A STATED Meeting of the Society was held at its House, No. 87 Mount Vernon Street, Boston, on Thursday, 28 February 1957, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the President, Mr. Richard Mott Gummere, in the chair.
The records of the last Stated Meeting were read and approved.
The President reported the deaths of three Resident Members; that on 5 January 1957 of Llewellyn Howland, that on 28 January of Joseph Breed Berry, and that on 8 February of Zechariah Chafee, Jr., long an officer of the Society.
The Corresponding Secretary reported the receipt of letters from the Reverend Duncan Howlett accepting election to Resident Membership, and from Francis Lewis Berkeley accepting election to Corresponding Membership in the Society.
Messrs. Abbott Lowell Cummings, of Boston, and William Rotch, of Cambridge, were elected Resident Members of the Society.
Mr. Richard G. Appel then read a paper entitled: “The Bay Psalm Book and Its Music,” which was illustrated by recordings of several selections.
The Editor communicated by title the following paper by E. M. and S. B. Puknat, of the University of California:
The Theatrical Pioneering of Robert Treat Paine
THE most recent published history devoted to the early years of the Boston stage appeared in 1853. Over a century later, it may not be premature to look back at the perplexities in criticism and the cultural battles which focused on that playhouse at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Through the career of the first dramatic critic in New England and his encounter with a German fad we try to give an image of his theatrical era with its moral conflicts and intellectual achievements.
Robert Treat Paine’s fight for the existence of a theater, his pursuit of a native dramatic literature, and his luminous criticism of plays, players, playgoers and of his own cultural milieu have been forgotten, perhaps because his contemporaries insisted that he was a great poet whose dedication to the stage had brought him to ruin. Shortly after his death his verses were carefully embalmed for posterity, while his theatrical ties were deplored and suppressed. In literary histories since, Paine has been rightly shelved as a poetic inflation of eighteen hundred. His real contribution to American aesthetics as an early critic was buried in the files of newspapers of the seventeen nineties and early eighteen-hundreds.
By an irony in the story of American taste, it was a German dramatist whose plays triumphed in the Boston theater during its first decade. August von Kotzebue, who became a craze and an inescapable part of Paine’s career, has long since been demoted from an idol to an easy target, his countrymen quite properly leading the attack. But many New Engenders by the end of the eighteenth century believed that he was another Shakespeare. American fears of foreign influence from the stage were complicated by this paradoxical enthusiasm for the dramas of a mediocre representative of European accomplishment. The vogue had, we suggest, repercussions in the attitudes of New Englanders toward the American theater and toward German literature. This international episode in the history of taste may also have affected developments in native dramatic literature and in critical thought.
We have relied heavily on the unpublished Paine papers in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Material was also found in the Harvard College Library, the Boston Public Library, the Boston Athenæum, the Huntington Library, and the Library of Congress. A stay in New England, made possible by a Ford Faculty Fellowship, helped us with this study. We remember with pleasure our debts to Professer Heinrich Schneider of Harvard University, Professor Arthur Colby Sprague of Bryn Mawr College, Dr. Walter M. Whitehill of the Boston Athenæum, Dr. Stephen T. Riley of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and Miss Muriel Spaulding of the Library of the University of California, Davis.
AA American Apollo
MHS Massachusetts Historical Society
BG Boston Gazette
MM Massachusetts Mercury
BT Boston Times
CC Columbian Centinel
RG Russell’s Gazette
FO Federal Orrery
(The heavily used italics and capitalization of full words in eighteenth-century newspapers and magazines have been omitted in citations to facilitate reading.)
The Critic as Champion
Playgoing was fashionable in Boston for some time before it was legal. In 1793 came the first prospects of a real theater. Those Bostonians who preferred the sure pleasures of this world to the promised bliss of the next wanted plays as well as sermons in their lives. They welcomed the news of the committee formed to build the long awaited theater. The fact that the stern prohibition of dramatic amusements as tending “generally to increase immorality, impiety, and a contempt of religion” had not yet been erased from the statutes of Massachusetts did not spoil their enthusiasm.1 These worldly minded citizens had already managed to skirt the law.
Since 1792 five hundred people at a time had been willing to increase immorality and impiety by going to the Exhibition Hall, a theater in thin disguise located in Board Alley. There they heard what were advertised as moral lectures in five parts and were actually plays under a pseudonym of virtue. Those who went to these uplifting affairs—and some who stayed away—knew that the lectures were pieces like Romeo and Juliet, Venice Preserved, Inkle and Yarico, The Contrast, and The West Indian.
Such defiant enjoyment had not, however, escaped the vigilant guardians of local morals. On 5 December 1792 Justices Greenleaf and Barrett sent Sheriff Jerry Allen to make arrests in Board Alley. Mr. and Mrs. Morris were acting in The School for Scandal when the sheriff stamped in. A laughing audience, suddenly interrupted in its pleasure at the witty incompatibility of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle, became an angry one. Rudely jerked back from eighteenth-century London to Boston, they challenged the force represented by the sheriff. The arms of the state were torn down. Governor Hancock’s portrait was trampled. The playloving rebels were finally quieted by a few words from the manager of the company and from Judge Tudor, whose own weakness for the theater was betrayed by his presence in the audience.2
The sheriff’s intrusion in Board Alley seemed to encourage patronage. Several of the most respectable citizens began to calculate that a playhouse might be the “Deville’s Chapelle” to strict moralists, but might also, to more liberal thinkers, be a sound investment. A joint stock company was formed to erect a theater which was to boast stage lights and chandeliers imported from London and “a projecting arcade” enabling “carriages to land company under cover.”3
Perhaps no one in the city was happier at the news that the theater was under way than young Robert Treat Paine.2 He crowed: “The Vandal-Spirit of Puritanism is prostrate in New England.”3 The nineteen-year-old versifier, who felt triumph in the plans for the Federal Street Theater, was to discover that the spirit of Puritanism was only momentarily prostrate and far from extinction. In a lifelong devotion to the drama he was to meet that spirit again. Even seventy years later, when Henry James went to see Fanchon the Cricket, he too found the “half-buried Puritan curse” still shadowing the Boston audience.4
By 1793 Paine had already declared himself as champion of the theater. He was yet to become New England’s first dramatic critic, to fight the enemies without, who wanted to exterminate the drama and the theater, and those within the theater itself, mediocre playwrights, feeble actors, and rowdy audiences. Having battled in print for the very existence of a stage in his city, Paine was to become closely linked with the opening history of that stage and, through it, with the theatrical and dramatic history of America. To the ephemeral art of acting he tried to give a few lasting records.
Paine’s brief life epitomizes the accomplishments and failures of others who worked in the same direction. He richly satisfied the seers who prophesied dire influence from the theater. His career was to be turned into a kind of morality play worthy of the advertisements in Board Alley. Twenty years after his death he was considered a “victim of his own folly and vices,” ruined by “indolence and the theater, wine and women.” Even William Dunlap, playwright, manager, and stage historian, lamented that Paine’s “connexion with a theatre was a source of evil to him.” By 1891 Paine was named “the first American journalist to go to the devil, allured by the limelight of the stage.”5 More recently he has been accused of belonging to and representing the conservative Boston world at the turn of the nineteenth century.6 This seems to ignore the fact that he was cast out of that world for heresy to its conventions and that he was a challenging critic of his cultural milieu.
His contemporaries, eager to have a poet in their midst, thought Paine’s verses must be first-rate, and paid him handsomely for them. His early theatrical leanings were sometimes forgiven as a foible in a potential American Alexander Pope who might settle down and summon his Muse on appropriate occasions. Since Paine was witty and well connected and since few other candidates came forward in the neighborhood, he was nominated as a genius. As biased as the verdicts of the post-mortem moralizers, these judgments have also been denied. In excavations and reconstructions of the American Parnassus, Paine as poet has been swiftly and justly demoted to the level of historical interest only.7
Eulogy and damnation for the least significant part of his writing is but one irony in Paine’s course through fame and oblivion. He cannot neatly be deposited in the categories of representative sinner, victim, or versifier. He created sufficient ironies of his own as a champion of native dramatic literature who encountered the popular German playwright Kotzebue. Paine did lack control of his various talents and did miss achievement, except in his dedication to one cause. When he was dying he struggled to the theater, and when he was alive he wrote well about it. John Bernard, who acted with John Kemble and hobnobbed with Sheridan before coming to Boston as comedian and manager, said that Paine’s dramatic writings were “the oracles of the day,” that whenever a play “went off, the audience felt the flash, and Paine made the report.”8 On his way to the devil Paine became a critic. And real critics were somewhat rarer than imaginary devils in New England at the time.
Improving American acting, encouraging native playwrights, and keeping audiences within bounds were part of Paine’s larger aim of establishing a vigorous theater. This aim was rooted in his belief that America had great possibilities for developing an independent and forcible cultural tradition through the drama. While he was active, a few homebred plays were performed in the Boston theater. Despite Paine’s efforts in their behalf, they were brave as attempts and abortive as art. Among the British represented were Shakespeare, Sheridan, the Colmans, Cumberland, Mrs. Inchbald, Holcroft, Morton, and Mrs. Centlivre. George Barnwell became a habit.
Into the midst of these American experiments and imports from England made during Paine’s career as critic came the sensationally successful works of August von Kotzebue. Bostonians flocked to his plays and compared him to Shakespeare. What little they did see of Goethe’s work on the stage left no such profound impression as did The Stranger, Lovers’ Vows, or Pizarro. This may seem a perverse lack of conformity to the literary hierarchy acceptable a century and a half later. The craze may have discouraged and adversely affected the work of local playwrights. But it is part of New England’s cultural history. One of their first popular impressions of German life came to Bostonians through their tears at Kotzebue’s plays. Those in the audience who had read any of the American editions and imitations of The Sorrows of Werther were well prepared to enjoy this new medium of feeling and pleasurable suffering.9
Before the hero of The Stranger ever took a volume of Zimmermann from his pocket in scene one, or Baron Wildenhaim in Lovers’ Vows delighted Boston audiences by tardily marrying his son’s mother, there had been premonitory clues to the Kotzebue episode in the history of taste. On the same page with the Columbian Centinel advertisement for the first night of the new theater came a local bookseller’s announcement of both Zimmermann’s Solitude, translated from the French version of J. B. Mercier, and the fourth “and most important” volume of the life of Baron Frederick Trenck, whose exploits were already known in Massachusetts.10 A “Mentor” soon linked his suspicion of foreign modes and of the stage in one ominous anxiety in rhyme:
If foreign brogues, and foreign manners, strive
Your speech to dictate and the ton to give;
If alien vices, here unknown before,
Come, shameless, to pollute Columbia’s shore . . .11
Certain basic fears and conflicts in the New England mind were coming into the open with the building of the playhouse.
The theater started 3 February 1794 with the politically appealing play, Gustavus Vasa. Of all the poems written in Boston for and against the historic occasion, Paine’s was chosen as the most felicitous commemoration. His prologue was delivered to an audience which had great expectations. They saw for the first time the lilac- and straw-colored columns and the arms of the Union and of Massachusetts intertwined with tragic and comic emblems. Many of those spectators knew that the precocious author of the prize prologue was the gifted though troublesome son of Robert Treat Paine, signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Continental Congress, and Attorney General of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.12 Before writing his prologue, the younger Paine had already caught public attention.
Born in Taunton in 1773, he was a year old when his father left for the Continental Congress at Philadelphia. His mother’s anxious letters to her distinguished husband suggest that Paine was a lively but ailing child. On 11 February 1774 she reproached the congressman: “I expected you would have inquired after your children welfare before this time but I believe you have forgotten them as well as me but I hope when you have your second wife you not forget her” [sic].13 During the next year the Revolutionary guns could be heard firing near Taunton. Sally Paine would have fled from “the noyse of cannon . . . were it not for the small pox.”14 In October of 1775 her husband was still absent in the cause of the new nation. By the time Paine was seven, the family moved to Boston to a house at the corner of Milk and Federal Streets. Enrolled in the Latin School, the boy soon led his class.
Entering Harvard in 1788, he became both famous and notorious before he was graduated. In his sophomore year he wrote his parents that a change in roommates might help him to be “virtuous, studious, & wise” and “prohibit idlers from my room.”15 The letters sent home swell with eighteenth-century school rhetoric and lack Sally Paine’s Yankee directness. But they also suggest a sinewy mind later to be applied to more important matters than undergraduate escapades. Faced with explaining his quarter-bills to Judge Paine, Robert Treat offered the flimsy notion that the sizing-account books were “very incorrectly kept.” With a flash of insight, he knew he was not deceiving his parent. “As the groundwork of this excuse is a bare supposition, the superstructure may possibly be considered as deficient in strength.”16
In the fall of Paine’s senior year he was in serious trouble with the authorities. His conscientious brother, who was “ever mindfull of the rapid flight of time” kept a neat diary.17 The brother’s jottings, after a visit to Harvard in September 1791, reveal Paine as college poet, orator, and social lion:
rode to Camb: with Sally Coll:
Exhibition—company at Thos room & chapel
much crowded—. . . . took tea with many others
at Thos. chambs. & went to a ball in eve:. . . .
Thos delivered a Poem on progress
of civilization & manners.
The progress of civilization could not save him on 16 November 1791, when the popular student “was detained at the College, by the Government, till near sunsett” while they inquired “into some late irregular and very culpable conduct of his.” Although the Government apologized to Judge Paine for keeping one of his children from the family Thanksgiving dinner, the officials had concluded that a suspension of four months was in order for an undergraduate who showed “very great negligence” in attending classes.18 On 23 November the diary-keeping brother succinctly recorded the episode: “rode to Camb. with Thos. for his clothes.”19 The senior, who rode home with his clothes and his helpful brother, addressed his father on the subject before he left college. Fear ran through his letter. Young Paine saw himself melodramatically as a figure of guilt and ruin, forever expelled from society and parental grace. Envisioning a black future, he announced that he must become an exile from America.20
Bridgewater was settled upon as a sufficiently remote place for penitence. In this anticlimax the desperate letter writer was deposited with the Reverend Zedekiah Sanger. As part of the sobering process, the disgraced student was to pay a “special Regard to the Mathematics.” Removed from his gay life at Harvard, Paine concentrated firmly, if unwillingly, on “Trigonometry, right Angles & Oblique, & upon Navigation.” He made a favorable impression on Sanger, who decided, either as a result of Paine’s charm or his scholarly devotion, that he had in his house a remarkable young man, “capable of Improvement, & of doing Honour to himself & his Connections.”21
Sanger’s pupil was anxious to return to college. The reason he gave to his father was that the philosophical lectures would begin in early spring and “to lose these would be to lose a very valuable part of my education.”22 The rustication was finally ended, and Paine returned in time to deliver the commencement poem for his class, “The Nature and Progress of Liberty,” on 15 July 1792. In the struggle for a theater he was soon to meet a live problem to which he could apply his ideas of freedom.
Paine left Harvard with more knowledge than the oblique angles he had conned during his exile in Bridgewater. He had done some reading in spite of his literary teas, exploring in eighteenth-century English criticism via Johnson’s Lives, Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism, and Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric. Russell’s Modern Europe, the plays of Euripides, and Dodsley’s collection of English plays were others on his list.23 Here was partial equipment for his later critical work. He was also to sharpen his theories through backstage experience.
During the same month that the Board Alley players were giving their early performances, in August of 1792, Judge Paine was making plans for his son’s future. A conversation with a Boston merchant, James Tisdale, resulted in young Paine’s being taken as an apprentice for three years. Perhaps knowing of the boy’s college activities, Tisdale cautiously suggested a “tryal for three months.” The new apprentice wrote poetry in the store, violating Tisdale’s demand that his helper “strictly observe the Rules of my Store, by being attentive to Business from Sunrise to Sunset.”24 After a brief period of this routine from sunrise to sunset, Paine was sent to the bank with a check for five hundred dollars. The errand stretched into a disappearance for a week. He was visiting literary friends in Cambridge, where he talked of poetry and the prospects of America. The money was safely deposited after the delay, but Paine’s career in dry goods was over. At least he had acquired direct experience for his later writing on that other erring apprentice, George Barnwell.
It was a short distance from his father’s house to the Board Alley Exhibition Hall, where Paine saw his first plays. While composing in Tisdale’s store, he had adopted the signature of Menander, diverting himself by contributing poetry both to The Massachusetts Magazine and to The Columbian Centinel.25 When legal action was taken against the Board Alley players and audiences, Menander found a contemporary challenge for his writing.
Bostonians for and against the theater were submitting heated articles to the papers. Paine chose as his target in the controversy a “Friend of Peace,” who wrote for The Independent Chronicle, a paper which was strongly anti-theatrical in its policy.26 Fired by an issue which he saw as belonging to the principles of free government and the privileges of individual citizens, Paine disburdened himself of some of the rhetorical devices which marred his poetry, and wrote with force and tension. On 19 December 1792, two weeks after the sheriff’s visit to Board Alley, Paine’s first volley was sent to the powerful Columbian Centinel. He questioned the justice of a law which deprived a peace-loving minority of its rights. He articulated the convictions and feelings of “those citizens of Boston, who from a cool and deliberate opinion that the law prohibiting theatrical exhibitions is unconstitutional, have attended the exhibitions in Board-Alley.” Challenging the long domination of New England life by the spirit of the Puritan titans, he announced:
The friends of the Theatre in Boston have publickly contravened an act of the legislature, which they do not consider as the law of the land; they have not clouded the regular and constitutional discussion of the point; they have not betrayed a consciousness of doing wrong, by shrouding themselves in secrecy; they have not fled from the vengeance of the government which they had provoked; they have not shrunk from beneath the gigantic arm, which has been raised in “attitude to smite” against them; but an invitation to become necessary to a prosecution against themselves; a request that they would call the thunders of the government down upon their own heads, may excite their derision, but will not probably influence their conduct.27
At the end of the same week, on 22 December, Paine again filled several columns on the front page of The Centinel. He reminded the opponents of the drama that their claims to pious and upright procedure had resulted in one of the most unpleasant scenes ever to take place in the city. On 7 December, two nights after The School for Scandal had been stopped in performance, “a number of people were unlawfully collected, with the professed intention of pulling down the building where the performances had been exhibited.” The enforcers of the laws of eighteenth-century Boston appear in a grim light in Paine’s accusation that the mob waiting to destroy the theater “declared they had the express permission of the Chief Magistrate to put their design in execution . . . and this permission it is said was given at his own house, where they went in a body to request it.” Rabble-rousing on the part of authority itself in an attempt to make the mob an accomplice was a disturbing indication of the lengths to which the opposition might move to achieve its ends. Paine immediately recognized and exposed the danger.
His arguments left many people unmoved. Antagonists persisted in viewing the theater as a fatal stimulus to the dissolution of national character. The international disgrace of America and the scorn to come from “foreigners” were predicted as a direct result of a theater in Boston.28 The fact that other cities had earlier fallen only increased Boston’s natural responsibility to stand superior to the deterioration elsewhere in the country. Strong in prejudice and vehement in expression, the Jeremy Colliers of the town were never completely silenced during Paine’s lifetime. And after his death fervent warnings were still being issued that “temptation . . . death . . . ruin and everlasting woe” lurked in the playhouse.29 Despite such deep-rooted enmity, a sufficient number of people, urged on by writers like Paine, at the end of 1793 cheerfully ran the risk of perdition.
Shortly before the opening night, the rising excitement of enthusiasts for the drama and the nervous curiosity of others threatened civic peace. A writer in The American Apollo worried over the possibility that the first ticket sale might turn into a mob scene. Proudly stating that the citizens of Boston were “as decorous as any people in the world,” he was forced to admit that “the novelty of the occasion may overcome nicer considerations of delicacy, and produce a degree of contention, which on every account, ought to be avoided.”30
Meanwhile the censors who were to award the gold medal for the prize prologue had unanimously voted Paine’s as best in the competition. Public announcements made extravagant claims for its merits. After it had been delivered from the stage on the opening night, Paine was lavishly admired. The prologue did show a vaulting faith in the drama as a cultural medium and in America’s future expressions in that form. These beguiling hopes were heavily embroidered with abstractions and verbose allusions to classical grandeur:
And now, Thou Dome, by Freedom’s patrons reared,
With Beauty blazoned, and by Taste revered;
Apollo consecrates thy walls profane,—
Hence be thou sacred to the Muses reign!
In Thee, three ages in one shall conspire;
A Sophocles shall sweep his lofty lyre;
A Terence rise, in chariest charms serene;
A Sheridan display the polished scene.31
An opponent of the drama, and of Paine as its special champion, was nettled by these flaring sentiments and parodied:
If from this Dome the dire contagion spread;
And Blushing Virtue hide her drooping head:
O may the lightning rend these “walls prophane,”
And Desolation o’er their ruins reign!32
This mock prologue was only one of a series of ink-splashing feuds which engaged Paine throughout his dramatic activities. But in this, as in later literary alarms and excursions, he had allies. Three days after the parody appeared, came an awkward rhymed protest by an admirer of Robert Treat’s who called himself “Henry”:
Shall then the rigid critic’s wrinkled brow
Bid thee no more thy ardent hopes avow,
And damp the rising glow with chilling fear?
Not so great Youth! while these gay scenes you rove.33
Henry, like Paine’s more gifted supporters, may never have realized that his hero roved best in prose. Imitative and inflated in his verse, Paine was original and courageous in his writings on the theater. As essayist in the cause of the drama he had already worked with liveliness and effect. He had scored against the enemies of the theater, even if he had not muffled them. Dedicated with visions of a golden age of drama in Massachusetts, the Dome was built and the “dire contagion” of playgoing was spreading in Boston.
In Search of American Drama
During the first season Paine took a decisive step away from the world of the Signer and into that of the theater. He became dazzled by an Ophelia whose parents played the Ghost and the Queen. This Shakespearean family trio had come as unknown hopefuls from England to join the Boston company. Other characters performed by Eliza Baker, the Ophelia, indicate the repertoire as well as the plays Paine watched most closely in the earliest days of the new theater. Among her parts were Betty in A Bold Stroke for a Wife, Leonora in The Mourning Bride, Jenny in The Road to Ruin, Miss Neville in She Stoops to Conquer, Isabinda in The Busybody, Mrs. Cockletop in Modern Antiques, Anna in Douglas, Trusty in The Clandestine Marriage, Julia in The Midnight Hour, and Erixene in The Grecian Daughter. As to Eliza Baker’s acting, it is safer to turn to some one other than the Judge’s infatuated son. The flabbiness of typical theatrical commentary of the period is in an account of her role in Hamlet: “. . . she exhibited the simplicity of artless nature with so happy an effect, that many a tear, unasked stole down the cheek of beauty, and the manly bosom beat with an involuntary sigh . . .”34
A year after the opening of the theater, Paine married this ingénue. Judge Paine recorded the event in his diary on 22 February 1795 in one austere sentence which omitted the bride’s name.35 Behind the flat, statistical account lay an idea that a social order had been violated. His son was banished from the Milk Street mansion. Poetizing on the remote future of the American theater was one thing. Marrying into its present was another.
In the same month that an actress thus infringed upon a New England hierarchy, the intellectually cosmopolitan clergyman, William Bentley, visited Boston from Salem. He watched and described the attempts of “the friends of the Theatre” to win over the enlightened part of the opposition. Finding himself urged to a play “as they would have invited us to a Lecture from some favorite Preacher,” he added: “The Clergy of Boston have not generally attended.” In Bentley’s Diary for 20 March 1795 is a telling hint of shifting attitudes and of the suspicions of the new theater as a threat to the prestige and drawing power of a dominant institution: “‘The Jew’ by Cumberland, & ‘Every Man has his fault,’ are celebrated by our best Judges as fine pieces now upon the Boston Theatre. They feel the Compliment of a Visit to the Theatre, as Our Country Gentlemen used to receive the news of a Visit to their Minister.”36
Before he wrote about this same Cumberland play, Paine had rejected the weakness of his fellow journalists for tear-stained cheeks, manly bosoms, and pearly tears. He began his own observations with a conviction that faults must be emphasized if the American stage were ever to “arrive at excellence.” Trying to go beyond the easy methods of impressionism and eulogy, he dramatized himself as physician to the playhouse, firm to administer “a nauseous preparation instead of an article pleasing to the taste.”37 The rigor of some of his medicinal remarks shows both his own youth and that of the theater and criticism in his part of America. His divergence from the prevailing approach and mannerisms of the day already begins to be clear in the following commentary on an actress, especially when compared with that of another critic on the same actress. The column to the left, which is his, may also suggest why his theatrical writings were to bring strong reactions:
I wish not to treat the subject ludicrously, but cannot resist the force of the figure of a falling cat whenever this lady places herself in the attitude of surprise, “spread” she appears at all points—this failing may also with a little attention soon be corrected.38
. . . beauty, elegance, sensibility, and genius are her attributes; her eye is the herald of her heart, and her voice vibrates on the ear like the varying strains of an Aeolian Harp, now melting with softness—now flowing with vivacity—then rising to melodious energy.39
By the time he became editor of his own paper, The Federal Orrery, in the fall of 1794, he began to realize that verbal stabbing might not be the final answer to slovenly eulogy. He knew, too, that criticism had in other parts of the world taken on stature and significance. Paine early became preoccupied with the serious role of the critic in building the longed for native culture. Though he was to have lapses from his own high aims, he was to persist in his belief in America’s combined need for responsibility in critics and recognition of them by the public. As he discussed the goals and problems of criticism in The Orrery, he echoed stylistic quirks of The Rambler and ideas of Henry Home.40 He also went deeper than did the contemporary clichés being applied to the theater. The course to be steered between effusion and hasty summary was new and difficult:
Criticism could never attach to itself either dignity or usefulness, were its professors composed but of two classes, censors and penegyrists [sic]. Disfranchised of the right of discriminating, they could mark no character by the appropriate blending of its lights and shades—each countenance they portrayed would exhibit but one blazon of coloring, and all its features be reduced to plain superficies. If, therefore, we should defeat the object of criticism, by unqualified censoriousness, it would be no less detrimental to indulge a vein of unlimited encomium.41
Addressing himself to the “Friends of Liberty and Literature,” he published a prospectus for his newspaper. As editor he proposed to embrace and encourage “the arts and sciences of our own country,” an aim which he said “the editors of newspapers have generally sacrificed . . . to a prodigal insertion of foreign articles of trivial importance.”42 This was a rather staggering journalistic task since there were fairly few arts and sciences fully ready to be embraced. As soon as one thousand Boston citizens subscribed to his Orrery, he promised to begin. Paine was neither the first nor the last hopeful American talent to see journalism as a highroad to a national literature. As late as the eighteen thirties Fanny Kemble observed that “newspapers are the main literature in America.” She was astonished to hear that a good newspaper connection was regarded as proof of talent:
Besides the popularity to be obtained by it, it is often attended with no small literary consideration, and young men here with talents of a really high order, and who might achieve far better things, too often are content to accept this very mediocre mode of displaying their abilities, at very little expense of thought or study, and neglect far worthier objects of ambition and the rewards held out by a distant and permanent fame.43
The first number of The Federal Orrery appeared 20 October 1794 and predicted that the drama would not be neglected in the many fields of human endeavor to be included by the confident and ambitious editor. To keep interest alive till the new season actually opened, Paine led off with a biography of the elder Colman.44 In November he gave an account of Mrs. Siddons. And when the theater began with As You Like It on 15 December, he instituted a regular department entitled “The Thespiad.” The first-night performance to a crowded and excited house proved, however, to be a disappointing occasion in Boston’s stage history, since Phoebe suffered from “a bad cold” and Jacques was but “feebly” supported.45
Still new in a new field, Paine was insisting on objectivity. The ideal seemed surer when protected by Latin: “Justitia Fiat, Si Ruat Theatrum, is the principle upon which the ‘Thespiad’ is conducted.” Rather quickly he was caught in the problem of telling the truth without dampening “the ambition of any performer on the Boston boards.” He assured the actors that damnation in The Orrery for feeble work did not preclude salvation for those who reformed. On the other hand, praise was no security against future attacks. In a few years of theatergoing he had concluded: “‘All the world’s a stage’ is a trite adage; but, ‘All the men and women’ are not ‘players.’”46
Even in his early criticism Paine added to his commentary on the theatrical representation a concern with the plays themselves. After watching the popular drama, The Jew, he praised Cumberland’s observance of the unities, betraying his own reliance on earlier critical precepts from abroad which were having late echoes in America. He carefully placed the drama in the shifting territory between the familiar genres, explaining that it was the form “which the French term ‘Comédie larmoyante.’ It is a species of composition, neither comic, nor tragic; but a mixture of both. Its scenes possess the humor of the one, and the pathos of the other. Like Tragedy, it ameliorates the heart, by touching the tenderest passions; but, like Comedy, it chills not the soul, by the horrors of bloodshed.”47 Kotzebue’s exploits in this very form, his “comédies larmoyantes,” were five years in the offing for the Boston theatergoers.
Attacking the language of Jones’s tragedy, The Earl of Essex, as “too bloated,” Paine suggested that English subject matter and methods in the drama were not completely acceptable to American audiences: “The intrigues of Queen Elizabeth are wholly uninteresting to Americans.”48 He was not forgetting his assurances of support to the arts in America. Mrs. Inchbald’s comedy, Such Things Are, was advertised in Boston as having received universal applause in London during a record run of sixty-three successive nights. This British stamp of approval left Paine unimpressed. He felt that an American audience had been duped by false publicity, that the import was not worth its cost. “The story seems to have been imported with very high custom-house charges—thirty-three and one third for the difference of currency, and twenty-five per cent for freight and primage! After paying these immense expenses, it would be highly ungenerous to condemn it, as contraband goods: but—‘such things are’!”49 Paine charged Mrs. Inchbald with having borrowed Sir Luke and Lady Tremor from Sir Peter and Lady Teazle, and with having failed to give depth or luminosity to her major characterizations.
Steadily opposing the lazy and uncritical acceptance by Americans of poor English plays and trying to stimulate the appearance of native dramas, the editor prodded Bostonians into supporting American attempts with full houses. When The Medium, or, Happy Tea-Party, “written by a Citizen of the United States,” was announced, The Orrery ran a plea for a “brilliant audience to decide upon the merit of the first dramatic adventurer in this metropolis” and for the “applause, to which they are undoubtedly entitled.”50
A reader of The Federal Orrery, possessed of the same hopes for the American drama as was Paine, and impressed with the latter as a man who could take action on these problems, composed an appeal signed “Dramaticus.” He suggested that “the most plausible argument . . . offered in favor of a theatre, was the encouragement of American genius.” Dramaticus accused the manager, Powell, of ignoring “a latent vein of genius” in America, of having asserted that “the genius of the United States combined . . . would not be worth a Benefit-Night.” Powell’s brother was rumored to have said that “good acting in Boston, was pearls, cast before swine!” Dramaticus further claimed that playwrights were being stifled locally:
His [the manager’s] positive refusal to grant any emolument whatever to any author, however successful in the run of his production, will effectually extinguish the ambition of our writers. For whom have we, possessed of such property, leisure, inclination, and talents, as to attempt a dramatic composition, without any prospect, but pennyless fame?51
“A gentleman of Vermont,” and no less a figure in the American drama than Royall Tyler, whose comedy, The Contrast, had been one of the plays presented in Board Alley, published “An Occasional Address” in The Orrery. His verses expressed the hopes of the playwright and of men like Paine. The political triumph needed to be enriched by cultural victories:
I view those glorious days,
When native Powells act our native lays.
When bards shall carol on our river’s side,
And Charles shall rival British Avon’s pride.
Columbian Shakespeares, paint the poet’s dreams,
And Yankee Garricks act the glowing scenes,
Till vanquish’d Britain, aw’d by our success,
In arts as arms our triumph shall confess.52
Paine’s own Observations on the American Theatre, which appeared in February of 1796, focused on this contemporary concern for developing Yankee Shakespeares and Garricks. Undeceived by prevailing notions of material progress, he worried that Americans were heedlessly thwarting their talented youth by forcing them into the more reputable professions, not only by failing to reward playwrights but by frowning upon them. In Paine’s eyes, the economic and social system developing in America by the end of the eighteenth century was eliminating the very individuals who might “cover themselves and their country with immortal honor.” Perhaps remembering his own weeks in James Tisdale’s store, he wrote:
Among the great multitudes of young gentlemen of education, who are every year flocking into the professions, it cannot but be supposed that many of them are possessed of the finest genius for dramatic as well as any other species of writing; but having no opportunity for displaying itself in the dull drudgery of professional business the precious talent is condemned to remain in eternal oblivion.
Regretfully facing the fact that the American stage “for a considerable length of time must be chiefly furnished with authors and actors from abroad,” Paine warned the public that “without the assurance of some emolument resulting from the exertion of real genius, it cannot be expected that any American dramas should make their appearance.”
There is possibly no stronger expression in America’s early critical writings of the significance of the drama and of society’s debt to its artists than that contained in Paine’s remarks on dramatic composition and the obstacles to its progress:
As genius must be exercised in such a variety of ways in the composition of a good play (which has justly been considered as the literary chef d’oeuvre of the human mind) the soul must be so wholly engaged in the undertaking, as in a manner to exclude all other concerns; and without which undivided attention, a good piece can hardly ever be produced. As a decent play is not the work of a day, a week, or a month, the almost total abstraction, which a necessary attention thereto requires, from all other affairs renders it extremely evident, that the enlivening prospect of reward, as well as honor, should be held forth to writers of genius, as a powerful incentive to exertion.
He had a few special words for any Bostonians who might look on play-writing as a flighty pursuit. Of them he asked one question and, in asking, reiterated the moral values of the drama itself, thus revealing his eighteenth-century reading and his awareness of persistent issues involving collisions between morality and aesthetics:
And why should not such an employment of real genius be considered one of the most noble methods of serving our country? A writer who exerts his talents in shaming vice and folly out of countenance, by the satirical strokes of comedy, or in softening the heart to humanity, and awakening the virtuous affections, by the tender and solemn scenes of tragedy, is certainly one of the most useful men in society. . . .53
Paine was not alone in his desperate overworking of the word “genius,” in his challenge of the utilitarian constrictions on a national culture, or in his dream of America’s achievement of literary independence. In the “Dramatic Mirror” of The Massachusetts Mercury came the same exhortations: “Let not every dull foreigner impose himself on the public, in expectancy of duping their judgment. Let us respect ourselves, and we shall command veneration.”54 And the plea for recognition of a native drama was to continue a live issue in Boston. Russell’s Gazette in 1800 printed a typical grumble: “We have neither seen nor heard of an American play. Had we not writers, it would be no wonder—we have; and I cannot believe we are indifferent to our fame.”55
Among numerous writers with a fervent sense of literary patriotism, Paine distinguished himself by his awareness that the problem was inherently complex and that it was quality and not every near facsimile which was to be encouraged. Despite his hope for a national drama, he knew that any literary try labelled American was not inevitably great. Crude blasts of nationalism would not be enough to form a dramatic tradition. Blandness or overenthusiasm about indigenous offerings could bring ludicrous results.
Paine’s own conflicting longing to encourage the struggles for a native tradition and simultaneously to set high standards helped put him into battle over an American play. A contradiction was growing which would make for awkward situations—literary hopes and ideals versus the reality offered for critical judgment. In March of 1796 came the announcement in The Federal Orrery that a new comedy by “a citizen of Boston” was in rehearsal. As a homegrown drama it attracted “a full and expecting audience.” The author had managed to cram the play with material calculated to hit the public taste. One first-nighter wrote that “the frequent allusions to Washington, Liberty, &c. were received with loud huzzas, from the whole auditory” and predicted a good future for the piece.56 Paine, as a more critical member of the same audience, was undeceived. He saw that the play was native, but too weak an answer to the cultural plea. Maintaining his critical senses in face of an uncritical outburst of local pride, he pointed to numerous flaws in The Traveller Returned. Contrary to the eulogists he declared that the New England piece was marked by “the tedium of uninteresting solemnity.” This gangling and overserious production could not safely be taken as the apotheosis of American comedy, since no amount of patriotic rant was a substitute for wit or grace in writing. Said Paine, “a prudent use of the pruning knife” would better “the soliloquies and many of the national ebullitions.” Patriotic sentiments, he admitted, were “congenial” to American playgoers, but he warned against a “surfeit of even the most sumptuous entertainment.”57
In The Traveller Returned the audience had been wooed immediately with references to “native air” and to “such a race of heroes, as Rome, in all her pride of greatness, could never boast.”58 The author, Judith Sargent Murray, had remained anonymous. Immediately after the appearance of the unhappy truths Paine had written, came a wistful unsigned note referring to him as “a gentleman, so critical” and implying that a kind public would judge his charges and find them wanting. Paine’s rejoinder was brief: “‘Nil de mortuis nisi bonum’ is an ancient maxim of philosophic humanity; and the Editor hopes he shall not flagrantly offend against the Latin idiom, should he translate it—Damn not a play, which has gone to ‘that bourne whence no Traveller Returns!!!’”59 Meanwhile the first-night enthusiasm had died off, indicating the momentary triumph of good taste or inertia among the theatergoers of 1796, the incipient power of Paine as a critic, and the ephemeral quality of the play itself. Answering accusations made against him in The Columbian Centinel, Paine said that the author’s dialogue had “carefully excluded every species of colloquial ease” and the comedy was filled with “turgid phrases, Stale Hibernianisms, filched ribaldry, and forced conceits, without one single solitary Spark of wit, to cheer, with a momentary Twinkle, the immense vacuum of Dullness.”
The day after this epitaph appeared, another newspaper writer rushed to defend the author and to challenge Paine. Sex, or at least chivalry, had become involved: “You will know the subject of your scurrilous Abuse in your Paper of yesterday, will never quicken your pace in State-Street, or any other Street, by Cane or Pistol.”60 Before it came to canes or pistols in the streets of Boston, the play died a natural death. Paine, in his final statement, “felt no pleasure in being a Pallbearer at its interment, nor in dancing over the grave of the poor unfortunate.” The editor had refused to tolerate mediocrity which came in the guise of his own hopes.
Paine’s preoccupation with a national drama might be summarized as a reiterated advertisement issued by him as editor: Wanted—American playwrights. The Orrery was also concerned with other issues in American life.61 Its Federalism consumed many pages and highly colored the political news of foreign and local developments. There were columns of poetry and innumerable lesser items which are revealing as to the intellectual activities of the seventeen nineties. In three numbers, beginning 30 October 1794, a J. S. Capt of Geneva, under a heading “French and German languages,” offered his services as a teacher. In the light of twentieth-century questions concerning the knowledge of foreign languages in New England before 1800, one wonders how talented a linguist Mr. Capt was, how many pupils he had, if any, or if he settled, as other such teachers did, for work as a dancing or fencing master. The Orrery asserted that “The Languages, which Mr. Capt professes to teach (the French in particular) have become in this country, not only an ornamental, but useful accomplishment, to the Lady, the Gentleman, and the Merchant.”62
The repeated lists in The Orrery of the offerings of Berry, Rogers, & Berry, booksellers, suggest that New England was slightly less limited to a knowledge of Great Britain in relation to the rest of the world than has sometimes been assumed in accounts of American cultural history. Many of these beginnings of cosmopolitanism came by way of England and were often vicarious voyages through the medium of British experiences on the Continent. In the listings during 1794, along with popular fiction and staples like The Works of Samuel Johnson in six volumes or Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and belles lettres, came L’oeuvres [sic] de Rousseau and Characters [sic] de Bruyere, Cox’s Travels into Switzerland, Benowosky’s Travels, The Works of Frederick II, King of Prussia (in English and French editions), Riesbeck’s Travels through Germany, Tower’s Memoirs of Frederick, King of Prussia, and Mrs. Piozzi’s Observations and Reflections, made in the course of a journey through France, Italy, and Germany.63
While Paine was still interested in his Federal Orrery and using it among other purposes as a means of attracting attention and understanding to the theater, he did more than demand American drama and dismiss poor substitutes for it. Trying to help potential American playwrights in search of a theory, he often went beyond the cauterizing of failures to offer positive clues as to the solution of structural and tonal problems. On more than one occasion he drew a distinction between situation, which was artificial and directed to the immediate laugh, and incident, which he identified with convincing development and complexity.64 The comment on Reynolds’ Dramatist was a reminder that a play might abound “with comic situations” and yet be wanting in real “incident and . . . interest.”65 “Complexity of plot,” Paine wrote, “is generally detrimental to the effect of a drama, unless ingeniously interwoven, and clearly elucidated. To succeed in so arduous an attempt, demands an expansion of fancy, united with an acuteness of judgment.” In the matter of dialogue he made numerous suggestions; he asked for “easy elegance of language,” praised dialogue where “the effect, which continually rises to the concluding sentence, is supported by all the interest of incident.” Levity needed to be supported by depth and that “easy elegance” of language by a “nervous” quality or tension.66
Throughout his Orrery comments on stage problems Paine tracks the crucial means of fusing essential detail and then of transcending it to achieve a meaningful totality. He asked that a character be “dressed with good judgment,” that the actor aim at “unaffected pronunciation,” at “manly point” in the delivery of speeches, and that gesture and attitudes be “feelingly just.” But for all this emphasis on correctness, dignity, and elegance in this early period of his theatrical criticism, he allowed for an indefinable and incalculable element which appeared in great actors and without which correctness was unavailing: “The pompous strut, and declamatory bluster, are gradually acquired with the hardihood of stage-experience;—but the effusions of genius create an effect, as immediate, as simplicity;—as irresistible, as truth.” Paine lauded the actor who could entertain “without the spurious aid of mummery and trick,” who could excite “the features of the audience, without distorting his own.”
Acting which was perfect “in the letter of . . . [the] author” but “deficient in his spirit” was exposed. Only by uniting “a justness of conception” with the “spirit of execution” could the actor show “‘the very form and pressure’ of the character.” Stressing the importance of acting itself in conveying a writer’s full meaning, Paine attacked lapses from a literary characterization and inconsistencies in its representation. When Mrs. Johnson appeared as Lady Townly in Vanbrugh’s Provok’d Husband on 5 November 1795, Paine found “her most prominent excellence” to be “that she does not, like too many of her sister actresses, cease to personate, when she ceases to speak; whether speaking or addressed, she is always in character.” Mr. Hamilton, who acted in the same play, was reprimanded: “When his right hand is directed towards his breast, his right leg, impelled, no doubt, by some invisible wires mechanically makes the same motion.”67
A favorite actor was not spared if he fell short of Paine’s standards, and an unknown or poor actor who improved was quickly recognized. Consistency in opinion on an individual performer often gave way to the inconsistency involved in justice. Having acclaimed Mrs. Powell as one of the best actresses on the Boston boards, the critic could yet give her severe reminders in any instance of a drop from excellence. Some of her roles had been Portia, Lady Percy, Monimia in The Orphan, and Mrs. Beverley in The Gamester. She fell short as Yarico. In January of 1795 Paine felt that American stage design had added to Inkle and Yarico an especially impressive forest, rolling sea, horizon, cave of Yarico, and quay of Barbados. Paine called Inkle a character “which, in the theatrical vocabulary, is styled an ‘uphill part.’ Applauses are more commonly given to the author, than to the actor. . . .” Though Mrs. Powell’s Yarico seemed successful, Paine thought she had become muddled and had applied her Shakespearean technique to a lesser role. He reminded her that the elegance of her Juliet would not do for Yarico and was “but an illjudged substitute for that simplicity of tone and manner, which are native with the American aborigines.” She had used the curling iron and powder puff, and “her artificial countenance seemed to have been painted with the same brush, that colored Barnwell’s hands, after the murder of his uncle; for it evidently had more of the appearance of blood, than of copper!“68 Versatility in acting, found in what Paine called the “universal performer,” was underlined as an ideal. Any actor or actress of the period who survived a year’s typical repertoire with its swift changes of program was apt to acquire this quality, if nothing else.
In several instances in The Federal Orrery Paine prepared in advance the reception of plays and actors, reminding Bostonians that a failure in their support would reflect on their taste. Injustices in casting and favoritism backstage are discussed in the Orrery columns. An irate citizen addressed Paine in the cause of correcting disturbing practices. This theatergoer objected “that the blooming village-maids, the sentimental ladies, and the toothless old grandams” all fall to one lady, while others had no chance “but, like an evergreen at Christmas, to be-sprig the windows of the stage balconies.”69 Taking up the case of Mr. Taylor, a comedian who had been omitted from roles for which the critic believed him to be admirably suited, Paine resorted to threatening the manager by predicting a “diminution of his houses.” Taylor had been especially successful in the opera The Mountaineers, in which he conceived and displayed “to an astonished audience, the inimitable composition of Cervantes, embellished by the abilities of the younger Colman, who, with the skill of an artist, has made the happiest traits of the romance of Don Quixote his own.”70
Throughout the commentary on acting runs a plea for an American who will both exemplify and transcend the principles laid down. Before the opening of the theater for its third season, Paine announced that the corps was “to be enriched . . . with a daughter of Thespis of American birth.” He rejoiced in the thought that “our boards will soon be trodden, and our scenes composed, by performers and authors of our own country.” Above all, he insisted that the theater was to “stimulate the dormant genius” of his own nation.71 Whenever an American actor appeared, Paine made particular notice of the fact. He was not, however, completely free of a local identification which was sometimes stronger than his national hopes. When the New York company was in Boston in the fall of 1795, the critic complained that some of the characters played by members of that group might have been much better performed by actors and actresses who belonged to the Boston company. Despite this loyal prejudice he was keenly interested in theatrical happenings in other American cities, gathering in and reading the news from more highly developed stage centers. He also kept track of theatrical movements in England through periodicals from abroad.
Bostonians could look to him not only for penetrating opinions on the performances but for entertaining and polished statements. Paine might dismiss an actor with: “He seems to possess that mediocrity of talents, which, should it not entitle him to praise, will at least secure him from censure.” An actor, grossly overdressed for his part, became “a bad picture in a handsome frame.” To one who surpassed the limitations of his role Paine addressed: “To play a good part, with éclat, falls to the lot of many—but to educe brilliancy, from a dull one, is a display of theatrical chemistry.”72 Amidst the fumbling and effusive sentences about the stage, which echo through the journals of the seventeen nineties, Paine’s are luminous.
By April of 1796 The Orrery was sold to Benjamin Sweetser. Offering his “sincerest thanks to his friends and the public” for their patronage, Paine officially gave over his editorship and turned his full attention to the playhouse, which he now found more attractive than his editorial office. Early in the same month The Orrery carried word that “the disposition and ability of the public to patronize the drama” had been amply proved.73 But the trials of the Boston theater were not over.
A Late Eighteenth-Century Audience
What is taste?
“There’s a question!” (answers Miss Ogle, with a leer round the whole room) “—why, what do you think it should be, but to go three times a week to the theatre, and attract the attention of all the audience, and the players into the bargain, by viewing them with an opera glass from the stage box!”
Polyanthos, Boston, 1807
In the years since the dramatic subterfuges in Board Alley, Paine had been steadily connected with the growing theater. Having fought for its acceptance, celebrated its opening, and criticized the plays and players, he was now to have an official share in its day by day activities. The realities of popular taste in drama, of stage production, and of the behavior of audiences which faced Paine in this period are germane to the conflicts over the existence, meaning, and influence of the theater in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America. Before giving up his editorship of The Federal Orrery, Paine was appointed Master of Ceremonies for the Boston stage. The eviction from Milk Street society had strengthened his theatrical connections.
While Paine became more entangled backstage, his father-in-law, after a stormy time with the manager, shifted from acting to less controversial and less physically perilous work, but remained loyal to his original interests by opening “an asylum of pleasure and happiness” and naming it the Shakespeare Hotel and Coffee House. Along with the best wines, he promised to have available all the newspapers of Boston for customers “fond of the speculative productions and politics of the day.” The announcement for his end-of-the-season performance at the theater 30 June 1794 claimed that Baker would “make his exit through a Hogshead of real Fire.” The typical triple-featured program for that evening was Murphy’s Three Weeks after Marriage; or What We Must All Come to, Dibdin’s Waterman; or The First of August, and Jackman’s All the World’s a Stage; or The Butler in Buskins. Between this fiery exit and his entrance into his career in business, the former Shakespearean Ghost had given a dramatic and musical olio at concert hall during which he delivered “the much admired soliloquy” of George Barnwell.74
In 1794 a set of rules and regulations were adopted by the trustees of the theater. In these rules the varied obligations, now fallen to Paine, had been carefully set forth for public reading. The Master of Ceremonies was to keep “order and decorum,” oversee the boxes, pit, and galleries, keep “ladies and gentlemen” in their rightful seats, direct the carriage traffic, and “generally to arrange the whole etiquette of auditory.” He was authorized to “turn any refractory persons out of the theatre” with a careful refund. A full complement of constables as well as the trustees promised their support if the refractory insisted on seeing the last act. A reader, who dubbed himself “Yankee Doodle,” wrote a newspaper letter to assure “the Master of Ceremonies, that should any indecent noise be made at the Theatre, during the exhibition, his exertions to suppress them will be universally seconded.”75
There were chores attached to this office more delicate than those so fully outlined. Paine’s predecessor had tactfully to “presume upon the politeness of the Ladies,” to request that those in the boxes would attend “without hats, bonnets, feathers, or any other high headdress, that the sight of the gentlemen, who are seated behind them, may not be obstructed.”76 When the side galleries of the theater were partitioned off, it was the Master of Ceremonies who issued the news that these spaces would be “appropriated to the use of such gentlemen as wish to carry ladies into the Gallery.”77 This gallery took on significance in the controversy over the morality of the theater.
On becoming a member of the theatrical corps, Paine acquired a room in the theater. There the earlier Master of Ceremonies had sold box tickets “from nine to one o’clock, and from three to sunset, every day, excepting Sunday.”78 Paine was not equally conscientious in attending to this. Preferring the conviviality of the Boston Coffee-house on State Street, he advertised himself, in 1798, as being there every day from ten till two with “The Box-Book” and the “Box Tickets.” On play dates he promised to be there “from 3 till half past 5 o’clock.”79 Seating complications arose in the spring of 1798. It was up to “Mr. Paine [to] take the precaution to give, with the Tickets, purchased for Ladies’ places, a certificate, which may be retained thro’ the evening, to ascertain their seats as entered on the box book.” “A proper attendant” was to be placed in a strategic position to back these abstract promises with a physical presence.80
Early Boston audiences were far from decorous in their behavior. The spectators were often disorderly and occasionally violent. A noisy freedom of expression seems to have been characteristic of the playgoers from the very first season of the theater’s existence. In 1794 a revealing and pathetic note came from the musicians in the theater, who had suffered the blows of an uninhibited audience. Their complaint was immediately registered:
They entreat a generous people so far to compassionate their feelings as to prevent the thoughtless, or ill-disposed from throwing Apples, Stones, &c. into the Orchestra, that while they eat the bread of industry in a free country, it may not be tinctured with the poison of humiliation.81
During the first theatrical season the price of tickets for the pit was raised. Although this was publicly explained as being the result of “accumulated expense” and “variety of improvements,” the Boston playgoers instantly rebelled. Paine himself wrote that “the tumult in the house, occasioned by the rise of the tickets, would have discouraged the confidence even of experienced veterans.”82
Before he took an active role as Master of Ceremonies in keeping down disorder, Paine had attempted, as editor, to improve conditions in the theater. The Orrery for November 1795 warned unwary playgoers “to be on their guard against a set of pocket-lifters who have given a specimen of their abilities, in their dexterity of hand, in the pit and other parts of the theatre. These villains are strongly suspected.”83 When the play was absorbing, the pocket-lifters flourished. Paine could as vividly picture one of these enchanted audiences as he could scold the members of a turbulent one. Always conscious of the direct reflection of an actor’s art in the faces of those listening and watching, he left many glimpses of engrossed spectators: “The gape of Mr. Jones, in ‘Ennui,’ was answered by a corresponding distortion, in the features of the whole audience. This unconscious mimicry was the sincerest tribute, that could possibly be paid to the justness of his acting.”84 A note of praise for a comparatively restrained audience at Vanbrugh’s Provok’d Husband in 1795 suggests that hushed fascination or complete order was the exception rather than the rule: “Through the whole evening’s exhibition we were happy to observe the perfect tranquility and decorum of the gallery.”85
For some years to come Boston audiences were to be an unpredictable element. In 1804 came a complaint that “Not only cards, apples, bullets, and stones have been scattered upon the stage, with shameful impunity; but on one evening, during the last week, a large bottle was thrown into the pit, and very seriously injured a gentleman’s shoulder.” Paine by then was still trying to raise the level of conduct. The revelers who interrupted the prison scene of The Way to Get Married he likened to “the harpies of Virgil.” Mimicry of an actor and the “inebriated vulgarity” which cut off a singer brought the critic’s warning that the theater was becoming a “bear-garden.” “Some intemperate persons in the upper part of the house” in 1807 took to “firing off Crackers” and yelling an actor’s name.86 The Kean riot was not far in the future.
That bitter opponent of the Boston playhouse, Turnbull, claimed that prostitutes were admitted without charge or, at least, at special rates, that they “and pickpockets are among the most regular attendants, and most enthusiastic friends of the theatre.”87 And William Dunlap noted in his history of the American theater that the prostitutes had an entrance all their own in Boston’s Federal Street Theater.88
A later theatrical comment of Paine’s suggests further that the playhouse was not always clean and warm in the seventeen nineties. Observing recent improvements in 1802, he praised the managers for their attention to “the temperature of the house,” and to “the Stoves . . . a very necessary part of the performance, on cold evenings.” The sweepers and candle-lighters had been prodded into action. “Neatness is so scrupulously observed, that the ladies can now leave their boxes with white muslins and kidgloves, unsullied, if they are not slatternly worn; or taken from the bureau begrimed.”89
Paine had long considered no detail of the theater beneath his notice, as in his suggestion that the Boston theater copy the new opera house in Paris and prevent the front-stage glare by lamps “behind the side-scenes.” He was always quick to observe and to reprimand lapses in conduct which occurred behind the curtain. Paine railed at the offenders who made the performance of Mrs. Inchbald’s Such Things Are in 1795 a particularly noisy affair backstage. The cool reception of the audience, he asserted, might be “justly attributed to the passionate stamp and abusive language repeatedly heard from the prompt-side.” The catchword was so loud that “the audience received it from the performer, at second-hand.”90 These were seemingly minor offenses, but they could ruin an entire performance.
This partial portrait of that shifting and unpredictable body called an audience is a paradoxical mixture of ladies in white gloves and feathered bonnets and primitive stone throwers, of elegant furnishings and gallery carousing. A letter printed in the pro-theatrical Polyanthos makes it clear that intransigeant spectators persisted into the nineteenth century. In the spring of 1812 a playgoer who tried to enjoy The Foundling of the Forest was annoyed by political discussion that drowned out stage dialogue, by a boy who ringingly explained the entire plot, and, above all, by the “rakes and truants from Harvard” who noticed and named “every prostitute in the green boxes” and agreed “to ‘go up and have a row with them.’”91 Fanny Kemble’s journal later gives an outsider’s view of the Boston audience. She found them “cold,” but added that when they did warm, they were thorough about it, “for they shout and hurrah like mad.”92 The sympathetic response of these shouters may have been to her portrayal there of Kotzebue’s Mrs. Haller.
The manager of the theater was a favorite subject for acid comment. His policy in dealing with actors was carefully watched and openly criticized. The villainous treatment of performers by managers was an ever live and popular issue. The Massachusetts Mercury, in 1798, damned the trickery of managers who, clutching profits to themselves, foisted their losses on helpless actors. By this intrigue and avarice the managers were claimed “to sport their Phaetons, while an industrious and deserving performer is often seen skulking through bye lanes with broken shoes, and a thread bare coat.”93
One eighteenth-century playgoer was less concerned about backstage justice than he was about onstage censorship. His idea of the manager’s duty and of the reactions of Boston audiences has special interest because it represents a point of view which is neither that of the extreme opponents nor of the ardent advocates of the theater. He attended but he complained. His hopes for a pure republic free from foreign influence had been offended by what he saw and heard. Londoners might demand “licentiousness of language and impurity of sentiment,” but Bostonian taste was otherwise. English plays were not fitted to “a New England audience.” Since America was temporarily backward in producing “native genius,” he recognized the inevitability of dangerous imports “from Europe.” The solution offered was a careful choice of plays aimed at “the plainness and simplicity of republican manners.” Also the manager might change “terms and expressions . . . without affecting in the smallest degree the meaning or spirit of the author.” The complainer could not know that Mrs. Inchbald in the “prostituted” city of London was soon to use sanitation on Kotzebue to anticipate just such objections. In the Bostonian’s playgoing experience the “lewd jest” had been greeted only by “a responsive giggle from slip-gallery or perhaps one solitary laugh from the pit.”94
This may be the attitude of that “middling interest” which a reliable contemporary observer95 claimed to be the largest element in the New England audience, larger and more vital to the box office than the “Nabobs” or the much publicized gigglers in the gallery. Here may also be the key to the coming popularity of Kotzebue’s plays despite their flimsy moral premises. One “lewd jest” in a play of ethical profundity would disturb this important group. But they could be reassured by the purified language and pious talk of repentance without penetrating immediately to the basically peculiar moral situations of The Stranger and Lovers’ Vows.
During 1796, the year of this pre-Bowdler advocacy of bowdlerizing, came, among others, performances of The Rival Queens, The Beggar’s Opera, Inkle and Yarico, Steele’s Conscious Lovers, Rowe’s Fair Penitent, O’Keefe’s Patrick in Prussia, and King Lear. Several nights which brought “first” productions for Boston had been especially elaborate. Cumberland’s Wheel of Fortune was followed by an American production, The Indian Chief; or America Discovered, which included “new Dresses, Music & Indians.” In act three an Indian dance featured “Indians, Spaniards, and Indian Women.”
For the first Othello in Federal Street on 13 January 1796 a “grand Pageant” was prepared to represent “the most striking situations” in Shakespeare. The Tragic Muse, Antony, and Cleopatra marched under one banner. Under another came Sailors with a Ship, Ariel, and Caliban. Macbeth and his lady paraded with daggers, while Roman soldiers accompanied Coriolanus and his family. The Comic Muse came with Falstaff and “Mrs. Ford.” Lear had no daughter in the procession, only Kent and Edgar. These and more were followed by a “Car, with a Bust of Shakespeare.”96 By pictorial literalization Shakespeare was being kept abreast of the theatrical times. A generation later, Joseph Tinker Buckingham maintained that the plays of Shakespeare “even to the boys in the pit” had become as “familiar in their mouths as household words; and the slightest deviation is instantly discovered.”97
Controlling obstreperous audiences and easing the mechanics of theatrical operation gave Paine the satisfaction of belonging to what he saw as an institution of lasting significance. As Master of Ceremonies he could work actively for the improvements he had already called for in his writing. Actors, audiences, and managers considered his services important enough that he was accorded public recognition as well as financial reward in the form of benefit nights.
For his benefit in March of 1797 he chose A Day in Turkey. Paine assumed the prerogatives of a dramatist and changed Mrs. Cowley’s play from five to three acts. The trust of his theatrical colleagues in his literary taste was abiding. Their Master of Ceremonies’ free handling of the piece was announced with pride. “Compressed into 3 acts, by Mr. Paine” was as weighty a recommendation on the playbill as the name of the English authoress herself. The comedy was embellished with a “grand Asiatic procession” and a Turkish dance, both features calculated to crowd the house. The play was followed in breathtaking succession by Francis’ pantomime interlude, The Miraculous Mill, Murphy’s Old Maid, and Garrick’s Lethe with new orchestration.98 In The Old Maid, Paine’s father-in-law was back to play a leading character in which Bostonians had not seen him for three years.
Another night of honor for Paine came on 24 May 1797 when he was jointly benefited with Mr. Campbell, the prompter of the theater. Mrs. Cowley’s play, The Town Before You, was offered for the first time in America; a transplanted English “first” was particular bait for a full house. That evening Miss Green danced the hornpipe, and “an original, Comic, Local Pantomime,” The Taste of the Times,99 followed the play itself. The growing fondness for pictorial effects had already reached astonishing proportions, for the new pantomime was replete with “Scenery, Dresses, Machinery & Music.” The audience which came to pay its financial respects to Paine and to Campbell saw “A beautiful view of Mount Vernon” and an “elegant perspective of the New State House.”100 These scenic feats were attributed to a revolutionary use of a new mechanism. Such taste for spectacle was to be heightened and ratified in the elaborate coming of Pizarro.
A few nights after Paine’s benefit, on 29 May 1797, came the first performance of the “new tragedy” of Werter, for the benefit of Taylor, who had been highly praised by Paine in The Orrery. For the Boston audience, at least, Werter was the work of Reynolds, “author of The Dramatist, Notoriety, How to Grow Rich, The Rage, Speculation &c.” Goethe’s name seems to have been mislaid in the dramatizing in England, the transatlantic crossing, and the stopovers on the New York and Philadelphia stages, though the novel was mentioned as “much celebrated” and public familiarity with its suffering hero was emphasized in verse:
Who has not heard of Werter, hapless youth,
The slave of passion, honor, love and truth.
Who has not sigh’d when o’er the canvas warm
The artist brings poor Charlotte’s beauteous form?
Who but with her has hung o’er Werter’s bier,
And shed with her the sympathetic tear.
Charlotte’s Letters during her connexion with Werter were being advertised the same year.101
In 1798 a native playwright gave an answer to Paine’s earlier pleas for American drama with Daranzel; or, The Persian Patriot. Paine’s name was fittingly linked with this play; both were the objects of a special night in the theater. On 16 April the Haymarket Theater was opened for “the Benefit of Mr. Paine,” and the “New Historical Drama” was presented. The author remained anonymous, being named only as a gentleman of Boston. He was David Everett, who had settled on “the country adjacent to the mouth of the Persian Gulph” for his background. This remote and exotic setting allowed for “A Grand Spectacle.” The audience was to be titillated by the stage battle of two Persian armies, the storming of the King’s citadel, the explosion of a mine, “and the destruction of the whole Persian Fleet in the Bay of Ormus” by cannon. Bostonians were as curious as though the spectacle had been located on native grounds. There were rumors concerning the identity of the author, who was claimed to be learned in the classics and in the drama.102
The author’s learning was greater than the vitality of his play, which betrays heavy borrowings from the Elizabethan and from the late seventeenth-century heroic drama. In Daranzel there is a conflict between love and honor set against a background of tyranny and rebellion. The core of the conflict is “the voice of Persia” calling the tortured hero from the arms of his beloved. Although the prologue asks,
Let not the panders of your taste oppose
the foreign bramble to the native rose,
there is little in the setting or language of the play to prove that it is “a native rose.” In theme and tone, however, it once contained much to stimulate an audience for whom the Revolution was still a vivid memory and for whom the word patriot still carried the full honors of seventeen seventy-six:
Die every other passion of my soul,
My country’s love shall breathe, with every breath.103
Paine’s mother-in-law and father-in-law had leading roles in Daranzel, and he was probably the “literary friend” who “corrected and improved” the play for Everett before it was published in 1800. The fate of Daranzel did not live up to expectations for it, although one member of the first audience, who had evidently enjoyed the play, grumbled at the lack of continued recognition accorded it, and suggested a revival: “By permission of the author I have perused the manuscript. It unites in my opinion, many and great dramatic excellencies. I am confident it would be well received by that large part of the community, who are friends and patrons of American genius.”104
Paine’s own compositions were now and again an important part of the theatrical entertainment during these years. The Sprit of the Times was a localized “Olio of Song and Sentiment” given in June of 1798. For it Paine wrote a “Eulogy on the Young Men of Boston.” And that same night his song, “Adams and Liberty,” was delivered in the stage setting that was a reproduction of State Street.105
The writer who had mocked Robert Treat’s prologue on the first night of the theater’s history must, in 1798, have enjoyed the smug satisfaction of a Cassandra whose foreboding had been literally fulfilled; his ominous plea,
O, may the lightning rend these walls profane,
And desolation o’er the ruins reign,
was granted when the Federal Street Theater was ruined by fire in February. After the restoration Paine was elected to compose a dedicatory address for the opening night, 29 October 1798. The theater had proved to be of sturdy growth; the destruction of a building was merely an interlude in its progress. The reopening after such a trial gave an opportunity to reaffirm the beliefs Paine had first put into verse four years earlier. Having seen actors and actresses in their daily faces, petty quarrels of the company, bungling performances, and in full memory of bumptious spectators, Paine could still write with hope and humor:
Once more, kind patrons of the Thespian art,
Friends to the science of the human heart,
Behold the temple of the Muse aspire,
A Phoenix stage, which propagates by fire!
But don’t swoon, beaus! another mode we’ll try,
To save our lives, and keep your ruffles dry.
From fire and water your escape is certain;
Your shield of safety is—our Iron Curtain!106
Das Kind der Liebe in Boston
The names of Paine, Kotzebue, Washington, and Adams were featured on the same playbill on 25 February 1799. Paine chose Lovers’ Vows (Das Kind der Liebe) for his benefit that night, and Mrs. Snelling Powell delivered “An Apostrophe to Washington on his reacceptance of the command of the American Army.” Hodgkinson recited Paine’s own celebrated composition, “Adams and Liberty,” in which America’s shores were pronounced inviolate and “unshaken by Europe’s commotion”:
Let them bring all the vassals of Europe in arms,
We’re a world by ourselves and disdain a division.
Let Fame to the world sound America’s voice;
Her pride is her Adams; his laws are her choice.
An aura of scholarship surrounded the coming of the Englished German play into this invincible new world. There were claims for its being based on “the genuine Leipsic edition of 1771” instead of any of the “twelve spurious editions” printed at “Neuwied, Frankfort, Cologne, and Leipsic,” which might have been foisted off on a less discerning audience. A 1771 edition was a minor error in the name of publicity. The date would have made Kotzebue a ten-year-old prodigy in dramatic composition but is not unbelievable to modern readers of Das Kind der Liebe.
William Dunlap in New York had been ahead of the Boston manager in realizing what Kotzebue could do for the box office, and was already on his way to becoming the best American translator of the playwright’s usable works. But Lovers’ Vows came to Boston before New York, an unusual instance for local self-satisfaction. Notices for Paine’s benefit evening attributed Kotzebue’s distinction to his originality as opposed to the prevailing imitative tendencies of other contemporary dramatists. Lovers’ Vows was said to be a crowning revelation for a “literary audience” of the German’s “mind . . . principles, and . . . genius.”107
The “Leipsic edition” which caused such ado in Boston was the handiwork of Mrs. Inchbald, who knew no German but had not allowed that point to stand in her way as an international medium.108 The success of her version is telling as to the freedom of the original from literary complexity. The cultural phenomenon of Kotzebue’s affecting or afflicting New England at the very end of the eighteenth century may be more easily attacked than understood. The playwright has long since been thoroughly flogged in print. His fellow Germans, not shirking their national responsibilities, led the way in noting that he was a success without being a writer. Rosters of faults are available in a choice of languages.109 The same craze seized Weimar and Dresden with perhaps less excuse than in Boston. The Germans had Goethe and Schiller in their midst.110 The New Englanders had dramatists like David Everett and Judith Sargent Murray. As George Ticknor was to discover, there was no escape from Kotzebue by leaving Boston, since the playwright was omnipresent in his homeland.111
To Mrs. Inchbald must go some credit for the popularity of Lovers’ Vows, in which, after years of suffering, Agatha becomes the wife of the baron who originally seduced her. His grand gesture legitimizes his son, Frederick, by the time the latter is old enough for seductions of his own. While cleaning foppish Count Cassell’s reminiscences and changing Amelia’s “forward and unequivocal” professions of love into a ladylike backwardness, Mrs. Inchbald had sternly believed that the girl would otherwise have been “revolting to an English audience.”112
In this expurgated and purified German drama there were elements of strong appeal for the Boston spectators. The only homespun titled aristocrat in New England was the slightly mad Timothy Dexter of Newburyport, where Paine was shortly to spend some time. The Newburyport character decided on his own to be “Lord” Dexter. Others, if they had any such regressive longings, were less open about it but remained curious as to high life among the foreign aristocrats. Lovers’ Vows offered reassurance to the new world that democratic principles and the sanctity of marriage finally caught up with barons in the old world. It was good republican sentiment that the baroness for whom Agatha had been deserted was described as “very haughty,” “very whimsical,” Alsatian, and dead.113
There was further bait in Pastor Anhalt’s double triumph over mere lineage and over those of questionable morals in winning the aristocratic Amelia (who had been so forward in the German original) and in making such a powerful address to Baron Wildenhaim’s better nature. A minister is here a romantic hero and a champion of the people’s social rights against upper class irresponsibility and snobbery. How reassuring it must have been to the “middling interest” in the audience to hear the baron decide to acknowledge his son and then wait eagerly for Anhalt’s approval with “Am I in the right?” When the baron tries to dodge his duty to Agatha by giving her a house instead of a ring, he asks again, “Don’t I do right?” Anhalt answers, “No.”114 Here was a baron properly subjugated to ministerial opinion. And in Anhalt’s own love for Amelia virtue triumphs over modest birth, and the once arrogant Wildenhaim must admit: “A man of your principles . . . exalts his rank in life to a level with the noblest family.”115 At a time when America wanted to hasten to some kind of distinction among nations, there was a nod to at least one national talent in the Count’s speech on his migrations:
. . . for I am an epitome of the world. In my travels I learnt delicacy in Italy—hauteur, in Spain—in France, enterprize—in Russia, prudence—in England, sincerity—in Scotland, frugality—and in the wilds of America, I learnt love.116
The dialogue of the play after Mrs. Inchbald’s cleansing treatments outlawed any misinterpretations of the meaning here of the word love.
For Paine’s benefit performance of Lovers’ Vows, Agatha was played by Mrs. Whitlock. A sister of Mrs. Siddons, she had first appeared in Boston as Isabella in The Fatal Marriage on 3 October 1796. She seems to have had true gifts aside from her theatrically monumental sister, to have been distinguished in her own right in the terror, grief, and despair of the leading ladies in Macbeth, Cymbeline, Venice Preserved, The Orphan, and The Mourning Bride, although she was also praised for her special elegance as Lady Teazle. Others besides Paine named her the “first” actress in America.117 Mrs. Haller, in The Stranger (Menschenhass und Reue), became one of her choice parts.
From the first night on, the character of Frederick in Lovers’ Vows, like that of Young Norval in Douglas, was a favorite role in the repertoire of theatrical lions visiting Boston. John Howard Payne was to include it in his debut performances there. His precocious acting and theatrical commentaries in America have until recently been submerged in relation to interest in his collaboration with Washington Irving on Charles II, his involvement with Shelley’s wife, and his composition of Hume Sweet Home during a European sojourn. This kinsman of Robert Treat Paine also managed to be the author of Brutus, a successful Frederick, and an adapter of Lovers’ Vows. In 1809 he pieced together Benjamin Thompson’s and Mrs. Inchbald’s work, and called it “altering.” His special stage appeal as Frederick came through his own youth and publicized struggles, which convincingly emphasized the pathos and problems of the Kotzebue youth who was minus a birth certificate until Baron Wildenhaim saw the right.118
Strangely enough, when reaction did set in against the Kotzebue craze, Lovers’ Vows was to be a vague exception to the moral objections raised against other German plays. A New England opponent of the German drama was to call the play “the most unexceptionable, both as regards the moral of the plot and the characters of the dramatis personae.” For over a decade Agatha’s and Frederick’s troubles could stimulate locally “a large portion of commiseration.”119 Bostonians were not alone in reiterating “unexceptionable” in connection with Lovers’ Vows. Jane Austen satirized the theatrical rage of the turn of the century with the same adjectives and the same play. At Mansfield Park all “the best plays were run over in vain. Neither Hamlet nor Macbeth, nor Othello, nor Douglas, nor the Gamester” could satisfy her amateur actors. “The Rivals, The School for Scandal, Wheel of Fortune, Heir at Law, and a long et cetera, were successively dismissed with yet warmer objections.” The dilemma is solved by Lovers’ Vows. “And why should not Lovers’ Vows do for us as well as for the Ravenshaws?” To Edmund’s shocked “Lovers’ Vows!” Yates cries, “After all our debatings and difficulties, we find there is nothing so unexceptionable as Lovers’ Vows.”120
By 1806 Lovers’ Vows was closely enough known locally for a Boston reviewer to catch Mrs. Inchbald borrowing for a play of her own from the very Kotzebue play whose language she had scrubbed down, thus having simultaneously adapted in one instance and utilized in another with creative efficiency:
Mrs. Inchbald seems to have copied some German originals for many of her incidents. . . . In Lovers’ Vows the father is robbed by the son for a mother’s necessities; and from this fact is a reconciliation effected.—In Every One has his Fault the father is robbed by the husband and son for the daughter’s necessities; and from this fact a reconciliation is effected.
Dimond’s Adrian and Orrila was also to be analyzed in light of a critic’s training in Kotzebue. Noting that Schiller’s special quality was dignity while Kotzebue had a monopoly on “pathos,” this authority decided that “Agatha, in Lovers’ Vows and Madame Clermont are parallel characters,” that Agatha and Frederick had given literary transfusions to Adrian, Orrila, and Githa.” Paine, too, wrote that the Dimond play was “formed on the German model and abounds with poetick description.” There is a suggestion, however, that its “occasional coruscation of wit” came from elsewhere.121
Lovers’ Vows penetrated other parts of New England. In the summer of 1800 the Boston company carried it to Portland along with that cynical stage trifle, The Widov and the Riding Horse (Die Witwe und das Reitpferd), thus giving a Germanic double feature. In Providence Lovers’ Vows became unfortunately linked with an off-stage seduction. The actor who played Frederick “succeeded in enticing a young girl, the daughter of a respectable citizen, from her home.” The story ran that this Frederick was “a heathen destroyer” who had abandoned three wives in England before even starting in America.122
The stage history of The Stranger was also enlivened by instances of the imitation and translation of the drama into real life by spectators and by actors and actresses. Coming to Boston in March of 1799, with Hodgkinson and Mrs. Whitlock in the leading roles, the play attracted “crowded and elegant” audiences. Tributes to its pathos and high moral tone in the depiction of the suffering which could emanate from conjugal infidelity were climaxed in a Gazette review pronouncing this Kotzebue work to be “the most interesting and impressive” drama ever presented in the town. Other notable actresses besides Mrs. Whitlock and Fanny Kemble were to become identified in New England with Mrs. Haller, the heroine who could “sit and cry you a whole day through.”123 Mary Duff, whose career is interesting and brief, who changed overnight from a mousy to a fiery performer, was one of the best Mrs. Hallers Bostonians ever saw. Playing with eyes downcast, she gave such an impression of innocence that the coldest critics could not believe that Mrs. Haller had ever really gone astray. She so identified herself with Kotzebue’s creation that one evening in the last scene “she swooned outright, fell upon the stage, and was not able to recover until assistance came to her relief.”124 One favorite story about The Stranger has several versions. At Mrs. Haller’s confession there would be screams or a shriek. A prostrate spectator would be carried out to confess the fact that she had just been saved from her intentions of repeating Mrs. Haller’s error by realizing in the nick of time the troublesome results.125
Kotzebue himself rejoiced that the play had led a straying wife back to the legal roof, and he may have been responsible for setting in motion the gratifying moral story.126 Actresses could enlarge on it as a tribute to their talents in stirring ladies to stay at home, and the author could offer it as proof of his irreproachable intentions. The anecdotes, moral questions, and critical attacks had accumulated by the time Thackeray gave cogent reasons for the long stage life of The Strangers: “. . . in the midst of the balderdash, there runs that quality of love, children, and forgiveness of wrong, which will be listened to wherever it is preached.”127
The same year as his benefit for Lovers’ Vows and the victorious arrival of The Stranger in Boston, Paine left for Newburyport to study law with Theophilus Parsons. This experiment was destined to no greater ultimate success than the earlier one with James Tisdale. It did, however, last longer, and Robert Treat concentrated sufficiently on his legal texts to be admitted to the bar of Massachusetts by 1802.128 His departure from the theater and Boston was temporary. In Newburyport he was not content to be an obscure law student. Cut off from the stage, he expressed himself in rhyme. The success of his writing and the exercise of his sharp tongue in daily encounters left a mark. E. Vale Smith, who in 1854 recorded the history of Newburyport, remembered Paine as having achieved more reputation as a poet than a lawyer: “His talents commanded admiration, and his wit excited merriment and delight; he was bold in his views, quick at retort, and sometimes fearfully sarcastic.”129 Theophilus Parsons’ son, writing a memoir of his father, recalled Paine less as his parent’s legal disciple than as “a brilliant companion,” one who “yielded to the seductions of society more than was consistent with a due devotion to his profession.”130
Newburyporters took pride in the literary interests of this wit and professed scholar in law. When Paine’s “Adams and Liberty,” which had garnished the première of Lovers’ Vows, was published in London, The Newburyport Herald and Country Gazette boasted that the British had given the “highest praise of its sentiment and language.”131 At the death of George Washington, Paine was given an opportunity to distinguish himself further. Bostonians, too, were informed:
At the unanimous request of the inhabitants of Newburyport Mr. Paine, on Wednesday next, at that place will pronounce an Eulogy on the death of Lieut. Gen. Washington. Had the father of his country been known to posterity, only through the medium of Mr. Paine’s Muse, she would have been a faithful herald of his greatness; and a sure voucher for his immortality. Mr. Paine’s language is transcendently elegant; but the elegance of his language, is inadequate to the elevation of his ideas; and the elevation of his ideas to the sublimity of the present subject.132
The Boston Theater had closed its doors “on the moment of the annunciation of General Washington’s death.”133 Robert Treat was honest enough to realize that the eulogy over his eulogy was not completely merited. Writing to his father and enclosing a copy of the poem, he admitted that he knew too little about Washington to write well in his memory. The son in Newburyport did remind his parent in Boston of “that unusual share of public approbation” which greeted his work “in the town where it originated. . . .”134
While Paine was away, dramatic activity went on in Boston, but the commentaries with few exceptions were rigid, laudatory, and superficial by comparison with his. The Stranger was played several times in the fall of 1799, once on “the most tempestuous” night of the season “to a thin, but delighted auditory.” Kotzebue and Shakespeare were casually linked as colleagues in genius in the reviews of plays. Henry IV, presented in December of that year, was well cast, but “the boxes were nearly empty.” When Moreton’s Columbus; or, A World Discovered was performed a few months later, there was the special attraction of an “Explosion of a Volcano, or a Burning Mountain.”135
In the season of 1800–1801 Mrs. Whitlock was continuing to display Mrs. Haller’s miseries of conscience and intensity of repentance, thus stimulating “the tragic Muse to shed new tears in Boston.” The Stranger was said “to have deservedly engrossed much of the public favor” for several seasons. Again there was as much fuss over translations as with Lovers’ Vows, Mr. Whitlock having brought to town in 1800 a transcript of the Drury Lane prompt book “by permission of Mr. Sheridan.” Audiences were already recalling “the peculiar excellence” of Hodgkinson’s Stranger and carefully measuring Rutley’s against it. Rutley was declared to be superior in the famous final scene, in which the children effect a last-minute reconciliation between Mrs. Haller and her justifiably misanthropic husband.136
Steady repetitions of The Stranger alerted Boston critics to its echoes in the British plays arriving in America. Cumberland’s successful Wheel of Fortune was interpreted as a dramatic relative of Menschenhass und Reue:
Whether Cumberland borrowed the causes of his hero’s misanthropy from Kotzebue, or Kotzebue from him; or whether both characters are original in both authors, it is certain there is a great similarity of disposition in Baron Steinfort and Penruddock. This play is a great favourite of the English public, but is superseded by that of The Stranger in America.137
By February of 1801 Paine was taking time out from his legal work to write dramatic criticism for The Boston Gazette. William Dunlap, in his novel, Thirty Years Ago; or, The Memoirs of a Water Drinker, satirized this infidelity to the law on Paine’s part under the guise of a character named Thomas Treadwell. Treadwell, in Dunlap’s characterization,
found the drama much more to his taste, and the Muses and actresses much more fascinating, than report, records, or deeds. Treadwell’s propensities induced a constant attendance, (after the honeymoon) upon those scenes, either before or behind the curtain, which his love of idleness had made habitual; and as he wrote prologues, epilogues, and puffs, for the managers, and performers, he was a free and welcome visitor.138
One drama which lured Paine away from legal studies was Pizarro; or, The Death of Rolla (Die Spanier in Peru, oder Rollas Tod), the theatrical rage in February of 1801 and already a familiar spectacle to Boston audiences when Paine wrote his criticism. In honor of its coming in December of 1799, the entire plot had been published in minute detail, Kotzebue was called “President of the Imperial Theatre at Vienna,” Elvira’s last scenes were pronounced to be unsurpassed by anything in “the favorite comedy of The Stranger,” and the language was hailed for “boldness, perspicuity . . . , and poetic brilliance.” The lavish stage effects included “A Magnificent Pavilion . . . a wild retreat among stupendous Rocks, a dreadful storm, a torrent falling down a precipice,” and finally “a Bridge formed by a felled tree.” These were not enough. In “the course of the Scene, Rolla tears from the rock the tree which supports the bridge, and the Spaniards sink into the Cataract.” Paine’s parents-in-law played Davilla and a second Peruvian woman. Both were in the pageantry of processions and sacrifices carried on by singing priests, matrons, and virgins of the sun.139
Before Paine ever discussed Pizarro, an artisan from Drury Lane, Bromley, had spent three months at hard labor making improvements on the muchness of these scenic wonders originally established by Audin. For the performance Paine reviewed on 16 February 1801, there was a special view of Pizarro’s tent, “a Magnificent Representation of the Temple of the Sun,” which included “the Ceremony of making the Offering . . . Consumed by Fire from Above.” Rolla’s lifting of the tree and confounding of the Spaniards had already been considered too successful to be tampered with. The splendor of the Temple of the Sun thrilled New Englanders whose ancestors in England had opposed church ornamentation as well as playhouses.
Paine believed that some control and relevance had been brought into the pictorial effects by Bromley’s work. Admitting that the author of the play had aimed to produce a vehicle of “novel” scenery, the critic distinguished between kinds of spectacle: the confusing and excessive assault on the eye versus the setting which supported and heightened the drama itself. The “uncouth presentment of gorgeous coloring, and ill-managed perspective . . . dazzled by [means of] the splendid imposture” and “bewildered the imagination in search of nature and reality.” It is difficult to believe that anyone sought or found nature and reality in Pizarro. But Paine was still trying to encourage genuinely effective work in setting by defining the ideal:
Scenick ornament, if so happily portrayed, and so scientifically arranged, as to produce visual illusion, impresses the boldest similitude of life on dramatick representation, it embodies the conception of the author, by giving to abstract sentiment “a local habitation.”140
“Personation” or characterization hinged, in Paine’s theory, on the basic principle that illusion was always to be related to and to assist the initial literary intention or conception. In the triumphant coup d’oeil of Pizarro, he said, the players had perhaps caught fire from the scene. This is a telling suggestion of one reason for the play’s dominance. Scenic skill here compensated for inherent deficiencies and even gave the inspiration to players which was missing in Kotzebue’s slippery motivation. This externalized stimulus helped produce a long line of flashy performances in all countries theatrically occupied by Kotzebue.
A chilling fact related to the success of such plays as Pizarro faces those who attempt to study theatrical history. This is the recurring and great divorce between literary quality and stage triumph—exceptions like Elizabethan London quickly granted. With Pizarro the convolutions in setting, heroic ranting, familial sentiment, and the triumph of virtue after a due enjoyment of its opposite are no full answer to a complex question. All of these elements can be found in stillborn American plays of the time. Kotzebue applied a fatal skill to the mixture. Paine, who was against “a superstitious sacrifice to scenery” or “a cynical expression of romance,” gave some enlightenment on this brand of popularity:
The contrivance of the plot is so exquisitely managed that, when well presented, the ingenuity of the fiction insinuates an interest as powerful, as that of real life, because for the moment it is believed, and more subtle, because it captivates by illusion.141
Contrivance, ingenuity, and insinuation are keys in this case of victorious theatrical illusion.
Mrs. Whitlock played the Elvira watched by Paine. Her practice as Mrs. Haller stood her in good stead here, since she was once again in the role of participating in wrongdoing and rich repentance. Having made the titillating admission in the first scene that she turned to Pizarro out of “Passion, infatuation, call it what you will,” Elvira is by the last act in an orgy of remorse and has her outraged relatives much in mind. The insinuated pleasures are thus tearfully floated back to a sphere of seeming morality:
Then, the last shrieks which burst from my mother’s breaking heart, as she died, appealing to her God against the seducer of her child! Then the bloodstifled groan of my murder’d brother . . . seeking atonement for his sister’s ruin’d honor.142
While Elvira explores the pitfall of passion, Pizarro, too, after a due indulgence in conquest and cruelty, has learned something—that ambition does not pay. Like the baron facing the pastor in Lovers’ Vows, he has “sunk confounded and subdued” before a “native dignity of soul.” The soul is Rolla’s. But it is too late for Pizarro to do much beyond being killed—after wishing he could “evade” his own reflections: “No . . . Thought and memory are my Hell.”143 By 1847 Bostonians were to receive a less impassioned account of Francisco Pizarro’s activities via William Prescott’s Conquest of Peru.
Pizarro inspired Paine to present a few of the criteria by which he judged. Loath to give “indiscriminate praise,” he despised “malignant censure” as well. Confronted by such an array of officers, priests, virgins, matrons, Spaniards, and Peruvians who might expect a few words each, he rejected the idea of giving a laudatory or damnatory sentence to every member of the cast from “the Roscius who enacts ‘Hamlet,’ down to his brother orator the carpenter, who plays the ‘Cock.’” For the benefit of his cataloguing colleagues, he observed: “Some criticks are indeed a great deal like the clerk of a militia company on a parade day; their whole duty consists in calling over the muster roll of its members, without either examining their arms, or improving their discipline.”144 Mr. Jones, who played Alonzo, Cora’s husband whom Pizarro imprisoned and Rolla saved, was shortly destined for the role in real life of deceived husband—with Paine cast as the lover.
Other Kotzebue dramas besides Lovers’ Vows, The Stranger, and Pizarro reached Boston in one form or another. In the fall of 1799 Barrett brought out and acted the hero in “the ingenious Mr. Dunlap’s “Count Benyowski (Graf Benjowski). The play was received as a study of “the strongest passion in the human breast,” the struggle for freedom from bondage. Kotzebue’s “striking incidents” and revelations of “the deepest sympathies of the heart” were applauded, as was the combination of those watchwords of the time—“unity of plan” and “variety of incident.”145
While patriotic toasts were being drunk to John Adams’ administration in late 1800, there were also tributes to the German playwright with the preparations for the first Boston performance of Sighs; or, The Daughter (Armut und Edelsinn) in the Hoare translation. The difficulties of fully transmitting “the character of the German drama” to the “genius of English representation” were emphasized. It was also noted that former Kotzebue plays were enough to bring persons of taste to this new offering, that those benighted enough never to have seen the predecessors would be drawn by the established local fame of the dramatist. Mrs. Whitlock played Josephine, Von Snarl’s daughter. And the response came up to expectations.146
In 1800, False Shame; or, The American Orphan in Germany (Falsche Scham) came to Boston,147 bringing a German image of a bit of United States history. Emmy, the orphan, is dubbed a “dear little American.” In the English and Hessian assault on Charlestown, Emmy, a helpless child in the ruins of the city, is saved by Captain Erlach. Even in the flames this young and orphaned linguist speaks English, French, and German with equal fluency and has, instead of a strawberry mark, the significant initials “A.M.” on her clothes. After she grows up in Germany and several identities are cleared up in intense reunions, Emmy and her rescuer will marry. The picture of their honeymoon cottage was to become a familiar image of sentiment in American popular imaginings of German home life:
Yes, we will buy us a little country place in an Alpine dale, where the friendly sun shall shine on our cot, where aromatic herbs shall breathe health around us, and wild roses artlessly bloom like thy cheeks. There will we join in the dances of the free-hearted Shepherds—Huzza! Erlach and his lovely wife.148
Translations of selected German poetry and prose were to bring in and embellish like images of rural bowers abroad. Nineteenth-century American travellers were to write comparable gilded accounts. When Mark Twain, remembering Auerbach’s tales of the Black Forest, gave his description of a German forest home, he set off a refreshing literary explosion:
Before the ground-floor door was a huge pile of manure. The door of a second-story room on the side of the house was open, and occupied by the rear elevation of a cow . . . All of the front half of the house from the ground up seemed to be occupied by the people, the cows, and the chickens, and all the rear half by draught animals and hay. But the chief feature all around this house was the big heaps of manure.149
Despite Kotzebue’s attractions, Shakespeare, Cibber, Lillo, Sheridan, Colman, Mrs. Cowley, and Mrs. Centlivre—even New England’s own David Everett—were among the survivors who continued to be represented in Boston during the German’s heyday. Mrs. Grundy came to town in Morton’s Speed the Plough. Mrs. Whitlock turned from Kotzebue to another German dramatist and gave Bostonians their first acquaintance with the story of Agnes of Bernauer via Toerring-Guttenzell’s Tournament. The aristocratic ties of the German author were stressed, along with the play’s combination of the “tenderest emotions” with splendid trappings such as a bridge across a stage Danube. The same actress further displayed “her educated mind” and “discrimination of taste” in such non-German roles as Euphrasia in Murphy’s Grecian Daughter. “Dr.” Smollett was dubbed “the elegant Novelist,” and his Reprisal was theatrically “localiz’d and rendered truly American; exhibiting to each brave tar his own portrait; and to each lover of his country a pleasing prospect of its future prosperity.”150 Literary patriotism was still alive. The stage diet had many variations. But at the turn of the century Kotzebue’s name led all the rest.
Besides watching processions to the heavily used Temple of the Sun, Paine had managed to gain sufficient legal knowledge by mid 1802 to be handling such cases as that of Ebenezer Steele, a bankrupt.151 Yet respectable society, which had first undertaken to reform and then to welcome him back as a poet who now had a solid profession to add weight to his odes, was to be disappointed again. Paine was on the verge of a new “enthrallment” with an actress other than Mrs. Paine, who had early retired from the stage. This affair was at least a form of devotion to his real interest, the theater, and perhaps less significant than the straying into German byways of the critic who had once gone in pursuit of American playwrights.
Residue of a German Fad
A German playwright had won the attention hopefully promised in 1794 to American Terences and Sheridans, especially to any originating in New England. Early suspicions that foreign modes might be insinuated through the theater had become a reality. The Kotzebue vogue was to go through stages of dissension as it waned. Not decisively over when the interest of audiences began to subside, the fashion and the rebellion against it extended previous awareness of continental activities. Kotzebue’s name and background persisted as objects of interest, and when he was assassinated, Boston periodicals were almost as concerned as if he had been born on the banks of the Charles and stabbed in State Street.152
The fad also deposited remnants of information about greater Germans. Weimar and its luminaries were part of Kotzebue’s own rhapsodic accounts of his progress to fame. In 1799 The Constant Lover (Geprüfte Liebe) prefaced by “My Literary Life” was printed in Boston.153 Here Kotzebue begs “ye fairy phantoms of my happy childhood” to “Rise then! rise before me!” Lessing and Goethe are among those who rise. To illustrate his devotion to the Weimar theater, the Duchess Amalia, and the “admirable” Eckhof, and to display his own mental prowess, Kotzebue reminisced: “I could repeat the whole of Lessing’s Emilia Galotti without ever having had the book in my hand. To the honour of the fashionable world at Weimar, I must confess indeed that Emilia Galotti was very often performed, and always to full houses.”154 He also told of being taken by Musaeus to see The Death of Adam by Klopstock, whose name was already more familiar to Americans than that of Lessing, although Minna von Barnhelm had appeared in the guise of The Baroness of Bruchsal in Charleston and as The Disbanded Officer in Philadelphia, and Fanny Holcroft’s translation was to be printed in Boston in 1810.
In Kotzebue’s autobiographical account available to Bostonian readers, Goethe seems to have met an awkward situation with the tact of literary silence:
Goethe used to visit in our house; he heard of my comedy, and was so condescending, or so polite, as to ask a reading of it. By this wish he highly gratified my mother; and this probably was his object, for I never heard more of the comedy. This able man, however, in my boyish days always treated me with great kindness.155 It was later that Kotzebue out-Werthered Werther in a romance he believed “at the time, was nothing inferior to Goethe’s” by having his hero precipitate himself “from the top of a high rock” and “dashed to pieces.” A perceptive Leipzig publisher demanded that the author pay the rejection postage.156 In The Constant Lover, which accompanied this account of a literary career, New Englanders were reading a narrative enlivened by Kotzebue with such dramatic interludes as:
Jeannette. O heavens! what is the matter with you? Rise!
William. I cannot.
Jeannette. Why not?
William. I have broke my leg.157
In an article on the dramatist in 1800 The Columbian Phoenix and Boston Review honored Weimar as “a city, which has long been considered as the most refined in Germany, as far as relates to the manners of the inhabitants.” Its “seminary” was named the source of this refinement—an institution in which “extensive erudition” could be combined with polished manners “by a constant intercourse with the Court of the reigning Duke.”158 This view of Kotzebue as the flower of an elegant background was soon to be darkened and complicated by the attackers who stressed the corruption in ethics and in dramatic form carried by his plays.
Paine’s demands in The Orrery for native playwrights take on ironical overtones in his having become identified with and having profited from the Boston premiere of Lovers’ Vows and in the close consideration he gave to Pizarro. The surviving account of his own unfinished play suggests in the exotic setting, violent shifts of character, neo-heroic rodomontade, and victorious sentiment that Kotzebue’s successful stage version of Peruvian affairs had left a mark.159
By 1802 the Boston theater was already old enough to allow brooding comparisons of present flaws with past strength. And Paine’s writing on the state of the drama took on a new dimension. His earlier explorations of the problem of the artist in America were extended. His youthful optimism which had reflected post-Revolutionary national exuberance was tempered. The literary declaration of independence, which had followed the political declaration signed by the senior Paine, had not brought the great, swift responses expected.
Paine’s examination of the complex reasons for the delay was not softened by the glowing reception of his own effusions in verse. The beguiling public notion that his rhymes had bestowed immortality on George Washington could easily have blurred a lesser man’s thinking or lulled him into a passive acceptance of his narrow world. Despite these eulogies he kept alert enough to see the implications of the growing industrialization and commercial power of America. The question of the missing true geniuses in contrast with the daily announcements of quick substitutes had become to Paine the question of the value his society placed on the arts and the relative rewards given writers and mechanics. Analysis of the obstacles to the theater and the drama led ultimately to this larger, disturbing issue. High-flown advertisements were insufficient in a setting where the preliminary development of potential applicants was impossible. These challenges of the American milieu were later to be reiterated into commonplaces by native critics. Far from accepting or guarding the status quo, Paine was very early in trying to move from the cultural ailment to its causes and in catching his own society in fundamental errors of attitude toward the artist:
’Tis pitiful, ’tis wondrous pitiful, that the appetite, it deserves not the name of passion, for “buying and selling, and getting gain,” should “like Aaron’s rod,” have swallowed up all the nobler faculties of man, and the highest considerations of his intellectual existence. The fine and elegant arts are unnaturalized aliens; and useful literature is dwindling, like an exotic, through the negligence of cultivation. The humblest delver in mechanics, calculates on greater and more certain profits, and consequently, in our enlightened country, on higher honors, than the most ardent and successful literary adventurer!160
He reminded the prosperous citizens that the “Senators of magisterial Rome in no wise derogated from their dignity when they suspended the duties of Empire, and mingled their imperial purple with the ‘fat and greasy citizens,’ to dwell with admiration and extacy [sic] on the comic powers of the fascinating Roscius.”
Believing that interest in the drama was lagging and that the dreams of the seventeen nineties were being betrayed through public indifference, Paine asked for “a resuscitation of the public spirit of ’93 and ’94.” Defining “the primary and essential object of a disciplined theatre” as “the dissemination of knowledge, the culture of taste,” he remembered to salve the Puritan conscience with the eighteenth-century critical precept of “the depression of vice, and the illustration of morality” which might be accomplished by a vigorous theater. The guilt for the neglect of the drama he placed with the “ladies of fortune and fashion” and “the gentlemen of influence and station.”
He attacked both the mental vacuity and the materialism of the leaders of Boston circles, into which he had been born. “’Tis strange, ’tis passing strange that our fair ones should be more assiduous to decorate their bodies than embellish their minds; more attentive to the transparency of the glass, than the recondite springs of human action.”161 Paine had, just a week before expressing his indignation at his materialistic neighbors, gone to see the dramatic spectacle Columbus; or, America Discovered played “to boxes scarce of auditors.” Seeing it for what it was, a scenic display of heroism with a factual plot, he was yet distressed at the lack of public support. Kotzebue fans might have recognized the exterior and interior views of the Temple of the Sun, the representation of volcanic eruptions, and the destruction of the Temple by an earthquake, all used in staging Morton’s piece.162
At Henry IV, given shortly before the end of this season, Paine approved Bates’s Falstaff for correctness of interpretation and the actor’s avoidance of obvious stage devices: “The forced shuffle of low comedy, which actors are too apt to put on with their red stockings, was wholly lost in the majestic stride of those noble pedestals, which supported the incumbency of a whole Vicarage of Sack.”163 A critic, who signed himself “X.Y.,” alternating with Paine in the dramatic section of The Boston Gazette, wrote in conciliatory and diffuse terms in contrast to the language of the lawyer who was now stealing time to see a number of plays. “X.Y.” was given to raptures: “Magnificent scenery, winning by vision the mind from reflection; and impalpable deception, before whose airy charm Reason herself stands spellstopp’d.”164
Late in 1802 and in the beginning of 1803, Abaellino; or, The Great Bandit, based on the Zschokke novel and play, Abällino, der grosse Bandit, attracted capacity houses. Dunlap’s translation and adaptation was used, and Schiller was given confused credit for the original and for singular morality among German dramatists: “This Play is a translation or rather an imitation from the German of Schiller; and stands in point of moral sentiment, a solitary and honorable exception to the common charge against the lax virtue of the German drama.” The play was interpreted as “a probe, to the crimes of ambitious profligates on whom the Social Sanction has lost its force and obligation.” The local publication of the drama was also promoted under Schiller’s name and the world-wide celebrity of his Robbers, which had come to Boston by 1798, earlier than any of Kotzebue’s works.
As in the case of this Zschokke play attributed to Schiller, defensive assertions were accumulating when German works were brought forward; they were offered as rare individual exceptions to the general immorality of the German stage. A revival of Kotzebue’s Benyowsky in 1803 was accompanied by praises for its being “at once natural and moral” and by regrets that “In these requisites the Germans do not often excel.”
One of the most biting expressions of the opposition to the recent Germanic monopoly of the theater and of dramatic taste in Boston came in the verses Winthrop Sargent published the same season in which Abaellino incited such fervor:
When German dulness triumphs o’er the age
(By far more dull upon a stupid stage;)
When sound and gewgaw take the place of sense;
And Shakespeare gives the public ear offence,
Taste is deprav’d; and all that we enjoy
Are sensual pleasures of the ear and eye.
Boston, in thee I view with filial fire,
All that I hate, and much that I admire.
On the first night they saw Abaellino, the noble Venetian outlaw, the audience itself became a spectacle:
During the performance of some of the principal scenes, a great portion of the boxes and pit rose from their seats, as if actuated by a sort of instinctive and curious speculation, which each one felt, but no one could readily describe. The mind had become impatient for the issue, and had roused itself to anticipate an event, the mystery of which had grown too interesting to refuse the relief of prophecy.165
Bostonians were still rising from their seats at Abaellino in January of the next year. The grand heroic pantomime, Oscar and Malvina; or, The Hall of Fingal, was less successful, although it did present “Oscar’s Leap from a Tower 18 feet in Height.”
Perhaps the greatest night during the season came at the benefit for the favorite actress, Mrs. Powell. She chose to do The School for Scandal, which had been off the boards for four years. This was followed by Colman’s Blue Beard, which included in its effects “Two Elephants as large as life.” Pit, green boxes, and gallery were overflowing, and about two hundred people were turned away disappointed. The following summer, when the theater opened for a special celebration of Independence Day, one Bostonian remarked that in New York a native playwright had managed to write a drama for July fourth, The Glory of Columbia. Envy led to the reprimand that “with similar encouragement in this town, the genius of New England would be stimulated to a similar exertion.”166 The Glory of Columbia was William Dunlap’s André in patriotic garb. The hope for a native drama still was alive.
By late 1803 Paine deserted the law and gave most of his time to writing on the theater and to fascinating the remarkable actress, Mrs. Jones.167 Paine’s second major farewell to Boston respectability began in October with Mrs. Jones’s reappearance after a theatrical absence of three years. Although her “air of madness” as Ophelia in New York could throw John Howard Payne into a state of “melting melancholy,”168 she was also “the first Comic Actress in America.” She was triumphant as Peggy in Garrick’s Country Girl, “exhibiting . . . rural cunning with a simple poignant archness.”169 As Jessica in The Merchant of Venice she was a “little syren.”170 In 1806 Londoners were informed in a communiqué on the state of the American theater that this stage hoyden and siren was the reigning comedy queen on the other side of the Atlantic.171
When Paine began his affair with Mr. Jones’s wife, he took care as critic to give due appreciation to the wronged husband’s talents, saying the actor had made “strides towards a very high pitch of excellence” and “trebled his estimation in the public mind.”172 Paine had earlier praised Mr. Jones’s spirit as Alonzo confronting Pizarro, though he had noted that the actor sometimes executed “indifferently.” In a delicate understatement one stage historian described this triangle as “domestic disquiet” entering the “dwelling” of Mrs. Jones.173 When Paine died, much was blamed on the affair. The “enthralment” was called a “death blow to all his fair prospects and to all his professional exertions.”174 With her four children Mrs. Jones left her spellbinding in New England to make a triumphant New York appearance by 27 November 1805. Her husband left her and went to act in Charleston. After she died of consumption at the age of twenty-four,175 Mrs. Inchbald’s Every One has His Fault, with its echoes of Lovers’ Vows, was appropriately chosen for the Boston theater benefit for her orphans.
In the season of 1803–1804 Paine gave a retrospect of the ups and downs of the theater since its beginnings:
In the history of our Theatre, such an example had before existed; but there has been a gloomy interval of some years, during which the violent irritation of contending interests was succeeded by a woeful debility both of taste and patronage. This period was the dark age of the drama; her fables were deemed profane; her charms were sorcery. Or, rather comparing the attraction of the scene, both before and since that period, it seems to have been connected with the stage, by accident, but without having any relation to its interests—like a blank leaf between two plays bound in one volume, without deriving wit or sentiment from either of its neighbours. This digression will be pardoned by those, who feel as we do, an unmixed pleasure in the revival of theatrical taste, and the bounty with which the town encourages the efforts of talent.176
In the very moment of seeming success Paine refused to consider that whatever was, was right in the theatrical world. He now delivered some of his most astringent comments on stage conditions, and gave a healthy and strong criticism which might prolong the life and meaning of the institution in which he so firmly believed. Stressing the limitations of the florid declamatory style, he saw its consequences as rigidity and lack of unity in the presentation of the play as a whole. Fundamental to his criticism was the idea of fidelity to the entire dramatic conception. Declaiming players were threatened with a chilly audience:
. . . such an actor, we say, holds a broken “mirror up to nature,” and shows no “form and pressure” but of his own monstrous absurdity and arrogance. In such cases, the image of life becomes as preternatural and distorted, as Fuseli’s night-fiend. . . . The family of Thespis ought to know that of all the beauties of dramatic exhibition, there is none so impressive, nor so universally noticed, as the preservation of the integrity of the fiction. Want of strict attention to this principle is sure to mar a scene—perhaps a play.—in such cases, too, the actor is sometimes punished by the mortifying gravity of the audience, who sit bomb-proof against the cannonade of his eloquence, and seem as fixed and motionless as the head of one of the Caesars, chiselled by a Stonecutter.177
Paine watched a fresh George Barnwell in 1803, Mrs. Whitlock’s son. The young actor had neglected to learn his part, and Barnwell seemed “like a fine child, stolen away by Gypsies, and stained with walnut juice to prevent detection.”178 For another favorite play Paine put in a request, which was granted; he wanted to see John Bernard as Sir Peter in The School for Scandal. Bernard was to Paine a first-rate as opposed to a low comedian. His precision “gently touched in the correct shadowings of his execution,” and inspired Paine to an essay on the problems of discrimination in stage clowning.179 The younger Colman’s John Bull was a hit of the season, a comedy complete with the “sententious moralist, the ‘wit-cracking’ Hibernian, the embarrassed lover, the Bond-street beau, the honest brazier and feeling father, the simple, lovely daughter and the lady of fashion.”180
Writing in 1803 and 1804 under his pseudonym of Macklin, thus recalling Garrick’s contemporary who was a critic of actors, an actor, and author of the popular Man of the World, Paine was recognized by his contemporaries as a critic powerful enough “to direct the current of public taste, and raise the stage to that degree of consideration . . . it is entitled to receive from those who have claims on taste and fashion.”181 Allingham’s Marriage Promise was performed on 24 February 1804, and Paine found it wanting in strength and sparkle: “This comedy, on the whole, may be arranged, among the grades of the dramas as a pleasant, interesting, moral play—exhibiting more of grace than of vigor, and more of playfulness than of wit.”182 Cheap Living, applauded warmly as any play of that season, Paine declared to be no more than a piece of “slight but showy texture.” The title was singularly appropriate for “a festival of humor” applied “to garnish an unexceptionable fable.”183
The same February, Pizarro, with Barrett as Rolla and the unlucky Mr. Jones as Alonzo, was repeated and the play dismissed as “too long and too familiarly known to the public, to attract a numerous audience.”184 But leading actors and actresses were still including key Kotzebue parts in their offerings in 1805 and 1806. Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, who had been the first Stranger and the first Frederick ever seen in New York, was playing Rolla in Boston in March of 1805, and a lengthy discussion of the play was issued in the fall of the next year.185 Rolla was lightly coupled with Lear in a theatrical verse in Polyanthos.186 Alonzo and Cora with her child appeared as a prize example of conjugal and maternal affection in the “Beauties of the Drama” section of The Boston Times,187 for which Paine wrote some of his best essays on the drama. The Kotzebue dialogue chosen involved Cora’s dream that the child had cut a tooth, and might have given pause to the champions as well as to the opponents of the theater. In the spring of 1807 when Mrs. Poe was romping over the Boston stage as Priscilla Tomboy, The Stranger was challenged by one Oliver Oakley, to whom “the moral of the play” afforded “but little gratification.”188
Kotzebue’s status as a literary authority in forms other than the drama persisted both by means of reprints of his own prose, such as The Most Remarkable Year of My Life, and by means of the use of his name as a sanction in the introduction of better writers. Employing Kotzebue as a kind of reference, The Boston Times, as late as 1808, devoted six installments to the life and works of Musaeus. This series led off with “A Short Sketch of the Life and Character of the Learned and Excellent Musaeus. By his Pupil Kotzebue.” The playwright told how astonished the literati of Weimar had been to discover a Swift in their midst in the author of The Physiognomical Travels. Kotzebue also dwelt on the techniques Musaeus used in gathering folk material for his tales.
The large subject of German literature was bandied about on the basis of a relatively meager or one-sided knowledge of its real offerings. The ramifications of Kotzebue’s initial popularity in New England at the turn of the century may be traced through the years following in a journal of cultural interests, The Emerald. The taking in vain of Shakespeare’s name had brought vigorous reactions by July 1806:
When I mark the popular preference of German lead to British gold; when I see men flock to the theatre at the introduction of Schiller and Kotzebue, but leave the seats empty at the entrance of Shakespeare, as were those of the Roman senate at the entrance of Cataline, as if the company of either were equally disgraceful; my blood boils; I could rend the dome with imprecations—I quit the house in disgust and exclaim, as I pass through the door, Odi profanum vulgus; I hate the mob.189
The day before this Horatian explosion appeared, two local poets had celebrated the fourth of July in song. In his rousing rhymes Paine, one of the bards injected “pilgrim Keels” and an assurance of an America replete with honors, a conviction which was absent in his criticism. His lines were sung to the tune, “Whilst happy in my native land.” The other song writer, Samuel Woodworth, best known for his “Old Oaken Bucket,” twined laurel around Washington’s brow, and exulted:
Then let mad Europe blush to see,
That Peace can dwell with Liberty.190
“Mad Europe” was, however, steadily becoming more familiar territory to Boston readers. That same July they had a choice of Kotzebue’s Travels through Italy in 1804 and 1805 or Holcroft’s Travels from Hamburg, through Westphalia, Holland, and the Netherlands to Paris. Among the circulating poets, Gessner’s Idyls were still available as was Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel. They could browse through four volumes of the Correspondence of Samuel Richardson or the Memoirs of Talleyrand.191 A New England Adams and a future President had already explored Silesia, although the Philadelphia Port Folio had been the first to publish his observations.192
Emerald columns of memorable literary reflections included Kotzebue’s broodings on such matters as Seneca and grief. His observations of Naples were reprinted. The success of the plays had elevated him to the role of world thinker and traveller. Another German honored was Gellert, with a sizable translation, “The Wisdom of Providence,” in the “original poetry” section. And Wieland was given an editorial nod as well as an extract: “We have often been surprised that the Oberon of Wieland, translated by Sotheby [sic] was not better known among us. The copy is scarce and not even to be found in our circulating libraries.”193
Morton’s popular Speed the Plough, playing on 13 October 1806, was hailed as a salutary turn against the tide of German drama. The author was admired for liberating the English stage from “German importations, of character without consistency,—and sentiment without virtue” and for reconciling “the favors of the German stage, by abruptness and mystery, but not by immorality and licentiousness. . . .” Functions of dramatic art came into the discussions. The precepts of “moral purpose” or “moral tendency” were violated, it was claimed, by the bringing of German plays to the English stage—“inasmuch as their stories are generally founded on some crime committed, which for the good of society ought never to be forgiven, but which the catastrophe seldom fails to extenuate.”194
Schiller was occasionally emerging as superior to his popular countryman, with whom he had been loosely ranked in American commentary. Biographical sketches of Schiller in The Emerald said that his soul was “panting for liberty” in The Robbers, that he “united German industry with the elegance of the ancients,” and that “instigated by Reinhold” he indefatigably studied the criticism of Kant.195 The fragmentary knowledge and secondhand accounts led to fat generalizations in notices on intellectual pursuits in Germany. Simultaneously with word that Kotzebue’s crown was slipping and that Lavater had been supplanted by Dr. Gall, came news that Kant had had his day, complete with a warning against the dangers of philosophy:
Kant is not hurled or fallen suddenly from his throne, but is gradually sinking into oblivion, so that his name is now almost as seldom mentioned as that of the Summits Aristoteles. The difficulty, and even the danger, attending the study of the higher branches of philosophy and metaphysics, has become more and more evident; and the number of metaphysical writers seems to have again decreased in Germany.196
Statistics were safer than metaphysics. A “literary and philosophical” announcement calculated “new literary works by nations” for 1805 with England at 800, France 1150, and Germany “not less than 4685.” The American editor was either wistful or impressed in emphasizing that in the German output “there are only 63 novels.” No figures were given for America.197
Another New England magazine, The Polyanthos, printed “Some Account of Gellert,” in which the movement of eighteenth-century Germany was traced from “little notice from the rest of Europe” to “a distinguished rank in the republick of letters.”198 This rapid rise in world esteem could be especially inspiring to an American editor. Germany was, however, warned against the notion that she could claim “an absolute pre-eminence” in literature and firmly reminded that she still had work to do to reach that level.
By the next year a reprint appeared of the Abbé Raynal’s comparisons of the virtues of various tongues. Italian was named the language of poetry and music, French of prose, truth, and reason, English of ideas, and Spanish the noble support of Cervantes and Mariana. The role allotted to German might dizzy a modern philologist:
The German is the most ancient of all our living languages. . . . She gave birth to the English and even to the French by a mixture with the Latin. But, illformed for the eye, and for the more delicate organs, it has continued in the mouths of the speakers without presuming till lately to appear in volumes. Its dearth of writers announced a country unfavourable to the fine arts, to poetry and to eloquence. But genius has suddenly soared from her groves, and a variety of original Poets now dispute the palm with other nations.199
If German groves had produced unusual flights, so could local ones. Paine became the American epic poet in The Emerald. He had, after all, celebrated America’s political gods “at a time when the whole continent was emulous of distinction for the combination of patriotic sentiments with poetic inspiration. . . .” But his work on less inspiring levels was considered a matter for serious regret. Although his verses were “like those of Homer recited by every tongue,” he had wasted himself “in humble connexions” and had fallen to “local topics and the politics of the day.” His theatrical pioneering was presumably one of the lowly “local topics.”200
The same year that German was presented as the tool of a variety of new geniuses and given such a motherly role among languages, there were biting comments on the blasphemies carried by this same historical tongue. The “familiar use of sacred expressions, as well as the Atheism of ‘Osmond’ in Monk Lewis’ Castle Spectre” were claimed to “speak forcibly the intimacy of the author with German literature.”201 The guilt involved form as well as content. The opposing forces were distinguished as the native wit and nature of Shakespeare and Garrick versus strained sentiment and affected delicacy. The German drama was named the culpable ally of the enemy forces which overcame pure comedy and tragedy with “the monsters of melodrama, farce and tragi-comedy.” Morton, Lewis, Colman, and Cumberland were marshalled as the dramatists “inoculated with the virus of German composition.”202 The denigration of a barely known group of German dramatists had been stimulated by over familiarity with one playwright of that country and with his British borrowers. The commentaries are ambivalent, with curiosity about and tribute to the impressive rise of Germany in literature on the one hand and, on the other, attacks on the poor samples of that literature which were most apparent in Boston.
When The Rovers was reprinted in Buckingham’s Bostonian periodical, The Ordeal, in May of 1809, it was introduced as an exposé of “the system of German composition, and even of the Melo-Drama, a species of writing infinitely more ridiculous.” The original notes in The Anti-Jacobin which underlined particular targets were enlarged upon in New England. In the Ordeal commentary the prevailing “sentiment” of German plays was claimed to have “a bad tendency.” Cabal and Love was mentioned in The Anti-Jacobin; the Ordeal discussion was extended to make this Schiller play a glaring instance of minute stage direction and of more serious faults:
A ludicrous example of an introduction of circumstances which have no agency in promoting the progress of a fable, and which when mixed with serious contemplations, destroys their effect; and renders the whole ridiculous. . . . So in Cabal and Love, Ferdinand, after a rhapsody about the seraphick sweetness of Louisa, asks her the great question on which his happiness or misery depends—“Didst thou write that letter?”
One note, not in the original Anti-Jacobin, is a grandiose sweeping together of Kotzebue and his betters: “See the plays of Kotzebue and Schiller, almost universally.” The Ordeal tried to foster some fairness in the attack by the idea that certain German literary obsessions were shared by other nations: “The sympathy, which some writers bestow on the characters they describe, is truly astonishing. It is not peculiar to Kotzebue and Schiller, but to modern English novelists, and various other authors.”203
The Rovers, as a careful German study has shown, is a satire against Goethe, Schiller, and Kotzebue, against German “Sturm und Drang.”204 Recently Edmund Wilson has called it a “burlesque of Schiller.” A long road in the history of the American theater and criticism lies between the Ordeal’s use of and comment on the British satire of German drama and Wilson’s attack on that satire as “aggressively Philistine . . . slapstick and uninventive.”205 Kotzebue scenes were fresh memories and miseries to Joseph Tinker Buckingham, the Ordeal editor who enjoyed the parody and who had himself been a temporary actor with the Boston company which performed Alexander the Great, Romeo and Juliet, The Mountaineers, Blue Beard, Abaellino, and Count Benyowsky in Salem and Providence in the summer of 1803.206
As the roles of Mrs. Haller and Rolla became staples in the theatrical repertoire of the time, the reactions against their creator accumulated, bringing an odd mixture of fact and fancy. Kotzebue’s German betters were prejudged in a process of literary guilt by association. Ardent supporters of the drama and the stage who turned against Kotzebue found themselves ironically involved in employing the arguments of the opposition. The eighteenth-century critical concept of the theater as a school of ethics and instruction in social behavior was prolonged by the rebellion.
Such plays as The Stranger added to critical and creative confusion over dramatic genres. In the “tragedy” of Pizarro earlier tendencies to spectacle had reached an elaborate consummation with characterization deceptively entangled in stage machinery. The declamatory style of acting, the “big bow-wow” elocution which Paine fought against, had been encouraged in such roles as Frederick, Elvira, and Rolla. Hasty translations, made with an eye to quick receipts from a playwright whose originals leave something to be desired stylistically, did little to stimulate high standards for dramatic language in audience or playwrights. The perplexities of critics as to foreign versus native literature had only been multiplied. The Kotzebue era in New England is less a case of direct influence on American drama, which cannot be proved, than a case of indirect complications of the issue of culture and morality and the forming of attitudes toward the literary output of a foreign country.
A pattern in cultural relationships was being drawn well before 1810—the preference for the saccharine in and a distrust of the ethics purveyed by German literature. This distrust preceded the vexations both of those American theologians who were to be shaken by the enthusiasm of some of their transcendental countrymen for the work of German thinkers and of those later writers who found in Goethe’s late marriage and his heroes a painful immorality. William Dean Howells’ concern over Goethe’s character and characters is a haunting echo of much earlier outbursts of anxiety in New England over the bad principles deviously propagated by German drama:
There is a kind of thing—a kind of metaphysical lie against righteousness and common-sense—which is called the Unmoral, and is supposed to be different from the Immoral; and it is this which is supposed to cover many of the faults of Goethe. His Wilhelm Meister, for example, is so far removed within the region of the “ideal” that its unprincipled, its evil-principled, tenor in regard to women is pronounced “unmorality,” and is therefore inferably harmless. But no study of Goethe is complete without some recognition of the qualities which caused Wordsworth to hurl the book across the room with an indignant perception of its sensuality. For the sins of his life Goethe was perhaps sufficiently punished in his life by his final marriage with Christiane; for the sins of his literature many others must suffer.207
The popular theatrical taste of the turn of the century and its aftermath may be one source of the critical biases and literary diet of later generations. The persistent nineteenth-century American sentimentalizing of Germany mingled with suspicions of the morals of her greatest writers may be traced in part to the tearful triumphs of Kotzebue and the reaction against him, which coalesced into repeated warnings of the dangerous immorality which might emanate from German works. This may be a clue to, rather than a full explanation of, the subsequent preference for such Germans as Auerbach on one level and Eugenie John, alias E. Marlitt, on another. The journalistic furor engendered by Kotzebue at the very end of the eighteenth century affected the reception and rejections of his more intrinsically significant countrymen. The best to be said for his sojourn among the Bostonians is that he was inadvertently involved in the awakening, with whatever confusions, of a provincial consciousness to the offerings of a European nation whose own struggle for literary independence was still fairly recent history in 1800.
Players, Critics, and Playwrights
Acting is an art exalted in the writing of America’s early theatrical observers. This concentration on players over plays came partly from the fact that great contemporary dramatists were conspicuously missing both in England and America at the close of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. Playwrights like Kotzebue and his British and American translators and riflers had given richer opportunities to managers and to players than to hopeful literary critics. Throughout the first decade of the Boston theater Paine had watched a range of actors. He had seen gifted ones casually spent by managers in inferior plays. And he had seen first-rate plays marred by feeble performers. Actors and actresses had bemoaned to him the transitory nature of an art which too often depended for its record on human memory and for its encouragement on popular whim.
The conviction that American players as well as German plays were inevitably depraved had remained unshaken in the minds of many Bostonians. Occasional articles stressed the irreproachable family life of upright exceptions in the theatrical world. Blamelessness protested too much suggests the fundamental attitude. Paine was conscious of giving both the account and the defense of an art. He insisted that the best author’s work might “perish by stage suffocation, or totter to death in a rickety representation. What is wit without its conductor?”208 In his last series of dramatic essays he was happily concerned with Shakespeare and with the critical controversy over the respective merits of two of the leading actors then on the American stage, Thomas Abthorpe Cooper and James Fennell.209
These essays appeared in The Boston Times, established in 1807 with its frivolous purposes openly declared by the editor. Without a moral tremor, it was announced that The Times intended neither instruction nor reform, but was addressed to Bostonians “who perhaps in a leisure half-hour might be glad to meet with a small portion to beguile them of themselves.”210 The drama was included as a fitting part of the light-minded periodical.
Paine’s reviewing for 1808 began with an attack on quibbling critics who focused on detail at the expense of the whole play and actors who were impeccable in minutiae but uninspired in their total conception. Orthoëpy was often uppermost in the minds of theatrical critics of the time. Paine scorned these writers who gave “elaborate dissertation[s] on points of effect, which the author never conceived, or a stop-watch lecture, from the doctrine of pauses, on the differences between a comma and a colon.” To Paine the deadly result of this obsessive correctness was emotional chill. He preferred “a scenic explosion” to the pomposity of acting which “cannot kindle upon any occasion.”211
The rival claims of Cooper and Fennell were a favorite topic among theatergoers, not only in Boston but in New York and Philadelphia. The differences in their conceptions and deliveries of character and the attempt to define those differences were a great stimulus to the increasing number of those who called themselves thespian mirrors, dramatic registrars, or theatrical censors. Conceivably many spectators liked the two equally well, but most of the records were left by those who took a stand. Paine chose Cooper, who had made a triumphal entry on the Boston stage well before 1808, having come first in 1798 and again in 1805 and 1806.
Cooper’s 1805 visit had caused a near riot, partly instigated by the professional jealousy of the regular members of the Boston company. Lately returned from England to America, Cooper had enjoyed successful runs in Philadelphia and New York. There had been a public demand for his appearance in Boston, a demand interpreted by a writer in the Boston Gazette as an instance of the high level of local taste. The performers, however, were less hospitable, and the manager of the theater was told on the morning of 6 March 1805 that a group had formed to create “a Riot at the Theatre this evening, and had appointed a Committee to purchase tickets to be distributed among hired partizans, in various parts of the House.” In his alarm the manager closed the theater, thereby sparing “the friends of decorum” a painful experience. The jealousies were financially placated, and Cooper appeared in Boston for the whole of the next season.212
Memories of these earlier appearances and of the excitement they caused only heightened the anticipation of seeing Cooper perform again. Going in late January of 1808 to see the tragedian in a comedy, Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, Paine scrutinized Cooper in the Beaumont and Fletcher play and continued as the actor’s critical advocate. Among descriptions of Cooper which have survived, there are few so vivid as Paine’s. He caught in prose the movement and speech of the performer and the passing impressions and sensations experienced in a Boston theater a century and a half ago. Other theatergoers knew and some published the fact that there were many variations in the character Cooper took on as Leon in Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. The audience burst suddenly into applause at one point when the actor made a quick and beautiful transition. Of the moment when Cooper began to reveal the true character of Leon, falling back immediately into assumed rusticity, Paine wrote, “For the moment the plot glimmered, but was suddenly hooded again.”213
Mirroring Cooper’s achievement from scene to scene, Paine could also define and evaluate his acting as a whole. In this renowned tragedian, the critic found “nature” and inspiration, the emotional spontaneity and range he demanded of great actors. Cooper was in some respects the answer to Paine’s search for an actor whose performances were unmarred by false declamation or an obsession with the smallest details of emphasis and pronunciation. The ability to pronounce words correctly was not enough to produce the kind of acting America needed. Paine knew that with elaborate research Cooper could “be caught tripping” at times. Yet it was better to blaze than to bore, and the critic announced himself for Cooper:
The general complexion of his acting is engrained with more of nature, and less of the schools, than most of his contemporaries; for though he is well disciplined in the “artifice of speech,” it is his second ambition to be laboriously correct, when passion stimulates the bounding nerve to overleap the dogmas of pedantry. The high supremacy of description over narration, constitutes, says Lord Kaimes [sic], the pre-eminence of Shakespeare over Corneille and Racine. The difference is that of history and life. The mind pays homage to chronicles, but the eye is enraptured with pictures. The canvass breathes, while the parchment only records.214
Cooper was to Paine an instance of the triumph of the natural over the artificial style which the critic had attacked in 1804.
Hotspur caused more lively debate than had Leon. Before Cooper uttered Harry Percy’s first words in Henry IV, sides had been taken. And almost anyone who professed an interest in acting or in the drama had an opinion to submit after the final curtain. That night of 3 February 1808 Paine concentrated on two characters in the play, and of the two he watched Hotspur even more closely than he did Harwood’s Falstaff. Again the house was crowded for Shakespeare and for Cooper.
As the audience left the theater, the verdicts ranged from the belief that Cooper was the world’s greatest Hotspur to the conviction that he was totally miscast. Paine objected to the loose talk and subsequent writing; he respected Shakespeare as much as he did Cooper. Unusual among the judges, he considered how well Cooper projected the dramatist’s intention and conception. Thus fusing theatrical and dramatic criticism, Paine measured the image Cooper gave by Shakespeare’s characterization:
The indignant spirit that could not cower to insult, the proud honour of old English nobility, emblazoned with the trophies of fame, yet sullied with the rashness of courage; the impetuous and unfaltering avowal of his adherence to the unfortunate Mortimer, and the ambitious visions of the aspiring rebel, goaded by royal ingratitude, and writhing at the touch of disgrace; were all strikingly disposed in the character, and embodied in the fore-ground of the picture. His excellence was generally that of Hotspur himself;—of so rapid a march, that we have no time to transfuse his manner into a quotation.215
The rivalry reached its pitch when Cooper and Fennell appeared together in Othello, alternating in the leading roles of that play. The two famous actors were thus deliberately set in opposition before the public. Paine could not remember any time when “the publick curiosity” had been so stimulated as by this “collision of talent.” It was no longer enough to classify Fennell as the scholar and elocutionist and Cooper as a theatrical child of nature. Cooper was more impressive physically, but he too had sufficient erudition to complicate the matter of judgment.
Paine avoided the generalities and trivia being echoed about the two actors, and analyzed them in great scenes. The address to the senate was one testing ground. In the progress of that scene Cooper excelled at one moment, Fennell at another. At the time of Desdemona’s growing love, Cooper was “modest and tender.” Fennell “ranted in a tone of exaltation and triumph, as it were at the success of his romantick fable over the simple mind of Desdemona.” Both failed at “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore.” Cooper’s voice cracked through an overambitious attempt; Fennell, erring through caution, “wanted fire.” Cooper, in the falconry speech, vivified his lines by effective stage business, whereas Fennell made an “irrelevant gesture.” In a typically penetrating comment, Paine accused both actors of being “equally deficient in the necessary scenick preparation of mind and action, to give effect, or sense to, ‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.’”216
When it came to Iago, Cooper was accorded Paine’s “unequivocal preference.” Fennell, who for all his scholarship had been careless with the text of Kotzebue’s Rolla on 26 February, made the part of Iago an opportunity for his usual impeccable recitation. But the critic found the actor’s countenance and figure insufficient for the part. More important, the character of Iago had not been integrated with “the other persons of the drama.” Cooper triumphed because his scenes “were more deeply imbued with discrimination, ‘form and pressure,’” and because he truly related Iago to the course of the entire tragedy of Othello.217
Foreseeing perhaps that this was to be his last period of sustained work for the theater, Paine vehemently expressed his keen concern with the state of criticism itself. An impetus had been given to theatrical commentary by the Cooper-Fennell rivalry. The field had been enlarged, and from the competent and the dull alike came dicta on the stage. At stake, as Paine saw it, were the ideals of criticism. The pretenders were not likely to accord justice to real genius. Criticism sunk to a dilettante amusement would lose meaning and power. Also, the new race of theatrical virtuosos tended to be noisy in the theater. With the proprietary attitude of one who had pioneered in an activity now become commonplace, Paine attacked the offenders:
. . . that fashionable affectation, that most excellent foppery of taste, which has of late usurped the balance and rod of criticism, among our full grown babes of learning, who have suddenly become commentators of playing, by going to school at thirty to learn their mother tongue; and have formed an intimate acquaintance with authors, by spelling their names on labels at the backs of their volumes! Without knowing the distinction in terms between pronunciation, emphasis, and reflecion, yet with the aid of a little effrontery in a side box, and a well-committed rosary of words, which they use in succession without choice or connexion, they acquire a frothy reputation for classical wisdom, which at once gives tone and circulation to their opinions, throughout the wide range of the shallow profundity of polite life!218
This barrage incited attempts to identify individual targets. Paine replied publicly to those who had misconstrued his words. One insinuation made by his enemies really concerned him. That was the rumor that he was attacking, among others, the dramatic critic who wrote for The Emerald. This was one contemporary whom Paine respected, and for good reason, for he represented exactly what Paine demanded of a good critic—talent, learning, and a familiarity with the best models of his art. Into his compliment to this fellow critic he put a sad awareness of working only at the beginning of a long development yet to be achieved in America: “although the American stage be at present but an imperfect image, he neglects not to display the graces he discerns, even in the trunk of a statue.”219 In paying tribute to another, Paine had written an excellent epitaph for himself.
The degradation of criticism into a fashionable pastime claimed the attention of another writer for The Boston Times who ironically laid down precepts for the would-be critic of the theater. He bitterly advised that “the best way, is to borrow your observations from some person, who has already written on the same play,” and added that it would be very convenient to copy the remarks of Mrs. Inchbald. This exposition of the art of criticism announced that it was not at all necessary to have been present at the representation, since the critique was usually printed before the performance. The helpful suggestion was included that it was a time-saving device to copy from earlier newspaper criticism.220
Paine tried, with occasional lapses, to live up to his own motto of setting down naught in malice. As an advocate of Cooper’s he could still detect flaws in his performances, and, on the other hand, the excellences possessed by Fennell. He scorned “the petulant puerility, and bombastick nonsense of some of Mr. Fennell’s admirers.” Paine was “convinced that Mr. Fennell himself would most willingly exchange the panegyrick of such leading-string scribblers for their abuse.” It was more than the fatal combination of ignorance and quibbling to which he objected. Poor writing, Paine worried, was barring criticism from the status of a serious pursuit. He said of a “buckram style” admirer of Fennell’s:
One of these sesquipedalian witlings has rifled Johnson’s Rambler of all its verbal invention, its flounces and furbelows of style, to decorate and bedizen Mr. Fennell in his principal characters. After twisting and distorting the King’s English into every possible agony of meaning, he invents a new term in prosody. . . .
Paine finally dismissed the offender as “this mysterious magician of words, this jackalent constructor of luminous sentences, whose light attracts, but never can be followed.”221
Paine could at times seize the living impression of an entire scene within the confines of a single sentence, although in poetry he often became wordy and indulged in nebulous imagery. The drama alone seemed to liven and point his phrases. In New York, Washington Irving, alias William Wizard, Esq., had already parodied the superficiality and irrelevance into which theatrical criticism had fallen. His light-hearted satire quite fittingly was reprinted in The Boston Times in the spring of 1808.222 Here was a kindred voice from outside New England.
Tempering and solidifying Paine’s judgments was his knowledge of dramatic history. He knew most of the plays he saw acted, and had some familiarity with earlier scholarship and commentary on them. To an actor who slurred a Shakespearean meaning he suggested, “Malone has a note on this subject, which will assist Mr. F’s comprehension.” To a rival he recommended “the perusal of Malone, Johnson or Walker.”223 For his theatrical history he delved into yellowing English reviews. Anticipating a performance by Bates in 1802, he discovered that the actor had been a pupil of Henderson at Covent Garden. Checking earlier accounts, he could report the testimony of the London journals.224 At Mrs. Stanley’s success as Estiphania in Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, he remembered that Mrs. Oldfield and Mrs. Abbington had once carried the role with eminent success. When Venice Preserved was played in 1808, Paine knew its dramatic source in the Abbe de St. Rael’s Histoire de la conjuration de Marquis Bedemar—which allusion led on to a reference to Shakespeare’s handling of North and Holinshed.
Bringing this awareness of the panorama of stage history to his examination of the performances in the early Boston theater, Paine could see contemporary triumphs and failures in perspective. With all his equipment as critic, however, he never idolized the commentary of the past to escape the living effect of a performance. At the final curtain of Henry IV, Paine heard the mass response that can defy and overcome criticism itself. At such a moment Malones and Johnsons might go by the board: “The convulsive roar of the audience was, on this occasion, a better criticism, than could be collected from the most classick notes of laborious commentators.”225
Those who had run counter to the law in Board Alley sixteen years earlier were amply vindicated one night in 1808. Cooper, Fennell, and Mrs. Stanley appeared together in Venice Preserved. To Paine this combination represented a high point for the Boston stage. Since Cooper and Fennell were involved, “A divided sentiment prevailed.” Advocates of either actor received more than they had dared hope. Even the strictest “friends of decorum” gave way to the excitement. “Mr. Cooper could not swell his fine melodious voice to the ‘top of the compass,’ without a responsive thunder from the house”; nor did “Mr. Fennell extend his ‘many a rood of limb,’ in two gigantick strides from one stage door to the other, but the most learned ‘million’ beat their palms with ecstacy.”
For the three leads, two of them spurred by competition to surpass their own talents, it was a singular triumph. Fennell played Jaffier. Despite “a voice, obstinately sepulchral, a face, incapable of the lineaments of tenderness, a ponderous and overwhelming gesticulation, and an awkward majesty and indecision of movement,” he was inspired that night. His poetic effects and conception were mature. With these and the response of the spectators, he transcended his defects and “struck out many sparks of excellence.” “Moulded and fashioned” into Pierre, Cooper transfused “the soul of his author into the character of his action.” Mrs. Stanley, already a favorite as Belvidera, outdistanced all her previous successes and gave her best tragic performance. Her third-act exit, “Farewell, remember twelve,” was memorable.226
Paine believed that Pierre had not been done more brilliantly in London. Board Alley was still a vivid memory; the Boston theater had been in existence for less than a generation. Paine’s assertions in 1792 of the potentialities of a legitimate stage had been partially confirmed. Looking back over the past of the theater he had fought to establish, a checkered history of failure and success, he found his faith as strong as it had been when the drama was a new and illegal experiment in Boston.
Besides Shakespeare and Otway and lesser pleasures, the spring of 1808 brought The Robbers ministered to by Hodgkinson, who “modified the original of Schiller to answer the requisitions of modern taste, and adapted it to modern correctness.” Edgar Allan Poe’s father-to-be was an “improving” local performer, and his future mother was “a delight of the eye.”227 But ominous warnings were given that year. Every night in the theater was not equal to that of Venice Preserved. Bostonians were paying to watch tumblers and to hear ventriloquists; they were, for such amusements, forsaking the theater. Paine, disturbed but confident, reiterated his belief in the activity which had fascinated him enough to determine the course of his life:
The desertion of the Drama by its former friends, during the greater portion of the present season, will never induce us, on perceiving this “rub in its fortune,” to abandon its cause to the caprice of the unlettered, or the folly of the fashionable; nor to commit its destiny to the perversity of party, the altivolancy of tumblers, or the eloquence of ventriloquism. We are deeply impressed with the belief, that the theatre is highly important to society, as a great publick school, in which all classes may assemble, to acquire mutual respect from examples of good breeding, to cultivate morality from the delineations of life, to enliven social humour from the vivacity of fiction, and to imbibe correct ideas of classick reading and of our native tongue from striking instances, however rare, of the force of elocution and purity of pronunciation.228
The high aims and possibilities of the drama had been only temporarily obscured, not disproved, “in the mist of infatuation.” And the emphasis on the educational and moral values of the stage suggests once more the persistence of the opposite view.
Such statements give no clue that the man who wrote them was ill and poor. There are hints, however, that the dramatic critic for The Boston Times was not steady in his habits. One week the editor regretted the omission of a Paine essay because it was received “at too late an hour.” Another week he admitted that no communication had been received. After Paine’s death his friend, Thomas O. Selfridge, relayed some hard facts to the critic’s father:
I have known him frequently so destitute within the last four or five years, as not to be able to take a letter from the post office, till some friend had given to him the money. His chronic infirmities and his pecuniary distress induced him to seek consolation in the bottle. I witnessed with constant pain and anxiety the increase in this habit.229
In these last years Paine planned to finish his own play; he settled upon the scene, the plot, characters, and theme. But the project was never completed. A few of the important scenes were written, but even those are lost to us. Rumors flew about long before the end of his life that Paine’s works were in press. In the fall of 1807 The Port Folio of Philadephia announced that the Boston poet and critic was to publish his works after submitting them to “the labour of revision and correction.”230
In 1809 New England playgoers were being congratulated “on the recovery of Mrs. Poe from her recent confinement.” And in the theater John Howard Payne was startling audiences with his gifts as an actor. The fact that the performer who caused such a stir had been a schoolboy in Boston only added to local pride in his achievements. At the Boston theater Payne performed “eight important dramatick characters,” including Norval, Romeo, and Hamlet, besides his Frederick in Lovers’ Vows.231
For his distant relative’s role as Norval in Douglas,232 that standard test of any young actor’s merit, Paine wrote a special theatrical prologue. Home’s Douglas, set in fifteenth-century Scotland, had in it the sure appeals of the lost heir, mistaken identity, a tearful reunion of mother and son, a villainous betrayal, and several romantically tragic deaths. The piece had long been popular on the American stage. Proud of the native origin of the “young Roscius,” Paine did not gloss over the fact that his relative depended for effects on boyish good looks and emotional appeal rather than on training and maturity of conception.
The next year, 1810, The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review published the “Letter of a German Baron,” under which guise theatrical conditions were attacked. The Baron attends a performance of The Stranger by “our divine Kotzebue” and finds part of the theater given over to “wretched females of the most abandoned sort” whose behavior is “outrageous, indecent, disgusting.” He is astonished that the audience, “even parents with their daughters,” submit to the situation. In accents of leaden irony he could not believe that “any other nation would be capable of such magnanimity! such generosity!” The choice of a performance of the German play was a sure way to focus the moral issue. Pizarro had already been violently condemned in this same periodical as a degradation and calumniation of Christianity: “Kotzebue . . . has not the temerity to avow his purpose; he dares not openly attack, but he undermines. . . .”233
During the same season Paine worked closely with a native playwright, William C. White, whose tragedy, Orlando, had already been performed in Federal Street in 1797. On New Year’s night in 1810 came his Clergyman’s Daughter. Rumor had suggested that it was the long awaited answer to the plea for a distinguished American drama. The houses were crowded and the applause was just loud enough to carry the play through six performances in less than two months. This support of local dramatic effort cheered a writer in The Boston Gazette. Despite the hopeful enthusiasm, however, the sobering truth was clear. The Clergyman’s Daughter was in need of “a few obvious alterations and amendments.”234 There was optimism that with these improvements it might become a stock play for the theater: “We hope to see the time when such stock plays may have their due proportion of American productions; not only as affording a higher zest to the entertainment, but refuting Buffon’s theory of the diminution of intellect in the western world.”235
The Clergyman’s Daughter failed to disprove Buffon’s depressing theory and became another blasted hope. Such stage life as it held stemmed from eagerness for its success on the part of cultural patriots and from the epilogue written by Paine as a flourish for the tragedy. Making the unconvincingly black villainy and ruined virtue more palatable to the audience, this epilogue, spoken by James Fennell, attracted the attention of the Philadelphia critic John Bioren. After Paine’s death Bioren surmised that the Bostonian was drawing “in his evening hour” his self-portrait in the epilogue, which his “expanding genius” had “extended . . . beyond all customary limits of recitation.”236 While Fennell majestically delivered the poem, the audience may have had personal reminders of the author through such lines as
. . . he, who wanders with a poet’s name,
Must live on friendship, while he starves on fame.237
Paine was becoming legendary even before his death. An apocryphal collection of his witty sayings was already gathering. But he was starving and borrowing small sums to prevent his arrest. Joshua Belcher, who advanced the needed money, was kind but demanded a written contract. The closing of Paine’s epilogue was free from self-pity. Here was another opportunity to stimulate good criticism, to make clear its link with American art. For a true critic, “candid to censure, generous to command,” could encourage and stimulate talent:
On private merit, publick fame they raise.
For every Nation shares its Author’s praise.
Bostonians quickly forgot The Clergyman’s Daughter in their enthusiasm for the imported spectacle, The Forty Thieves, a Sheridan, Ward, Kelly, and Colman concoction which came in March of 1810. Three hundred eager theatergoers were turned away. The houses continued to overflow, breaking theatrical records for attendance. The Forty Thieves was played a dozen times before mid-April. Within another twenty years it was so often repeated that a writer in The Dramatic Mirror for 1829 commented that “every word of the piece is as familiar to the audience as their A, B, C.”238
William White, undaunted by the sight of this rush to the boxkeeper for tickets to a spectacle from abroad, continued his efforts to offer Bostonians what they theoretically wanted—dramas by an American. In his next play, based on Fanny Burney’s Evelina, he shifted from tragedy to an experiment in offering a happy ending. White’s perseverance was encouraged by an anticipatory notice which referred to his powers of invention and industry.239
Again Paine gave active proof of his belief in American talent by writing an epilogue somewhat livelier than the play which it followed. A dialogue in verse, Paine’s lines, comparatively brief as they were, had almost as much dramatic quality as White’s entire five acts. The language of the poem must have given the audience relief after the general flatness of the preceding speeches. It may be unfair to suggest that William White had pondered too long the highly successful sorrows and family devotions of Kotzebue’s stage sufferers. At least the German who impressed Boston so much more deeply than White ever did might have admired the display of sentiment in some of the American’s theatrical dialogue:
O, no, no, no, you must not.—Grant me one moment longer—one little moment. Answer me one question—Is it on my account that my father is miserable? If so, tell him I forgive him; from my soul do I forgive him. O, beg, intreat, beseech him to see me. In my name beseech him—beseech him in the name of my dear departed mother!240
Picking up the characters as well as the plot and its denouement in the dramatic epilogue, Paine infused humor into it, a lightness of touch wanting in the play itself, where lugubriousness dominates. All seven major characters came forth in the epilogue to enliven the evenings when The Poor Lodger was performed:
Harriet. Reward our Poet—
Joblin. —he shall have our garret!
Dick. No father—had “Poor Lodgers” there enough.
Sir Harry. What would your wisdom, then? —
Dick. —write him a Puff!
Harriet. Truce to our trifling; —now, our author craves
That just decision—which condemns, or saves.241
Pathetic self-criticism and a glimpse of contradictions in the cultural air around him were in White’s own prefatory remarks that his comedy might be “feeble” in technique but that it was “irreproachable on the score of morality.” He excused the almost consistent melancholy of his so-called comedy by a reminder that Shakespeare’s dramas, too, were “of the mixed order.” White earnestly thanked “Mr. Paine for an epilogue, which reflects such signal lustre” on the play.
Paine’s respected judgment and his enthusiasm were important in bringing another American play to the stage, although he did not live to see the production. James Ellison’s American Captive; or, Siege of Tripoli owed its representations to the critic’s influence: “in passing the circle of his friends, it found its way into the hands of the late Mr. Paine, and it is in consequence of the flattering opinion he gave of its merits, together with the voluntary offer of an Epilogue, that it is now to be introduced on the stage.” A play acceptable to Paine had survived a recognized test: “Having passed the ordeal of so able a judge, the author, we think, can have but little to fear, even from the most fastidious.”242
Paine’s theatrical poems were an accepted feature of the stage repertoire. When recited, they were always given a prominent place in the theatrical advertisements as special attractions. The actor Morse, for instance, on 19 April 1810, on an important night of his career, included a Paine poem. The proceeds of the benefit were to take Morse to England for further training; he chose to play Edgar to Fennell’s Lear and hoped that the receipts might “waft him across the Atlantic.” As additional flavor and insurance to the program, he announced that he would recite Paine’s “Monody on the death of Sir John More,” a poem “placed by the best criticks who have seen it, among the best works of Mr. Paine.” Bostonians could thus anticipate a “truly classic repast.”243 This monody was delivered again from the stage after the poet’s death. As late as 1814 the theater was advertising the inclusion of one of his songs in the program. The epilogue to The Poor Lodger had so pleased the audience, and consequently the manager, that Paine was accorded a benefit for it in February of 1811.244
This benefit was crowded into the background by the great theatrical event of the same year, the coming of George Frederick Cooke to Boston. This actor had once dared to play an inebriated Pizarro to John Kemble’s Rolla and Mrs. Siddons’ Elvira, but on other more sober occasions had been called a genius. The theater stayed open for extra evenings during that famous visit. Advance notices hailed him as “the greatest actor that ever appeared in England.” Public demand extended his Boston engagement from nine to fourteen nights. Complaints were launched against the individual who “secured seven boxes, and by that means deprived many of the chance of obtaining seats. . . .” A bookseller took subscriptions for “a Biographical sketch of Mr. Cooke.” And after his departure the theater was “very thinly attended.”245 During his first Boston engagement Cooke played in Richard, III, Othello, Henry IV, The Merchant of Venice, Douglas, and The Man of the World.
In Dunlap’s Memoirs of Cooke is an account of Paine’s coming with White to congratulate the actor on his Richard. Cooke was unmoved by Paine’s compliment that he had thought himself “pretty well read in Shakespeare . . . but, Sir, your Richard convinced me of my ignorance.” White, cast as the local playwright confronted by the celebrated actor, appears to have been so tongue-tied that Paine had to speak up for him: “Mr. White, Sir, is a man of literature, a player, a poet, a dramatic writer; but, Sir, Mr. White is a modest man.” Paine referred to himself as having written “a good deal for the theatre,” adding that his opinion had been “of some consequence.” Cooke merely showed him the door.246
When the theater opened in the fall of 1811, a new stage had been built. Descriptions of this improvement emphasized the fact that it was to be “brilliantly lighted with new constructed Lamps of American Manufacture.”247 It was less than a generation since the chandeliers imported from England had been a source of pride to the theatergoers. In October, Mary Duff played Cora in Pizarro, and The Comet reported that it did not matter “a pin who played such a silly creature.” In December, Morse played Kotzebue’s Baron Steinfort, handicapped by rheumatism and with his arm in a sling. The role of Mrs. Haller fell to Mrs. Powell, who excelled in displaying “the shame of conscious guilt, the bitter pangs of remorse, and the tenderness of parental and conjugal affection” of the German heroine of The Stranger. The manager was accused of wielding on Pizarro, another long-lived Kotzebue drama, “not the pruning knife merely, but the saw and hatchet,” and of lopping off “whole scenes with as little ceremony as a day labourer does the branches from the poplars” in the streets of Boston.248
Paine went regularly to the refurbished theater that fall, but he could write no more. Only two nights before his death he struggled out to see a performance of Murphy’s Grecian Daughter, in which he had once watched Eliza Baker and later Mrs. Whitlock. Still wanting to attend on his last night, he was forced to end his two decades of playgoing. The next evening, 11 November 1811, his father made an entry in his diary, noting the pleasant weather and the death of his son.249 The members of the bar were publicly invited to attend the funeral in Milk Street. Paine was “followed to the tomb by a great number of our most respectable citizens.”250
If these respectable ones had not forgiven him the theater or his actresses so quickly, they could still indicate their sympathy for the judge whose family afflictions had been linked with the stage. Others, and they too were numerous, saw the day as marking the end of a splendid poet. These felt that “National Pride should dictate our National Duty,” that the life and works should be printed.
Paine, senior, found himself, willingly or not, in the role of consultant. There were many problems. Some of the writings had been printed anonymously. Others were lost. The life was far more disturbing than the work. Materials for the former were all too difficult to suppress. Thomas Selfridge refused the task, and wrote frankly to the judge: “If I had recorded all the events and facts of which I had personal knowledge those who were malicious would have pronounced me the assassin of my friend’s fame.” Selfridge had prevented angry legal clients from attacking Paine for his desertion of office, had loaned him money, had watched the steady drinking of the last years, and was also “perfectly acquainted with . . . the enthralment with Mrs. Jones.” The truth was too painfully close for him to record it. Refusing to gloss it over, Selfridge could only remind the father of his friend: “Your son was probably more known and distinguished, through the United States, than any citizen who had not been in public life.”251
Finally Charles Prentiss wrote the life. A sometime dramatist himself, he took a moral but sympathetic tone toward his former Harvard classmate.252 Selfridge yielded and added a few pages, mostly of praise, clogged by regrets that Paine had thoroughly “erased his name from the calendar of saints.” Thomas Dawes, given the task of “weeding” the life, became anxious about the “tittle tattle” in it: “The affair with Mrs. Jones is touched with much discretion, but why touch it at all, as Mr. Paine’s widow is living. . . . The Biography is true: but suppose I had a bastard, why tell it.”253 A few pieces of dramatic criticism were included in the works, but the figure of Mrs. Jones complicated the editor’s attempts to indicate without offense Paine’s connections with the stage. Before the volume ever appeared and the quibbling over the shocking aspects of his life was ended, Paine’s associates in the theater had been swift to try to honor his memory. Mrs. Inchbald’s Such Things Are was played for the benefit of his widow and children on 4 December 1811. Afterwards came Paine’s last song, “The Steeds of Apollo,” and, as the most fitting tribute, the delivery of his earliest prize prologue.254
Some of those theatergoers of 1811 could have remembered hearing the same lines on the night in the seventeen nineties when the stage history of Boston began with Paine’s ebullient predictions of American dramatic glories. In the years between, no Sophocles had yet developed locally. There had been a major reception for the works of a German playwright whose departure from the area was to be a strangely lingering one. William Dean Howells caught lines from Kotzebue’s Rolla still being used as a well-worn elocutionary gem for school examinations in the eighteen seventies.255 Such actors as Edwin Forrest, who played Rolla during his Boston debut in 1827, may have helped the persistence of the echoes of the theatrical fashion at the turn of the century. America’s greatest actress, born in Boston in 1816, came home in 1849 after she had captured the British. In her triumphal return to America, Charlotte Cushman opened in the character of Kotzebue’s own Mrs. Haller. From Massachusetts finally emerged at least the quality of acting that Paine had foreseen in his prologue of 1794. But one of the tragedies of his intellectual span is that the native playwright he looked for never appeared during his life. In his death the theater in New England lost its laureate and champion and its first critic.
Alden, Timothy. A Collection of American Epitaphs. Boston, 1812.
Allen, William. An American Biographical and Historical Dictionary. Boston, 1832.
American Plays, Printed 1714–1830, A Bibliographical Record. Compiled by Frank Pierce Hill. Stanford, 1934.
The American Theatre as Seen by its Critics, 1752–1934. Ed. M. J. Moses and J. M. Brown. New York, 1934.
The Anti-Jacobin; or, Weekly Examiner.
Atkins, Stuart Pratt. The Testament of Werther in Poetry and Drama. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1949.
Baker, Louis Charles. “The German Drama in English on the New York Stage to 1830.” Americana Germanica. Philadelphia, 1917.
Bentley, William. Diary. Vol. II, 1793–1802. Salem, 1907.
Bernard, John. Retrospections of America, 1797–1811. New York, 1887.
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Brooke, Henry. Gustavus Vasa. London, 1786.
Brown, T. History of the American Stage. New York, 1870.
Buckingham, Joseph T. Personal Memoirs and Recollections of Editorial Life. 2 v. Boston, 1852.
—— Specimens of Newspaper Literature: with Personal Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Reminiscences. 2 v. Boston, 1850.
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—— An Index to the History of the Boston Stage. (In Harvard Theater Collection.)
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Coad, Oral Sumner, and Mims, Edwin, Jr. “The American Stage.” The Pageant of America. XIV. New Haven, 1929.
—— William Dunlap. New York, 1917.
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—— Ibid. 2 v. in one. Printed for Joseph Bumstead. Boston, 1799.
—— Lovers’ Vows. From the German by Mrs. Inchbald. Boston, 1799.
—— Ibid. Translated by William Dunlap. New York, 1814.
—— Pizarro. Adapted to the English stage by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Tenth ed. London, 1799.
—— Ibid. New York, 1799.
—— A Selection of the Best Plays of A. von Kotzebue. Translated from the German by Anne Plumptre. London, 1800.
—— Self Immolation; or, The Sacrifice of Love. Translated by Henry Neuman. Boston, 1799.
—— Sighs; or, the Daughter; a comedy in five acts. Taken from the German drama of Kotzebue with alterations by Prince Hoare. Charlestown—printed by S. Etheridge for E. Larkin. Boston, 1800.
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—— The Stranger; or, Misanthropy and Repentance. Salem, 1799.
—— Ibid. Boston? [1802?].
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—— A History of American Magazines. New York, 1930.
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—— Paine Papers. Unpublished letters, diaries, and papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society (accession, 1940).
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—— The Poor Lodger. Boston, 1811.
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Willard, George O. History of the Providence Stage. Providence, 1891.