Tricks, Capers, and Highway Robbery: Philadelphia Self-Enactment upon the Early Jacksonian Stage

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


During the early decades of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia became besotted by its own reflection—a growing desire to perceive and to reflect upon itself is clearly manifested in the work of contemporaneous painters, novelists, and organizers of street pageants, as well as in the work of dramatists and theatre impresarios. Perhaps the bustling and industrializing metropolis that was in the process of supplanting the supposedly genteel Federalist city of the preceding century sought something reassuring in beholding itself. The federal government had decamped for the banks of the Potomac in 1800, while with each year the significance of Philadelphia as the birthplace of the nation was slipping further from the space of living memory; meanwhile, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and even the French Caribbean further altered the deportment and civic culture of the city, as did blacks fleeing slavery in the American south.[1] Given such changes, the need to reflect upon and represent precisely what the city was and how it is signified in the present became increasingly important.

Broadly speaking, representations of Philadelphia on canvas or in engravings took one of two forms: one emphasizing the city’s grand architecture and orderly thoroughfares, the other its often boisterous and irrepressible citizens. William Russell Birch, an English-born painter who published four editions of Philadelphia street scenes between 1800 and 1820, created elegant depictions of the city that called viewers’ attention to Philadelphia’s graceful Georgian buildings and its broad boulevards. His images of an orderly Philadelphia peopled by well-mannered and deferential citizens are notable too for a kind of antiseptic quality: the garbage and manure that would no doubt have been found throughout the city’s streets and byways are nowhere to be found.[2] John Lewis Krimmel, born in 1786 and a recent immigrant from Württemberg, was also a painter of Philadelphia street scenes, but his work is of a very different kind than Birch’s. While human figures are of marginal importance to the latter, they are Krimmel’s primary focus. Paintings such as Fourth of July in Center Square (1812) and Election Day at the State House (1815) call our attention not to those buildings that frame the action, but to the crowds themselves: swaggering, celebratory, combustible, and heterogeneous. The energy of his work is equal parts dynamism and hazard—despite the affability of certain of his human subjects, one could easily imagine being pushed aside, pick-pocketed or worse in the midst of such a swirling tumult of urban types.

What we find in such aquatints and etchings we also find just a few years later upon the Philadelphia stage; the social energies unleashed as the city’s identity shifted from the eighteenth-century “Birthplace of the Nation” to the nineteenth-century “Workshop of the World,” were echoed, reified, challenged, and reconfigured in Philadelphia’s playhouses. By the end of the 1820s, Philadelphia was struggling to understand and represent the tumult and dislocation of its present in terms of what had already become for many an idealized past.  As Gary B. Nash has argued, the “formative decade” of the 1820s was characterized by the construction of a “web of memory” in the Quaker City, a process that involved the founding of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in the wake of the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit in 1824, an institution whose very purpose was to collect those artifacts that might help “to preserve [a] memory of the past or use it to refurbish the present.” Such a process was, however, “made all the more complicated by the fact that Philadelphians, in their growing diversity, came to understand that memory-making was [not] a value-free and politically sanitized matter, [for] . . . as soon as people began to see that the shaping of Philadelphia’s past was a partisan activity, . . . the process of remembering Philadelphia became . . . contested . . . and has remained so ever since.”[3]  Representing contemporary Philadelphia to Philadelphia audiences thus became aesthetically compelling at precisely the same moment that Nash considers as decisive in the city’s first serious encounter with shaping historical memory. Both processes were equally fraught. In the following pages, I wish to consider in particular Robert Montgomery Bird’s City Looking Glass, and the Walnut Street Theatre’s staging of both The Mail Robbers and Doctor Foster in Philadelphia. What did these entertainments signify for contemporary Philadelphians? How did audiences reflect upon these performances of self-reflection? When Bird and his contemporaries held a looking glass before the face of America’s First City, what did its audiences behold?

These plays, I will argue, allow us to apprehend the formation of Philadelphian civic identity at an inflection point, with the stage itself at the heart of the city’s self-enactment. Indeed, it is not possible to understand this moment of civic identity formation and/or dissolution without working to grasp how it was experienced by those Philadelphians who attended and called upon the theatre to reflect, upend, or further reify the realities they felt themselves to inhabit at the beginning of the Jacksonian era, when the tensions touched upon in the works of Birch and Krimmel reached a kind of climax. Whereas scholars have long worked to situate Philadelphia performances of the antebellum period within the context of the development of American cultural identity, comparatively little attention has been given to the work of the Philadelphia stage relative to the development of Philadelphia civic culture itself. Bird’s Looking Glass, read alongside Mail Robbers and Doctor Foster, confirms a sense that when Philadelphians beheld their city at the end of the 1820s, they saw a place that was no longer the gentlemanly Quaker metropolis of William Penn and his heirs anymore than it was exclusively the eighteenth-century cradle of liberty and shrine of American independence. Instead, audiences beheld a heterogeneous and volatile, dangerous yet exuberant modern metropolis—one characterized by instability and menace as well as by a kind of phenomenologically liberating and disruptive knavery. In these plays, we will find that the exterior street scene becomes the primary space for contesting civic identity, just as it was in the work of painters and engravers like Birch and Krimmel.

Bird’s Looking Glass

In July of 1828 the ambivalent physician and aspiring dramatist, Robert Montgomery Bird, did something extraordinary: he held up a mirror to the city of Philadelphia. With the publication of his City Looking Glass, Bird invites audiences to look into his dramaturgical “mirror of the times . . . to see such knaves and asses / [a]s, we hope, can’t be seen in your own looking glasses.”[4] The comedy he presents offers us a comprehensive picture of Philadelphia types: wealthy merchants and their headstrong daughters, seedy procuresses and blackmailers, street-savvy rakes and pugnacious (if good-natured) sailors, as well as a promenading African American woman and a visiting Southern gentleman, not to mention servants, constables, and various “young bucks” reflecting various degrees of moral turpitude. On the one hand, the play appears as a somewhat conventional variation on a theme by Terence: sentimentality and mistaken identities abound, even as we encounter the familiar device of a long-lost child reunited with her aged, pining father. At the same time, however, the play’s rambunctious and youthful energy – its gleeful determination to consider the seedy underbelly of life in the Quaker City – mark Bird’s entertainment as being worlds away from what the European larmoyant tradition had formerly wrought of the same comic paradigm. Though apparently never brought to the stage, City Looking Glass may be read as heralding an emergent impulse on the part of Philadelphia to perceive and perform itself, as well as an impulse on the part of dramatists and theatre managers to contest the city’s established reputation as a place of congruity, regularity, and gentlemanly deportment.

Bird extends and develops the metaphor of the looking glass throughout his prologue, hoping (or lamenting) that “when some pleasing liniment is shown, / . . . each might softly whisper, ‘That’s my own!’ / And where an uglier product of our labour [sic], / [w]ith the same readiness, say ‘That’s my neighbor!’” Seeking to present a timely, up-to-date urban comedy, Bird next promises his audience “certain tricks and capers / [s]uch as you look for daily in the papers.”[5] What is extraordinary here is not Bird’s deployment of the mirror as a metaphor so much as the way in which he does so, as well as the situation of his Looking Glass within the context of Philadelphia’s emergent obsession with seeing itself in the theatre. As Tim P. Vos has pointed out, the mirror was a popular signifier in the literature of the early American republic, but not necessarily a sign of “objectivity’s normative ascendance.” Instead, the looking glass was most often deployed as “a metaphor for the self-examination of one’s soul or character by holding up individuals either to be emulated or abhorred . . . the mirror was not simply a material article for returning light it received, it was a cultural artifact for returning enlightenment and judgment.”[6] In Bird’s comedy, the play itself is the looking glass—a looking glass absent in the material form but imagined instead as forcefully present in and as the act of performance. Indeed, Bird maintained a persistent fascination with images and reflections—with ways of constructing, refracting, and performing (or re-performing) phenomena of various kinds—throughout his life. In the 1840s and 50s, he famously experimented with an early photographic process called the Calotype, developing not only some of the first photographic images of Philadelphia but also developing an image of his own portrait, painted on canvas by his wife, Mary Mayer Bird. Thus, just as he would eventually reflect upon and replicate an image of his own image in light and shadow, with Looking Glass the dramatist may be understood as presenting us with the city itself as engaged perpetually in its own protean self-enactment—though here the subject is not an individual but a civic, corporate phenomenon.

In his study of Philadelphia’s literary history, Samuel Otter argues that eighteenth and nineteenth-century writers in the Quaker City “shared a sense that Philadelphia was a place where, in concentrated form, a peculiarly American experiment was being conducted,” that the public sphere in Philadelphia developed in a unique way “through a series of violent episodes that were interpreted as tests of individual, racial, and civic character.” He goes on to say that “the border status of the city, its symbolic value and political history, its resilient African American population, and its circumstances of extremity provoked inquiries that unfolded in a range of texts over decades.”[7] Otter’s interest here is literary, so while he considers the work of Philadelphia authors like Charles Brockden Brown and George Lippard (both of whom sought to challenge the normative representation of Philadelphia as the refined and gentlemanly capital of Penn’s enlightened Commonwealth), his attention to drama and theatrical performance is slight. It thus should not surprise us that in considering the work of Robert Montgomery Bird, Otter almost entirely overlooks his plays in favor of his prose fiction. Nevertheless, there is much that is useful in Otter’s work relative to an understanding of Philadelphia drama and performance. During the early years of the nineteenth century, Otter writes, urban life in the Quaker City “seemed newly legible . . . as a limit outside the self that shaped identity, [as] . . . a felt excess that resisted such limits, and as a possibility for transformation.”[8] But if this was the moment that Philadelphia became legible, I argue that it is also the moment that Philadelphia become performable; Otter claims that during the early years of the nineteenth century “Philadelphia came into fiction, and fiction became Philadelphian.”[9] So is this the case for drama and performance, particularly toward the end of the 1820s and most notably at first in Robert Montgomery Bird’s The City Looking Glass?

The play involves the machinations of two brothers who come to Philadelphia in order to make a fortune passing counterfeit bills; one of the brothers, Ravin, is also blackmailing a procuress named Mrs. Gall as he seeks to take possession of her ward: the beautiful and virtuous Emma. This same young woman has also won the heart of our hero, Mr. Roslin, a scion of a respectable family whose hopes for marriage are dashed when he learns that Emma is essentially being raised in a house of ill repute. Meanwhile, Roslin’s old school chum—a southern gentleman named Raleigh—has come to town to court Diana Headstrong, Roslin’s cousin. At first, Raleigh’s hopes for marriage are frustrated because of his being misidentified by Headstrong as a notorious swindler, a charge that brings the young man’s father, the elder Raleigh, to Philadelphia in defense of his son’s reputation (this despite the old man’s enduring heart-brokenness as a result of his young daughter’s disappearance many years before). At long last, however, all obstacles to marriage are removed when Emma is discovered to be Raleigh’s long-lost sister, and the villainous Ravin the very swindler that Headstrong (falling victim to Ravin’s manipulation) had earlier misidentified as Raleigh himself. By the end of the play Ravin’s brother, Ringfinger, has been compelled to give evidence against his brother and the two villains are hauled off to receive their just desserts.

The play compels attention not so much for its intrigue, however, as for its disruptive depiction of the Quaker City as a disorderly and unruly space. It is as if Philadelphia were here reflected via a distorted funhouse mirror—a kind of giddy exercise in grotesquerie. Such an enterprise was not without precedent or progenitors, to be sure. Tom and Jerry, or Life in London (that episodic celebration of urban slumming, low-life milieux, and rakish misbehavior) had crossed the pond and debuted at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theatre in April of 1823. Francis Wemyss, a leading actor who had himself recently arrived from Britain and who would serve as manager of several Philadelphia theatres over the decades, records that Tom and Jerry was so popular upon its first appearance in the city that it was picked up and performed by Cowell’s “circus corps” as soon as the Chestnut Street company disembarked for its sojourn to Baltimore and Washington, and was presented at the Walnut Street for the remainder of the season.[10] In his study of populist and underclass performance on the nineteenth-century American stage, Peter P. Reed explores the influence of Tom and Jerry; he argues that theatres in the United States sought to ensure the continued popularity of the play “by tapping the urban lore of American cities” so that “[g]limpses of the distant metropole’s underworld gave way to representations of a newly localized urban culture, [as] Tom and Jerry helped constitute a specifically American urban public sphere built upon complex rituals of underclass performance and elite patronage.”[11] While The City Looking Glass is not a direct iteration of Tom and Jerry, the energies unleashed by the latter seem to play a role in Bird’s treatment of Philadelphia as a series of street scenes, dives, and the low performances associated with both—a local and particular manifestation of Americans’ increasing consciousness of and investment in “the entertainment value of their own urban low scenes [and their] fascination with stagey underclass characters” who continue to appear throughout the first half of the nineteenth century on the stage and in print.[12]

Stagey, underclass characters abound in Bird’s play; they are far more memorable than the ladies and gentlemen, just as the action of the play’s street scenes and exteriors is more memorable than the goings-on in the parlors or drawing rooms of its respectable homes. For it is on the city’s byways and back lanes, as well as in the showboating of its volatile young “bucks” (characters like the sometime lawyer, Bolt, and his streetwise henchmen, Mossrose and Crossbar), that Philadelphia is meant to perceive most clearly its disfigured reflection, to experience most dramatically its contested character. Indeed, Philadelphia’s civic character was already long-understood as being manifest in its streets, specifically in its gridiron arrangement of thoroughfares intersecting at right angles and organized around a series of five open squares framing deep individual lots for houses and gardens — an arrangement proposed by William Penn and his surveyor, Thomas Holme, at the very founding of the colony. Philadelphia’s character as a planned settlement with broad, straight avenues as an alternative to the overcrowded, walled, medieval cities of Europe was an important aspect of what gave the place its initial cachet and self-image as a modern city founded on Enlightenment principles. Philadelphia, as Samuel Otter observes, sought to understand itself as defined by the “symmetry and discipline” of its orderly thoroughfares, as the “perpendicular array of streets and squares . . . were linked with the rectitude of its founder and its Quaker inhabitants.”[13] However, the sameness and regularity characteristic of its general appearance engendered, too, a quality of stultifying rigidity ripe for contestation and aesthetic sabotage. When visiting Philadelphia in the summer of 1830, Mrs. Trollope wrote that the city was “built with extreme and . . . wearisome regularity,” and that “all is even, straight, uniform, and uninteresting.”[14] Just three years later, the Scottish traveler Thomas Hamilton wrote similarly that Philadelphia represented “an infringement on the rights of individual eccentricity—a rigid and prosaic despotism of right angles and parallelograms.”[15] Local dramatists had gotten there even earlier. In his 1806 comedy, Tears and Smiles, James Nelson Barker gives us the character of Nathan Yank, domestic and runner-of-errands for the play’s romantic hero, who repeatedly loses his way amidst the wearisome sameness of Philadelphia’s streets, much to the consternation of his employer and the complication of the plot. While Barker’s sentimental comedy walks the streets of prosaic sameness rather than those of symmetry and rectitude, he is not so much interested in contesting the self-image of Philadelphia as he is in enjoying a good-natured jest with his knowing audience. Nor is the city as such at the center of Barker’s dramaturgy: the final acts of the play take us out of Philadelphia altogether, to a quiet country estate in Fairmount. Bird, by contrast, cannot imagine leaving the city behind, for what would his Looking Glass have to show us then?

Otter has written about Benjamin Franklin’s autobiographical writings as, among other things, a guide “to crafting appearances that unsettled the relationship between character and performance,” deploying tales of his youthful progress in the city to “help create a public arena in which individuals were taught to be acutely conscious of their own social performances.”[16] Bird continues this work, albeit in a different key, with an early scene between his malefactor brothers where Ravin upbraids the less-assured Ringfinger over the latter’s persistent weakness for picking pockets. Picking pockets is, Ravin tells him, “a damned low vice” when set against the more refined criminal endeavor of counterfeiting. Refusing to aim higher has had a deleterious effect on Ringfinger, whose “gentility sits as clumsily upon [him] as new clothes.” Gentility and breeding, the sine qua non of the Philadelphia gentleman, are simply matters of wearing the costume well and of playing the role with confidence, for “character . . . is oftener established by conceit than by natural privilege.”[17] This troubling of the relationship between substance and “mere” appearance prefigures the promiscuous relationship in Bird’s Philadelphia between the gentleman and the scoundrel; nowhere is this more clear than in the character of Bolt, a good-for-nothing rogue whose ill-treatment at the hands of the brother villains leads to their demise. Roslin describes Bolt as indeed a “gentleman,” but one with a “black eye.” He expands upon this observation, noting that Bolt is the very “representative of a Philadelphia buck” one who has had opportunities of becoming a gentleman, [but] amends his gentility by the addition of certain accomplishments peculiar to the vulgar; that is, he has been half-educated at college and half bred at home; is seen sometimes at a lawyer’s office [but] … more frequently in the tavern with a terrapin under his nose and a wine bottle at his elbow: he fiddles a little and boxes to admiration; wears a costly coat; keeps a mistress, and sometimes a dog; above all can brag of having shot one grouse on the Jersey colings and one man on the Delaware lines.[18]

Bolt is thus an apparently successful Philadelphia lawyer who hails from a supposedly well-bred Philadelphia family. Yet he is a man of halves: part genteel cavalier, part vulgar roughneck. Otter notes that in Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia, “a strategic display of enterprise might lead to worldly success [as] . . . habits of industry, discipline, and virtue” serve to “secure character.”[19] Bolt, however, particularly in Roslin’s representation of him, destabilizes character in his troubling of any distinction between high and low. Not simply a slumming gentleman, he appears to be downright dangerous: while Bolt engages in genteel pastimes like grouse hunting (albeit with limited success), his shooting a man “on the Delaware lines” might betoken either a refined duelist or an unstable sociopath. Indeed, Roslin’s servant, Nathan Nobody, observes that all aristocratic families of the city are most likely mere whited sepulchers, asserting to his master in the spirit of hearty “republicanism” that whenever he sees one of their coats of arms he can only conclude that “they have formerly . . . had in the family more arms than ears; that their titles are registered in a jail book; that their family house was a dunghill and their tree of genealogy a gallows.” The colorful and dexterous Nobody appears to have learned this sort of leveler’s vision at the theatre, where he also came to appreciate “how a wise man can climb on the shoulders of fools.”[20] In Bird’s variation on Abbott and Costello’s verbal monkeyshines, Nathan Nobody is a Somebody, while the aspirational aristocrats of Philadelphia are the real Nobodies.

As mentioned above, it is largely upon the byways and back alleys of the city that Bird’s drama of contestation and shifting selves is played out. The “wearisome regularity,” of Philadelphia’s streets, the “symmetry and discipline” of its gridiron pattern of thoroughfares, are here reworked so as to prepare a common space for emergent and variable identity, the sort of undertaking which Elizabeth Maddock Dillon regards as “the shared terrain … of embodiment and representational force.”[21] Indeed, most of the decisive action of Looking Glass takes place out of doors on the city’s thoroughfares. In the course of the play’s five “street scenes” Roslin and Nathan agree on an undertaking that drives the early action, Bolt flirts indecorously with a series of ladies (bringing on the decisive intervention of the sailor, Tom Taffrail), Diana is rescued by Raleigh after she has taken flight from Bolt, Emma is rescued from Mrs. Gall and Ravin by Roslin, and finally, Nathan is delivered from Ravin’s clutches by Tom Taffrail (thus setting up the play’s concluding action). In the course of such intrigue, Philadelphia is transformed into an utterly unrecognizable landscape – or seascape – of protean, Bosh-like strangeness, perhaps best represented by Tom Taffrail’s indignant retort to Bolt that he is not the only man that has been run foul of by unlawful cruisers in this here cursedty [sic] deceitful town. There’s sharks and swordfish enough, though they keep their heads underwater, to nibble one’s eyes out of his head and run their snouts into one’s keel. I have seen a painted pirate run up into a gentle-man’s headquarters as naturally as into a Spanish West-India harbour [sic].[22]

The good citizens of Philadelphia are here reduced to sinister sea creatures or the keels of renegade corsairs (the latter identification pungent with sexual innuendo)—a comic but nevertheless disquieting depiction that conflates machine with man and beast. Nor is it an arbitrary choice to give these sentiments to Tom. “Seafarers and their families dominated certain parts of the Philadelphia cityscape,” Simon P. Newman reminds us, enjoying “a vibrant and highly visible culture.” While Philadelphia’s sailors “participated in the street politics of the early republic alongside laborers, mechanics, and other working men and women, more than any other group they had witnessed and experienced revolutionary transformations, and they participated in American politics within that context.”[23] A peculiar and pugnacious combination of rube and sea-dog, Tom is also the consummate street performer, belting out a spooky moritat about a murderous sailor and his mistress’ ghost as part of Nobody’s deliverance from Ravin’s clutches. Not only has Bird tapped into and deployed what Newman regards as the self-conscious display that characterized the behavior of Philadelphia’s seafarers, whose “scarred” and “tattooed” bodies vividly “proclaimed their profession,”[24] but he also allows the character who would have most closely been identified with the revolutionary energies of the Atlantic World the power to most memorably re-inscribe the streets of Philadelphia as unsettling sea-lanes of depravity, full of predatory creatures best policed by guileless sailors with powerful fists and strong singing voices. Indeed, fisticuffs are never far off in Bird’s Philadelphia. It is Tom who earlier thrashes Bolt and his cronies when the part-time lawyer assails Diana on a street corner; frightened and angry, she demands vengeance, insisting that her suitor, Mr. Raleigh, “come along and make ready to beat somebody.” “Isn’t this the City of Brotherly Love?” protests the Southern gentleman.[25] It would appear not. In her New World Drama, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon writes of how dramatic texts as well as theatrical performance engender “operations of representation” that oscillate between “riotous disorder and collective consent,” for drama and performance make visible “the possibility of consensus in the making as well as the possibility of . . . dissolving [a] collective sense of meaning . . . into one of noise and riot.”[26] I suggest that The City Looking Glass accomplishes precisely this work: dissolving a consensus image of “the City of Brotherly Love” as an ordered, gentlemanly, Federalist city while proposing another. Bird’s play offers us a Philadelphia at once less-familiar and more frightening—more volatile yet more exuberant—than the metropolis imagined by James Nelson Barker, a rendering that also seems to lure us away from the possibility of consensus. Indeed, the City of Brotherly Love has here become the space of rough-and-tumble and free-for-all, of disorderly “noise and riot.”

If Bird’s looking glass may be apprehended in and as the act of performance, those reflections we do not see—or those performances we glimpse only fleetingly—are at least as significant as those that command our fuller attention. Though largely absent from the play, Bird would seem to deploy Philadelphia’s African American population as a further signification of disruption and dissensus at the performative heart of the city’s contested character. Samuel Otter has commented upon Bolt’s humiliation when one of the female passersby he seeks to accost turns out to be a finely-attired African American woman, arguing that staging such a “misalignment between costume and visage, and playing this exposure for shock and laughs” underlines a point of juncture between Bird’s treatment of African Americans in Looking Glass, and Edward W. Clay’s notorious print series, “Life in Philadelphia.”[27] Certainly this moment in the play performs work similar to Clay’s etchings, widely popular and first issued between 1828 and 1830: to mock social posturing amongst the city’s African American population. At the same time, Bird’s text is more multivalent here than we might think, very much as Clay’s print series also seems to have been. Otter reminds us that Clay’s African American caricatures represent “a mixture of class desire and African American satire, in ratios impossible to recover.”[28] This point is further clarified by Christian DuComb, who speaks of Clay’s aquatints as “lampooning the pretentious manners of both whites and blacks . . . [albeit] Clay’s mockery of affluent whites seem[s] comparatively mild.”[29] What is especially interesting about Bolt’s brief encounter with the black woman is that, though finely dressed, she is hardly displaying or performing herself in the way that Bolt and his cronies seem to be: indeed, what first attracts Bolt’s attention is that she “bends her head and walks fast” as she passes by, anxious (most likely) to avoid the attention of these white men. Douglas A. Jones, Jr. has explored the significance of self-display and parade for African Americans during the early years of the nineteenth century, arguing that such phenomena signified that “their (black nation within a) nation existed,”[30] such moments of self-enactment functioned in a sense “as rituals do, in that they aestheticized, formalized, and sustained structures of (national) feeling among their [African American] participants.”[31] Looking Glass may thus be said to undermine and/or deny such moments of efficacious self-display for/to Philadelphia’s African Americans. There is no such “national feeling” in evidence at such a hurried and apparently apprehensive moment. It is Bolt, in fact, whose swaggering self-performance is called to our attention—though such behavior hardly makes a favorable impression here, merely reinforcing (as one of his henchmen would have it) that Bolt “prides himself on being an ignoramus.”[32]

Every bit as compelling is the utter absence of African American characters otherwise. The invisibility of the city’s African Americans in Bird’s Looking Glass may very well have been a function of their irreducible visibility in the cultural and political life of contemporary Philadelphia. By the decade of the 1820s, Philadelphia was “the most important center of free blacks in the country, [its] black churches, schools, and mutual aid associations . . . more numerous than any other American city’s.”[33] Such a reality unsettled white historians like John Fanning Watson, who in 1830 lamented that “the aspirings [sic] and little vanities” of contemporary black Philadelphians “have been rapidly growing,” and “while twenty to thirty years ago they were much humbler, [now] they show an overweening fondness for display and vainglory.”[34] The villainous Ravin seems especially perturbed by the city’s blacks, exhibiting a penchant for perceiving Philadelphia itself through the lens of its African American population (perhaps as a reminder of his hailing from less racially heterogenous New Hampshire). Outraged by the behavior of Raleigh, Ravin accuses him of possessing “more impudence than a Philadelphia negro.”[35] Later, in drunken exasperation, he laments to Mrs. Gall that “they allow no nuisances here, except negro class meetings, dogs, and church bells.”[36] Such class meetings did indeed signify to many of Philadelphia’s uniquely visible and influential African American population; ever since clergyman Richard Allen established the first such black communion in Philadelphia in 1786, such class meetings symbolized “equal privileges for blacks,” even as they engendered “recalcitrant white opposition” from the very beginning.[37] Interestingly, in his descriptions of Philadelphia’s blacks, Ravin uses the term “negro”—an appellation that John Fanning Watson reports was no longer favored by the city’s more-assured and self-conscious African Americans, who increasingly preferred to call themselves “coloured” [sic].[38] It is hard to know whether Ravin’s turn of phrase signifies his own or Bird’s indifference to this preference (or indeed, whether or not Watson is even entirely correct). What is more certain, however, is that Bird’s Looking Glass reflects its author’s (and most likely white Philadelphia’s) ambivalence about its African American population, a population that is at once largely absent from the play as well as inseparable from all the “noise and chaos” inherent in the representation and signification of Philadelphia’s combustible, boisterous, and often-antagonistic urban character.

Highway Robbery

In City Looking Glass, Ravin arranges for an ersatz kidnapping of Diana so that he himself might “rescue” her from the clutches of his co-conspirator. The plot (which quickly unravels) is set to take place as Diana travels by coach along the Ridge Road.[39] The primary thoroughfare connecting Philadelphia and Reading, the Ridge Road had been in use since the early years of the eighteenth century; it was heavy with traffic in Bird’s day, offering weary travelers a number of inns and fashionable hotels where they might rest after a long day’s journey.  It was a dangerous route as well, and in the year following the publication of City Looking Glass, a real incident took place on the Ridge Road that riveted the attention of all of Philadelphia.

In the early morning hours of 6 December 1829, the Reading Mail Stage was set upon by three highwaymen named Porter, Poteet, and Wilson. According to contemporary accounts, these men were weavers residing in Northern Liberties, a district at the time that was just outside of the City of Philadelphia. Porter seems to have been the ringleader: he apparently organized the undertaking and it was he who robbed the passengers and rifled through the mailboxes while Wilson and Poteet guarded him with their pistols.[40] Eventually, the three were apprehended; Porter would be tried and executed upon Poteet’s testimony, while Wilson’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by President Jackson. These men belonged to Philadelphia’s growing population of Irish immigrants, many of whom resided in Kensington and the Northern Liberties, where they were often employed as semi-skilled handloom weavers. Indeed, tensions in the former neighborhood had already ignited into rioting in 1828, with immigrant Roman Catholic Irish weavers pitted against Protestant American Nativists.[41] Charles Durang speaks of the “unprecedented excitement” in Philadelphia “resulting from the trial and conviction of the three mail robbers” in the spring of 1830, going on to mention that “business at the Walnut Street Theatre had not been very brisk, and it struck [manager] Sam Chapman that to dramatize the subject of this excitement would prove a clever card to attract the audience who then patronized the house.”[42] Called The Mail Robbers, the play would premiere on 10 May of that year. Clearly, the crime struck a chord and Chapman aimed to capitalize. Mrs. Trollope herself notes the “great interest” shown by a number of Philadelphians in the case of “two criminals who had been convicted of robbing the Baltimore [sic] Mail, and who were lying under sentence of death.” She was told that “one of the prisoners [Wilson] was an American, and the other [Porter] an Irishman,” the former convinced that his sentence of death would be commuted. She goes on to report that several of her companions, “in canvassing the subject, declared that if one were hanged and the other spared, [Porter’s] hanging would be a murder and not a legal execution, [as] very nearly all the white men who had suffered death since the Declaration of Independence had been Irishmen.”[43] This sympathy for Porter is perhaps surprising, particularly given the fact that the Philadelphia Saturday Bulletin had described him as a terrifying criminal, “the blackest and most fiendish we ever looked upon,” whose “very childhood exhibited symptoms of a bold, audacious and vindictively wicked disposition, which defied all advice and correction.”[44] The discussion described by Mrs. Trollope reminds us that the production at the Walnut Street was extremely attuned to the obsessions of Philadelphia. Indeed, the fates of Porter and Wilson had yet to be resolved at the time The Mail Robbers was presented; Porter would not be executed until 3 July 1830—about two months after the play’s premiere.

While The Mail Robbers, along with Looking Glass, seeks to challenge, redefine, and reconfigure notions of what Philadelphia means and how the city signifies to/for its inhabitants, there is one especially important difference to consider here. The response to the former play is shaped in certain especially significant ways by its performance (the latter play, as mentioned above, seems never to have been staged). In both plays, Philadelphia (and particularly its hinterlands in the case of Mail Robbers) is a place characterized by real danger, but that danger seems to have been more urgently and unambiguously presented in Mail Robbers—perhaps not surprisingly, given the episodes dramatized here were inspired by true events. As we will see, what is especially interesting is the way in which the real-life and enacted dramas seem to have been to some degree conflated by individuals like Charles Durang, whose History of the Philadelphia Stage provides us with a sense of the peculiar semiotic disruptions that Chapman and his play may have accomplished for audiences of the Quaker City.

Once more, the locus for contesting the character of the city and its environs are the streets and byways of the region, as the venerable old Ridge Turnpike becomes a place of mayhem and crime. Federal Philadelphia may have built its primacy upon the port and docks that connected it to the wider Atlantic world; by the beginning of the 1830s, however, Philadelphia’s commercial supremacy as a shipping port was slipping badly, with New York and Baltimore on the rise. Even so, rich deposits of iron and anthracite extracted upstate began to transform Philadelphia into the nation’s primary center of manufacturing.[45] In Mail Robbers, the city’s focus is turned from the Delaware wharves toward the transshipment centers, factories, and coalfields of Schuylkill County and the Lehigh Valley. According to the Columbia Star, Porter was especially interested in setting upon the Reading Mail because it carried valuable goods and well-to-do travelers between Philadelphia and the increasingly-prosperous industrial hubs of Reading and Pottsville.[46] In turning the city toward its own backcountry, Chapman was also offering his audience a kind of anthropological night journey into the wastes of Philadelphia’s contemporary “urban wilderness.” In doing so, his drama would seem to have undermined the ways in which Philadelphia had long sought to deploy its urban and semi-urban green spaces not as signifiers of wastes and danger but as “carefully constructed rural ‘stages’ upon which to perform” itself.[47] Naomi J. Stubbs has argued that it was within and upon “stages” such as the gardens at Gray’s Ferry just across the Schuylkill River, and those located at Vauxhall at Broad and Chestnut streets, that a salubrious “oneness with nature” might be enacted; indeed, by “highlighting those features . . . most clearly conforming to the rural idyll, proprietors [of these sites] capitalized on ideas of rural innocence and its relationship to patriotism through” the enactments of those various entertainments offered at such locations.[48] The rural and semi-rural space that served as the locus for Mail Robbers was apparently reconfigured as savage and terrifying by Chapman and his creative team, however, presenting its audience with a picture of human beings, not as well-pruned cultivars, but as untamed and intractable prodigies of nature and liberty run amok.

Yet here it is not simply urban or semi-rural spaces that function as sites of contestation: the actor-manager at the helm of the Walnut Street, the playmaker who had crafted The Mail Robbers, became himself the locus of contested viewings and interpretations. A playbill promoting the drama suggests that Chapman sought to sell the play as a bit of moral edification, for we read that the theatre managers “ever desirous to display vice in its true colors and to show the rising generation the inevitable consequences of crime, have embraced the leading features of the late atrocious mail robbery in forming the present drama.”[49] Durang reports that the play was repeated on the evening after its premiere to “a full pit and gallery,” despite the fact that “the boxes were thin.”[50] This would seem to suggest that responses to the play were divided along class lines, with more respectable and genteel theatregoers turning away from what more robust, populist viewers applauded. Such a conflicted response comes as no surprise when we consider the variety of ways in which Porter and his behavior were understood in Philadelphia, as well as the various ways of reading or viewing Chapman himself. Despite the depiction of Porter in the Philadelphia Saturday Bulletin as little more than a savage, Mrs. Trollope’s companions clearly sympathized with him, as the city’s growing Irish population doubtless did as well. The American Sentinel and Mercantile Advertiser reported that “special constables,” as well as a corps of  “Marines from the Navy Yard” were placed on alert the day that Porter met the hangman, as “many persons were apprehensive that [his execution] would be attended with riot,” most likely by Irish immigrants from Kensington and Northern Liberties.[51] Most compelling here, however, is Charles Durang’s response, for he seems to conflate Chapman and Porter while at the same time evaluating both men’s “performances” quite differently. He describes the latter as an Irishman (a stout, thickset man, with a very sinister countenance pitted with the smallpox) [who] seemed to give all the orders to his associates in villainy. He exhibited not only that quality which in an honorable cause would have been called chivalrous bravery, but also, in rifling the passengers, displayed much courtesy and politeness.[52]

Durang goes on to report that Porter’s chivalry manifested itself most memorably in his refusal to take a silver watch given to one of the passengers by his mother and that he even went so far as to return a piece of tobacco. Clearly, we are encountering here what Peter P. Reed regards as a fundamental characteristic of the rogue protagonist upon the early American stage: the demonstration of “singular and spectacular outlaw charisma.”[53] What is especially interesting about Durang’s recollection of the crime is that no such behavior is attributed to Porter in the account of the robbery printed in the Columbia Star, where it is Poteet who is said to have returned a watch (supposedly a family heirloom) to one of the passengers, as well as half-dollar to another. Given that his description of the real Porter and the actual crime is offered in the context of a description of The Mail Robbers, one begins to feel that Durang’s recollection of the former may have been shaped by the latter. If so, does this supposed depiction of Porter and his behavior provide us with a rough sense of what Chapman’s Mail Robbers—and the performance of Porter—may have offered audiences? We can do little more than speculate here, but certainly, Durang is much less sanguine about Chapman’s portrayal than Porter’s self-enactment. He is especially critical of Chapman’s “false and trashy, melodramatic coloring,” for while conceding Chapman an “artist in that species of clap-trap drama, . . . the chaste and high behests of Melpomene” being absent from his craft, his acting was merely “pretentious and illusory,” his gifts sufficient only for dramatizing “local subjects of a startling and horrid nature.”[54] The conflation of Porter’s charismatic lowness with Chapman’s less-admirable low style would seem to present Chapman / Porter as what Reed might call “a contested site of cultural valuation,” part of that larger process whereby the stage “transforms the outcasts and conscripts of circum-Atlantic modernity into entertainment.”[55] Indeed, the conflation of Porter and Chapman seems itself to be a function of that “stagey low [which] emerges from and destabilizes the identity formations, collective affiliations, and disciplinary practices of Atlantic modernity.”[56]

Further destabilizing rogue representations, however, is the contrast between Durang’s ungenerous assessment of Chapman’s capabilities and what we find elsewhere, particularly when we turn to the reminiscences of Francis C. Wemyss, the British theatre impresario who brought him from Covent Garden to the United States in 1827.[57] Wemyss writes that to his mind Chapman was “a man of varied talent, of much knowledge and a universal favorite,” going on to note that “had he lived, he would have produced an entire revolution in minor American drama.”[58] Unfortunately, Chapman met his demise soon after the premiere of The Mail Robbers—indeed, as a direct result of his staging the play, at least in Durang’s telling. “For the purpose of dramatizing this abhorrent event,” he writes, “Chapman, with his scene painter Wilkins or Harry Isherwood (we forget which) went on horseback to view the spot [where the robbery took place], so as to give an accurate description of its localities.”[59] While at the scene, Chapman was wounded in a fall from his horse; the wound was further infected when later that evening he donned his costume at the Walnut Street—including a brass armor breastplate which he wore against his skin. “Verdigris poisoned the wound,” Durang goes on to report, and Chapman died a few days later, on 16 May.[60] Reinforcing Reed’s sense that presenting the underclass on American stages represents a constant tension between “discipline and unruliness,”[61] it is not especially difficult to read Durang as celebrating Porter’s unruliness while also offering us a tale of stage sensationalism and hack melodrama justifiably disciplined: Chapman the “claptrap” performer is hoist with his own phenomenological petard, the enactment of his unseemly drama leading directly to his demise.

However, the question remains, why is Chapman so obviously Durang’s bête noir? Here we must turn again to the particulars of the Philadelphia stage. Reed writes of how, beginning in the 1820s, “the clubby, personal world of managers and actors who had produced the post-revolutionary generation of theatre had begun to disappear.”[62] In Philadelphia, a development which is sometimes understood as a gradual phenomenon happened with a bang, at a very particular moment. Though Philadelphia was “the emporium of all the regular dramatic talent of the United States” during the 1828–9 theatre season, according to Francis C. Wemyss, “this season was also the most disastrous one ever known; the actors being literally in a state of desperation.”[63] By the end of the season, the three principal theatres of the city (the Chestnut Street, the Arch Street, and the Walnut Street) had closed their doors. William Warren, manager of the venerable Chestnut Street and direct heir of its Federal Era founders, was obliged to surrender his responsibilities to a new management team, consisting of Wemyss himself and Mr. Pratt. William Wood, formerly Warren’s co-manager and himself struggling to helm the tottering Arch Street, wrote subsequently of this crisis as one brought about by over-competition between the three principal theatres, going on to say that the drama “was at sixes and sevens” during the tumultuous 1828-9 season. According to Wood, it is at this moment that the history of the Philadelphia theatre, “that is to say, any history of a continuous and regular management” now “comes to an end,” for there had been “a complete debacle, or breaking up of everything that had been.”[64] The new men who were left standing in the wake of this catastrophe were managers like Wemyss and performers like his protegee, Sam Chapman. Thus, we see how Chapman may have signified the inauguration of a cheaper, tawdrier, less-decorous chapter in the history of the Philadelphia theatre—at least for men like Durang—with Mail Robbers serving as the instrument of Chapman’s subsequent (and not wholly unwelcome) removal from the stage.

The Devil and Dr. Foster

However, to fully grasp Chapman’s signification upon the Philadelphia stage, we must also understand his role relative to the Walnut Street’s production of an 1830 pantomime entitled Doctor Foster in Philadelphia. As with Mail Robbers, actual events lie very much at the center of the play’s energy and signification: a tale of misrepresentation and theft and naked chutzpah. Here, however, the culprits are not banditti but the impresarios of the Walnut and Arch Street theatres themselves.

Similar to what we saw in the Looking Glass, the most memorable episodes of Doctor Foster take place on the street, within the public sphere and the space of public action—though the resolution offered by Foster appears to have been pitched to a different key. If Looking Glass expresses a kind of troubled, admonitory pleasure in the shifting sense of what Philadelphia means, Foster seems all giddy delight as the action winds up – it is a coming out party of sorts in celebration of a civic identity just coming into its own. Likewise, if Mail Robbers allows us to appreciate how the conflation of performance with real event works for Durang and most likely for others to represent both the nobly wicked (Porter) and the opportunistic (Chapman) as receiving their just desserts, Doctor Foster’s resolution is zanier and more explosive. With one stroke, the restoration of order appears to have been presented here as both accomplished and unlikely—perhaps even unhoped for.

Doctor Foster grew directly out of what William Wood regards as a self-destructive battle between the city’s primary theatres, in particular the Arch Street and the Walnut Street. Indeed, Doctor Foster was intended in part as an ironic response to rival productions of a pantomime entitled Doctor Faustus; the Walnut Street’s staging opened on 12 December 1829, the Arch Street’s four days later. There was a bit of skullduggery involved, however, for Durang reports that “the Chapman dynasty” at the helm of the former playhouse infiltrated the Arch Street under the pretense of confraternal solicitude, only to highjack the particulars of that theatre’s much-anticipated production of Faustus and rush the Walnut Street’s staging onto the boards just prior to its rival’s.[65] Durang reports that “public opinion was much divided on the relative merits of the piece as brought out by the two theatres,” though it is clear that he disapproves of Chapman’s decision to “reciprocate those marks of civility” extended to him on the part of the Arch Street management by “literally uprooting” its staging of the pantomime and transposing it to the Walnut Street.[66] Clearly, this was not the sort of “regular” and gentlemanly management that was said to have long-characterized the Philadelphia theatre, and whose loss is so bemoaned by William Wood above. Unsurprisingly, Francis Wemyss represents Chapman’s actions quite differently, arguing that his protegee’s gambit “was a fair business rivalry for which S. Chapman deserves great credit,” for “he reaped, by promptitude, the reward that belonged to [Arch Street manager] Philips.”[67] Once more, we see the Philadelphia stage and its rival theatres at the heart of Philadelphia’s self-enactment, for it seems to have been impossible for audiences to view either staging of Faustus without also seeing the performance of the city’s leading cultural institutions as themselves being indissolubly part of the drama. This point becomes even more clear when we consider that the Walnut Street also presented, on the same evening as the eleventh performance of Faustus (25th December), an historical melodrama entitled William Penn; or the Elm Tree. Durang seems to regard this staging of Philadelphia and its past as a kind of antidote to the unsavoriness of the Faustus affair (though Chapman appeared in the play as the Quaker, Hickory Old Bay), conflating its romantic evocation of a bygone age with nostalgia for his own youth.

All the local scenes in and adjacent to our city wherein … Penn’s first interview with the Indians occurred were accurately taken and beautifully painted. The Great Elm Tree (under whose wide-spreading branches we have passed in our boyhood), the ship Welcome floating under the bank of the Delaware, reposing … under the shadows of the majestic elm, were all very beautifully depicted.[68]

Durang subsequently goes on to argue that “the representation of such historical subjects … impresses the mind with a love of country and brings pleasant memories back to the mind of age,” even as the Philadelphia stage here becomes “a normal institution to impart moral lessons in relaxation.”[69] We thus see in those dramatic offerings presented at the Walnut Street on Christmas night of 1829 contested representations of what Philadelphia is, contested representations of the work accomplished by its cultural institutions. Once more, Otter’s characteristic “set of rhetorical instabilities” is reconfigured here as a set of performative instabilities, as Philadelphia’s “spatial complexities and local urgencies” compel its dramatists to present the city “as an event, [as] the place where . . . civic identity [was] forged while the country and a transatlantic audience watched.”[70] William Penn also seems to have something in common with one of Stubbs’s several pleasure gardens: spaces on the cusps of things where cultural identity, “being intrinsically tied to the rural idyll, [to] simplicity, and innocence” feels itself to be challenged and even “supplanted by increasingly urban and modern ideas.”[71]

It is this tension between rural simplicity and urban modernity—not to mention a related tension between the idealizing mission of art and its more subversive, populist vitality—that is on full display when we consider the double bill of William Penn and Doctor Faustus relative to the staging a few months later, of Doctor Foster in Philadelphia. The latter, which opened on 23rd March 1830, is described as a “local burlesque parody”[72] of the Faustus tale, and represents a celebratory fortissimo relative to the symphony of unfolding, disruptive, and insurgent energies that we have been exploring. Certainly, there was nothing new in a burlesque treatment of Faustus, nor in the resituating of the good doctor’s medieval career within a bustling, contemporary metropolis; such treatments were already familiar to London theatre-goers, who had seen their first Faustus harlequinade as early as 1723.[73] What is unique about the Walnut Street’s treatment, however, is its determination to deploy the form as a way of seeing and enacting Philadelphia itself, utilizing as it does the sudden transformations and visual sleights-of-hand so characteristic of pantomime to destabilize any representation of the city as the gentlemanly, “distressingly regular” metropolis so famously bemoaned by Charles Dickens about a decade later.[74] The action begins in an “old times suburban schoolhouse in the vicinity of Philadelphia,” where Dr. Foster (played by Sam Chapman’s brother, William) first raises Mephistopheles, quickly shifting to “a view of the old Hall of Independence” peopled with “political loafers and office seekers.” Here a parade of rowdies apparently spoofed a popular song, “March, March, March Along Chestnut Street,” the scene reducing to ridicule one of the city’s most solemn sites, especially once a huckster appears to hawk Swain’s Panacea to “ladies, negroes, cripples and . . . Siamese boys.”[75] It is fairly easy to understand such a “graphic and miraculous representation” of lowlifes and the urban hoi polloi as an instance of what Dillon describes as “the local and embodied nature of the performative commons,” an embodiment imparting to an otherwise-invisible populace the enduring force of “possibilities . . . that can be mobilized at the site of ontic and mimetic intersection . . . in scenes of dissensus and epistemic disruption.”[76]

In fact, what Durang calls “the old Hall of Independence”—a kind of national “performative commons”—had only quite recently been awarded this illustrious sobriquet, for it was the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to the site upon his grand tour of the United States in 1824 that helped to shape the Philadelphia public’s growing awareness of the city’s history. As Nicholas Wainwright has noted, Lafayette’s official reception in the East Room of the State House brought the building itself “which had hitherto been accorded little reverence,” to the attention of the guarantors of Philadelphia’s cultural patrimony.[77] On that day a parade very different from the one described in Durang’s account of Doctor Foster passed before the State House. Beneath a triumphal arch some 24 feet high marched Lafayette’s military escort: 4000 cavalrymen, infantrymen, artillerists, and riflemen, along with 150 veterans of the Revolutionary War and a number of floats carrying several hundred cord-winders, rope-makers, weavers, shipbuilders, butchers, and coopers.[78] While few in the audience would have experienced the events of 1776, Lafayette’s parade had taken place less than six years before Doctor Foster was presented and would have thus been very much alive in civic memory. The parade of loafers and office-seekers, of hucksters and mountebanks and cripples, thus conflates, undermines, and destabilizes several of the most celebrated moments in Philadelphia civic memory by reclaiming the “performative commons,” while at the same time deflating the aesthetic aspirations of the Doctors Faustus presented just a few months earlier. High culture and momentous history are here reduced to dispute and ridicule, even as such ridicule opens up a space for an irreverent, and impertinent present—a present (and a city) that increasingly prided itself on a refusal to stand on ceremony.

A subsequent transformation then hurls Foster into the midst of what we have already discovered to function as a signifier of robust, “chaotic,” and decidedly contemporary Philadelphia: an African American scene—specifically a religious meeting quickly expanding into a euphoric, disorderly “general melee.”[79] While we have only Durang’s performance reconstruction to work from, it would seem rather easy here to apply the lens offered to us by Eric Lott when attempting to grasp the multivalent semiotics of such a moment. This church celebration presided over by a “sable gemman” [sic] invites the Walnut Street’s predominately white audience both to participation and derision, to “disavowal or ridicule of the Other” as well as to “an interracial identification with it”[80]—the “Other” in this case almost certainly white actors in blackface, further destabilizing any one definitive reading of this performative moment. Despite the difficulty of determining Durang’s particular attitude here (patronizing affection or ridicule are only two options), the deployment of what Douglas A. Jones, Jr. has called “linguistic incompetence” in his description of the religious meeting (“sable gemman”) would seem to reinforce the “belief that African Americans were inherently lacking as speaking subjects and therefore unqualified for full freedom in the increasingly modern world.”[81] As Jones, Jr. points out, in the absence of slavery, culture was deployed by white Northerners as a strategy for keeping African Americans captive in a realm of “existential indeterminacy.”[82] Given the relatively large size of Philadelphia’s African American population, not to mention the city’s proximity to the slave-owning Southern states (the city’s upper classes were dominated by Copperheads),[83] such a strategy was particularly and characteristically fraught in the Quaker City.  In the midst of such a discussion, it is difficult not to think of Pavel Petrovich Svinin’s famous rendering of Philadelphia’s Black Methodists Holding a Prayer Meeting, executed in watercolor and pen and ink sometime around 1813. This outdoor scene is equal parts ebullience and chaos; its depiction of the celebrants in what would appear to be a contagious moment of communal spiritual ecstasy is equal parts ridicule and fascination – the artist both identifying with and determinedly distancing himself from his subjects. Svinin thus may be said to refract and to reiterate Jones, Jr.’s “existential indeterminacy” in this work. With much less to go on, Durang’s tone (as well as Doctor Foster’s) may very well reflect a similar fluidity, accomplishing the work of the “captive stage” in the slippery space between ridicule and subversive high-spirits, between racist mimicry and patronizing fascination.

In the following scene, after Foster has escaped from the Arch Street Prison (where he had been incarcerated for attacking a local politician), we find ourselves on Prune Street, “next to the old jail wall,” where Foster “appears as Colonel Pluck of the Bloody Eighty-Fourth Regiment.”[84] This is a particularly dense moment of the pantomime, one which we can only understand by situating it within the city’s particular past and present. The “old jail wall” on Prune Street where Foster finds himself doubtless belongs to what was known as the Walnut Street Penitentiary, a structure that extended from Walnut to Prune Street and from Fifth Street to Sixth. Established in 1773, the prison had been subsequently transformed “from a simple holding place for those awaiting trial . . . into a place and instrument of punishment and reformation in and of itself, wherein the minds and bodies of criminals might be attuned to responsible work.”[85] In new construction undertaken in the 1790s, it was specified that there be added cells “for separate and solitary confinement,” thus inaugurating what would become perhaps the most distinctive feature of the so-called Pennsylvania System of prison reform.[86] The Arch Street Prison from which Foster has escaped represented a subsequent (and failed) attempt at reform; inaugurated in 1823, it proved a notoriously disagreeable place whose inmates suffered from an outbreak of cholera just weeks after the prison was opened. Peter P. Reed has commented upon the ways in which theatrical forms, and pantomime in particular, were put to use in the early Republic, pointing out how such entertainments allowed the “stagey low” to emerge from and destabilize “identity formations” and “disciplinary practices of Atlantic modernity.”[87] Here Doctor Foster deploys the quick transitions and transformations characteristic of pantomime to destabilize the often-misplaced idealism and moral pretentiousness that compromised Pennsylvania penal reform in the fraught transition from theory to praxis. Neither the Arch Street nor the Walnut Street prisons can contain nor forestall the hijinks of the protean Dr. Foster (at once a Philadelphia schoolteacher, Doctor Faustus himself, and now Colonel Pluck) as the sheer performative gusto of the character makes him impervious to imprisonment and utterly resistant to the sort of “responsible work” that the penal system was supposed to engender in all those who were locked away. Instead of turning to thrift and industry, Foster turns to mock aria, belting out “It’s my Delight to Learn Them to Write in our City,” before the scene shifts “slap dash” to yet another exterior, where Foster raises visions of specters from steamy washtubs.[88] Disciplinary practices (and institutions) are not for him.

Foster’s appearance as Colonel Pluck also situates the pantomime as an act of phenomenological vandalism carried out against Philadelphia’s decorous, gentlemanly self-image as propagated and circulated by the city’s elite. Since the passage of the Militia Act in 1792, Philadelphia workingmen had bristled at the requirement that all able-bodied white males between the ages of eighteen and forty-five serve with local, self-governing militia detachments. While elite volunteer units (disparagingly called “Silk Stocking Companies”) formed the upper tier of Pennsylvania’s militia during the first half of the nineteenth century, the public militia companies ranked far below these in civic esteem. All eligible men unable to afford private company membership were required to enroll in such public companies, where they could expect only the poorest sort of training, often at the hands of indifferent or incompetent officers. Taken from work without compensation and often fined for non-compliance, these men also had to equip themselves at their own expense.[89] The Northern Liberties 84th Regiment was one such company, and in 1825 its members elected John Pluck, a hostler or perhaps a tavern keeper described in contemporary accounts as bow-legged and hunchbacked, as their colonel. On Muster Day, in an attempt to “irritate middlebrow spectators with a drawn-out parody of the militia system,”[90] Pluck led the men of the 84th in what the Saturday Evening Post described as a “Grand Military Farce.”[91] He was “mounted on a spavined white nag, behatted with a huge chapeau-de-bras, [and] a . . . woman’s bonnet . . . burlap pants clinched up with a belt and enormous buckle [as well as] a giant sword parodying ceremonial military dress.”[92] Pluck quickly became a national celebrity, appearing on stages in New York, Boston, Providence, Albany, and Richmond before returning to Philadelphia and finding himself court-martialed. Sean DuComb tells us that the erstwhile Colonel’s “name and likeness circulated widely for more than a decade after his national tour,” though by 1832 Pluck would undergo a transformation from an “agent of parody” into “an object of contempt, [a] symbol of racialized disorder” conflated with African American organizers of annual parades anticipating (and later celebrating) the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies.[93] Intriguingly, Doctor Foster seems to represent Colonel Pluck in mid-career, a parody of Philadelphia elite pretension and “Silk Stocking” affectedness rather than a burlesque of African American aspiration (indeed, the only musical number that is not explicitly identified as a parody in Durang’s description of Doctor Foster is a serenade performed on the Kent Bugle by Philadelphia’s celebrated African-American maestro, Frank Johnson). Here an 1825 Muster Day lampoon of proud militiamen on display is replicated onstage (rather in the manner of Richard Schechner’s “twice-behaved behavior”) to produce both a simulacrum of an earlier event as well as a further destabilization of aristocratic Philadelphia at the hands of the “stagey low.”

In eighteenth-century afterpieces like The Necromancer, as John O’Brien points out, when Harlequin Faustus is at last taken to Hell, a convocation of pagan deities typically arrives for a concluding masque, the presence of the gods “a sign that order has been restored to a cosmos disrupted by [Faustus’] illicit magic.”[94] When Dr. Foster is carried off to the infernal regions, however, the effect and intention seem very different, the audience enjoying a grand and most sudden ingenious change of [Carter’s Livery Stables] into frying pandemonium. Chorus of fryers, bakers, brewers, bailers, roasters, stewards and broilers [crying] “Put him in the pot & make him hot. Hot pot, make him hot.”[95]

The Walnut Street’s burlesque refuses us a sense of order restored from on high. For it is not the gods, but a combustible and uproarious gang of kitchen laborers who take the stage—managing to punish Foster while at the same time declining to resolve the silliness and visual anarchy of the evening into anything like regularity and order. We are left here in a space halfway between charivari and street party, a space where “anything can happen and it probably will”—Hellzapoppin’ on the streets of the Quaker City. Indeed, Durang’s closing remarks concerning the play point to the final transformation that Doctor Foster was able to accomplish. “This truly ridiculous burlesque upon the drama of ‘Faustus,’ the production of which had caused so much bitter rivalry between the Arch and the Walnut houses, to both of their detriment, now created much fun and laughter.”[96] The play reimagines Philadelphia itself as a kind of urban Cockaigne, a chaotic city of grotesque yet thoroughly delightful anarchic misrule and semiotic plenitude—exorcizing the specter of morally edifying (and financially ruinous) high drama from both the Arch Street and the Walnut Street houses, clearing a space on the Philadelphia stage for the delight of the masses rather than their moral edification. We are here a long way indeed from Penn’s Greene Country Town, from his Great Elm Tree, and from the good ship Welcome, just as we are a long way from the street scenes created by William Russell Birch—from a city characterized by nostalgia, genteel regularity, and a “prosaic despotism of right angles.” In the Philadelphia of Sam Chapman and Robert Montgomery Bird, a city that had only just begun to see and to perform itself as such, the angles are forever crooked and the conduct provocatively irregular.


When Philadelphia audiences of the early Jacksonian era beheld for the first time their (very contemporary) city reflected back to them from the stages of Philadelphia’s several playhouses, they encountered something deliberately other than the rural idyll of Penn’s Holy Experiment as well as something deliberately alternative to the eighteenth-century Shrine of Liberty. The civic culture of the Quaker City was at an inflection point, and Philadelphians went to the theatre in part to experience the reworking, the re-presentation, of that civic identity in performative time. What they found was a heterogenous and volatile, dangerous yet exuberantly modern metropolis—a place of “noise and riot” characterized by depravity and violence as well as by a raw and free-wheeling absurdity, by the grotesque as well as the gleeful. Indeed, plays like Mail Robbers and Doctor Foster in Philadelphia invited audiences to apprehend not just the “stagy low” but the theatres themselves as sites where contemporaneity was being constructed—with the playhouses and their managers often engaged in self-referential sleights-of-hand.

Here the relationship between signified and signifier becomes a shifty and promiscuous one, whether deliberately (dueling Doctor Faustus productions become the singular travesty of Doctor Foster, with Philadelphia and her theatres themselves as protagonists), or by semiotic happenstance (an actor-manager suffers a mortal blow for the crime of bad taste, while the somehow nobler though more dangerous Porter who inspired his performance faces execution on the gallows). For its part, Robert Montgomery Bird’s City Looking Glass seems to have inaugurated the sort of semiotic rough-and-tumble characteristic of a thoroughly reimagined urban-cultural landscape. Here we find ourselves for the first time in a space where Quaker earnestness and solemnity dissolve into the outrageous and the preposterous, where street scenes reveal neither “wearisome regularity” nor patriot parades but instead crooked alleyways peopled by morally-misshapen lowlifes whose machinations drive the action of the play and who seem intent upon finishing off once and for all any lingering sense of Philadelphia propriety or the idealism that supposedly characterized the city’s founding. Consensus becomes dissensus, with Philadelphia placed on display as a site for the contestation of identities. The City of Brotherly Love had stepped through the looking glass, and the streets now firmly belonged neither to sober Square Toes nor to stalwart patriots, but to the rascals, the reprobates and the scoundrels.

Raymond Saraceni teaches in the Center for Liberal Education at Villanova University. He is a company member of Iron Age Theatre and holds a Ph.D. in drama from Tufts University.

[1] Gary B. Nash, First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 124.

[2] Ibid., 109.

[3] Ibid., 8-9.

[4] Bird, City Looking Glass (Philadelphia: 1828), 4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “A Mirror of the Times: A History of the Mirror Metaphor in Journalism” Journalism Studies, vol. 12, no. 5 (2011): 578.

[7] Samuel Otter, Philadelphia Stories: America’s Literature of Race and Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 8.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Francis Courtney. Wemyss, Twenty-Six Years of the Life of an Actor and Manager (New York: Burgess, Stringer and Co., 1847), 84–5.

[11] Peter P. Reed, Rogue Performances: Staging the Underclasses in Early American Theatre Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 133.

[12] Ibid., 137.

[13] Otter, Philadelphia Stories, 11.

[14] Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1949), 260–61.

[15] Hamilton, Men and Manners in America (New York: Augustus M. Keeley, 1968), 337–38.

[16] Otter, Philadelphia Stories, 73.

[17] Bird, City Looking Glass, 6.

[18] Ibid., 66.

[19] Otter, Philadelphia Stories, 88.

[20] Bird, City Looking Glass, 18.

[21] Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 16491849 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 3.

[22] Bird. City Looking Glass, 114.

[23] Simon Newman, Embodied History: The Lives of the Poor in Early Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 122–3.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Bird, City Looking Glass, 48.

[26] Ibid., 49.

[27] Otter, Philadelphia Stories, 105–6.

[28] Ibid., 87.

[29] Christian DuComb, Haunted City: Three Centuries of Racial Impersonation in Philadelphia (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017), 60.

[30] Douglas A. Jones, Jr., The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 34.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Bird, City Looking Glass, 45.

[33] Nash, First City, 147.

[34] John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia: Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Incidents of the City and Its Inhabitants (Philadelphia: 1830), 479.

[35] Bird, City Looking Glass, 30.

[36] Ibid., 52.

[37] Gayard Wilmore, ed., African American Religious Studies: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989), 7.

[38] Watson, Annals of Philadelphia, 479.

[39] Bird, City Looking Glass, 21.

[40] Columbia Star and Christian Index (Philadelphia: 15 May 1830), 318.

[41] Michael Feldberg, The Philadelphia Riots of 1844: A Study of Ethnic Conflict (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975), 4, 13.

[42] Charles Durang, The Philadelphia Stage from 17491850 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, 1854-55), vol. III, 243.

[43] Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 286.

[44] Philadelphia Saturday Bulletin. INCOMPLETE CITATION, (Philadelphia: 15 May h, 1830).

[45] Nash, First City, 157.

[46] Columbia Star and Christian Index. INCOMPLETE CITATION, 318.

[47] Naomi J. Stubbs, Cultivating National Identity through Performance: American Pleasure Gardens and Entertainment (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 54.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Quoted in Durang, The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 275.

[50] Ibid.

[51] American Sentinel and Mercantile Advertiser (Philadelphia: 3 July 1830).

[52] Durang, The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 243.

[53] Reed, Rogue Performances, 10.

[54] Durang, The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 243.

[55] Reed, Rogue Performances, 5.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Oscar Weglin, Early American Plays, 17741830: A Compilation of the Titles of Plays and Dramatic Poems Written by Authors Born or Residing in North America Previous to 1830 (New York: The Literary Collector Press, 1905), 21.

[58] Francis Courtney Wemyss, Theatrical Biography, or The Life of an Actor Manager (Glasgow: Griffin & Co., 1848), 160.

[59] The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 243.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Reed. Rogue Performances, 186.

[62] Ibid., 15.

[63] Wemyss, Theatrical Biography, 153.

[64] William Wood, Personal Recollections of the Stage (Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1855), 353.

[65] Durang, The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 266.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Wemyss, Theatrical Biography, 154.

[68] Durang, The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 271.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Otter, Philadelphia Stories, 14.

[71] Stubbs, Cultivating National Identity through Performance, 59.

[72] Durang, The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 271.

[73] John O’Brien, Harlequin Britain: Pantomime and Entertainment, 16001760 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 110.

[74] Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, ed. Patricia Ingham (New York: Penguin, 2000), 104.

[75] Durang, The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 271.

[76] Dillon, New World Drama, 29–30.

[77] Nicholas B. Wainwright, “The Age of Nicholas Biddle: 1825–1841” in Philadelphia: a 300-Year History, ed. Russell F. Weigley (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982), 301.

[78] Rosemarie K. Bank, Theatre Culture in America, 1825–1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 14.

[79] Durang, The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 271.

[80] Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 124.

[81] Jones, Jr., The Captive Stage, 49.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Nash., First City, 231.

[84] The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 271.

[85] Newman, Embodied History, 10.

[86] LeRoy B. DePuy, “The Walnut Street Prison: Pennsylvania’s First Penitentiary.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. vol. 18, no. 2 (1951): 131.

[87] Reed, Rogue Performances, 5.

[88] Durang, Philadelphia Stage, vol III, 271.

[89] Nash, First City, 201.

[90] DuComb, Haunted City: Three Centuries of Racial Impersonation in Philadelphia (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017), 90.

[91] Saturday Evening Post. (Philadelphia: INCOMPLETE CITATION AND DATE FORMAT 21 May, 1825).

[92] Susan G. Davis, “The Career of Colonel Pluck: Folk Drama and Public Protest in 19th Century Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 109 no. 2 (April 1985): 188.

[93] Ducomb, Haunted City, 89–91.

[94] O’Brien, Harlequin Britain, 110.

[95] Durang, The Philadelphia Stage, vol. III, 271.

[96] Ibid.

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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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