include a motion that a few of those trustees form “a Committee to apply to Mr Gullager and know of him the reason why he has not compleated the Scenery for the Theatre agreeable to his Contract.”  It sounds very dry and official, but anyone who’s ever had to go without a crucial element of the set for their show can understand the frustration that those trustees – to say nothing of the theatre’s other personnel – must have felt.

Courtesy of the trustees of the Boston Public Library/Rare Books

I have no idea why Gullager couldn’t get the job done on time. I’m sure there was a reason, but there are no surviving documents, no diaries or letters that can give us some insight into why this guy failed to live up to his contract. He must have gotten some of the scenes done, since an inventory of the Boston Theatre’s possessions from 1797 includes a “Front Street” scene, amongst other things (other scenes include the “Island of Barbadoes” – all of it, the whole island, I guess – and a “Gothick arch”).


Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Rare Books
Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Rare Books

He apparently continued to paint and get work in the Boston area until 1797, when his ads start appearing in New York City newspapers. A year later, he was in Philadelphia, where he’d live for a few years before bouncing back to New York and doing some more theatre scenes. He lived for a long time after that, but his wife divorced him in 1809, and he doesn’t really show up in the historical record until his death in Philadelphia in 1826 (all this is from the Worcester Art Museum‘s website). Just in case that didn’t make it hard enough to follow the rest of his life and career, somewhere along the line his family dropped the second “l”, so they appear in records in Philly as “Gulager.”

Here’s the kicker: we actually don’t have any hard evidence that he made the bust of Washington that got me started on this whole historical snipe hunt. We know that he made a bust of Washington: the Massachusetts Centinel of March 27, 1790 raves about “an elegant bust of THE PRESIDENT of the United States, in Plaister [plaster] of Paris,” and he painted a portrait of the man in 1789, which you can see here. But the Old North Church didn’t get this bust until 1815, and its records for that period of its history have been lost, so we don’t really know if this is Gullager’s work or someone else’s. The last person to write a study on Gullager points out that there was an Italian “stone-cutter” named Michael Gallego active in the United States at the time, and given that no one worried too much about spelling names consistently back then, this scholar thinks it’s completely plausible that it might have been Gallego instead (Christian Gullager: Portrait Painter to Federal America, Marvin S. Sadik, National Portrait Gallery, 1976). There’s no surviving report of Gullager ever doing a marble bust of Washington, so for all we know he might never have made one.

Where does all of this leave us? At first, I was interested in Gullager because he seemed like he might be a neat little footnote, an anecdote that I could bust out in conversation with my fellow nerds (you know who you are). But the more that I tried to find out about him, the more he came to serve as an example of how complicated and full of holes history really is. Looking at his career is a good reminder that we tend to like our history to be full of dramatic (no pun intended) successes and failures, featuring towering personalities, but that behind those big names are an endless number of mostly-forgotten individual lives, many of them nowhere near as successful or important.

Christian Gullager’s story is mostly one of mediocrity, obscurity, and failure. He had talent, sure, but he wasn’t a big-shot portrait painter on the level of Gilbert Stuart, who painted the portrait of Washington that’s become the iconic image of our first president (I mean, seriously, go back and compare the Gullager painting at the Massachusetts Historical Society with this). We’ll never be able to figure out exactly what was going on with his professional career or his personal life, but judging from the little evidence available, he wasn’t exactly “winning at life,” as the kids are saying these days. If we’re honest with ourselves, life parallels the Gullager story much more closely. There are always gaps in what we know about someone else’s experience, living or dead, and we’re always going to have to come up with stories and maybe-not-100%-true “facts” to paper over those holes in our understanding of other people.

Heavy stuff, huh? Need to shake that off a little? Here’s the inspiration for this post’s title, complete with lyrics so that you can sing along!

You Won’t Succeed on the Internet if You Don’t Have Any Cats

Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Well, it was probably inevitable that this blog would eventually stoop to posting cat pics, so I’m biting the bullet and doing it early. Luckily, this is a pretty fascinating piece, so there’s more to say than, “Aww, how cute! Those cats think they’re people!”

I saw this print in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston while I was holding a class session there with my Theatre History students at Northeastern University. There’s an entire room in the MFA’s Art of Japan gallery devoted to prints, many more of which are eye-catching (and fodder for future posts!). You should go see them! I had to start with this one, since it has so much going on, in addition to being really amusing.

As the catalog entry from the MFA indicates, this is a parody of a popular kabuki scene from around 1847-52. This was a time when kabuki was still probably the most popular form of theatre in Japan, but it also had to negotiate some pretty harsh restrictions imposed by the government. That wasn’t anything new: women had been banned from the kabuki stage in 1629, in part because they had a tendency to get into affairs with theatregoers, and then boys were banned in 1652 – for the same reason. There were also plenty of rules about what you could or couldn’t depict onstage, so that meant current events or unpleasant depictions of those in power were forbidden.

Things were even worse when this print was made, due to something called the Tempo (or “Tenpo”) Reforms. Japan went through a rough patch in the early nineteenth century, and these reforms were supposed to fix things and reinvigorate the nation. That goal could apparently be achieved by cracking down on immorality, and so in 1842 kabuki theatres were told that they had to move into the red-light districts in the suburbs, since theatre was considered to be on a par with prostitution (Faith Bach, “Breaking the Kabuki Actors’ Barriers: 1868-1900 in A Kabuki Reader: History and Performance, 152). Finally, prints depicting actors were banned (remember when your mom told you that you couldn’t put that shirtless Justin Timberlake and/or racy Britney Spears poster up in your room?), which meant that artists had to get creative when they wanted to produce an image of one of these popular subjects (Harold Bolitho in The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 5: The Nineteenth Century, p. 144).

Hence Utagawa Kuniyoshi and his two kitty thespians in the picture. Utagawa was a major printmaker of the time who had a real thing for cats, which worked out pretty well for him when he was told that he couldn’t portray actual actors. Instead, he recreates a popular scene from kabuki with his beloved felines. The scene is from a play about a courtesan named Akoya. The play takes place way back in medieval Japan, a favorite setting for kabuki playwrights (a little bit like what Shakespeare did with medieval England). Akoya is in love with a warrior named Kagekiyo, who has escaped his enemies. Another warrior named Shigetada arrives to interrogate Akoya and to find out if she knows where her lover is. His henchman want to use various instruments of torture to do that, but he instead brings out three actual instruments, which he tells her to play. In the picture, she’s playing a stringed instrument called a koto while one of her interrogators watches. She plays beautifully, and sings of how she feels about Kagekiyo and how she hopes that he’s safe. That’s enough to convince Shigetada of her innocence, so he calls off his goons and lets her go. (It’s not a scholarly source, but this site has a good summary of the play.)

It’s a touching story, and I can understand why the play was so popular, but I love that Utagawa’s use of these cats totally undercuts the sentimentality. According to the sign at the MFA, the writing that covers much of the top half of the print contains “script excerpts full of meowing sounds, feline references, and puns on the real titles.” Not only do I appreciate the humor (or I would if I could read Japanese), but I love that this is evidence of a culture that cares so much about theatre that it enjoys making fun of it a bit, as opposed to taking it completely seriously, even in a time when it’s under attack from the authorities. It’s not the same thing, but it brings to mind the caricatures for which Al Hirschfeld was so famous: they were evidence of a time when theatrical figures were so well-known that a cartoonist like Hirschfeld could make fun of them and expect people to know about the butt of the (usually good-natured) joke. I’m not going to pretend to know how to do it, but I hope that, in a time when theatre people are perpetually wringing their hands about how to get butts in seats and engage with audiences, we can recover some of that self-awareness and sense of humor.

You guys, I’ve been so good, I posted a picture of cats on the internet and tried to write intelligent, non-gimmicky things (“50 Reasons Why These Cats Are Totally Killing It at Kabuki”). So please forgive me this final indulgence: play ’em off, Keyboard Cat!

First Love


Here it is, the document that first got me hooked on theatre history. I was working on what started out as a short-term summer job at the American Antiquarian Society back in 2005. It ultimately turned into a multi-year part-time gig for me (thanks for letting me stick around, guys!), but it was that very first day that opened my eyes to just how fascinating this material could be.

The obvious eye-catcher here is the advertisement for the “Third Week of J. Wilkes BOOTH” towards the top. Even if you don’t know diddly-squat about theatre history, this name jumps out, for reasons that I don’t think require explanation. But remember: this is February, 1863, and back then Booth was relatively unimportant. Yes, he was a prominent actor, but if he’d never gone into that box at Ford’s Theatre, his career would likely have been a footnote to those of his often-impressive but always-drunk father, Junius Brutus, and his brother Edwin, often acclaimed as one of – if not the – greatest Shakespearean actors of his generation. However, that’s not what happened, and instead whenever you mention Edwin Booth to most people, they understandably scrunch up their face in confusion and ask, “Who?” Poor Edwin.

In the event, the great actor weathered his fair share of vitriol for the actions of his brother. It made sense, people whispered; after all, look at the disgraceful dissipation of the Booth brothers’ father. Edwin disappeared from the stage for a time, and some of his friends thought that it would be wise to encourage the newspapers to publish some of his letters from earlier in the war, in which he vehemently expressed his support for the Union cause. It didn’t always help. In one of those possibly-untrue-but-too-good-to-pass-up tales, the Boston Daily Advertiser of September 14, 1865, relayed a story about a shopkeeper in France who insisted that the image of Edwin in his shop window was actually that of “Boot, the assassin. Vilk Boot, le miserable, le lache.”

I think the thing that fundamentally gets me about this playbill is that it gives me a sense of the events of history as contingent things, instead of fixed occurrences, irrevocably dead and mummified. I remember showing the playbill to my friends who were working with me and jokingly saying “Stop that man! Don’t let him leave the theatre!” A joke, maybe, but ideally that’s the sort of excitement that you should get from seeing and examining these kinds of documents.

This document is also interesting because there’s so much other stuff going on besides the attention-grabbing advertisement for Booth. For instance, the venue is called the “Boston Museum”, which kind of seems like a weird name for a theatre, right? The Museum was actually part of a trend, started by the theatre’s founder Moses Kimball and his friend and business associate P.T. Barnum, of incorporating theatres into a larger institution that was effectively a hodgepodge of material that we would today separate into different museums: art, natural history, and, in some cases, straight-out fabrications like the infamous “Feejee Mermaid”, which was a hideous combination of a monkey’s head and torso sewn onto a fish’s body. The idea was that the theatre, often still considered an immoral, vice-ridden place, could be made to seem more family-friendly if it was part of a larger institution that was clearly inoffensive and enlightening in nature.

Also worth mentioning: the “Mr. W. Warren” billed right under Booth was a major fixture of the nineteenth-century Boston theatre scene. William Warren, Jr. spent most of his career at the Boston Museum, playing there well into old age. He tried once to take his career to a national scale, but that venture only lasted a season. He’s an example of the sort of actor, well-known in his own city but fairly obscure outside of it, that once characterized the stock companies that occupied many theatres. By the time this playbill was published, these companies were already an endangered species, getting progressively hollowed out as all the box office went to big touring stars like Edwin Booth and, to a lesser extent, his brother John Wilkes.

So that’s how I first got lured into this profession in the first place. Pretty cool, huh? Take it away, Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Sondheim!

Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome

Hi there, and welcome to “Abstract and Brief,” a blog devoted to theatre history. This project grew out of my need to share some of what I spend my time researching and teaching with a wider audience. My chosen field is…niche, to put it politely, and I reached a point where I began to feel that I had to find some way to put what I had out there in a non-academic setting in order to convey (and maybe maintain) my excitement over this obscure but fascinating field of study. It very well may be a Stockholm Syndrome kind of situation, given how long I’ve been cooped up with old tales of performances gone by, but I love this stuff, and I want to share it with more than just my colleagues (although they are all awesome people and you should totally read their work too!).

My goal is to post here about once a week (ah, what admirable intentions! so bright! so innocent! so doomed!) about things that I’ve come across, either in my teaching, my research, or in the many idle moments I spend procrastinating on those two things. My main focus will be on specific documents and images, which will hopefully keep these posts tightly focused on specific items, rather than sprawling into generalized information that you could just as easily have gotten from a textbook or other, more reputable, source. This is by no means a replacement for scholarly work, mine or otherwise, but that’s sort of the point. There’s a place for that kind of specialization, but I’m hoping to turn this into something that someone without the slightest bit of background knowledge can read and enjoy.

My main focus is on American theatre history, especially from the colonial period up to World War II. More specifically, I focus on the rise of celebrity as a cultural force in American theatre, long before Hollywood became the epicenter of the international fame-making industry. Because of this focus, this blog may be a bit biased towards American theatre from a certain period, but I’ll try to vary it up as much as possible. At any rate, “Abstract and Brief” will attempt to bring something new to the conversation, rather than crank out the umpteenth essay about “Why Shakespeare is So Amazing.” I mean, yes, the plays are amazing, but I don’t feel like I have anything original to say on that score, and anyways, we all know that the works of “Shakespeare” were really written by a cabal of shape-shifting aliens who had infiltrated Elizabethan London.

A final word, just by way of fair warning: I may, from time to time, post something about contemporary theatre, just because I’m interested in it and because I can. So there.