Friday, May 20, 2022

The Visual Life of Romantic Theatre

Yesterday, I tuned in for a very informative online panel on "The Visual Life of Romantic Theatre" which previewed some of the work that will be published in a forthcoming book offered by University of Michigan Press.

Diane Piccitto and Terry F. Robinson hosted the event, which began with with a fascinating talk by Susan Brown on the diary of Mary Rein, who oversaw the design and construction of costumes at Drury Lane beginning in the late 18th century. While we don't have any of her own sketches of costumes, we do have images of costumes she designed and constructed with the help of the theatre's wardrobe staff.

One thing I found fascinating was that even though performers were generally expected to supply their own costumes, many of the dresses Rein recorded making were for the leading ladies of the stage. In one case, she provided a dress for the star actress Dorothy Jordan for her "personal use" though the outfit might also have been worn on stage as well. Though scenery costs far eclipsed theatre expenditures on costumes, Brown argued that clothing was an important part of Romantic spectacle.

Next, Uri Erman spoke on the Italian singer Angelica Catalani, who was rumored to be mistress to the controversial politician Lord Castlereagh. Erman showed a cartoon by James Gilray entitled "Delicious Dreams!" The image, which dates from 1808, shows a cat (-alani) whispering into Castlereagh's ear. Foreign opera singers like Catalani became a target for xenophobic forces. They also were used by those who opposed the encroachment of opera into London's patent theatres, replacing the castrati, which had previously been used as images of operatic monstrosity, but by the 19th century had fallen out of favor.


I was particularly excited to hear Danny O'Quinn discuss the Romantic toy theatre. Though toy theatre production increased during the Victorian period, he said it was essentially a Regency art form. O'Quinn discussed William Webb's toy theatre version of Aladdin, which showed several Aladdins in different positions, so they could be switched in and out during the performance. This, he said, made changes in character indistinguishable from the changes in physical objects frequently used in pantomime. O'Quinn also mentioned that screens were sometimes used by toy theatre performers to hide the operators and make the performance all the more dramatic.

Deven Parker spoke about a play that was frequently adapted to the toy theatre, Isaac Pocock's The Miller and His Men. She noted that play texts could serve to mediate live performances, helping the reader to visualize what would otherwise be seen on stage. Even the use of punctuation--such as dashes--can help convey to the reader what the visual experience of watching a play is like.

Last to speak was Dana Van Kooy, who discussed Obi; or, Three-Fingered Jack, a play by John Fawcett about the Jamaican folk-hero Jack Mansong. The piece premiered at the Haymarket Theatre in 1800 with Charles Kemble as Mansong, and Maria De Camp as Rosa, the plantation owner's daughter.

It was a great panel, so I'm glad I tuned in for it!

Sunday, May 15, 2022

What Doesn't Go up in Smoke

I have no affection for cigarettes. When I was growing up, both of my parents smoked, and wanting to be like them, I wanted to smoke, too. One day, sitting on my mother's lap, I asked her if I could have a puff of her cigarette. She handed it to me. I took a puff. I have never wanted to smoke anything ever again.

What I do have a fascination for, however, is cigarette cards. These cards were originally added to cigarette packages to stiffen them, and by the 1880s, manufacturers were printing advertisements on them, often including popular images that could be collected by consumers. Those images could be of sports stars, famous Native American leaders, national flags, exotic animals, or sometimes actors and actresses.

These cards can sometimes be found on Internet auction sites, and I've purchased a few in recent years, wanting to have images of performers from the Regency era. The first one I bought was when I saw for sale a cigarette card of the actress Eliza O'Neill identical to one in the collection of the New York Public Library. The card, issued by Chairman Cigarettes, probably dates to the 1920s. The reverse side gives information about O'Neill, including that she excelled in the roles of Belvidera, Juliet, and Mrs. Beverley.

Chairman Cigarettes appears to have been based in England at the beginning of the 20th century, but I've found scant information on them. Recently, I obtained a number of cigarette cards issued by Player's Cigarettes. John Player & Sons was based in Nottingham, but it merged with Imperial Tobacco Group in 1901. Under the ownership of Imperial, Player's issued a number of trading cards, though it had issued its own cards as far back as 1893. Probably around the same time Chairman issued the card showing O'Neill, Player's issued a series of 25 cards showing miniature portraits of great painters. (I've seen 1923 given as the year for this series, but cannot verify it.)

Many (though not all) of those miniature portraits displayed images of actresses. This one shows Sarah Siddons, who according the the reverse side was "one of our greatest tragic actresses." Siddons first appeared on the London stage in 1775, but her first great success did not come until seven years later, when she appeared at Drury Lane as Isabella in an adaptation of Thomas Southerne's The Fatal Marriage. The Player's card calls this performance "a triumph almost unequalled in the history of the English stage."

Siddons introduced her most famous role, Lady Macbeth, in 1785. This portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, however, appears to show her in the role of Mrs. Haller from The Stranger, an adaptation Benjamin Thompson did of a melodrama by August von Kotzebue. Siddons was long the reigning tragic actress on the London stage. It was only after the retirement of Siddons that O'Neill came to London from Dublin, taking over many of the elder performer's roles, including Isabella and Mrs. Haller. Neither actress, however, had much of a gift for comedy. The great comedic actress of the period was Dora Jordan.

Here's a Player's trading card showing Jordan. As the card states, the image is based on a painting by George Romney. Jordan's real name was Dorothea Bland, but for obvious reasons, the actress changed it. Like O'Neill, she was born in Ireland and rose to fame in Dublin. Jordan made her London debut at Drury Lane in 1785, the same year Siddons first wowed audiences as Lady Macbeth. Rather than competing with the great tragedienne, Jordan gravitated toward comic roles, making her London debut in the role of Peggy, the protagonist of David Garrick's bowdlerized version of The Country Wife

Jordan was just as famous for her personal life off of the stage as she was for the roles she played on stage. In 1790, she became the mistress of the Duke of Clarence, a younger son of the reigning monarch, George III. They had ten children together, but sadly, the Duke could not marry her. After all, she was a humble Irish actress, and he was in line to ascend the throne. In fact, when his elder brother died in 1830, the Duke became King William IV. By that time, poor Jordan was dead. Her body was buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.

Another Regency actress, Maria Foote, appears on this Player's card, based off of a portrait by George Clint. Foote made her London debut at Covent Garden in 1814, as did O'Neill, but while O'Neill went on to massive fame as an actress, Foote did not. As the reverse side of her trading card puts it, she was "more celebrated for her beauty than for her acting." After her debut in The Child of Nature by fellow actress Elizabeth Inchbald, Foote went on to perform numerous Shakespearean roles, including Miranda in The Tempest, Lady Percy in Henry IV, and Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Foote also played a key role in Virginius, a new play by James Sheridan Knowles that after a brief run in Glasgow made its London premiere at Covent Garden in 1820. Foote played Virginia, the virtuous daughter of the title character. Virginia falls in love with Icilius, but the tyrant Appius lusts for her, and claims she is secretly the daughter of one of his slaves, sold to Virginius's now conveniently dead wife, since she was allegedly barren. The play made the new British king, George IV, rather nervous, since he was known for treating his wife and numerous mistresses not terribly well.

When I bought several Player's cards from a vendor, he kindly sent for free this 1930s card as a thank you. The card shows Nell Gwyn, who according to the reverse side of the card rose from being "a fruit hawker in the precincts of Drury Lane Theatre" to eventually becoming "enrolled a member of the King's Company of Players." This was during the Restoration under Charles II, and the king himself "fell a victim to her charms" as the card says. It was allegedly Gwyn who persuaded the king to complete the construction of Chelsea Hospital to provide a home for discharged soldiers.

The card is one of a series of 25 "Famous Beauties" taken from drawings by A.K. Macdonald. Other "beauties" drawn by Macdonald included Catherine the Great, the Queen of Sheba, and Pocahontas, so including the actress is quite a compliment. Gwyn was a close associate of the playwright Aphra Behn, who dedicated her play The Feigned Courtesans to the actress.

While I certainly am not a fan of the cigarettes that led to the creation of these cards, I'm glad many of the cards are still around today. They give us a fascinating glimpse not just of the world that created them, but also of the way that world looked back upon its own past.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Everything's Happenin' in Jersey

It's been a week. This Wednesday was the reading of my play The Love Songs of Brooklynites at Vivid Stage in Summit, New Jersey, and I'm happy to report that it went extremely well.

Laura Ekstrand directed the reading, which featured Christopher Young as Chuck and Emaline Williams as Abbie. Both of the actors were very funny in their roles. We had a talkback afterward, and I have lots of ideas for rewrites.

Unfortunately, while I was getting ready to take the train out to Summit, I found out that my good friend Herb Moskovitz had been put on a ventilator and wasn't expected to make it. I had heard that he was in the hospital, but didn't realize things were quite so bad.

Herb lived in Philadelphia, but used to come to New York all the time, where we would frequently see theatre together. I remember going to Irish Rep with him to see a production of Around the World in 80 Days, and going with him to the Off-Broadway production Irena's Vow, as well as to see numerous plays based on the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe, one of Herb's favorite writers.

Initially, I met Herb through the Dickens Fellowship, so I will always associate him with Charles Dickens, but he loved quite a number of writers. In 2019, I drove down with a friend of mine from New Jersey to attend a marathon reading of Moby-Dick in Philadelphia, but Herb couldn't attend, as he was scheduled to give a talk to the P.G. Wodehouse Society. He always managed to keep busy.

Yesterday, I had plans to see another friend, Cindy Ryan, appear in a production of Mr. Burns by the Studio Players in Montclair, New Jersey. Cindy also knew Herb through the Dickens Fellowship. A number of years ago, the Friends of Dickens New York held a mock trial of John Jasper to see if he really was the murderer in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Cindy's husband Jeff played the defendant, and I presided as judge. We called Herb as witness, and he appeared as the character of Durdles.


Here's a photo of the cast. The tall man in the back is Herb. (He generally towered over everybody.) I'm writing in the past tense, because I received word Friday morning that Herb had passed. I still went to the show that night. (Herb probably would have wanted it that way.) I didn't get a chance to say hello to Cindy afterward, but I did run into Jeff and their daughter Sylvia (the little girl in this photo, who is now a teenager).

Well, Herb will be dearly missed. He was a great actor, a great scenic designer, and a great man.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Brooklynites in New Jersey

For a while now, I've been working on a play called The Love Songs of Brooklynites. I developed it in a reading with Emerging Artists Theatre, and it subsequently had a workshop out at the Theatre of Western Springs.

I sent the script to Vivid Stage in New Jersey. (This is the company formerly known as Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre.) Their artistic director, Laura Ekstrand, contacted me recently saying they want to do a reading of the play at their theatre in Summit.

Vivid Stage is supplying the actors and director, and I don't know any of them, so it will be a chance for me to get a completely fresh take on the piece. I'm not sure what to expect, but I'm looking forward to it! Fortunately, the theatre is easy to get to, since it's located right near the Summit train station.

The reading will be on May 4th at 7:30pm and will be a part of Vivid's Meet the Artist Series. Later in May, they'll also be doing readings of plays by Angelle Whavers, Lia Romeo, and Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich.

If you can make it, I'd love to see you there!



Monday, April 25, 2022

Rhetorical Gesture and Action

In 1807, the actor Henry Siddons, son of the famous tragedienne Sarah Siddons, published a treatise on acting--freely adapted from a German book--called Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action.

In the "Advertisement" at the beginning of the book, Siddons defends his free adaptation of a work by Johann Jakob Engel. While a straight-forward translation of Engel's work might have proved "sufficient" Siddons argues that "as the application of his principles, in the original work, was adapted to the business of the German Stage, and as his references and examples were chiefly taken from the German drama, it became an essential duty of the Editor to Anglicise the matter, as well as translate the language of his author."

Siddons makes sure to give examples from English plays that were well known at the beginning of the 19th century, including Joanna Baillie's De Monfort, Matthew G. Lewis's The Castle Spectre, and William Congreve's Love for Love, as well as popular works by Shakespeare, such as Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. He also makes explicit reference to his mother. At one point,  he writes: "If the first actress now on our stage had never been present at the bed of a dying person, her acting, under such circumstances, might probably have lost one of its most natural and affecting traits." This was Siddons's trick of having her fingers twitch, but nothing else, as she had once seen in a person near death.

The book also includes illustrations, one of which is reminiscent of a painting of Sarah Siddons together with a very young Henry. That painting, Mrs. Siddons and Her Son in the Tragedy of Isabella by William Hamilton, shows a tall, stately mother with a small child to the left. Similarly, the illustration for "Affection" shows a mother and son, and the book draws attention to the fact that (as in the painting) the two figures are on different planes. Siddons writes: "First of all, my friend, let us suppose an object of desire placed more high than the person desirous of obtaining it; or what comes to the same point, that the personages are not of an equal height."

How much was Siddons's guide used as a practical tool for actors? It's difficult to tell, but in addition to being raised by the most famous actress of the era (not to mention being nephew to the actor John Philip Kemble), Henry Siddons was a famous performer himself. He was the leading man at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh, where he originated the role of the Lord of Lorne in Baillie's The Family Legend.

Actors today might not want to follow the advice in the book, which as its title suggests is aimed at a rather rhetorical approach to performance, but it is a fascinating glimpse into the past.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Paradise Square

The first time I tried to see Paradise Square on Broadway, I received an e-mail the afternoon before the performance. The show had been suspended due to Covid protocols, and my money would be refunded.

It was disappointing, to say the least, especially since while Broadway has been taking public health measures extremely seriously, others in our society have been doing just the opposite. It seems no matter how responsible we try to be, someone else's irresponsibility always ends up ruining things for everyone.

Interestingly enough, the same is true for the world of Paradise Square, which I finally got to see last night. The main characters in the play go out of their way to show compassion, love indiscriminately, and build community, but in the end, others motivated by selfishness, hatred, and greed just burn it all down.

Set in the old Five Points neighborhood during the U.S. Civil War and the New York City draft riots, Paradise Square engages with an important moment in the history of this city and of our nation. It was originally conceived by Larry Kirwan, whose play Hard Times told the same story in an Off-Off-Broadway production in 2012.

As former frontman for the rock band Black 47, Kirwan is no stranger to fame, but he is dwarfed by some of the other names in the artistic team, including director Moises Kaufman (perhaps best known for The Laramie Project) and choreographer Bill T. Jones (Fela!, Spring Awakening, etc., etc., etc.) who are given top billing. The biggest name in the show, though, is Stephen Foster, the 19th-century composer whose songs are adapted for the musical's score.

Jason Howland is credited with providing the music, and Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare with the lyrics, but just as Foster borrowed from and adapted numerous traditional ditties, Paradise Square borrows and adapts heavily from Foster, who even appears as a character in the play. Ironically, Foster is accused in the second act of appropriating other people's music for his own purposes, which is precisely what Paradise Square does as well.

The musical quotes briefly from Foster's "Old Folks at Home" before going into an extended sequence of his hit "Camptown Races." Later, Foster's song "Gentle Annie" is applied to the character of Annie Lewis, played by Chilina Kennedy. The song "Why Should I Die in Springtime" draws upon Foster's "I Would Not Die in Springtime" and "I'd Be a Soldier" reimagines another Foster Song, "I'll Be a Soldier." My favorite song in the show, though, is Foster's "Angelina Baker" (sometimes known as "Angeline the Baker"), which gets reprised twice.

This isn't to say that all of the music is based on Stephen Foster. Toward the end of the show, Joaquina Kalukango brings down the house as the character Nelly O'Brien, singing "Let It Burn." If this typical Broadway showstopper is based on anything from the 19th century, I missed what it was. In any case, Kalukango performs it brilliantly, and it's perfect for the moment it provides.

If you get a chance to see Paradise Square on Broadway, I heartily recommend it. Though set in 1863, it is quite timely for our current political moment in 2022.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Castle of Perseverance

The Castle of Perseverance is a medieval Morality Play that is of particular interest because its manuscript contains detailed instructions for staging it, including a sketch of the stage layout.

Currently, the Folger Shakespeare Library houses the manuscript, which shows a castle surrounded by a circle. Written in the circle are the words: "This is the watyr a-bowte the place, if any dyche may be mad, ther it schal be pleyed, or ellys that it be strongely barryd al a-bowt; and lete nowthouer many stytelerys be with-Inne the plase."

The ditch (or sometimes barred fence) seems to have acted as a division between the audience and the actors. Outside the ditch were five scaffolds, each housing some of the play's many characters. On the north scaffold was the demon Belyal, who according to the stage directions would have "gunne-powder brennyn In pypys in his handis and in his eris, and in his ers." It might seem strange to us to envision a medieval actor with pipes filled with gunpowder coming out of his hands, arse, and ears, but that appears to be how they staged the play.

Toward the end of the play, the four Daughters of God appear, namely Mercy, Righteousness, Truth, and Peace. According to the staging instructions, Mercy is to be clothed in white, Righteousness in red, Truth in green, and Peace in black. After the central figure of Mankind has succumbed to sin and died, the daughters plead before God for his Soul. Mercy urges the salvation of Mankind, stating:

     For the leste drope of blode
     That God bledde on the rode,
     It hadde ben satysfaccion goode
          For al Mankyndys werke....

Righteousness isn't so sure. She declares:

     Lete hym a-bye his mysdede!
     For, thou he lye in hell and stynke,
     It schal me neuere ouer-thynke.
     As he hath browyn, lete hym drynke!

Truth agrees, and backs up her sister, saying:

     Rytwysnes, my syster fre,
          Your jugement is good and trewe.
     In good fayth so thynkit me;
          Late hym his owyn dedis rewe!

Fortunately for Mankind, Peace speaks up for him, urging:

     Pes, my syster Verite!
          I preye you, Rytwysnes, be stylle!
     Lete no man be you dampnyd be,
          No deme ye no man to helle.

The three sisters bring the case before their Father, God. I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say, "the leste drope of blode" that Christ "bledde on the rode" does not fall in vain.