Vol 27 no.2

Rooting Out Historical Mythologies; William Dunlap’s A Trip to Niagara and its Sophisticated Nineteenth Century Audience.

William Dunlap’s final play, A Trip to Niagara (1828), might be the most misunderstood play in the history of the American stage. Despite being an unqualified success with its cosmopolitan New York audiences in 1828-9, it has been regularly, and almost always inaccurately, maligned by twentieth and twenty-first century historians who have described the play as a “well-done hackwork;” full of “puerile scenes and irrelevant characters;” and valuable only for the “certain amount of low comedy” that “could be extracted from it.” [1]

At best Dunlap’s play has been described as “a workmanlike job;” at worst, “one of his poorest” efforts, a play that “could hardly be said to have challenged the preeminence of contemporary British playwrights, let alone Shakespeare.”[2] As I will argue in this essay, the glaring disconnect between the play’s warm public reception and its subsequent criticism by historians often appears to be rooted in a kind of historical mythology that haunts the field of theatre history.

Unperceived biases and assumptions often color interpretations of historical evidence, and these flawed perceptions are frequently transmitted from one generation of historians to the next, forming a kind of mythology around a subject that has the power to color future interpretations of new evidence. Just such a historical mythology appears to be at the heart of most criticisms of A Trip to Niagara. The core of this myth concerns the assumption that the early American theatre and its audiences were sadly primitive, and too many histories of the American stage have followed some variation of the progress-narrative that begins with this notion of primitivism and then moves toward, and ultimately culminates in, the organic emergence of a proud national theatre in the early Twentieth Century. But a careful examination of Dunlap’s A Trip to Niagara and its original reception reveals that this image is at best incomplete; indeed, if one assumes that A Trip to Niagara was not a complete anomaly, then the notion of the primitivism of the early American stage might turn out to be fatally flawed.

This overarching myth of primitivism is rooted in a series of more specific assumptions that one might think of as “sub-myths.” It is these more specifically-focused minor myths that can be heard resonating in the criticisms of Dunlap’s play. The assumptions that 1) character development did not reach beyond the presentation of simple stage-types; that 2) American theatres were polluted by pervasive and unreflective racism; that 3) spectacle-driven performances were inferior, simplistic entertainments for simple-minded spectators; and that 4) American audiences were generally unsophisticated and easily sated by inferior fare, combine to lend the impression that the early American theatre had a great deal of growing up to do. The bulk of this essay will focus on the specific problems with each of these sub-myths in turn, but for the sake of those who are not familiar with Dunlap’s final play, a brief overview of its plot will prove useful.

A Quietly Complicated Play

As the title indicates, A Trip to Niagara is a journey play that follows a group of European tourists, mostly English, on a trip from New York City, up the Hudson River to Albany, across the newly-opened Erie Canal to the shores of Lake Erie, and then finally the great waterfall at Niagara. The most spectacularly realized portion of the journey came in the form of production’s much-hyped ‘Eidophusikon,’ a moving diorama that shifted an enormous painted canvas across the stage between two large scrolls, which depicted the steamship voyage from New York harbor, up the Hudson River, as far as Catskill Landing.[3]

The play’s satire-driven conflict arises from the divergent opinions held by the stodgy, upper-class English character Wentworth and his more open-minded sister Amelia regarding the virtues of the nation through which they travel. Wentworth is portrayed as a narrow-minded fool, and early in the play Amelia encourages her suitor, John Bull, to try to “cure” her brother of his “obstinate determination to see nothing but through the coloured glasses of the book-makers.” [4] The tourists’ journey to Niagara Falls is thereafter punctuated by John Bull’s numerous comic attempts to cure Mr. Wentworth’s “social disorder.” Along the way, the ‘travellers’ encounter a broad array of people and places, which together serve as a kind of cultural panorama to compliment the moving diorama in Act II. A Trip to Niagara is interesting in that the unspoken content of the play is, in many ways, more important than its spoken dialog. Dunlap’s nuanced celebration of American achievements in politics, engineering, and the arts serves as a quiet refutation of the works of the numerous critical “book-makers” such as Francis Trollope and the actor Charles Matthews.

This unspoken content comes primarily in the form of allusions to cultural materials from the period, most of which lies outside the normal purview of many of the historians who have written about the play, and many of the clearest historiographical errors have popped up in works with a non-theatrical focus. Oral Sumner Coad and Robert Canary, Dunlap’s major biographers, both fail to notice many of the cultural references that Dunlap layered into the play’s characters. Coad describes them erroneously as a series of “dialect characters,” while Canary similarly sees them as “gallery of stage types”; both authors make a point of listing the types (Negro, Frenchman, Yankee, Irishman, etc.) as if their label fully articulated their purpose in the play.[5] Given the largely non-theatrical focus of these biographies, these misinterpretations are understandable; nonetheless, it is worth noting that both Coad and Canary, writing more than fifty years apart, each fall back on the historical myth that stock characters, and little else, were to be expected in plays from this era.

It does not help that in the preface to the play, Dunlap downplays his script as a “farce” intended as “a kind of running accompaniment to the more important product of the Scene-painter.”[6] Nearly everyone who has written about this play has mistakenly taken the often self-deprecating Dunlap at his word, and has assumed that what followed would be as unimportant and simplistic as Dunlap claims. But the classification of this play as a farce is a problematic one. A Trip to Niagara really is not a farce. It is, in fact, much closer to the sort of satirical social comedies exemplified by Royal Tyler’s The Contrast, or Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion. But even this designation fails to capture the major elements of cultural panorama that are central to the play. These elements place A Trip to Niagara more in line with Dunlap’s other patriotic works such as Andre and The Glory of Columbia.[7] The fact that Dunlap downplays the significance of his own script should not surprise anyone who is familiar with this figure. In his monumental histories of both the American theatre and American painting, Dunlap continuously championed the work of his compatriots while largely downplaying the significance of his own contributions.[8]

“A Gallery of Stage Types . . .”

I will begin my analysis of the historical mythologies that supported the erroneous criticisms of this play by confronting the assumption that stock-characterization was the rule of the day. To be sure, the use of stock-characters was a prominent force during this period, particularly in the melodramas that were beginning to dominate the playwriting scene in the early Nineteenth Century. But exceptions to this trend were not uncommon; Shakespeare was still the most produced playwright on American stages, and there were a number of American playwrights such as John A. Stone who worked in a consciously Shakespearean vein. In short, the idea that the American theatre landscape was littered with nothing but stock-characters – a criticism which generally carried a derogative connotation within the progress narrative in which American playwrights “developed” toward the more noble goal of creating “well-rounded,” psychologically-complex characters – is simply an example of over-simplification, and that myth has guided more than one historian down the path of simplistic analysis.

A careful examination reveals that A Trip to Niagara was populated by characters that were neither “stock” nor “rounded;” to evaluate the play according to this either/or standard is to misunderstand the way that the characters function in this play. Dunlap’s characters would be better described as what I term “referential” characters, which Dunlap used as a highly efficient way to invoke material from the complex cultural universe which he and his audience inhabited. The English actor Charles Matthews, the American theatre manager William Alexander Brown, and the character Leatherstocking from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, each appear as characters in A Trip to Niagara, though they are not always acknowledged directly as such in the dialog. Dunlap’s characters have been consistently misidentified as “stock” because the historians writing about the play frequently clearly missed the embedded cultural referents that they were meant to invoke.[9] In the absence of specific evidence to the contrary, the more generalized myth of the use of stock-characters gets invoked to explain the lack of “roundness” exhibited by these characters. The tendency to jump to this conclusion is so great that several historians have overlooked the fact that the “Yankee” the “Frenchman” and “John Bull” in this play are all, in fact, the same character operating in different disguises.[10]

The clearest example of Dunlap’s referential technique is his use of “Leatherstocking” from The Pioneers (1823), written by Cooper, a friend of Dunlap’s.[11] In A Trip to Niagara, Dunlap places Leatherstocking on the precise spot atop the eastern escarpment of the Catskills that Cooper describes so memorably in The Pioneers. The clarity of this quotation is unambiguous; this is no “stock” frontiersman, but an homage to a central character from two novels that were the literary toast of New York at the time that A Trip to Niagara opened at the Bowery.[12] Dunlap even has Leatherstocking speak primarily in quotes lifted directly from Cooper’s novel. Given the overwhelming popularity of both The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans, it seems reasonable to assume that a fair portion of the audience would have quickly grasped and appreciated what Dunlap was trying to achieve with this appropriation. Proof of this appreciation is evident in a comment made by the critic for the New York Dramatic Mirror: “We should very much like to know… why the character of Leatherstocking has been withdrawn? The first scene might have been curtailed to advantage, and this interesting part, nevertheless retained.[13] Based on this comment, it would seem that the reviewer was seeing the production for a second time, that Leatherstocking had been pulled from the production, and that the reviewer found this choice distressing.

That historians have misidentified some of the other characters in A Trip to Niagara is much more understandable, as their cultural references were often subtle, complexly-layered, and based upon cultural material that might not be generally known to many historians. Yet the very lightness of Dunlap’s hand is a significant part of the play’s charm, and the play’s success points to the presence of an audience that was sophisticated enough to successfully decode and appreciate Dunlap’s subtle references.

The most consistently misinterpreted character is the one who appears variously as John Bull, Monsieur Tonson, and Jonathan. The fact that “John Bull” appears in several scenes disguised as “Jonathan” has proven to be a stumbling block for many historians as both John Bull and Jonathan were popular stock-characters from the period.[14] But in A Trip to Niagara, these characters appear as references to both their exterior life as stock-characters and to performances of those characters by Charles Matthews, an English actor whose bastardization of the Yankee character Johnathan in his performances was particularly irksome to many American spectators.

Dunlap relied heavily upon his audience’s knowledge of the transatlantic Anglo-American theatre to unpack the multi-faceted satire that he embedded in this character. From his first moment onstage, John Bull’s metatheatrical aura is immediately established when Amelia declares, “Mr. Bull! You in America?” Bull replies, “Yes, Amelia, John Bull in America.”[15] Theatrically-savvy spectators would have immediately appreciated this unambiguous reference to James Kirke Paulding’s 1825 play John Bull in America, or the New Munchausen. Dunlap solidly establishes the link between John Bull and Charles Matthews by having John Bull appear in disguise first as ‘Monsieur Tonson,’ one of Matthew’s more famous roles. In this scene, John Bull is not initially recognized by Amelia. When Bull-as-Tonson inquires, “Mam’selle Wentawort, you no know a me… Not know Monsieur Tonson,” Amelia immediately responds, “Only on the stage.”[16] Again, this metatheatrical reference doubtlessly amused those Bowery spectators who were familiar with the performances from Matthews’s American tour a few years earlier. Later, when John Bull appears in his ‘Jonathan’ disguise, the Bowery spectators would have enjoyed unpacking multiple layers of metatheatrical references: standing before them was William Chapman, an American actor,[17] who was satirically referencing the English comedian Charles Mathews by playing an archetypically defined Englishman (John Bull) who was pretending to be the archetypically defined Yankee Jonathan, a character with its own significant theatrical resonances.[18] As with many of Shakespeare’s ‘breeches’ roles, the perceptual slipperiness between these elements would have served as a primary source of theatrical pleasure in these scenes. This would be a fine example of a character that was metatheatrically-complex rather than psychologically-complex, and thus clearly at odds with the myth of the pervasive use of simplistic stock-characters.

Yankee characters were popular with both American and English audiences, but for very different reasons. For urban American theatre-goers, Jonathan served as a kind of cultural intermediary, allowing urbanized spectators to commune, at a comfortable distance, with the virtues of a hard life of manual labor lived close to the American soil, while still highlighting how far they had come in their quest for modern, moral refinement. For the English, Jonathan’s tendency toward crude violence and moral outrage was more straightforwardly comic. As Maura Jortner discusses in Playing ‘America’ on Nineteenth-Century Stages, the English comedian Charles Matthews was particularly successful in his outrageous portrayals of Yankee characters. As performed by Matthews, Jonathan became merely cheap, conniving, and violent; willing to cheat others out of any good or service that they could. Many American spectators, witnessing these performances in England, were not amused.[19] Dunlap used his multivalent incarnation of Jonathan as a way to push back against Matthews and his English audiences. A Trip to Niagara’s original audiences would have noticed and enjoyed the subtle ways in which William Chapman as John Bull was overplaying his Jonathan disguise for the too-gullible Englishman Wentworth. Once the spectators identified the allusion to Matthews, even the play’s title, A Trip to Niagara, would also have acquired an additional resonance as a subtle reference to Matthew’s play A Trip to America, the play in which one of the more notorious corruptions of Jonathan appears.

It is worth noting that two of the histories that discuss A Trip to Niagara most favorably, Francis Hodge’s Yankee Theatre and Jortner’s Playing ‘America’ on Nineteenth-Century Stages, are each direct studies of the Yankee character in the American Theatre. Dorothy Richardson’s Moving Diorama in Play focuses entirely on this play. Each of these three historians use their detailed knowledge of the production’s original context to decode Dunlap’s references and to then push back against the tide of unwarranted criticism against this play, particularly as it applied to the presentation of the John Bull/Jonathan character.[20]

Dunlap’s depiction of the free black Job Jerryson has also been frequently misunderstood, often cast off as simply another “wooly-headed” stage-negro. In this instance another historical myth — that the American stage was universally racist in its depictions of African Americans — has frequently been compounded with the myth of the pervasive use of stock-characterization. Yet when considered in the context of Dunlap’s celebratory cultural-diorama, it seems unlikely that this would have been the case. An analysis of Job’s role within the production, along with an awareness of Dunlap’s abolitionist leanings, makes it very difficult to see this character as yet another in a long line of thoughtlessly buffoonish stock portrayals of African Americans.[21] Job plays an important role in the comic scenes in which he appears, but dramaturgically he is positioned as a straight-man against which the non-American characters Nancy and Dennis Dougherty serve as the comics. The comedy in these scenes arises from the ways in which the foreign characters fail to understand Job’s specific Americanisms; yet it is the foreigners, and not Job, who serve as the butts of the joke. On the contrary, Dunlap’s depiction of this free black should instead be seen as a prime example of the abolitionist sentiment in the early American theatre.

Dunlap’s use of name “Job” is an important allusion that sets a clearly reverential tone for this character, yet surprisingly no historian ever discusses it. The biblical tale of a prosperous man who has his wealth and family torn away from him, who then is forced to endure massive physical torture, and who in the end is liberated from his strife and rewarded for his faith and perseverance, has obvious resonances with the story of slavery in America. William Dunlap was an ardent abolitionist: he freed his family’s slaves immediately following his father’s death, he was active in the Manumission Society, and he also served as a trustee of the Free School for African Children.[22] New York’s final eradication of slavery in 1827 would have been a cause of celebration for Dunlap, and his dignified depiction of the Job would seem to be a clear celebration of this event. Dunlap uses Job as the mouthpiece for the independent democratic spirit within this play. Job and Leatherstocking are the only American characters who are given a substantive amount of dialog, and it is Job who espouses the basic tenant of American liberty when he states, “Master! – I have no master. Master indeed… I am my own master.”[23] It seems unlikely, given Dunlap’s abolitionist position, and given the celebratory tone of the play, that Dunlap would have intended these lines to be parodic. Although the word ‘deference’ never appears in the play, it is clear that much of Wentworth’s discontent with the Americans stems from the deference that he expects from them, but fails to receive. The expurgation of deference as a bedrock element of interpersonal behavior in American society was one of the most radical outcomes of the American Revolution, one which set America apart from the rest of the English-speaking world.[24] Dunlap positions Job proudly as his on-stage voice for this liberated perspective. In doing so, he was not alone in choosing to dignify African American characters; he was, after all, part of a large and growing abolitionist movement. The lack of deference that Job displays openly in A Trip to Niagara is echoed by the black house-servant Mistress Remarkable in The Pioneers. Mistress Remarkable similarly refuses to demonstrate deference to the young lady Elizabeth declaring, “I will call her Betsy as much as I please; it’s a free country, and no one can stop me… I will talk just as I please.”[25] As was A Trip to Niagara, Cooper’s novel was warmly embraced by New Yorkers in the 1820’s, many of whom would have openly celebrated the tone of Mistress Remarkable’s declaration, just as they would have celebrated Job’s sense of self-possession.

Abstractions aside, Job Jerryson also serves as Dunlap’s on-stage homage to William Alexander Brown, a free Black who managed a pleasure garden and multiple theatres in New York in the 1820’s.[26] Given the allusion to Brown, that fact that Job dresses and acts as a “Black Dandy” may have served, not as an opportunity for ridicule as some have asserted, but simply as an accurate reflection of the dress and manners of the kind of gentleman in question. Dunlap’s biographer Robert Canary is one of the few to argue that the depiction of Job is in fact a dignified, rather than a parodic one stating, “He may be the first picture on the American stage of a realistic, well-educated, free Negro.”[27] Because of the long shadow of blackface minstrelsy in the American theatre, it is very tempting to simply pigeon-hole this Black-dandy as a proto-Zip-Coon. But to do so is to allow the myth of the pervasive racism of the early-American stage to obscure the clear cultural references at work. Free blacks frequently adopted the dress and manners of upper-class Euro-Americans, promenading up and down Broadway with a boldness that was a subject of vibrant debate among cultural critics at the time. However, as Marvin McAllister has powerfully argued, these public demonstrations by free Blacks of their mastery of European social conventions should be seen as significant acts of personal liberation.

Far from endorsing white superiority or exhibiting false consciousness, their whiteface acts rejected the negative connotations associated with blackness and advocated an alternative, more self-possessed African-American identity.[28]

It seems likely that Job was intended as the embodiment of precisely the sort of self-possession that McAllister describes.[29]

Almost nothing is known about how the character Job was performed at the time or how audiences perceived Dunlap’s use of this free Black. But the New York Dramatic Mirror’s review of the production proclaimed nothing but accolades for “Mr. Reed’s black dandy.”[30] It seems reasonable to assume that there would have been were various, competing factions within the Bowery audience who might have held differing views about Dunlap’s sympathetic portrayal of a free Black in this play. However, the final abolition of slavery in New York in 1827 would surely have emboldened the abolitionists like Dunlap within the Bowery audience.

Fueling the tendency to view A Trip to Niagara as “a gallery of stage types,” is the fact that there does appear to be a single instance in which Dunlap uses a stock-character in the conventional manner. The Irishman Dennis Dougherty’s comic appeal resides solely in the absurd constancy with which he vacillates between fear and gullibility. Dramaturgically, Dunlap sets up Dougherty as the extreme version of the upper-class Englishman Wentworth. Dougherty possesses none of Wentworth’s social graces, and thus the more extreme Wentworth’s opinions of America become, the more he begins to align himself with the absurdity of Dougherty’s views, and the more ridiculous Wentworth appears to the audience. The less-than-flattering portrayal of the Irishman Dougherty was not lost upon at least one member of the play’s original audience. The production’s only truly negative review was published in The Irish Shield, which bemoaned the depiction of Dougherty stating, “We are sure no Irishman ever sat for the daubed picture of Dennis Dougherty, which is no more like a son of the Emerald Isle, than Mr. H. Wallack is like a Lilliputian.”[31] The fact that Dougherty represents such a strikingly divergence within the play’s dramatis personae could be seen as one of the play’s clearest flaws. But it may also be that this is an instance in which Dunlap layered in a cultural reference that has yet to be uncovered.[32]

A Spectacle of Recognition…

Historical analyses of spectacle-anchored productions can be maddeningly simplistic, and display an inherent bias against the very idea of such productions. This bias is apparent in the literature on A Trip to Niagara. Nearly every historian who has written about it dutifully recites the fact that six months prior to the opening of the Bowery production, another moving-diorama-anchored production entitled Paris and London: a Tale of Both Cities opened at the Park Theatre, the Bowery’s anglophilic cross-town rival.[33] Given the Park’s status as New York’s preeminent theatre during this period, the Bowery’s subsequent decision to mount a moving-diorama spectacle of its own is consistently offered up as definitive proof of the derivative nature of the Bowery’s production.[34]

There are clear problems with this conclusion, however. As the art historian Stephan Oettermann discusses in The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium, diorama-based productions had become increasingly common in France, England, and America in the Nineteenth Century, and the Park theatre had no claim to originality in its decision to mount Paris and London.[35] More significantly, Paris and London was not a terribly successful production. The critic from the New York Dramatic Mirror portrayed the Park production’s lackluster ticket sales in a particularly bemused fashion:

It is a light, laughable, and exceedingly laughable piece – “yet nobody goes to see it.” It has been got up with great care… the scenery is uncommonly well done, and the succession of paintings, representing the voyage from Calais to Dover, is both novel and beautiful – “yet nobody goes to see it.” The incidents are lively and amusing, the characters good of themselves… London and Paris is an agreeable trifle, which we really expected would succeed.[36]

Given the enormous financial risk associated with the creation of a moving-diorama-based production, the sort of simple-minded copycatting of the Park Theatre’s production that has been attributed to the Bowery’s managers seems implausible. Why would they consciously seek to repeat the mediocre success of the Park Theatre’s production? A more likely explanation is that the Bowery managers, like their cross-town colleagues, were tapping into the rising tide of cultural interest in visually-intensive entertainments such as moving-dioramas. Their hopes for success were doubtless rooted more in L. J. M. Daguerre’s hugely successful European dioramic exhibitions in the early 1820’s than in the mediocre “precedent” set for them by their cross-town rivals.[37]

A careful examination of the use of spectacle in A Trip to Niagara reveals that its success lay not in the ways in which it mindlessly aped other productions, but in the sophisticated ways that it resonated with the local, culturally savvy spectators at the Bowery Theatre. The clearest example of this is the fact that, in A Trip to Niagara, the ‘Eidophusikon,’ (the title given by the managers to the moving diorama) depicted the least exotic, most familiar portion of the journey from New York City to Niagara Falls. The diorama began scrolling as the tourists boarded their boat in New York harbor, but its visual journey extended only as far as Catskill Landing, about a hundred miles north of New York City; the most familiar portion of the journey to the Bowery’s patrons. The newly-opened Erie Canal and the scenic wonders of the Mohawk River canyon and Niagara Falls itself appear only in static scenes later in the play. So, exoticism aside, what would have been the appeal to the Bowery spectators of this comparatively local content?

The immensity of seeing 25,000 feet worth of canvas gliding mechanically across the stage must surely have pushed the boundaries of the spectators’ imaginations. Furthermore, the use of the ‘double-effect’ painting technique, which was becoming prevalent at the time, would have allowed movement-oriented elements such as “boats passing through a fog,” “emergence of a rainbow,” and the “rising of the moon,” to be executed with style and elegance.[38] But far more importantly, by having the ‘Eidophusikon’ focus on the terrain closest to New York, the Bowery audience would have been fully capable of appreciating the detailed minutia that the artists worked so hard to include. Well known ships such as the frigate Hudson and the steam vessel Constitution were probably included for this very reason. As Stephen Oettermann has argued in reference to Robert Barker’s famous panorama of London, the appeal of A Trip to Niagara’s moving diorama might have come from the constant barrage of moments of recognition experienced by the audience. A Trip to Niagara’s ‘Eidophusikon’ presented viewers with visual elements that ranged from the familiar (“Hey that’s my house!”), to the famous (“Look the Bowery Theatre!”), to the alluring (“I’ve always wanted to see Catskill Mountain House!”), thus eliciting a complex, and densely packed array of individualized responses. Assuming that the interplay between these elements constituted an important source of the audience’s pleasure, then the decision to depict the comparatively familiar lower Hudson River valley, rather than the more exotic trip across the Erie Canal, was perhaps a wise one, despite the fact that it runs counter the pejorative myth that spectacles are all about exoticism and novelty.

Another, far more subtle source of theatrical pleasure can be found in fact that the ‘Eidophusikon’ also appears to have been a quiet homage to the landscape painter, Thomas Cole. As with the depictions of Leatherstocking, William Alexander Brown, the Erie Canal, and the Catskill Mountain House, an homage to Cole would have tapped into the pride that the spectators felt in the achievements of their fellow New Yorkers. Thomas Cole’s name is never voiced in the play, and unlike Dunlap’s more overt homage to James Fenimore Cooper, none of Cole’s works are unambiguously quoted in the script. Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence pointing toward Thomas Cole as the ‘Eidophusikon’s muse is compelling and worthy of attention.[39]

When A Trip to Niagara was produced in 1828, Thomas Cole was the artist of the moment. Prior to Cole’s emergence as the father of the Hudson River School, landscape was a minor art-form in America, existing wholly in the shadow of portraiture and historical painting. Cole’s emergence, however, sparked a craze of landscape painting that would dominate American painting for the next two generations.[40] Cole’s meteoric rise was launched in 1825 when three of his paintings were purchased by three prominent New York painters: John Trumbull, Asher Durand, and William Dunlap.[41] Dunlap took it upon himself to use his position of prominence in the artistic community to draw attention to the talented young Cole. In his history of early American art, Dunlap states, “I published in the journals of the day, an account of the young artist and his pictures; it was no puff, but an honest declaration of my opinion, and I believe it served merit by attracting attention to it.”[42] From 1825 onward, Dunlap and Cole interacted regularly. Both men were founding members of the New York Drawing Association, a group which met three times a week for drawing sessions,[43] and Dunlap and Cole were also part of J. F. Cooper’s weekly lunches (“The Bread and Cheese Club”) where writers and artists interacted more socially.[44]

Given Dunlap’s close association with Cole, specific details of the ‘Eidophusikon’ take on additional meaning. The journey depicted by the moving-diorama, from New York City to Catskill Landing, is the precise journey that was made by Cole on his much-publicized first excursion to the Catskill Mountains in the summer of 1825, the journey that resulted directly in the three landscapes purchased by Trumbull, Durand, and Dunlap. This journey was a well-publicized part of the artist’s public image and of the culture of the Hudson River Valley more generally. In 1827 the owners of the steamship Albany, which plied the Hudson River route, even commissioned a painting from Cole entitled “View near the Falls of the Kauterskill [aka-Kaaterskill], in the Catskill Mountains.” This painting adorned the ship’s cabin, giving passengers an advanced view, interpreted through the eye of the famous artist, of the world that they were traversing.[45] Furthermore, the type of subject matter depicted in the ‘Eidophusikon’ was precisely the sort favored by Cole. Approaching and receding storms, in particular, are a common element in Cole’s paintings. Given Cole’s prominence, it seems almost inconceivable that Dunlap and the Bowery’s scenic painters would not have Cole in mind as they adopted his favored subjects and ‘plein-air’ study methods for this massive moving landscape. Advertisements for the production touted the fact that the scene painters worked from their own sketch-work, obtained in the field, and one wonders if the personal journeys of the scenic painters along the route of Cole’s first excursion to the Catskills might have been a form of conscious pilgrimage.[46]

The fact that Cole’s name is never directly invoked is in keeping with Dunlap’s understated approach to the cultural homages in this play. Dunlap instead relied upon the audience’s cultural literacy to identify his allusions. That the ‘Eidophusikon’ was spectacular and was marketed to the public based on its size and grandeur is undeniable, but it might very well be the case that Dunlap’s production succeeded where others failed because of the quiet, understated ways in which spectacle was employed in this production. A Trip to Niagara is outstanding, less for the spectacular sights that it displayed before its audiences, than for the never-ending series of spectacular recognitions that it elicited from them. These are the precise qualities that are lost when the analyses of historical spectacles begins with a mythical assumption of their simplistic nature.

Undeniably Sophisticated Audiences

In an era when plays were rarely performed more than once a month, the management of the Bowery Theatre staged A Trip to Niagara an astonishing seventeen times in the first month following its premiere, often turning people away from its overflowing 3,500-seat auditorium.[47] The play and the moving-diorama that served as the most notable highlight “saved the season” for the Bowery, which was recovering from a catastrophic fire that same year. Ultimately, A Trip to Niagara became a flag-ship production for the Bowery Theatre, featuring it at major openings and holiday events throughout 1829.[48] There are two divergent conclusions that can be gleaned from the success of this production: either the production was a good one that was embraced by the Bowery’s appreciative spectators, or that that spectators who thronged to see this trifle were little more than simpletons who were “easily sated by inferior fare.” Unfortunately, the latter conclusion has been the dominant one; it flies in the face of the historical evidence, but it resonates with the larger myth of the supposed primitivism of the early American audience.

Considerable evidence points to the idea that the Bowery audience of 1828 was probably a culturally sophisticated one. When it opened in 1826, the “New York Theatre”– it was renamed the Bowery after the fire in the summer of 1828 – was the largest theatre in New York City. The playhouse boasted over 3500 seats, had the largest stage in America and was backed by the well-heeled sons of President James Monroe, John Jacob Astor, and Alexander Hamilton. Far from being the haven for working-class audiences that it would later become under the management of Thomas Hamblin, the original Bowery was envisioned as a direct competitor to the Park Theatre, which had stood as the city’s elite playhouse for more than a generation. Even the often grumpy Fanny Trollope saw the Bowery as “infinitely superior” to its cross-town rival stating, “It is indeed as pretty a theatre as I ever entered. Perfect as to size and proportion, elegantly decorated, and the scenery and machinery equal to any in London.”[49] Dunlap even included the newly reconstructed Bowery as part of his cultural diorama: the theatre’s facade served as the final static image depicted in the background prior to the start of the moving diorama.

The fact that A Trip to Niagara was such a tremendous success for the Bowery marks it as a prime example of the kind of fare that the Bowery’s audiences desired. Considering how much of the production consisted of subtle, unspoken references to elite culture from the period, this might not be such a surprise after all. Aside from the references to the work of Cooper, Matthews, and Cole previously discussed, the play also makes subtle references to the nation’s luxurious modern infrastructure in the form of its hotels, roads, ships, and the newly-opened Erie Canal. Dunlap frequently combined these references in startlingly complex ways. In one particularly interesting scene, which beautifully sums up the elegant complexity of Dunlap’s referential style, Leatherstocking and Amelia conduct a reasoned debate about the merits and pitfalls of progress while standing atop the Catskill escarpment, with the facade of the newly-constructed and highly luxurious Catskill Mountain House standing silently behind them. The two characters, one of Dunlap’s invention the other of Cooper’s, politely voice their divergent opinions in a civilized discussion, and then go their separate ways, as friends. The fact that the very spot, which had once served as the private terrace of the famous frontiersman, had now been converted into a bastion of refined luxury was an ironic turn that beautifully encapsulates Dunlap’s quiet celebration of American culture, an approach which his audiences clearly embraced. This is, after all, the same scene that the reviewer for the Dramatic Mirror lamented the absence of when it was cut from one of the performances.

With A Trip to Niagara, Dunlap not only celebrated the literary achievements of friends like Cooper and Cole, but also the diversity of American attitudes toward the development of their own society, all within a series of stage pictures that was saturated with multiple cultural references. In making room for multiple, competing viewpoints to hold their own in the same stage space, Dunlap’s play defies the pervasive assumption that in the Nineteenth-Century, spectacle-driven plays and their audiences were as simplistic as they have often been portrayed by historians. It remains to be seen how many other successful productions, as well as the audiences that attended them, might be better understood if we continue uprooting the historical mythologies that we have inherited, and attempt to view the past with fewer preconceived notions of what our gaze will discover. Rather than dismissing audiences that embraced productions that we dislike at first blush, we should trust in their judgment and use their enthusiasm as an indication that there must be more to these productions than meets the eye.


Samuel T. Shanks is an independent scholar based out of Duluth, MN. Previously he was an Associate Professor of Theatre and Chair of the Division of General Education & Honors at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, IA. Sam’s academic interests include early American theatre, Islamic theatre, cognitive studies, and the history of scenic design.


[1]There are notable exceptions to this negative treatment including studies by Francis Hodge, Yankee Theatre: The Image of America on the Stage, 1825–1850 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964); Maura Jortner, “Playing ‘America’ on Nineteenth-Century Stages; or, Jonathan in England and Jonathan at Home” (PhD diss, University of Pittsburgh, 2005); and particularly Dorothy B Richardson’s extensive monograph on the play, Moving Diorama in Play, William Dunlap’s Comedy “A Trip to Niagara” (Youngstown, NY: Teneo Press, 2010). The current version of this article is a revised piece based on useful feedback I received from Richardson.

[2] Robert H. Canary, William Dunlap (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970), 71-73; Oral Sumner Coad, William Dunlap: A Study of his Life and Works and of his Place in Contemporary Culture (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962 [Reprint of 1917 edition from The Dunlap Society]), 177,­­ 183; and Don Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby, “Introduction,” in The Cambridge History of American Theatre, vol 1, eds. Don Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 11.

[3] William Dunlap, “A Trip to Niagara; or, Travellers in America,” in Dramas from the American Theatre: 1762-1909, ed. Richard Moody (Amherst, MA: The World Publishing Company, 1966), 186.

[4] Ibid., 181.

[5] Coad, William Dunlap, 177-178. Canary, William Dunlap, 73.

[6] William Dunlap, A Trip to Niagara, 178.

[7] The Glory of Columbia is, in fact, an adaptation of Andre, but with much the same kind of celebratory spectacle that is employed in A Trip to Niagara.

[8] Richardson postulates several other reasons why Dunlap’s disclaimer should be taken with a grain of salt. Moving Diorama, 181-185.

[9] Richardson’s book is unique on this point in that it discusses several of the characters as stock while simultaneously explicating their cultural resonances. Richardson, Moving Diorama, 124-128, 213-218, 245-249. The differences between her interpretations of these characters and my own are often quite divergent, despite the fact that we are both aware of the allusions embedded in these characters.

[10] Richard H. Gassan, The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson Valley, and American Culture, 1790-1830, (Amherst, MA, University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), 127. Bigsby & Wilmeth, “Introduction,” 11. Coad, William Dunlap, 177-178. Canary, William Dunlap, 73.

[11] The two were so close that Dunlap dedicated his 1834 History of the American Theatre to Cooper.

[12] Although Leatherstocking is also central to Cooper’s far more popular novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826), it is the older, more nostalgic version of this character that Dunlap chose to include in his play.

[13] “The Bowery,” New York Dramatic Mirror, Dec. 13, 1828.

[14] For a list of authors who fail to uncouple John Bull from Jonathan, see note 6.

[15] William Dunlap, A Trip to Niagara, 183.

[16] Ibid., 183.

[17] Today, it might seem odd to look upon an actor such as William Chapman, who was born in England, and merely recruited to work for an American company as an “American” actor. But there is evidence to suggest that the American public, who were themselves frequently first and second generation emigrants, saw these actors as American. Upon her arrival in Philadelphia in 1796, the prominent English actress Anne Brunton Merry was immediately hailed as a great addition to “the American Drama.” Gresdna Ann Doty, The Career of Mrs. Anne Brunton Merry in the American Theatre (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1971), 51.

[18] Richardson similarly discusses the “continually close and fluent relationship with each other” that the characters of John Bull and Jonathan would have shared. Moving Diorama, 267.

[19] Maura Jortner, “Playing ‘America’ on Nineteenth-Century Stages; or, Jonathan in England and Jonathan at Home” (PhD diss, University of Pittsburgh, 2005), 93-96, 108-111.

[20] Jortner, Playing ‘America’…, 93-96, 108-111. Francis Hodge, Yankee Theatre: The Image of America on the Stage, 1825–1850 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), 74-75, 103, 162-163.

[21] Gary A. Richardson, “Plays and Playwrights: 1800-1865,” in The Cambridge History of American Theatre, vol 1, eds. Don Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 289-290. Coad, William Dunlap, 177-178. Marvin McAllister, White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Color: William Brown’s African and American Theatre (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 160.

[22] Coad, William Dunlap, 23. Richardson, Moving Diorama, 241.

[23] Dunlap, A Trip to Niagara, 181.

[24] For more on the death of deference see Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1992).

[25] James Fenimore Cooper “The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale,” in The Leatherstocking Tales, Vol. I (New York: The Library of America, 1985), 177.

[26] The authoritative history of William Brown’s career is Marvin McAllister’s White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Color: William Brown’s African and American Theatre (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[27] Canary, William Dunlap, 74.

[28] McAllister, White People Do Not Know, 22.

[29] It is interesting to note that McAllister appears critical of Dunlap’s character, though he mentions the play only in passing, and with some inaccuracy, which might indicate that the analysis of this character was not a central concern to his larger project on Brown.

[30] “Mr. Dunlap’s Play of A Trip to Niagara,” New York Dramatic Mirror, Dec. 20, 1828.

[31] “The Drama,” The Irish Shield, January 1829.

[32] Richardson notes that stage-Irishmen appear several times in Dunlap’s previous works, and thus might have been a more stable element of his dramaturgical sensibility. Moving Diorama, 124-125.

[33] Gassan, American Tourism, 127. Coad, William Dunlap, 107-108. George C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, Vol III (NY: AMS Press, 1928), 378.

[34] Richardson argues that “the Bowery saw that a moving panorama or diorama was not restricted to a particular genre.” This assertion of the Bowery’s following of the Park Theatre’s lead is clearly less derisive, yet still postulates a causality that does not appear to be substantiated in reliable documentation from the period. Moving Diorama, 85.

[35] Stephan Oettermann, The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium, (NY: Zone Books, 1997), 70-83, 323-324.

[36] “London & Paris,” New York Mirror, 24 May 1828. The article from which these excerpts have been gleaned is actually much longer and humorously repeats “yet nobody goes to see it” again and again.

[37] Oettermann, The Panorama, 74-83.

[38] “Bowery Theatre,” New York Evening Post, 28 November 1828. For more on the ‘double-effect’ technique see Oettermann, The Panorama, 77-83.

[39] Richardson also argues that, in addition to Cole, William Guy Wall, may have also served as a source of inspiration. Moving Diorama, 61-63.

[40] For more on the emergence of Cole and the rise of the Hudson River School, see Barbara Babcock Millhouse, American Wilderness: The Story of the Hudson River School of Painting (Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press, 2007), Gail S. Davidson, Landscape Icons, Tourism, and Land Development in the Northeast,” in ‘Frederick Church, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape (New York: Bulfinch Press, 2006), and Harold E. Dickson, Arts of the Young Republic: The Age of William Dunlap (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

[41] The subject of the painting that Dunlap purchased, “Lake with Dead Trees,” was actually the lake that lay directly behind the Catskill Mountain House. VanZandt, Catskill Mountain House, 119-120.

[42] William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, Vol. 3 (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965 [1834]), 140-150.

[43] Coad, William Dunlap, 105.

[44] Millhouse, American Wilderness, 17.

[45] Davidson, Landscape Icons, 23.

[46] “Bowery Theatre,” New York Evening Post, 28 November 1828. Odell, Annals, 407.

[47] “Mr. Dunlap’s Play of A Trip to Niagara,” New York Dramatic Mirror, 20 December 1828.

[48] Odell, Annals, 407.

[49] Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003), 209.

 

“Rooting Out Historical Mythologies; or, William Dunlap’s A Trip to Niagara and its Sophisticated Nineteenth Century Audience” by Samuel Shanks

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 27, Number 2 (Spring 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Guest Editor:

Jonathan Chambers

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Phoebe Rumsey
Editorial Assistant: Fabian Escalona

Advisory Board:

Bill Demastes
Amy E. Hughes
Jorge Huerta
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf
Esther Kim Lee

  • “The Best Actor for the Role, or the Mythos of Casting in American Popular Performance” by Brian Eugenio Herrera
  • “Visibly White: Realism and Race in Appropriate and Straight White Men”  by Kee-Yoon Nahm
  •  “Capable Hands: The Myth of American Independence in D.W. Gregory’s The Good Daughter” by Bradley Stephenson
  • “Rooting Out Historical Mythologies; or, William Dunlap’s A Trip to Niagara and its Sophisticated Nineteenth Century Audience” by Samuel Shanks

 

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