Title: City Photographs—No. VI
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: May 3, 1862
Publication information: New York Leader 3 May 1862: 2–3.
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00251
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Ashley Lawson, Liz McClurg, Janel Cayer, and Sarah Walker
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[Written for the Leader.]
THE OLD THEATRE.1
Into any veracious sketch of the route we are sketching, there ought to enter, and form a good constituent part thereof, something about the Bowery Theatre—the Old Bowery, as, even after its coming up new from frequent destructions by fire, it has long been called. Indeed, there might be made, not only one sketch, but a good-sized and very interesting volume, exclusively devoted to this dramatic temple.
My first personal knowledge of the Bowery Theatre was about twenty-seven or eight years ago, when I was a lad of fifteen.
FIVE OR SIX LUSTRUMS SINCE.
Just before that period, after a dreary season of depression and just keeping of heads above water, the fortunes of the Bowery were suddenly raised by the bringing out of the thrilling melodrama of "Jonathan Bradford, or the Murder at the Roadside Inn," which filled the house week after week, and had an astonishing and long, long run.2 This started the Bowery on a career of prosperity that continued for fifteen or twenty years.
"The Golden Farmer" was another very successful piece, a season or two afterwards.3 (But this last drew better at the little Franklin Theatre,4 down in the square—on account of the real genius of the acting in it of William and John Sefton.)5
Then there was "Mazepppa" (then span-new and well-played), with Gale and a well-trained young horse.6 Also, "The Last Days of Pompeii," a capital melodrama.7 In this, Hamblin8 was great as Arbaces the Egyptian, Ingersoll9 as a gladiator, Thorne10 as a young Pompeian noble, and Mrs. Flynn11 as Nydia, a blind flower girl. These, and other new and successful pieces, and the regular routine of Shakspearean plays, &c., ranged through four or five years, after the production of "Jonathan Bradford."
All these are among my hobbledehoy dramatic reminiscences. I saw them all from the time I was fourteen till seventeen or eighteen. At first, I remember, I used to go with other boys, my pals; but I afterward preferred to go alone, I was so absorbed in the performance, and disliked any one to distract my attention. Let me confess how I crammed all that range of time as an insatiable romance-devourer (from a circulating library) and a perpetual theatre-goer. But it was very pleasant. Illusions of youth! Dreams of a child of the Bowery!
I used to go early and get a good seat in the pit. It was no such pit as it afterwards became, although the Bowery always showed more democracy and better animal specimens than the Park Theatre (with which house I was perfectly familiar).12 The dark green curtain before me—that curtain of curious stuff, like Chinese crape! What a mimic world of heroes and heroines, and loves, and murders, and plots, and hopes, and all which swells and pants in a hobblehoy's imagination, that same curtain signified and formed a wall to by-and-by make way for! It used to go up (for I noticed every little thing) with quick and graceful leaps, like the hopping of a rabbit—and to come down at the end of the play like a quick green waterfall. It always gave me an odd delight to see the manner of this curtain's motion. I liked it better than the heavy, slow, dignified rolling up or down of the painted canvas of the Park, which I remember used to strike the stage always with a bounce—ridiculous, like some recalling jolt or nudge, after the pathetic conclusion of tragedy.
BOOTH'S RICHARD (IN HIS PRIME).
I recollect with vivid distinctness, somewhere along this time, one of old Booth's performances—his great Richard—on a night that formed an era in the experience of theatre-goers, for years afterwards, and indeed down to this day.13 For you may yet hear that night spoken of among the elder New Yorkers, and some of the best specimens of them, too; for the capacious house was crowded (it was Tom Flynn's benefit) with an audience of as good men as the city could turn out.
The prices of the Bowery were then seventy-five cents to the boxes, and thirty-seven to the pit. It was a favorite resort for young New York, of a somewhat different type from the young New York of the present day.
Booth at that period was in his pride and prime. He was irregular, it is true; that is, he did not always act with sustained perfection, from beginning to end of the play—for he had strange moods and caprices, and followed them. But when the elements were propitious, and he gave the audience what he was capable of throughout, you saw and heard something to be remembered for your lifetime, and to give you new standards, and the highest ones, of art. And it was such a performance, that took place here at the Old Bowery, some twenty-four or five years ago (or a trifle more or less).
I had a good seat in the middle of the pit. The audience was electric—just the kind to call out a great actor's best. He was well supported.
Ingersoll played Richmond. (What middle-aged New Yorker, of the east side of the town, but remembers young, manly yet, boyish Ingersoll—Hamblin's pet? And how he used to play such parts as Pythias, to Forrest's Damon? and the brother of Spartacus, in the "Gladiator?" and Cassius, in "Julius Caesar?" For such were the plays, and finely sustained, that we used to go and see at the Old Bowery.)
Charley Thorne, who was then young and strong, and rosy and full of fire, played Tressel. The character has but one speech—but that's a tip-top chance. I am not sure but it was Thorne's debut in New York. At any rate, I remember that in that speech, to the old king in the garden, he came upon the audience, and apparently upon the actors too, like a sudden revelation—he threw into it the power of an avalanche, and very great pathos. I recollect the audience rewarded him with two distinct rounds of applause; and from that moment he was in the front rank of the Bowery favorites.
Of Booth himself, from beginning to end, he not only seized and awed the crowded houses, but all the performers, without exception. It was one of those achievements of acting, in a certain sense, too good and too powerful for the ordinary reward of hand-clapping or bravos of applause. The dream-scene, the night before the battle, the fight with Richmond, and the fierce and demoniac death, were all incomparable.
A hundred times since, off and on, in one place or another, I have met persons who were there—who saw Booth's great Richard, on the occasion of Tom Flynn's benefit; and upon comparing notes I have found that the acting of the man that night produced the same ineradicable impression upon them all. And some of them had seen the greatest actors of the British or Continental theatres.
I went to see the old man's son, Wilkes,14 play his Richard, during the engagement a month or so ago at Mary Provost's theatre, having heard the said Wilkes' acting praised.15 It is about as much like his father's, as the wax bust of Henry Clay, in the window down near Howard street, a few blocks below the theatre, is like the genuine orator in the Capitol, when his best electricity was flashing alive in him and out of him.
From what I have gleaned of old stage-frequenters, here and abroad, I have made up my mind that in a comparison of J. B. Booth and Edmund Kean,16 the advantage of the latter mainly was that he was almost uniformly good; but that Booth, with his fitful flashes, though soaring very high, often failed to keep up to his own mark. Yet, at times, at rare times, Booth probably played beyond all actors that ever lived.
One little paragraph must be specially devoted to him. He was best in such characters as Coriolanus, for instance. He was of the Kemble school,17 and his large size, good build, and classic physiognomy, told greatly, of course, in all his performances. His fortunes in his management ranged through the usual ups and downs, but as a favorite actor with the public Hamblin held out well to the last. But a little while before his death, at quite an advanced age, he played a very successful and drawing engagement.
JOHN R. SCOTT.18
There are many, and good judges, too, who always preferred Scott to Forrest. They resembled each other in physique and in style of acting; but Scott had, in the sentimental passages, a more winning voice and more magnetism with his audience.
Perhaps some old frequenter of the Bowery will remember Scott, some twenty-five years ago, in a piece called "The Sledge-Driver,"19 the scene laid in Russia, and the plot somewhat like that of "The Lady of Lyons."20 It was full of manly tenderness, and Scott acted it always to admiration. He was tip-top also in nautical characters.
Among others that I recall of the Bowery in those times are, among the women, Mrs. Pritchard (with her unsurpassed Lady Macbeth, and her Margaret in "La Tour de Nesle");21 Mrs. McLean,22 Mrs. Herring,23 Miss Woodhull,24 and the plentiful-sized Mrs. Stickney;25 and among men, Jackson (afterward manager), George Jones, &c.
FAREWELL, OLD BOWERY!
But nearly all I have named are dead, and the old theatre seems, these current days and nights, to sulk and mourn for them. I went by there the other night, and it was all gloomy enough. No more crowds around, no gas-clusters beaming down light in showered plenty, no more prosperous peanut stands.
So farewell, Old Bowery Theatre; and, for our next, let us take in hand the "German element," namely lager bier, and the scenes and persons clustering round it.
1. The Bowery Theatre was the largest theater in the country when it opened in 1826. Initially considered sophisticated, it quickly became known as a popular theater only, largely due to its Bowery location. It underwent several name changes—Bull's Head Theatre, New York Theatre, Bowery Theatre, American Theatre—and burned down six times, the last in 1929, after which it was not rebuilt. [back]
2. Jonathan Bradford, or the Murder at the Roadside Inn was a popular melodrama by Edward Fitzball. [back]
3. The Golden Farmer was a domestic drama by Benjamin Webster. [back]
4. The Franklin Theatre, known for its small size, opened in 1835. [back]
5. William Sefton and John Sefton were brothers. John, the more famous of the two, appeared in Webster's The Golden Farmer at the Franklin Theatre in 1835 and after was known as Jemmy Twitcher, his character. William was the first stage manager of the Franklin Theatre. [back]
6. Mazeppa, a drama based on Lord Byron's 1819 narrative poem of the same title, was adapted for the stage in several countries. An American version controversially cast the actress Adah Isaacs Menken as Mazeppa, traditionally a male role. [back]
7. The Last Days of Pompeii was a play by Louisa Medina, who would later marry the actor Tom Hamblin. It was the first play to achieve a "long run" in the United States, remaining on stage for twenty-nine consecutive days. [back]
8. Thomas (Tom) Hamblin was a British-born actor who leased the Bowery in 1830 and turned it into a theater for American actors and plays. [back]
9. David Ingersoll was an actor of the Forrest school. American actor Edwin Forrest was a divisive figure, with numerous followers and enemies. Ingersoll was one of Forrest's followers, and he had a short, fiery career. He was forced into early retirement as a result of off-stage revelries. [back]
10. Probably Charles R. Thorne, Jr., also known as Charley Thorne, who was an actor at the time. He died young as a result of on-stage over-exertion in 1883. [back]
11. Matilda Flynn, born Matilda Twibill, married actor Tom Flynn in 1828. She was an English-born actress whose father moved her and her brother to America in order for them to become stage actors. [back]
12. The first Park Theatre opened in 1798. The second, probably the one to which Whitman refers, opened in 1821. [back]
13. "Old Booth" was Junius Brutus Booth, father of John Wilkes Booth and a preeminent actor for 30 years on the American stage. Richard III was his most famous role. [back]
14. "Wilkes" refers to John Wilkes Booth, son of Junius Brutus Booth. John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in 1865. [back]
15. Mary Provost reopened the Wallack Theatre under the name Mary Provost's Theatre in 1862. John Wilkes Booth appeared in her opening production. Provost's efforts to manage a theatre quickly proved unsuccessful. [back]
16. Edmund Kean, a British actor, was considered a rival of Junius Brutus Booth. Like Booth, he also played Richard III in New York. [back]
17. The "Kemble school" refers to a style and philosophy of acting advocated by John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons, and the Kemble family of actors. Though trained in the classical style, the Kembles emphasized acting primarily based on feeling, thus ushering in a new Romantic style. [back]
18. John R. Scott was a Philadelphia actor who, like Ingersoll, was of the Forrest school. It is clear that Whitman prefers Scott's style of acting. [back]
19. The Sledge Driver was a play by Eliza Planche, whose husband, James Robinson Planche, was also a playwright. [back]
20. The Lady of Lyons was a play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. [back]
21. Pritchard, daughter of British actress Hannah Vaughn Pritchard, was often compared to Sarah Siddons, who had also played Lady Macbeth. [back]
22. Mrs. McLean is unidentified. [back]
23. Herring was an English-born actress who made her first American appearance playing Queen Elizabeth at the Bowery Theater in 1833. She died in 1847 at the age of forty-one. [back]
24. Victoria Woodhull had been a dressmaker in California until she was encouraged to act by actress Anna Cogswell. She eventually gave up acting after seeing a vision of her sister asking her to come home. Later in her life, she became a women's rights advocate. [back]
25. Stickney was considered a good general actress by contemporary critics. Due to her corpulence, she was often cast as an elderly woman. [back]
26. Louisa Medina was the first American female playwright to make a living as a dramatist. She eventually married actor Tom Hamblin. [back]
27. Shaw was a great America actress of comedy and tragedy. [back]
28. "Velsor Brush" was Whitman's pseudonym for a series of articles entitled "City Photographs," which he published in the New York Leader. The name was a combination of his mother's maiden name (Louisa Van Velsor) and grandmother's maiden name (Hannah Brush). For a discussion of the possible artistic implications of the name Brush, see Ruth L. Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850–1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 25–26. [back]