Because it is impossible to know where our city should go without knowing from whence it came, and in the hope that our readers share our considerable appetite for tales from the city’s past, the editors of NY have set aside this space for new looks at old New York. The current offering is excerpted from John Kasson’s new history of urban manners in the 19th century, which pays particular attention to the long and arduous struggle to persuade Gotham audiences that their role in the theater was restricted to non-spoken parts, and that artistic criticism could be a nonviolent pursuit.
From the Jacksonian era to the late 19th century, a new bourgeois ideal was inscribed upon New York City: orderly, regulated, learned, prosperous, “civilized.” In the theaters, symphony halls, and opera houses, the largely male and often unruly audience began to include women on a more equal footing, and began to accept as well a stricter discipline and the largely passive role audiences play today.
Until at least the 1840s, many went to the theater not to sit passively before the performers but to see and be seen, to talk, to cheer, and to jeer. Throughout the antebellum period, the houselights remained on during the performance, not only to permit a better view of the stage, but also to allow spectators to see one another. Attending New York’s Park Theater in 1802, the youthful Washington Irving noted that those in boxes appeared to use the theater as “a coffee-house, or fashionable lounge, where ... [they] indulge in loud conversation, without any regard for the pain it inflicts on their more attentive neighbors.” The “gallery gods,” meanwhile, expressed pleasure and annoyance by “stamping, hissing, roaring, whistling,” and occasionally “groaning in cadence,” as well as amusing themselves by throwing “apples, nuts & ginger-bread” at the stage or whoever caught their eye in the pit. The “honest folks of the pit” around Irving stood on the benches with dirty boots and commented freely on the play in front of them.
When Frances Trollope surveyed American life three decades later, she marveled at the behavior at the theater, “which seemed to disdain the restraints of civilized manners.” With the publication of Domestic Manners in America, Trollope’s descriptions of the audience quickly became famous and were supported by a catalogue of theater “indecencies” in the New-York Mirror and, still more eloquently and persuasively, by members of the pit themselves, who took to shouting “Trollope” whenever they spotted a transgression in the boxes.
Theatergoers occasionally joined in famous speeches and familiar songs, and they delighted in beating actors to the punch lines of old jokes. When listeners particularly enjoyed a song, speech, or scene, they cried aloud, stamped their feet, and often stopped the show to demand an immediate repetition. They demonstrated their disapproval just as forcefully, hissing, jeering, and often throwing things at the performers. They occasionally retailored the program to suit their tastes, as when an audience at New York’s Bowery Theatre in 1833 insisted that the orchestra dispense with a symphonic overture and play “Yankee Doodle” instead.
Audiences sometimes rioted on behalf of their sovereign rights as theatergoers. Viewing themselves as “the public” and the theater as a “public” gathering place for their collective amusement, rioters dispensed rough justice by chasing offenders off the stage and breaking a bit of property. In New York in the 1810s and ’20s, audiences rioted against last-minute changes in the program, inoperative stage machinery, and a play (Gay’s Beggar’s Opera) they regarded as lewd and immoral. Other minor theater riots occurred in the 1830s and ’40s, but the most serious incident, and the great watershed in attitudes toward the prerogatives of the audience, was New York’s Astor Place riot of 1849.
The Astor Place riot arose out of a dispute between partisans of the first great American tragedian, Edwin Forrest, and his eminent English rival William Charles Macready. The affair originated in Edinburgh in 1846, when from his box Forrest hissed Macready’s playing of Hamlet. Macready was outraged; “The low-minded ruffian!” he exclaimed in his diary. But Forrest publicly defended his action as a traditional, legitimate, “salutary and wholesome corrective of the abuses of the stage.”
The quarrel exploded into a public conflict in May of 1849 when Macready, on U.S. tour, came to New York’s elegant Astor Place Opera House. First opened only a year and a half earlier, in November of 1847, the Astor Place Opera House marked a decisive step in the transformation of theater patrons into a segmented and refined audience dominated by the wealthy bourgeoisie. A group of 150 wealthy and socially prominent subscribers built the opera house to embody new standards of refinement. Instead of promiscuous open seating on hard benches, it boasted a parquet with fixed red damask seats, sold only by subscription. The only seats open to general admission during the opening season were some 500 in the gallery, renamed the “amphitheatre,” most with views obstructed by a huge chandelier.
Macready’s first performance, in Macbeth, was reduced to pantomime as hecklers kept up a chorus of boos, hisses, whistles, groans, and yells, including “Three groans for the codfish aristocracy! “ and “Down with the English hog!” The audience threw eggs, potatoes, apples, lemons, copper coins, pieces of wood, an old shoe, a reeking bottle of asafetida, and, finally, several chairs from the gallery, until at last Macready was driven from the stage. He returned for a second performance of the play only at the urging of 47 of New York’s most prominent citizens (including Washington Irving, Herman Melville, and Richard Grant White). This time, despite renewed jeers from Forrest’s claque and with the aid of aggressive policemen, Macready completed the performance. Nonetheless, thousands of workingmen outside bombarded the theater with paving stones and tried to storm the entrance—whereupon the militia fired upon them. At least 22 people died, and over 150 were wounded or injured.
In the decades after the Astor Place riots, the theater, concert hall, and opera house became arenas in the struggle to reshape the character of the audience. In Europe, as well as in the United States, an aesthetic hierarchy developed, more rigidly separating “elite” and “popular” works, transforming theater and concert life. New, more centralized organizations, a new stress upon professional stature, and a new middle-class audience all contributed to these changes. Their dynamics are perhaps most clearly expressed in the establishment of the symphony orchestra and the rise of the conductor.
In the early 19th century, in the United States, as in the leading capitals of Europe, most classical concerts presented highly varied and often quite lengthy programs to attract an audience and mollify donors. A typical mid-19th-century American program would include a rousing battle piece such as Kotzwara’s “Battle of Prague,” or else a lively dance number such as “The Skinners’ Quickstep,” “The Fireman’s Quadrille” (accompanied by firemen dancing in full uniform and extinguishing a simulated fire onstage), or “The Railroad Galop” (which in one performance included a toy locomotive running onstage to the music). In Europe as well as in America, most orchestras lacked a single permanent music director and held only one rehearsal for each concert. Performances were ragged and inept. (A Covent Garden concertgoer remarked in 1833 that the orchestra was worst on Saturday night, because the musicians were paid that day and promptly got drunk.)
On the European continent, concert orchestras were generally based in opera houses. The permanent resident symphony orchestra, with musical direction determined by a single conductor and financial authority vested in a corporate board of laymen, was a distinctively American invention. A great task of the new breed of conductors was to impose order, not only on the orchestra, but on the audience.
The preeminent figure in this great battle was Theodore Thomas, who began his conducting career in 1860 at age 25, and worked with various orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Society, over the next 30 years. During one of Thomas’s popular summer concerts in New York’s Central Park Garden, a young man in a front seat prattled heedlessly through the second movement of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, then noisily struck several matches in an effort to light his cigar. Exasperated, Thomas stopped the orchestra, put down his baton, and turned to the offender with “one of his sweetest and most cynical smiles, saying, ’Go on, sir! Don’t mind us! We can all wait until you light your cigar! The cigar was not lit, and the man remained silent the rest of the evening.
Thomas came to embody the belief that the best symphonic music demanded the most cultivated sensibilities of players and listeners alike. In this sense, the cause of musical manners and morality were one. Central to his “philharmonic creed,” Thomas declared, was “to endeavor always to form a refined musical taste among the people by the intelligent selection of music; to give . . . only standard works, both of the new and old masters, and to be thus conservative and not given to experimenting with the new musical sensations of the hour.” The concert hall was to be an art museum dedicated to the most demanding standards of connoisseurship, where only the greatest authenticated works should be displayed.
Thomas’s long struggle in the cause of artistic authority and decorum could not have succeeded alone. An important strategic weapon in these battles was written admonitions to the audience. As early as the mid 1850s the New York Philharmonic Society distributed printed appeals for silence to its listeners. A typical note on the program of Theodore Thomas’s summer concerts in New York’s Central Park Garden in the mid 1870s ran: “The audience is requested to abstain from loud talking during the performance of the music. Owing to the length of the Programmes, encores of Overtures and other long pieces cannot be complied with.” An 1876 program note for a performance of Julius Caesar at Booth’s Theatre in New York asked the audience “to courteously remain in their places until the fall of the curtain, that ALL may have an uninterrupted view of the grand finale to the play.”
How quickly the new standards spread may be seen from the increased asperity of contemporary etiquette books. Several specifically endorsed Theodore Thomas’s reproofs of disruptive concertgoers. Once-customary rowdiness was now branded as a crime against both decent society and art. Etiquette advisers denounced disrupters as “thieves and robbers” who cheated performers and spectators alike.
Perhaps the most significant effort to offer appealing and morally inoffensive entertainment in decorous surroundings was the emergence of vaudeville in the 1880s and ’90s. Vaudeville borrowed heavily from older forms of amusement, including the dime museum, the circus, and especially the variety show, but downplayed freaks and cleaned up variety acts to offer a series of fast-paced, inoffensive attractions, often in “continuous performance” throughout the day. A typical bill might include an opening animal act, a comic skit, a juggler or magician, a mime, an acrobatic exhibition, a singer, a dancing couple, and a one-act play.
The new concern with refinement transformed the very setting in which spectators met. The foremost early vaudeville managers, Tony Pastor, Benjamin Franklin Keith, and Edward F. Albee, adopted the elegant decor and restrained etiquette of leading theaters and concert halls as potent symbols of refinement. They shrewdly sensed the allure of such trappings for the great bulk of the middleclass families who could no longer routinely afford to attend the “legitimate” theater and light opera dominated by the bourgeois elite.
Keith and Albee together amassed an empire of theaters, 29 at the time of Keith’s death in 1914, including six in Manhattan, another six in Brooklyn, and two each in Boston, Jersey City, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. These theaters became known among vaudevillians as “the Sunday-School Circuit” for their insistence upon inoffensive performances. Contracts warned that management demanded “a high plane of respectability and moral cleanliness,” and backstage notices banned such words as “Liar, Slob, Son-of-a-Gun, Devil, Sucker, Damn,” as well as any double entendres, suggestive gestures, or indecent costumes.
Turning their attention to the audience, Keith and Albee determinedly combated the rowdies. Offenders were admonished with silent courtesy. Uniformed attendants carried a variety of printed requests to distribute to errant spectators, such as:
Gentlemen will kindly avoid the stamping of feet and pounding of canes on the floor, and greatly oblige the Management. All applause is best shown by clapping of hands.
Please don’t talk during acts, as it annoys those about you, and prevents a perfect hearing of the entertainment.
Nonetheless, in the decades surrounding the turn of the century there were still theaters, controlled by working-class immigrants, that retained the boisterous and convivial informality of the antebellum era. Yiddish theater, well represented on the Lower East Side, borrowed freely from a variety of classical authors and traditions, particularly Shakespeare, to create stirring plays such as The Jewish King Lear and The Rabbinical Student (Hamlet). The audience threw itself into the action, cheering wildly, crying openly, often demanding immediate encores. A half century earlier, Edwin Forrest’s stirring portrayal of the villainous Iago in Othello incited a canal boatman to cry out, “You damned-lying scoundrel, I would like to get hold of you after the show and wring your infernal neck.” So too another actor of towering virtuosity, Jacob Adler, in the title role of The Jewish King Lear, stirred a man to rush down the aisle, shouting, “To hell with your stingy daughter, Yankl! She has a stone, not a heart. Spit on her, Yankl, and come home with me. My yidene will feed you. Come, Yankl, may she choke, that rotten daughter of yours.”
Theater critic John Corbin reported on New York’s Italian and Yiddish theaters, his anti-Semitism driving him to prefer the Italian in every respect. Yet in both he discovered an intense commitment to art that he frankly envied. The entire audience responded passionately to the drama, laughing, murmuring, making brief remarks to neighbors, shouting with delight at the climaxes, and at the end of each act yelling “at the top of their lungs.” With all the gains of disciplined spectatorship, what had been lost?
The growing professionalism of the performing arts and the organization of their audiences supported new standards of artistic excellence. But audiences increasingly viewed performers as across a gulf, and one another as strangers. Like much of the larger society, an evening at the theater became more controlled, inexpressive, structured, and managed. Artists and entertainers risked becoming products to be passively consumed, their performances reduced to fashionable purchases. As the new century progressed, audiences themselves would increasingly be treated by entertainment and media entrepreneurs as commodities, to be identified, enticed, packaged, and delivered—to various clients from advertisers to politicians.