Saturday, February 4, 2023

Cholera and the Theatre

The most recent issue of Theatre Journal has an interesting article by Mia Levenson about the effects cholera epidemics had on New York theatres during the nineteenth century.

Cholera is a deadly illness that was first identified in India, but in the 1820s and 1830s it spread rapidly across the world, devastating Paris, London, and eventually reaching the United States. Though cholera is a waterborne illness, people in the nineteenth century believed it was caused by "bad air" which led more health-conscious audience members to avoid the theatre.

In 1832, when cholera first hit New York, three large theatres served Manhattan—the Park Theatre (near what is now City Hall), the Theatre at Richmond Hill, and the American Theatre at the Bowery. The Park Theatre (pictured here in an illustration from 1822) was probably the most prestigious, presenting Italian operas and classic plays by William Shakespeare. The Theatre at Richmond Hill was further north and newer, having just opened the previous year in 1831. The Bowery was a more working-class venue, presenting melodramas and other popular works.

Even after cholera arrived in New York—with the first death from the illness being reported in June of 1832—the theatres still remained open. On Independence Day, the Bowery put on a patriotic drama called Cradle of Liberty, and though Richmond Hill was closed on July 4th, two days later it staged the popular comedy The Heir at Law. The Park Theatre also plowed ahead with its summer season, but unfortunately receipts were low, and it had to operate at a loss. On July 21st, the epidemic was peaking, with 311 new cases recorded and 104 deaths. That night, only ninety people attended the Park Theatre, which had a capacity of more than two thousand.

The Bowery was the first of the three theatres to shut down due to the epidemic, closing its doors on July 7th. The theatre's manager later ran a newspaper advertisement stating that the company "deems it a duty to the Public at large to announce the closure of the American Theatre until the alarm now existing has subsided." Richmond Hill, which could only hold about half as many people as the Park and the Bowery, waited until July 25th to put out a similar notice. The Park continued to stage plays for the rest of the month, announcing its closure on August 1st. Cholera, much like COVID almost two hundred years later, completely shut down theatre in New York.

Our own pandemic kept theatres shuttered for far longer, though. By August 20th, all three major theatres in New York had resumed performances. Like today, they advertised the safety measures they were taking (whether effective or not). Levenson reproduces a playbill for the Bowery that displays the word "VENTILATION" in large, capital letters.

Fortunately, New York constructed the Croton Aqueduct in the years following the epidemic, bringing fresh water to the city and reducing the impact of future waterborne illnesses. Still, cholera returned in 1849, beginning in the Five Points neighborhood and rapidly spreading throughout the city. Another wave hit New York in 1866.

By then, improved sanitation meant that death tolls were far lower, and the theatres remained open. One can only hope that when future epidemics arise, we, too, will be better prepared, and won't have to shut down the theatre yet again.