The Anti-Victorianism of Victorian Revivals

by Laurence Senelick
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 1 (Fall 2022)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

A striking phenomenon of American theatre in the late 1920s is the spate of revivals of Victorian drama which continued well into the next decade. These “reconstructions” were far from antiquarian.  The texts were streamlined, the acting arch and the audience reaction uproarious. Spectators of the Jazz Age chose to guffaw at the ostensible innocence of the Gilded Age. These ventures had been prepared for by newspaper cartoons and memoirs that had drenched the “Gay Nineties” in an aura of roseate nostalgia.  The new versions of nineteenth-century melodrama and burlesque were, however, greeted by the mockery of a generation eager to reject the values that led to the Great War.  In this light, the revivalists of a past generation’s popular entertainment partook, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly, of the anti-Victorian sentiment endemic in the postwar period.  Audiences applauded their own sophistication in having left such benighted attitudes behind. While these attitudes lingered, the more sober mood that accompanied the Depression led to a more affectionate retrospect of the recent past.

The Gay Nineties

The Gay Nineties is exclusively an American term for the last decade of the nineteenth century, a period known in Britain as the Mauve Decade or the Naughty Nineties, in France as la belle Époque and in Germany as die Kaiserzeit.  Its coinage is attributed to the illustrator Richard V. Culter (1883-1929) who so entitled the series of pictures he first published in the Ogden, Utah, Standard Examiner in April 1923, and which were continued in the humor magazine Life from 1925 to 1928.  A selection was published in 1927 by Doubleday, Page, as The Gay Nineties. An Album of Reminiscent Drawings.

The sub-title is revealing. Culter’s line drawings belong to the genre of “the dear, dead days beyond recall” and depict the world as seen from the perspective of an uncritical adolescent.  It envisages idyllic, small-town life, uncomplicated and innocent in its pleasures. An American  adult who had lived in the 1890s might have recalled a less glowing scene: a decade bookended by the floods of Johnstown and Galveston, that endured the Panic of ‘93 and the subsequent three-year economic depression; the rise of the yellow press and gutter journalism; the spread of Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement and lynching throughout the South; the Spanish-American War and the advent of American imperialism; the reign of the trusts, child labor, brutal treatment of workers and dissidents; and various sensational trials, including that of Oscar Wilde.  However, the differences effected over a mere generation had been so revolutionary that the pre-war past had taken on a romantic hue: a world dominated by the horse had become automated, radio had intruded into the home, and the European conflict had provided a sharp dividing line between what was considered bygone and what was thought to be up-to-date. The new decade was dubbed by journalists “The Roaring Twenties,” persuaded that their era was more urbane, dynamic and knowing than its forebears.  

Culter’s benign vision of the late Victorian period was quickly blurred by condescension. Bill’s Gay Nineties, a speakeasy with a parodic turn-of-the-century motif, opened on East 54th Street in 1924, its walls covered with lurid pictures from the Police Gazette and similar period broadsides (the association of the 1890s with the growth of professional sports, especially baseball and boxing, became a commonplace).[1]  The following year John Held, Jr. (1882-1958), famous for caricaturing the adolescents of the ‘20s as sheiks and shebas,[2] began to publish a series of linoleum cuts of the “Gay ‘90s” in the New Yorker.  Unlike Culter’s rose-colored, mildly ironic interpretation, Held’s pictures with their crudeness and lurid captions were in tune with the newly-founded magazine’s vaunted sophistication.  They implied that the world of our grandfathers had been absurd in its conventions, backward in its moralizing, and laughable in its notions of art and beauty.[3]

These graphic mementos rapidly crystallized iconic signifiers of a period dimly if at all remembered by twenty- and thirty-year-olds: waxed handlebar moustaches and moustache cups, barber-shop quartets and singing waiters, the Gibson girl and wasp waists, sleeve garters and high-button shoes, straw boaters on men and ostrich plumes on women, sentimental piano ballads, horse-drawn vehicles and tandem bicycles, beer in pails and beefy chorines. As with the songs shoe-horned into the Hoboken revivals, specific decades became merged in a general impression of what was “Victorian.”[4]

The earliest glimpse of this trend on Broadway would seem to be a sequence entitled “The Old Timers” in The Greenwich Village Follies of 1922.  A quintet, including the female impersonator Bert Savoy, parodied singing waiters and parlor ballads.  The rendition of “Good-bye to Dear Old Alaska” by the writer John E. Hazzard (1881-1935), in walrus moustache and ill-fitting dress suit, was reported to be one of the hits of the evening.[5]

However, full exploitation of Victoriana had to wait until Jerome Kern’s musical Show Boat (1927), based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel of the previous year. Its action moves from 1887 to the 1893 World’s Fair to the present, the most memorable moments taking place in the earliest period.  Ferber herself had been attracted by show boating as “one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana”[6] that deserved to be memorialized. She concocted a pseudo-domestic melodrama The Parson’s Bride, which, in the musical, is turned into a mock play within a play.  In his score for both the stage version and the 1935 film, Kern imbedded such gas-lit crowd-pleasers as “Goodbye, My Lady Love” and “After the Ball.”  Yet the line in “Ol’ Man River,” “the land ain’t free” suggests an ante-bellum South. A general wash of Victorianism plays over the musical. Audiences are hard put to say, at any given moment, just when the action is taking place.

The popularity of Show Boat may have inspired Mae West to capitalize on the Nineties in Diamond Lil, which opened on Broadway on 9 April 1928.  West’s career was in a precarious position; her plays Sex (1926), The Drag (1927) and The Pleasure Man (1928) had been prosecuted and closed and she had even spent a brief time in jail. Respectable playgoers avoided her shows. At this juncture it may have occurred to her that moving her sinning protagonists to a dimly-recalled bygone era might provide just the quantum of distance to make them seem safely picturesque.  Although Diamond Lil touches on such raw topics as white slavery and drug addiction, the class conflicts and seething confrontations that appear in her first draft were excised in the final version.

Diamond Lil takes place on a Bowery refashioned to exploit modern New York’s fondness for its rough-and-ready past.  Herbert Asbury’s popular history The Gangs of New York had been published in 1927, providing the creative team plenty of well-researched local color and anecdotal incident.[7]  Effort was made to reproduce an authentic period barroom and a honky-tonk singer’s apartments, leading the English impresario Charles Cochran to declare “Diamond Lil catches exactly the spirit of the Bowery as I first knew it in 1891, with its bosses, thugs, procurers and cops.”[8]  The effect, reported the New York World, was the “garishness of a lurid lithograph seen under a flaring gas jet, and that is probably just the reason it was such good fun.”[9]  What in its time might have been regarded as tawdry and objectionable, ripe for slum clearance, had taken on a sheen of glamor.

The same mist of reminiscence that had softened the contours of the past in Culter’s vignettes now invested a crime-ridden rookery like the Bowery with an aura of innocent festivity. Few of the audience members would have been familiar with its gritty reality. The New York World report continued.

For those of us few remaining New Yorkers who have a

sentimental if somewhat hazy recollection of the Bowery,

Diamond Lil contains a wealth of entertainment in the

lusty and lewd enthusiasm with which it paints the underworld

of the ‘90s. Somebody with a genuine sense of that atmosphere

has created those Bowery scenes of ten cent revelry with an

authority just as honest as the Moscow Art Theater’s

studies of Chekhov, and much nearer home.[10]

There is a peculiar contradiction lurking in this statement. The reporter, while admitting his memory is faulty and roseate, nevertheless claims for Diamond Lil’s ambience the psychological and scenic naturalism of Stanislavsky (he and the Art Theatre had visited New York in 1923). What the writer purports to remember as lived experience is informed by a sedulous but fictional reconstruction.

As Marybeth Hamilton has put it in her study of West, in Diamond Lil the truth of this past had been “mediated by old-time popular entertainments, formed by melodramas, stories and song.”[11] (She might also mention the pictorial precursors). At this time books on popular ballads of the period by the musicologist Sigmund Spaeth were widely available,[12] so “The Bowery” from the Gilded Era musical comedy A Trip to Chinatown (1891) and the tearjerker “She Was Poor But She Was Honest” were sung from the stage of Diamond Lil. West had tapped into the brisk current of nostalgia, allowing her to draw her audiences from a diversity of classes and tastes. Diamond Lil raised her from a provocative pariah into a Broadway star and was the only one of her plays to be filmed.

A Hoboken Idyll

Show Boat and Diamond Lil were contemporary fictions that exploited the Victorian ambience.  The first influential revival of an actual Victorian play took place in what might be deemed off-off-off-off Broadway. In the mid-1920s a quartet of men-about-Manhattan who styled themselves the Three-Hours-for-Lunch Club discovered Hoboken.  They found that a short ferry ride to the New Jersey shore could bring them to a neighborhood rich in fine riverine views, hearty German cuisine and a potent beer neglectful of the Eighteenth Amendment. They dubbed the region, with a nod to Shakespeare’s faulty geography in The Winter’s Tale, “the last Seacoast of Bohemia.” [13]

New York City in this period, with fourteen daily newspapers in English alone and seventy legitimate playhouses, could well support a flourishing subculture of talented bohemians. Of the well-connected members of the Lunch Club, Cleon Throckmorton (1897-1965) was the most closely associated with progressive dramatic movements; as a designer for the Provincetown Playhouse, he was celebrated for his scenery for plays on African-America themes: The Emperor Jones (1920), All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1922) and Porgy (1923).  The Club’s founder, Christopher Morley (1890-1957), bibliophile, novelist and gourmand, was a columnist for The New York Evening Post and editor of The Saturday Review of Literature. British-born Harry Wagstaff Gribble (1896-1981 had been, from 1918, one of Broadway’s most-employed playwrights and directors, with a specialty in revue.  The least of these was Conrad Milliken (dates unknown), a theatrical lawyer and dabbler in poetry.

On one of their gastronomic jaunts to Hoboken Throckmorton ventured on to Hudson Street and came upon the old Rialto Theatre (pronounced Rye-alto by the locals), its nineteenth-century interior shrouded in dust.  The four men, who had a soft spot for Victoriana, leased and restored, without renovating, the 750-seat playhouse.  They decided to revive popular commercial plays that had recently closed on Broadway, without regard to expense, featuring a semi-professional stock company in one-week runs. In their publicity they played up the ease of reaching Hoboken, the lack of traffic, the plenitude of parking.[14] Their first venture was Kenyon Nicholson’s play of circus life, The Barker, which had ended its Broadway run in June 1927. It reopened in Hoboken on Labor Day, 3 September 1928, to a local audience and failed to make expenses.  The enterprise was chiefly social, the performance followed by beer and pretzels, recitations of such parlor favorites as “The Face on the Barroom Floor” and “Dress Me Up Fair for the Ball, Marie.”  After a succession of seven more lightweight plays,[15] increased word of mouth and ingenious newspaper advertising allowed the amateur impresarios to expand to two-week runs of Morley’s new satire on the League of Nations Pleased to Meet You, George Abbott’s recent comedy-melodrama Broadway and a sentimental chestnut of 1903 appropriate to the locale, Old Heidelberg, about the romance between a German prince and a beerhall waitress. An ambitious forty-week season was planned.

The New Stagecraft had been prominent for a decade, promoting innovations in playwriting, design and directing. Names such as Stanislavsky, Chekhov, Craig, Appia and Copeau were bandied about by would-be theatrical progressives. News of the Provincetown Playhouse, the Washington Square Players, and the Neighborhood Playhouse filled the drama columns of newspapers and magazines. Although Throckmorton was associated with these movements, the Lunch Club regarded its Hoboken venture to be a counterblast to pretentious would-be reformers. It protested that it was preserving the American tradition of the ballyhoo producer, the Barnums and Belascos.  In a contrarian mood, Morley proclaimed their enterprise to be “not a ‘little’ theatre, nor an ‘arty’ theatre nor an ‘amateur’ theatre in a cellar or a stable or a wharf or an attic,” for the Rialto was “a house redolent of the showman atmosphere.”[16]

Almost unique among ‘groups of serious thinkers,’ our escapade had

about it no flavor of Little Theatre or Drama League, no intention of

uplift, or either shocking or improving Public Taste. Our subconscious

notion was that the theatre had been improved entirely too much; that

its essential ingredient of harmless fun had almost been forgotten.[17]

Even the watered-down symbolism of the French playwright Henri Lenormand, regularly produced by the Theatre Guild, was considered too highbrow for their repertoire. Having reveled in “crook plays” and light comedy, they were about to discover melodrama.

After Dark

One series of John Held’s linoleum cuts, called “When the Theatre Was Fraught with Romance,” offered cartoon versions of turn-of-the-century hits: Sapho, Ben Hur, The Heart of Maryland, Florodora and various vaudeville acts.  The Hoboken team went even farther back in its exhumation of bygone drama.  Throckmorton claimed that he had run across a lithograph of Dion Boucicault’s After Dark a Play of London Life (1868) in a second-hand bookstall and thought it might be an appropriate offering for the Rialto. (He had already revived Anna Cora Mowatt’s comedy Fashion [1845] for the Provincetown Players in 1925.[18])  A sensation drama in which the hero is tied to the tracks and saved by a plucky girl from an oncoming locomotive, After Dark was already implanted in the recesses of the popular imagination.  Finding a script was not easy; the only one available was a hand-written text in the New York Public Library which provided a photostatic copy. The fourth act was missing and had to be cobbled together from part-scripts.  Morley tacked on a new subtitle, Neither Wife, Maid nor Widow, added jokes and changed English references to American ones.[19] (This last emendation would have been supererogatory if they had chosen Augustin Daly’s Under the Gaslight, which had served as Boucicault’s model, for it is set in New York.)[20]  Nearly a dozen period songs were inserted, from the cloying ballad “Gentle Annie” and the uproarious “McSorley’s Twins” to a blackface minstrel troupe rendering “Stand Back, I Am Here,” as the audience joined in the chorus.

The intention was to have After Dark run three weeks to be followed by Morley’s dramatization of his novel Where the Blue Begins.  Morley later claimed that the Boucicault play had been meant as a Christmas gift to the long-standing working-class habitués of the Rialto. Tickets were distributed to factory workers and telephone operators and Morley praised the locals’ balanced response.  At first, “the house, subconsciously perceiving the delicacy of the equilibrium, thrilled with laughter that had its overtones of fine appreciation, and even a sort of tender wistfulness for the old Currier and Ives era the play symbolized.”  He always denied mounting the play tongue-in-cheek or encouraging the audience to mock the performance, although he had to admit that “Hissing the villain, and marking time to the songs with hands and feet, grew up spontaneously from the very first performance.” Throckmorton the director had told the actors, “Whatever you think about it, play it straight. Anyone trying to kid his part with get a notice at once.”[21]  The reviewers duly noted the conscientiousness of the staging and the earnestness of the players.[22]

The managers of the Hoboken Theatre Company were well aware that they were not inventing a fad but cleverly exploiting it.  Morley even remarked in print that The Rialto has “the Bowery atmosphere of Diamond Lil.” [23]  Even so, the entrepreneurs were surprised to find they had a hit on their hands. The smart set from Manhattan began to throng the Twenty-third Street ferry-boats, mail orders for tickets reached 2,500 a day, and calls for reservations were so demanding that six telephones had to be installed. Soon the problem arose of restraining audience exuberance which grew so unbridled it kept stopping the show. Any fat patron coming down the aisle was greeted with cheers.[24] The sensational railway scene provoked hilarity and calls for the locomotive to tip over. Tossing small change on stage had to be warned against by the character Old Tom lest actors be harmed, and to still the ever-increasing tumult, the program carried a printed slip calling on the spectators “to draw the line between appreciative merriment and mere noisy interruption.”[25]

Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times attributed the runaway success to the festive nature of the evening and the absence of the usual taboos of theatre-going.  Unwittingly, he suggested, the audience was echoing Morley’s dismissal of high-minded drama by revelling in the grandiloquent claptrap. Broadway, choked with “gutter plays” and eternal complaints of the theatre’s decadence, was being bested by the “good, clean fun” of the quartet’s initiative.[26] Historically, only the attendees of court or religious theatre had been constrained by decorum and protocol; public theatres had traditionally been sites of immediate and vociferous response. After Dark, in Atkinson’s opinion, was returning the dramatic event to its origins.

Unswayed by such an objective analysis, the Hoboken Chamber of Commerce protested against “the unselfconscious conduct” of the “Park Avenue carriage trade audiences…rowdyism and the cheap buffoonery and crude witticisms of self-constituted wags…creating a source of annoyance to the serious and well-intentioned theatregoer…’hooligans’ in search of liquor and ‘whoopee’” which spilled on to the sidewalks and carriage-ways.[27]  Considering that Hoboken had traditionally been the playground of sailors on leave and the working class on weekends, the bacchanalian excesses of the Rialto’s moneyed public must have been uninhibited indeed to call forth such objections. The element of class conflict can also be read in this complaint: the resentment of New Jerseyites against the chronic denigration of their state by New Yorkers.

Morley responded that the experiment was so new that its effects had taken the founders themselves by surprise.  He too deplored the invasion of touring “sophisticates” and the “prematurely knowing.” He later declared that once Manhattanites had made a fad of the revivals he ceased to take pleasure in them; the society crowd “could not appreciate the depth, the delicate charm and the sincerity of this old Victorian drama.”  Their life is “so unhappy, so empty, so fatuous, that when they come to something homely and fine, they feel a compulsion to prove it something else.” Fortunately, he noted, three months in they lost interest, and for the rest of the run “we haven’t seen a real smart person in the house.”[28]

Despite the aldermen’s complaints, the unlooked-for commercial success led to the quartet being solicited by Jersey City businessmen to set up shop there. Morley bought a foundry around the corner from the Rialto as the impresarios’ headquarters and issued passports to the Free State of Hoboken.  He announced that in partnership with millionaire entrepreneur Otto Kahn he had plans to build an apartment house for artists and writers on the banks of the Hudson.[29]  Relenting, in September 1929 the city fathers embedded a plaque in front of the Rialto commemorating the 335th performance of After Dark.[30]

Another unexpected development was a brief recrudescence of the prolific Irish playwright Dion Boucicault and the genre of melodrama. The actor Clarence Derwent staged two Sunday-night performances of The Octoroon (1859) with an interpolated scene from London Assurance (1841) to benefit the Eleonora Duse Fellowship.  Publicity stated that it would be performed “in the manner of one given at the Old Winter Garden in 1859.”[31] Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, particularly in the theatre, Augustin Daly’s prototype for After Dark, Under the Gaslight (1867), opened at Fay’s Bowery Theatre in Chinatown in May; reporters on opening night noted the sharp contrast between “gaping hobos and bread-lines’ and “Rolls Royces, Hispano-Suizas and Isotta-Franschinis.”[32] Once again audiences flocked intending to split their sides when the cardboard train shot out of the wings. The admonitions to restraint from the stage were word-for-word the same as those at the Rialto.  However, in contrast to Hoboken, the actors were prone to overdo the histrionics and the house’s high spirits seemed less than spontaneous.[33] A conventional response to Victorian melodrama was beginning to coalesce.  Under the Gaslight ran only three weeks before the theatre burned down on June 5.

The managers of the Rialto were faced with the quandary of what to put on if and when After Dark ever ended its run.  They considered pursuing the Victorian line with a musical comedy like The Belle of New York (1897) or innovating with an adaptation of Anatole France’s satirical novel The Revolt of the Angels (1914) or bucking the trend with The Age of Consent, a new play about adolescent sex.[34]  Regrettably, Morley admitted, the public identified the Rialto so closely with melodrama that other genres were foreclosed, so Boucicault’s The Streets of New York (1858) and Joseph Arthur’s Blue Jeans (1890, the one with the hero menaced by a buzz-saw), moved to the top of the list.[35]

The Black Crook

Meanwhile, the empire-building quartet took a lease on the larger, forty-three-year-old Lyric Theatre down the block from the Rialto, featuring The Black Crook as the attraction, although at first it was merely a name to the managers. In histories of American show business The Black Crook is invariably if erroneously cited as the first true musical comedy and, more accurately, as the progenitor of the “leg show.”[36] A jerry-built extravaganza of 1866, The Black Crook grafted troops of chorines in stockinette onto a creaky Faustian framework, added hummable music, and somehow created a long-lived, much revived blockbuster with a reputation for raciness.  Morley drastically reduced the chorus and the libretto, inserted such anachronistic favorites as “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,” and built up the special effects of a thunder machine and a great incantation scene.  In his words, “this innocent old outrage, as quaint as a lacy Valentine, considered obscene in the 60’s and 70’s, is now a perfect bliss for children.”[37]

The first night, 11 March 1929, played to standing room from 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., but the difficulty of getting home from Hoboken in the wee hours failed to discourage another storming of the box office.  For all Morley’s disclaimers about the insensitivity of Manhattan playgoers, The Black Crook seems to have been tailored to their tastes and elicited the same vociferous response.  As in an English Christmas pantomime, the playgoers shouted “Watch out” when the villain closed in on the hero. Isadora Duncan-style dancers, a classical ballet and a dog act were imported, while Morley placed Rabelaisian advertisements weekly to lure the suckers in. The reviewers complained that the actors were now lampooning the show. It was not “the ‘Black Crook’ revived or reproduced, or whatever you choose to call it, but a burlesque of the old ‘Black Crook’ with a lot of modern trimmings.”[38] The question arose, Is it worth the effort?

The Hoboken enterprise was now such a notorious phenomenon that The Black Crook was immortalized by an Al Hirschfeld cartoon in the New York Herald Tribune for 3 March 1929 and in lithographs by Eugene Fitsch (1892-1972), an Alsatian-born instructor at the Art Students League.  By June 200,000 spectators had seen the two revivals, and Morley was announcing an ambitious new season for the sister theatres, alternating drama, comedy and music, old and new.[39] Melodramas under consideration were English, Sims’ and Pettitt’s Harbor Lights (1888) and Wilkie Collins’s No Name (1879).  A tour to Detroit and Chicago was contemplated once After Dark closed in Hoboken, and a similar road show to Boston was in store for The Black Crook. An intimate offering The Shoestring Revue was also in the works. [40]

While The Black Crook was still running, however, progress on the ambitious projections of the Hoboken Theatrical Company hit a speed bump.  The lawyer Milliken withdrew from the partnership and sued his erstwhile colleagues over royalties for After Dark, leading to appeals and protracted litigation.[41]

When the 1929/30 season began, Morley and Throckmorton followed Crook with a less ingenuous piece of exploitation. A famous shipwreck of the Star of Bengal in 1908 had been made the centerpiece of a faked autobiography and a best-selling novel by the actress Joan Lowell (1902-1967) who falsely claimed to be the captain’s daughter and the only woman amid an all-male crew. Her husband (for two years) Thompson Buchanan (1877-1937) turned this farrago of mendacity into a dramatic vehicle for her. Although the reviewer for Morley’s alma mater Haverford reported an enthusiastic opening night audience and predicted success for his production of Star of Bengal, the professional press found it unfunny and an inappropriate successor to the Hoboken follies. Ironically, Variety labelled it “too old-fashioned” even to be picked up by the movies.[42] In interviews Morley then played up the Rialto’s new offering, a Civil War melodrama The Blue and the Gray, or War is Hell,[43] but audiences stayed away in droves. The critics thought it provided the same pleasures as its precursors but the public had been soured by The Shoestring Revue and Star of Bengal.

Ultimately, the iceberg on which all these productions foundered was the same that proved fatal for society at large: the stock market crash of 29 October 1929.  By February 1930 the Hoboken Theatre Company had to declare bankruptcy. Despite the munificent box-office receipts of the past year, lavish spending, the Rialto’s mortgage and the treasurer’s mismanagement all contributed to the failure.[44] The theatre was rented to one Patsy de Mensa, who staged Italian plays and musicals there until he bought the building outright in 1943.[45]

Against the Victorian Grain

Examined more closely, the popularity of these retrievals of Victorian artefacts has to be attributed to something more pungent than nostalgia, especially, as we have seen, the audiences for the most part were not retrospecting to a past they had experienced.  Rather, the responses are ripples off the wave of anti-Victorianism that swept in as that period ebbed and that crested with the disillusionment of the Great War.  The attack on Victorian values, part of a lack of confidence in society’s professed ideals in general, was spearheaded by social scientists.  As a result of the cultural relativism preached by the Columbia school of anthropology, that bulwark of Victorian morality, the nuclear family, was seen to be crippling to the individual and subversive to progress.  These academic ideas were disseminated in Middletown by Robert and Helen Lynd (1929), which revealed the heartland to be a hotbed of bad marriages, divorce and insufficient incomes; the book’s statistics bolstered the devastating fictions of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson.  The literary historian Van Wyck Brooks, in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920), cited the novelist as a victim of Victorian values, whose genius had been stunted by an antipathetic cultural environment.[46]

Ideas developed in Europe bolstered this attitude. Overthrowing the Victorian establishment was a deliberate goal of the Bloomsbury coterie. Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) served as an abattoir to butcher the most sacred cows of the British Empire, and he followed it with an irreverent biography of Victoria herself.  His insistence that her society’s evangelical bent had led directly to the Great War stoked hostility towards the previous generation. Sigmund Freud read Strachey’s book to be a direct Oedipal attack on religion.[47] The impact of Darwin on the Victorians was replicated by that of Freud on their grandchildren, with the difference that Darwin had been resisted and Freud was enthusiastically welcomed.  Touted by popular journalism, the Viennese doctor became a cultural totem worshipped even by those who never read a word he wrote: his ideas made it fashionable to discuss sex out in the open and to label the hypocritical virtues of the previous century as inhibitions and repressions.[48]  In this respect, Brooks Atkinson’s analysis of the exuberant participation in the melodrama revivals was on target: audiences were throwing off the traces, turning the aisles of the playhouse into the kind of “wild party” normally fueled by bootleg liquor.  They were proclaiming “nous avons changés tout cela,” making a declaration of independence from the black-and-white moralizing and Protestant ethics played out in the melodramas. Morley’s innocent merriment spilled off the stage to become the Saturnalia of the Roman games.

The Wall Street crash did not immediately shock the American theatre-going public into a new sobriety or a fresh evaluation of the Victorians.  A surprise hit of London’s West End in 1927 had been Marigold, a sentimental comedy by L. Allen Barker and F. R. Pryor, set in the Scotland of 1842. The philosophic critic Charles Morgan dismissed it as merely a pleasant way to spend an evening, “a welcome epilogue to a good dinner.”[49] Nevertheless, it ran for a year and a half in London and was seen by over 500,000 people, attracted as much by the quaintness of the crinolines as by its mawkish plot. New York audiences would have none of it. When Marigold was transferred to Broadway in 1930 it folded after thirteen performances. It would seem that the sentimentality of their great-grandfathers was still anathema to cynical New York playgoers.

However, as the Depression settled in for a long stay, Americans slowly revised their opinion of their bewhiskered ancestors. The eminent Victorians whom Lytton Strachey had skewered were now apotheosized in biographical dramas. The Lady with the Lamp (about Florence Nightingale) and The Barretts of Wimpole Street (about the Brownings; both English, both 1931) were hugely successful in the same season that Marigold flopped.[50]  Just as the New Deal was being legislated into existence and crowds were singing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Laurence Housman’s Victoria Regina (1935) made a star of Helen Hayes.  Even Eugene O’Neill surprised the critics in 1933 with Ah,Wilderness!, a paean to the kind of small-town life the Lynds had excoriated but Culter’s pictures had idealized.  Viewed from the depths of an economic disaster, the alleged simplicity of that horse-drawn, gas-lit world held great appeal.  It should be noted, however, that these were modern dramas, written and performed in a style acceptable to contemporary playgoers.

The demise of the Hoboken venture did not spell the end of burlesque revivals of Victorian melodrama entirely.  Lawrence Langer (1890-1962), one of the founders of the Theatre Guild, opened his New York Repertory Company at the Country Westport Playhouse on 19 June 1931 with Boucicault’s Streets of New York, and moved it to the Forty-Eighth Street Theatre in October. The audiences, conditioned by its precursors, indulged in unbridled hilarity at the musty stagecraft and outworn conventions, but the press also noted how Boucicault’s thrusts at bankers and devalued stocks hit home.[51] Nor had Morley stabled his own hobby-horse.  In November 1935, the Theatre of Four Seasons, a playhouse for wealthy suburbanites in Glen Cove, Long Island, was inaugurated with his adaptation of Edward Stirling’s The Rag-picker of Paris (1848), a bowdlerization of Félix Pyat’s sensational Le Chiffonier de Paris.  Morley’s “new revised and re-edited” version abridged the play even more drastically, gave it a subtitle The Modest Modiste and studded it with stale puns and anachronistic references, winking at the jaded playgoer he had once scolded.[52] Pyat’s original had been saturated with democratic outrage and attacks on capitalism; Morley’s adaptation was, however, a high society event, the well-heeled guests at the farthest remove from both les misérables of Paris and the proletariat of Hoboken.[53]

However, the most enduring specimen of the mock-the-melodrama genre occurred during the depths of the Depression and a continent away from Broadway and the Jersey shore. With the repeal of Prohibition, a couple of actors who had been playing stock in New York and Pennsylvania, Preston Shobe (1897-1978) and Galt Bell (1900-1949), moved to the West Coast (Bell was a native Californian). They came up with the idea of staging the 1843 temperance drama The Drunkard or The Fallen Saved by W. H. Smith, seating the audience at tables where they could drink beer and eat from a buffet while hissing, cheering and joining in the chorus.[54]

Hoboken’s Rialto and Lyric theatres had been traditional proscenium playhouses, but this effort was to be located in an actual beer-garden. After tryouts in Carmel and Santa Barbara, Shobe and Bell opened The Drunkard, at the Theatre Mart in Los Angeles on 6 July 1933. Plans for a future repertoire, including a socialistic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, never came to pass, because it sold out for weeks in advance.

Perhaps the Hollywood crowd, many of whom had benefitted from the coming of sound to turn their backs on live theatre for work in the studios, enjoyed denigrating something they saw as passé. Whatever the case, The Drunkard became a must-see for celebrities: Boris Karloff suggested an ever-changing olio of songs between the acts and W. C. Fields made it a centerpiece of his movie The Old-Fashioned Way (1934). Even the Federal Theatre Project jumped on the bandwagon, trucking its own variants around the country.

Referring to another revival of The Drunkard at the American Music Hall on 55th Street in New York, the reviewer John Mason Brown pinpointed the attraction: “Of course making fun of antique melodramas is no longer the sport it once was. But for those who like to hear the songs of a bygone era and enjoy the irony of drinking beer in comfort at the same time they are laughing at a ridiculous sermon on the subject of a drunkard’s degradation and redemption,” it makes for a pleasant evening.[55] It constituted an exorcism of Prohibition.

The Los Angeles Drunkard ran for decades, serving as the American version of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (1954), and closed only when the Fire Department insisted on a reduction in the size of the audience. No longer financially viable, The Drunkard closed on 17 October 1959, with a record of 9,477 performances.[56]  On its twenty-first anniversary in 1953, the press had noted that it had beaten the record of the Broadway run of Life with Father.[57]  Life with Father had begun as a series of comic reminiscences by cartoonist Clarence Day Jr (1874-1935) of his stock-broker father in the 1880s. The first piece appeared in The New Yorker in  January 1933, and two years later a collection of the essays was issued. After Day’s untimely death, the musical-comedy librettists Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse wrought them in a play which opened at the Empire Theatre on 8 November 1939.

The entertainment confected out of the magazine essays was a tintype of an upper middle-class New York family during the presidency of Grover Cleveland. The paterfamilias is a Republican financier of conservative, not to say retrograde, values. Although the comedy is gently subversive of its hero’s old-fashioned views, it allowed audiences to bask in the glow of prosperous domesticity while feeling superior to the autocrat of the breakfast-table. Eleven road companies brought it to two hundred and fourteen cities across the continent. Life in Father had, by its closing on 15 June 1947, chalked up 3,224 performances on Broadway alone. Once the record run had ended, it was made into a Technicolor film with William Powell in the lead.

Although Life with the Father had not begun as a play, the values it enshrined were similar to those expressed in other contemporary dramatic recreations of the Victorian era.  As an authority figure, Day senior and the mores of his well-upholstered milieu are subjected to ridicule tempered with affectionate forbearance. Explaining the work’s inclusion in a Best Plays anthology, the critic John Gassner wrote, “For all the pudder raised by dour anti-‘escapists,’ the remembrance of things past remains justifiable human indulgence, and I have often felt, as who has not, that what matters in escape is less what we escape from than what we escape into.”[58]

When Life with Father opened, Pulitzer Prizes for 1938 and 1939 had been awarded to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a paean to the everyday as lived in obscure villages, and Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1939), a tribute to frontier integrity.  Coming out of the Depression and on the eve of a worldwide conflagration, American audiences seemed to be seeking in their none-too-distant past for positive values, moral and inspirational. These prize-winning dramas partook of and benefitted from the same psychological climate that produced the successful revivals and nostalgia plays dismissed or overlooked by critics.  The long runs and commercial success of The Drunkard and Life with Father suggest that, on the US stage, anti-Victorian mockery and Victorian nostalgia had found a modus vivendi for co-existence.

Laurence Senelick is Fletcher Professor Emeritus of Drama and Oratory, Tufts University, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the editor of The American Stage in the Library of America and recipient of the George Jean Nathan award for dramatic criticism.  His most recent books are Jacques Offenbach and the Making of Modern Culture (2018), The Final Curtain: The Art of Dying on Stage (2022) and a translation of Balzac’s The Fraudster (2022).

[1]   Bill’s Gay 90s stayed in operation until 2012. “Bill’s Gay Nineties – The History”. Bill’s New York City. Archived from the original on March 30, 2012.

[2]   Held’s cartoons, appearing as magazine covers, posters and advertising, were considered to be the graphic equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, defining a jazz-crazed generation of flappers and ‘varsity Romeos.

[3]   Held’s drawings were collected in 1931 (New York: Ives Washburn) and reprinted by Dover Books in 1972 as The Wages of Sin and Other Victorian Joys & Sorrows

[4]   A frequent example of this is the use of Offenbach’s galop infernale from Orphée aux enfers of 1858 to score cancans supposed to characterize the Gay Nineties. The practice is endemic in movies.

[5]   W. J. D., “Several Sparkling Song Gems Are Born with the Latest Edition of Greenwich Village Follies,” The Music Trades 44, 1 (1 July 1922): 42.

[6]  Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure (NY: Doubleday, 1938). The chapter on Show Boat appears on 217-304.

[7]   It is also the foundational source for Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name.  One historian’s complaint that Scorsese conflated three decades into one could be made of most show-business evocations of “the Victorian age.”  Vincent DiGirolamo, “Such, Such Were the B’hoys,” Radical History Review 2004 (90): 123-41.

[8]  Quoted in advertisement for Diamond Lil in Variety (22 Aug. 1928): 71; in Marybeth Hamilton, When I’m Bad, I’m Better. Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 107.

[9]   New York World (10 April 1928): 18, quoted in Hamilton, When I’m Bad, 110.

[10]  Ibid.

[11]  Hamilton, When I’m Bad, 117.

[12]   Barber Shop Ballads and How to Sing Them (1925); Read ‘Em and Weep and Weep Some More, My Lady (both 1927); and “Gentlemen, Be Seated!” (on blackface minstrelsy, 1928).

[13]   The chief accounts are Christopher Morley, The Seacoast of Bohemia (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1929) and Born in a Beer Garden or, She Troupes to Conquer. Sundry Ejaculations by Christopher Morley, Cleon Throckmorton and Ogden Nash and Certain of the Hoboken Ads with a Commentary on Them by Earnest Elmo Calkins (New York: Foundry Press, 1930).  Also see J. Brooks Atkinson, “Hilarities,” New York Times (11 Nov. 1928): 135; and “The Theatre in Hoboken,” TIME (25 May 1929).

[14]   “Christopher Morley Revives the Hoboken Theatre,” Scarsdale Inquirer 9,46 (5 Oct. 1928): 1.

[15]   What Anne Brought Home, The Spider (both 1927), The Squall (1926), The Last of Mrs Cheney, The Poor Nut (both 1925), Bulldog Drummond (1921) and The Octopus (1928).  Two are comedies; the rest are thrillers or “crook” plays.

[16]   Morley, Seacoast of Bohemia, 9.  Christopher Morley’s papers are deposited at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin.

[17]   Morley, Seacoast of Bohemia, 20.  Even their advertising pamphlet contained the disclaimer: “This is not a highbrow theatre, nor an arty theatre, nor a clinic for the exploration of the obscure woes of the nervous system.”

[18]   Kenneth McGovern, “Developing a Repertory Theatre,” Art & Decoration 23 (May 1925): 47, 80.

[19]   Cleon Throckmorton, “Putting the O.K. in Hoboken” and Morley, “She Troupes to Conquer,” both in Born in a Beer Garden, 62, 34-36

[20]   The litigation over whether Boucicault had plagiarized Daly’s Under the Gaslight lasted for thirteen years. See Edward S. Rogers, “The Law of Dramatic Copyright II,” Michigan Law Review 1, 3 (Dec. 1902): 185-89.  After Dark was never copyrighted, but William A. Brady, who had purchased the performance rights from Boucicault, tried unsuccessfully to enjoin the Rialto directors from producing it.  “W. A. Brady Warns ‘After Dark’ Producer,” New York Times (5 Dec. 1928): 18.

[21]   Morley, “She Troupes to Conquer,” 37, 39.

[22]  “’After Dark’ revived,” New York Times (11 Dec. 1928): 40.

[23]   Morley, The Seacoast of Bohemia, 9.

[24]    Compare the cry “Norm!” in the television sitcom Cheers.

[25]   “After Dark’ revived.”

[26]  J. Brooks Atkinson, “In the Free State of Hoboken,” New York Times (10 Feb. 1929): 113.

[27]   “Hoboken Criticizes Morley Audiences,” New York Times (12 April 1929): 22.

[28]   In a speech to a packed audience at Columbia University.  “Morley Glad to Be Rid of New York Patrons, ‘Too Stupid’ to Appreciate Hoboken Revivals,” New York Times (23 July 1929): 21.

[29]  “The Theatre: in Hoboken.”

[30]  “Morley Buys Foundry to Aid Hoboken Drama,” New York Times (24 Mar. 1929): 20; “Tablet for Boucicault,” New York Times (3 Sept. 1929), 34.

[31] “The Octoroon Revival,” New York Times (4 Mar. 1929): 24; “The Octoroon’ at 70 is still affective [sic]” New York Times (13 Mar 1929): 37.  The Octoroon enjoyed a full month’s revival by the Phoenix Theatre in 1961, and then a radical rethinking by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins as An Octoroon in 2016.

[32]   “Boucicault Redivivus,” New York Times (24 Mar. 1929): 133.

[33]  J. Brooks Atkinson, “Bowery Melodrama,” New York Times (3 April 1929): 36.

[34] “Morley to resume acting. Will appear as Old Tom in ‘After Dark’ in Hoboken” New York Times (1 July 1929): 36; “War Play for Hoboken,” New York Times (29 July 1929): 36.

[35]   Morley, “She Stoops,” 42-43.  After Dark finally closed in November 1929, nearly a year after it had opened. Morley played old Tom in the last three performances.  “’After Dark’ to close,” New York Times (27 Nov. 1929): 34.

[36]   The legend began with its author C. M. Barras, The Black Crook. A Most Wonderful History (Philadelphia: Barclay, 1866).  The historian of light opera Kurt Gänzl has devoted many of his Kurt of Gerolstein blogs to correcting the record; e.g., 4 Oct. 2016, 8 Oct. 2016, 17 June 2018, 18 June 2018, 20 June 2018.

[37]   Morley, “She Stoops.” 48.  Also see Ogden Nash, “Up and Down the Amazons or, The Black Crook from Behind; a Travelogue” and Earnest Elmo Calkins, “Mr. Morley Writes His Own” in Born in a Beer Garden.

[38]   “’Black Crook’ Revived with Lovely Chorus,” New York Times (19 Mar. 1929): 33; “The Theatre: in Hoboken.”

[39]   “News and Gossip of the Times Square Sector,” New York Times (30 June 1929): XI.

[40]   “’Black Crook’ to Close,” New York Times (30 May 1929): 26; “’Black Crook’ Reopens in Hoboken,” New York Times (10 Sept. 1929), 38; “’Shoestring Revue’ in Rehearsal,” New York Times (3 Nov. 1929): 11.

[41]   “Hoboken Producers Face Royalty Suit,” New York Times (26 June 1929): 33; “Gribble v. Hoboken Theatrical Co.,” Court of Chancery 17 December 1929.

[42]   “Morley’s ‘Star of Bengal’ Scores Success in Opening,” Haverford News (30 Sept. 1929): 1; Variety (Oct. 2, 1929): 2; “Theatre: New Play in Hoboken,” TIME (7 Oct. 1929); Oakland Tribune (11 Oct. 1929): C3.

[43]   “Civil War in Hoboken,” New York Times (5 Jan. 1930): X2.  Although Morley claimed it was written by an anonymous war veteran and offered a prize to anyone who could identify the author, it is likely that he devised it to fit the theatre’s needs. There is no independent record of such a play.

[44]   “Morley’s Theatre in Bankruptcy Plea,” New York Times (4 Feb. 1930): 22; J. Brooks Atkinson, “Hoboken Blues,” New York Times (9 Feb. 1930): X1.

[45]   “Hoboken Theatre Sold. Scene of Morley’s Plays,” New York Times (7 Dec. 1943): 1.  The Lyric was sold in 1931 and demolished in 1959.

[46]   Stanley Cohen, “The Assault on Victorianism in the Twentieth Century,” American Quarterly 27, 5 (Dec. 1975): 604-25.  He later expanded this as Rebellion Against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[47]  Todd Avery, “’The Historian of the Future’: Lytton Strachey and Modernist Historiography Between the Two Cultures,” English Literary History 4 (Winter 2010): 841-66.

[48]   F. H. Matthews, “The Americanization of Sigmund Freud. Adaptations of Psychoanalysis Before 1917,” Journal of American Studies 1, 1 (Apr. 1967): 39-62; Ernest W. Burgess, “The Influence of Sigmund Freud upon Sociology in the U.S.,” American Journal of Sociology 70 (Nov. 1939): 356-75. [48]   In 1917 the columnist Heywood Broun had speculated on what Little Eva’s death scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be like if Stowe’s characters had read Havelock Ellis and tried to interpret the child’s dream of angels by means of Freud.  “What Mrs. H. B. Stowe Ought to Have Known,” New York Tribune (18 Feb. 1017): 40.

[49]   Charles Morgan, “The English Stage – ‘Marigold’ and Seymour Hicks,” New York Times (29 May 1927): X1. Also see Duncan Monks, “’The Return of the Crinoline’ in the Age of Anti-Victorianism, c.1918-39,” AcademiaMarigold became the first play to be televised in the UK.

[50]   The Lady with the Lamp, about Florence Nightingale, was an English import which had opened in London in 1929, starring Edith Evans.

[51]   “Meet Mr. Boucicault,” New York Times (4 Oct. 1931):  110; “Laugh Gales Greet Revival of Old Play,” Women’s Wear Daily (7 Oct. 1931): I, 17.  A musical version of The Streets of New York by Charlotte Moore opened off-Broadway in late 2021.

[52]   “Society Sees New Playhouse Opened,” New York Times (12 Nov. 1935), 23.  Morley published the text (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1937).

[53]   In 1937 Throckmorton resuscitated his revival of Fashion; and a year later, the WPA presented Clyde Fitch’s Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (1901) which ran only a fortnight in New York.

[54]  “Galt Bell, 49, revived ‘Drunkard’ on Coast.” New York Times (7 July 1949): 25.   Ten Nights in a Barroom had been revived at the John Golden Theatre in New York in 1932 but held the boards for only 37 performances.

[55]   John Mason Brown, “The Drunkard,” quoted in John W. Frick, Theatre, Culture and Temperance Reform in Nineteenth Century America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 195-96.

[56]  “Theatre’s Seven-Year-Old Drunkard,” TIME (17 July 1939); “’The Drunkard’, L.A.’s Favorite Melodrama,” Los Angeles Daily Mirror (21 June 1947); “’The Drunkard,’ Final Curtain Falls After Historic 26-year Run,” Victoria (Texas) Advocate (19 Oct. 1959): 1; Larry Harnisch, “The Drunkard,” Los Angeles Daily Mirror (14 July 2008).

[57]   “’The Drunkard,’ 21 Years in Los Angeles, Still Off Wagon After 7,451 Performances,” New York Times (7 July 1953): 23.

[58]     John Gassner, “Introduction,” Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre Second Series, ed. John Gassner (New York: Crown Publishers, 1947), xxix.

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Table of Contents: 

  • Tricks, Capers, and Highway Robbery: Philadelphia Self-Enactment upon the Early Jacksonian Stage
  • The Anti-Victorianism of Victorian Revivals
  • “The Spirit of the Thing is All”: The Federal Theatre’s Staging of Medieval Drama in the Los Angeles Religious Community
  • “An Art for Which There Is as Yet No Name.” Mobile Color, Artistic Composites, Temporal Objects

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