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The Love Song of Tracy Patch Cheever, Part 3

Playbill for May 23, 1854 performance of Anna Cora Mowatt at the Howard Athenaeum, during her farewell tour. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Playbill for May 23, 1854 performance of Anna Cora Mowatt at the Howard Athenaeum, during her farewell tour. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“The beautiful spring at last is here,” wrote Tracy Patch Cheever on May 23, 1854, “and has wreathed earth with her smiles.” “And,” he added, “as a Queen of May, Mrs. Mowatt, my friend of preceding pages, and Boston’s dramatic pet, appeared last night at the Athenaeum.” Anna Cora Mowatt’s ardent fan from Boston (whom I’ve previously written about here and here) had been to the theatre the night before to see his beloved star take her final bows on the stage before retiring.

However, the experience wasn’t quite what Cheever had been hoping for. The fact that this was a farewell tour meant that tickets were at a premium, and the management was happy to pack in as many people as possible, a “jam of humans,” in Cheever’s words. Although “The audience were enthusiastic,” he had to admit that “my pleasure was lost in the heat and stifling air of the theatre.”

Amidst all the hoopla surrounding his favorite star’s adieu to the stage, Tracy Patch Cheever was forced to confront a hard truth. As much as he felt that he had gotten to know Mowatt as a private person, whether through watching her perform or reading her autobiography, he was really just another fan in a whole crowd of them, people who felt just as he did and imagined themselves to have the same emotionally intimate, understanding relationship with her.

Part of this had to do with the changed nature of theatre in the nineteenth century. Not long ago, it had been an amusement primarily for the elite – there were only two main theatres in Charles II’s London that had been allowed to operate until the early eighteenth century, which meant that the supply was kept artificially low and that the theatre was therefore inaccessible to many people. On Cheever’s side of the Atlantic, only a certain subset of American society was both willing to pay for theatre tickets and to risk the moral hazards posed by such a supposedly profane pastime. A wealthy, elite theatre audience meant that many of the people in that audience could expect to function more as patrons than as fans. That gave them personal access to the actors, sometimes even to their dressing rooms or other private areas of their lives. The conditions required for celebrity, at least as I’ve been defining the term in these posts, simply didn’t exist. Cheever may or may not have been aware of how the patron-actor relationship used to function, but he certainly seems to have wished that he could fulfill the role of patron to Mowatt, and he does appear to have been more than a little jarred by the experience of being crammed like a sardine in a theatre filled with other people, whose very presence reminded him that his wasn’t really a unique, special experience.

Still, Cheever kept going to see Mowatt as often as he could while she was in Boston. On June 3, 1854, he recorded his last visit to the theatre to watch her. He went that night, he said, because he was “resolved from my interest in and admiration for her which has been excited by her romantic and almost heroic life, and the virtues of her character, to be present and hear the last words pronounced by her from the stage.” She might never read or hear it, but he felt compelled to give her a final blessing before she exited his life: “May happiness peace and prosperity, which have been well earned by her in the struggles & trials of her life, attend her amid the more quiet scenes of her new matrimonial life.”

The “matrimonial life” to which Cheever referred began just a few days later, on June 7, 1854. On that day, Mowatt became Mrs. William Ritchie, in a ceremony attended by many prominent political and cultural figures of the day. President Franklin Pierce was the most high-profile of these guests, and a certain Senator Douglas, who not long from now would be debating a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, was also there.

The newspapers covered the wedding in ways that might seem very familiar to us now. Some of the coverage was gushing and uncritical, such as the declaration by the Boston Evening Transcript that Mowatt would “carry into her private life, not only the admiration of those, whom her professional success has made friends, but the benedictions of hundreds whom her benevolence has cheered and assisted.” Others, casting a jaundiced eye on what seemed a frivolous and overblown event, resorted to snark. It might surprise us a bit today, but the New York Times was one of the papers to take this latter route, noting the star-studded guest list and dryly commenting that “Queen Victoria was not present, and the name of the Empress Eugenia is not mentioned among the five or six hundred guests.” It also commented on the oddness of the ceremony, which was a Swedenborgian one. Without getting into the weeds of nineteenth-century religion, suffice it to say that that marked the ceremony as a little mystical, perhaps a bit wacky by more conventional standards – again, something that will likely be familiar to anyone who follows celebrity weddings today. All snarking about the guest list and ceremony aside, the Times correspondent still found space to include a detailed description of Mowatt’s dress, along with the names and well-bred backgrounds of her bridesmaids.

The mere fact that Mowatt and Ritchie’s wedding was considered newsworthy seems significant. It was a muted affair compared to later celebrity nuptials, and of course any event that featured President Pierce was going to draw media attention, but the amount of time spent on the details of the ceremony, Mowatt’s dress, and similar subjects suggests that the papers were legitimately interested in the event on its own terms. That, in turn, indicates that there were plenty of people like Cheever, back home in Boston, who would be interested in reading about the event, even if they’d never met any of the people involved on a personal basis.

Unfortunately, like most celebrity marriages, the Mowatt-Ritchie union didn’t last long. Mowatt appears to have split from her new husband within a few years, crossing the Atlantic shortly before the Civil War broke out in order to live apart from him. She continued to write, and occasionally to give public readings of her works, but she never returned to the stage.

Cheever, for his part, ran out of room in his diary in 1855, and if he continued in a new volume, it doesn’t seem to have survived. He’d go on to serve as a soldier and in the Massachusetts legislature, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s catalog entry for his diary, but he’s mostly remained obscure. In a way, though, that fits perfectly with his experience as an adoring fan of Mowatt’s. The future of culture belonged to people like Cheever, people who might not be terribly sophisticated or knowledgeable when it came to theatre, or art in general, and who wouldn’t take pride of place in history books about the times in which they lived, but who would become devoted fans of the celebrities who graced the stage or screen in front of them.

The Love Song of Tracy Patch Cheever, Part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post on Tracy Patch Cheever and Anna Cora Mowatt, the actress whom he adored.

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Anna Cora Mowatt’s picture in her autobiography. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Tracy Patch Cheever didn’t stop going to the theatre when Anna Cora Mowatt wasn’t around. He first saw her perform in February of 1853, and shortly thereafter he went to see a performance by Marian Russell, better known as Mrs. Farren. He didn’t like it.

Farren had “perhaps more tragic power,” he admitted, but “Mrs. F. has not the beauty of Mrs. M. and as to her character, I am ignorant.” I’ve already mentioned how Cheever’s emphasis on Mowatt’s appearance and character were significant indicators of how his kind of fandom for her was different from the more traditional sort of aesthetic appraisal. Mrs. Farren just didn’t do it for him, and so he remained mostly indifferent to her, even if she just might actually be better in some roles.

And so it seems that, when Cheever went to the theatre over the next few years, it was almost exclusively to see Mowatt perform. He saw her play Desdemona in May, 1853, and although he admitted that “she was not in her best voice,” he still thought that “She looked more beautiful, if possible, than … ever before.” But as happy as he was to see her again, there was a cloud looming over him: Mowatt was going to remarry.

Anna Cora Mowatt had been born Anna Cora Ogden before running away with a considerably older man. It was about the naughtiest thing that this self-consciously very proper woman had done in her career. Her husband died, but in 1853 she announced that she would marry William Ritchie, who was the son of a prominent journalist. That meant that she would retire from the stage and adopt the conventional role of a respectable wife. “When she is gone,” Cheever lamented, “how much of its life will be taken away, for surely there will be none to supply her place in variety of accomplishments.”

He tried to take the news in stride, although he veered into the sentimental pretty quickly.  Mowatt, he imagined, would “make his [her husband’s] house in Richmond a Paradise, probably, although in the slang phrase of the day, ‘you can’t always tell.’  I think I would risk my happiness in such a feminine keeping, were it ten years younger*  Where Mrs. Mowatt goes, my peace, happiness and content go with her. (*i.e. were I disposed to trust my happiness to anything feminine – a trust often perilous).”

Cheever didn’t have a chance to see Mowatt perform for nearly a year after this bad news, and you might assume that this was a bar to his engaging with her in any meaningful way in the interim. Nowadays we have constant updates on our favorite celebrities, courtesy of the internet, television, and, if we want to be old-school about it, glossy magazines. Cheever didn’t have any of that.

What he did have was a somewhat newfangled concept: the autobiography. Scholars like Thomas N. Baker have noted that autobiographies took off in the 1850s and started selling like hotcakes. Just as with theatre, many people still harbored suspicions: what decent person would write an entire book about themselves? Besides, there was much more of an expectation of privacy at this time (Mowatt was never Instagramming her latest meal from a swanky restaurant), and one might reasonably fear that spilling one’s guts about their personal life would ruin that sense of privacy. But more and more, writers, performers, and other notable people were writing books that chronicled their lives and careers in a way that framed their experiences so that they offered moral lessons for their readers without becoming too invasive.

Mowatt was no exception to this trend. At the beginning of 1854, her Autobiography of an Actress arrived in bookstores. It didn’t take long for Cheever to snap up a copy.

The book tells the story of Mowatt’s life up through 1853. It’s not exactly the most thrilling read, but it’s especially interesting for the way that Mowatt is constantly insisting on the dignity of her profession. It seems that the gist of virtually every other paragraph is: “Hey, we actors aren’t such bad people!” The same message comes up in quite a lot of the fiction that she published in later years, when she wrote sentimental tales of life on the stage. I don’t think it’s excessively cynical to say that her writing provided an excellent PR platform, allowing her to stick up for her profession and her continue to build up her own reputation.

It certainly worked with Tracy Patch Cheever. He already thought the world of her, and her autobiography somehow raised that opinion even higher. He conceded that, “Under ordinary circumstances, the fair authoress would have subjected herself to much criticism, for the publishment of her life.  It would have been deemed, the offspring of vanity & conceit.” But he totally bought Mowatt’s excuse that she was writing it as a final duty to her deceased first husband. After reading through her account of her struggles and triumphs, he pronounced that “The authoress is doubtless one of the first of her sex, in culture & force of mind, and in the moral beauty of her life.” A balanced, considered view, if there ever was one.

The autobiography was another indicator of the rise of celebrity in the milieu of nineteenth-century America. As I’ve said, celebrity requires a distance between fan and star, since otherwise they would just be social acquaintances. The distance is bridged by images of the celebrity, as well as glimpses into her private life. The autobiography did both of those things, as we can see from the image of Mowatt facing the title page. The book allowed Mowatt to relate to her many fans, no matter where they lived; as long as they could read and had a little disposable income to buy her book, they could learn everything they’d ever wanted to know about what her life was like offstage.

After eagerly devouring her autobiography, Cheever had just a few more chances to see Mowatt onstage before she retired once and for all. His brief and very one-sided romance with the famous actress was about to come to a close, but not before he had a few experiences that showed him the downsides of being an ardent fan in an age of industrial-scale celebrity.

The Love Song of Tracy Patch Cheever, Part 1

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Tracy Patch Cheever diary entry, February 3, 1853. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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Tracy Patch Cheever was not a big theatre fan. “It is not often that I will tolerate a play,” he wrote in his diary (which is at the Massachusetts Historical Society), “there is so much lack of art[,] especially in the inferior casts, together with such a consciousness of moral inferiority in many of the performers, that high thoughts and noble deeds coming through them, seem mockeries and leave none of the force of life behind them.”

Cheever wasn’t alone, especially in nineteenth-century Boston, which happened to be the time and place in which he lived. This was a time when many people still harbored a deep suspicion of theatre: after all, would you trust someone who made their living by pretending to be other people? Playhouses were often seen as disorderly places, where mobs might start a riot or ladies of ill repute would troll for customers. This had started to change in a pretty significant way by the 1850s, when Cheever wrote his sniffy dismissal of theatre and actors, but the phrase “Banned in Boston” would remain shorthand for a moral censoriousness that lasted well into the twentieth century.

Then, in early February 1853, everything changed. Cheever was on a trip to Washington, D.C. when he was dragged to the theatre by some acquaintances, but what he saw there changed his attitude entirely. The star that night was Anna Cora Mowatt, well-known as both a playwright and an actress. Cheever fell in love with her almost instantly.

“I am truly sorry to part with the sight of Mrs. Mowatt,” wrote Cheever.  “It seems as though a blessing were taken from me.  No influence that I have experienced in Washington seems so good as that she exerts over me, no less of her graceful art, than by the noble personal virtues which seem to belong to her.” It wasn’t just that Mowatt was good on the stage: she was, in his eyes, both beautiful and a fundamentally good person. “Unless I am misinformed,” he said, “she unites in her own person, the charms of the best heroines she portrays.  Such a woman not only blesses beyond computation, her husband, family and friends, but all who can be reached by virtue, by piety and by intellectual accomplishment.”

We’ve all been there: we see an actor in a role and start to conflate their personality with that of the character they played. However, I think that what Cheever was doing here was a little more interesting, and a little more significant than that. Remember, this is a guy who didn’t care for theatre very much, and not necessarily because he thought that most productions had bad acting or crummy sets. It was the moral characters (or what he assumed he knew of their moral characters) of the actors that he found most objectionable.

And yes, we all fall prey to this. We all know about Jennifer Lawrence’s aw-shucks public persona and project it onto whatever role she happens to be playing. We love Kanye or Taylor Swift’s music (feel free to mutter “uh, not me” in response as necessary), but can’t dissociate it from their antics outside of the recording studio.

Cheever’s experience is so interesting to me because it’s one small example of how attitudes towards performers were beginning to change at this time. I would also argue that it’s a demonstration of how the concept of celebrity was becoming a driving force in entertainment, especially theatre, in the nineteenth century. My fast-and-loose definition of celebrity is that it refers to a person whom you recognize without ever having met them in a social setting and whose personal life is of as much or even more interest to you than what they do for a living. Today, we like to bemoan the omnipresence of people like the Kardashians, who truly deserve Daniel Boorstin’s cranky dismissal of celebrities as people “known for [their] well-knownness,” but many of them are accomplished performers, politicians, etc. in their own right. We follow these people’s lives not because we’re necessarily intimately interested in every little detail of their craft, but because we find their personalities and private lives fascinating, and we want to know more.

Cheever wasn’t some aesthete who wanted to analyze every little technical aspect of Mowatt’s performance onstage. He was interested because he thought she was an interesting individual and, on some level, he was a little bit in love with her. He pretty much said so, in fact. He rhapsodized that, “I find myself drawn by cords of strong esteem towards this most excellent lady.  It would be too much to ask of Heaven that such an [sic] one might be sent to strew with exalted happiness my own pathway of life.” Translation: oh man, so pretty, want to marry her.

I’ll have more to say about Tracy Patch Cheever and Anna Cora Mowatt, because the story doesn’t end there. He’d make plenty more trips to the theatre to see his favorite celebrity, and in the process he’d both demonstrate all the ways that celebrity was working its way into popular culture and run up against some of the limitations of this modern cult of fame.

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Anna Cora Mowatt, depicted in this undated engraving based off of a photograph. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

He’s a Real Nowhere Man

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All photos of this bust courtesy of Tom Dietzel.

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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:

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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.

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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”).

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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

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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.