Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Poor of New York

Dion Boucicault's play The Poor of New York was a hit when it opened at Wallack's Theatre in New York City in 1857, just as a financial panic had taken hold of the United States.

The play begins twenty years in the past, during the Panic of 1837. In the opening scene, the banker Gideon Bloodgood is preparing to skip town before his firm collapses. His irresponsible clerk Badger is more than happy to let his boss leave quietly, provided he gets a sizable bribe to keep quiet.

"In business there are two ways of getting rich, one hard, slow, and troublous: this is called labor;" Badger says. "The other easy, quick and demanding nothing but a pliant conscience and a daring mind--is now denominated financiering--but when New York was honest, it was called fraudulent bankruptcy...." This line continues to resonate today, when a supposed titan of finance can declare bankruptcy after bankruptcy, never pay more than a pittance in taxes, and still call himself rich.

The first act of the play ends with a certain Captain Fairweather depositing $100,000 with Bloodgood and then dying in his office. The banker pockets the money, his clerk picks the receipt off of the floor, and the story moves ahead twenty years to the present year of 1857. That year marked a turning point in economic history, because 1857 was the first time a financial panic could spread as quickly as electricity, since newly installed telegraph lines now carried news of financial collapse at lightning speed. While the Panic of 1837 gradually moved across the country, audiences in 1857 had seen a spectacular collapse that began with a bang and quickly enveloped the entire nation.

Act II of the play opens with the formerly wealthy Mark Livingstone lamenting how in the course of three months he has lost nearly everything. In a tour-de-force monologue he explains who the true poor of New York really are:

The poor!--whom do you call the poor? Do you know them? do you see them? they are more frequently found under a black coat than under a red shirt. The poor man is the clerk with a family, forced to maintain a decent suit of clothes, paid for out of the hunger of his children. The poor man is the artist who is obliged to pledge the tools of his trade to buy medicines for his sick wife. The lawyer who, craving for employment, buttons up his thin paletot to hide his shirtless breast. These needy wretches are poorer than the poor, for they are obliged to conceal their poverty with the false mask of content--smoking a cigar to disguise their hunger--they drag from their pockets their last quarter, to cast it with studied carelessness, to the beggar, whose mattress at home is lined with gold. These are the most miserable of the Poor of New York.

This speech gets Livingstone arrested for making a public oration in the park. In the third act he resolves to kill himself if he cannot recover his honor and marry the woman he loves, none other than Captain Fairweather's daughter Lucy. Bloodgood's own daughter, Alida, plots to have Livingstone's debts forgiven so she can marry him herself and gain entrance to fashionable society. Into this mess walks Badger, returned from California and ready to blackmail his former employer. The act ends with Livingstone distraught, Lucy in tears, and Badger being hauled off by the police.

In Boucicault's plays the fourth act generally provided a sensation scene, and The Poor of New York delivers. The play takes us to a dilapidated apartment building at 19 and a half Cross Street in Five Points. Cross Street was one of the five streets that converged in one place, giving the notorious neighborhood of Five Points its name. The street was not only in the heart of the worst neighborhood of New York City, but the address of 19 and a half indicates that a single lot had been divided into two. Badger lives on the fifth floor in the back. Buildings were not supposed to be higher than five stories, with rents decreasing the more flights tenants had to climb. Front apartments were naturally more desirable than the rear, so fifth floor rear of 19 and a half Cross Street is pretty much the worst apartment in all of New York City!

Badger lives in an adjoining room to the domicile of the Fairweather family. (The building, already subdivided, seems to have split in two its very worst apartment!) The Fairweathers, who are starving and crowded into this squalid living space, have become desperate. Both Lucy and her mother separately decide to commit suicide by sealing the apartment and burning charcoal to suffocate themselves. Lucy's brother Paul arrives just in time to save them, but the fumes poison Badger in the next room. He has concealed the receipt proving the $100,000 deposit with Bloodgood, but before he can reveal the hiding place, he falls unconscious.

In the climactic fifth act, Bloodgood sets fire to the tenement building in an attempt to destroy the concealed receipt. Badger returns to retrieve it, and the whole structure goes up in flames on stage. Boucicault later wrote an article for Scientific American in which he explained how he had created the fire effect. Quick burning "flash torches" illuminated "a very large endless towel upon which is printed a mass of flames." This huge piece of cloth was "kept in constant motion" behind the facade of the on-stage tenement building and could be glimpsed through the windows.

The large cast, including firemen, added to the effect, and a period print records what the scene looked like on stage. The Poor of New York made such a sensation that Boucicault rewrote the piece over and over again, changing the place names to add new local color, and produced The Poor of Liverpool, The Poor of Manchester, The Poor of London.... 

No one seemed to mind the derivative nature of these works. After all, Boucicault had himself adapted the play from a melodrama called The Poor of Paris by Edouard-Louis-Alexandre Brisbarre and Eugene Nus. It also contained contributions by a fellow dramatist and two local journalists, but Boucicault is usually credited as the sole playwright.