American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1869-1914

by Gerald Bordman; Oxford University Press, 1994


The season's initial American hit, All the Comforts of Home ( 9-8- 90), 23rd St.), was American only in that its author was the fast-rising William Gillette. In keeping with an all too common practice of the time, it was simply a redaction of a foreign play, Carl Laufs 's Ein toiler Einfall, and was reset not in New York or some other American city but in London. M.

There Egbert ( Robert in some programs) Pettibone ( T. M. Hunter), suspecting his wife is falling in love with another man, removes his family to the Continent and hands his mansion over to his nephew, Alfred Hastings ( Henry Miller). Alfred decides to turn his situation into a financial windfall by renting out rooms. He generously promises to split his take fifty-fifty with his friend, Tom McDow ( J. C. Buckstone), whose principal thought thereafter is "And I gits half!" The renters are an odd lot. Christopher Dabney ( Ian Robertson) is a difficult, eccentric composer, who boasts, "I quarreled With the conductor, the soloists, orchestra, chorus singers, was insulted by the stage-manager, and finally hissed by the audience." Fifi Oritanski ( Maud Haslam) is a singer of comic operas. Judson Langhorne ( Lewis Baker) is a gaudily dressed man about-town. Another renter--never seen--keeps calling down to find out the time. There is also a persistent visitor, Victor Smythe ( J. B. Hollis), who has been courting Pettibone's daughter and whom Pettibone mistakenly has believed to be his wife's heartthrob. Complications begin to come fast and furious after Theodore Bender ( M. A. Kennedy), a retired produce dealer, takes rooms for himself, his harridan wife ( Ida Vernon), and his daughter ( Maude Adams), and when Fifi contrives to have Mr. Bender underwrite her career. Flirtations, mistaken identities, and wild accusations pile one atop another, reaching a frenetic peak just as Pettibone returns home unexpectedly. Rapid-fire pacing (not always evident on opening night) helped gloss over the gaps in plausibility. The farce ran until mid-October and returned later in the season to another theatre to chalk up an additional three month stand. At that time the cast included W. A. Faversham as Alfred and Rose Eytinge as Mrs. Bender. The play remained a favorite for many years and in 1919 served as the source for the musical Fifty-Fifty, Ltd.


The same bank scandal that had prompted Rosen Feld to write The Whirlwind inspired de Mille and Belasco's Men and Women ( 10-21- 90), 23rd St.), which gave Broadway and young Charles Frohman another success. During a run on the Jefferson National Bank, its officers discover that bonds kept in the vault are missing. Suspicion falls on the youthful assistant cashier, Edward Seabury ( Orrin Johnson), who has just announced his engagement to Dora Prescott ( Maude Adams). Dora is the sister of Edward's fellow cashier, William Prescott ( William Morris). Will also has just become engaged, to Agnes Rodman ( Sydney Armstrong), daughter of Arizona's governor, Stephen Rodman ( Frank Mordaunt). Calvin Stedman ( R. A. Roberts), who had hoped to marry Dora himself, determines to pin the theft on Edward, and when Governor Rodman comes to Edward's defense, Stedman reveals that the governor has a criminal record--a bank theft at that. This attack on his future father-in-law, coupled with the realization that Agnes has stumbled on the truth, prompts Will to disclose that he is the real culprit. He is dismissed and cannot find work, but he is not prosecuted. The kindhearted bank president, Israel Cohen ( Frederic de Belleville), quietly obtains another job for him, leaving all the lovers free to marry.


Henry C. de Mille enjoyed one final success when Charles Frohman produced his version of Ludwig Fulda 's Das verlorene Paradies as The Lost Paradise ( 11-16- 91), 23rd St.). Reset in America, it recounted how Andrew Knowlton ( Frank Mordaunt), a rich Boston industrialist, hands over his factory's day-today operations to his trusted, warmhearted manager, Reuben Warner ( William Morris), in order to devote his time to his daughter, Margaret ( Sydney Armstrong). His hope is that she will wed Ralph Standish ( Orrin Johnson), an arrogant young man whom Knowlton has taken in as a partner. When a strike explodes at the factory, Knowlton is shocked to discover that first Warner, then Margaret side with the strikers. She announces, "Amid all the selfish arguments, there comes to my soul the voice of God, crying for mercy upon His poor. I heard it in the grinding of the machinery over at the factory. I recognized it in the cries of these people for bread. And to-day I heard it again by the bedside of sickness, in the homes of wretchedness." She consents to marry Warner, who had learned in the first act that he had invented the device that had helped Knowlton become so wealthy but who has kept quiet to spare Margaret's feelings.

Growing sympathy with the plight of many laborers earned this speechy yet gripping play favorable notices. While all the performances were praised, several critics singled out the acting of little Maude Adams in the small role of Nell, the hungry, hope denied child worker, who has been crippled in a factory accident ("I can't do much hard work since that steel bar came down on my foot") and who knows that Warner will never reciprocate her love for him ("I saw the look in his eyes. He loves her. She's beautiful, and her frocks ain't all patched up like mine."). Special commendation also was given the factory set, with its huge, cumbersome machinery noisily grinding away and shrill steam whistles adding to the din. The production recorded 138 performances. Seekers of trivia may delight in the play's use of a one-sided telephone conversation at the start of the first act for expository purposes. This may be the earliest such employment of what soon became a cliché.


John Drew was the star of The Masked Ball ( 10-392), Palmer's), Clyde Fitch's adaptation of Alexan dre Bisson and Albert Carré's Le Véglione. Broadway wags gleefully noted that it was housed at a theatre directly across from Daly's, where Drew had been a fixture for so long. But Drew was reputed to have been annoyed that Daly chose his plays more with Ada Rehan than with him in mind, and the producer, Charles Frohman, had his own score to settle with Daly, who once had slighted him. The play made light of a man who win a girl through deception. Louis Martinot ( Harold Russell), learning that he is called away, asks his buddy, Dr. Paul Blondet ( Drew), to woo Martinot's sweetheart, Suzanne ( Maude Adams), for him. Blondet agrees, only to fall in love with Suzanne himself. So he writes Martinot warning him that Suzanne's family is disreputable and that Suzanne is something of a tippler. By the time Martinot returns (disguised in a false mustache), Blondet has married Suzanne. His return coincides with a masked ball. When Blondet discovers that Martinot will attend the party, he ships Suzanne off to mama's, but Suzanne makes her escape and goes to the ball. There the truth comes out. Although she loves Blondet, she is outraged-not so much by his betrayal of his friend as by his depiction of her as a secret boozer. She stages a drunk scene to put hubby in his place. Drew's feather-light, throwaway style was perfect for a comedy with somewhat unpleasant undertones, and accordingly he was awarded the lion's share of encomiums in the morning-after notices. But Maude Adams was also singled out for her skillful rendition of the drunk scene--knowing and comic enough to be telling and amusing, all the while never offending late 19th-century strictures. The play ran until late January. The tour that followed set a pattern for years to come, with Frohman offering Drew to New York in a new vehicle, usually in the fall, then heading out across the country with New York's praises (they hoped) serving as advance insurance. It was a policy that Sothern and others also had adopted.


John Drew, still new to stardom, found himself in a ticklish situation when a supporting player all but stole the show from him in Henry Guy Carleton's The Butterflies ( 2-5- 94), Palmer's). Carleton's story told how love forces Frederick Ossian to give up the life of an irresponsible man-about-town and settle down to earning his way in the world. Maude Adams was the heroine. But critic after critic stopped his review in its tracks to hurl garlands at Olive May for her portrayal of Suzanne Elise, a happily chortling, scatterbrained ingenue. She bounced about in bright, flower-bedecked gowns, and when she bounced, a bun that sat atop her head like a cupola bounced in quick response. Yet although she also received excited notices in some later shows, Miss May's career was shaky, while Drew and Miss Adams remained major stars for decades. Carleton's humor was also enjoyed. In one instance a snobbish woman, determined that everyone should be aware that she and her family are the Stuart-Dodges of Philadelphia, has her vanity punctured when someone asks in response, "Where is Philadelphia?" Winning further applause was a setting of a San Augustine drawing room, with a moonlit lighthouse seen through its windows. Pleasant fluff, the play drew patrons determined to forget the nation's economic woes and so prospered for three months.


The first new hit of the season was Charles Frohman 's production of Henry Arthur Jones's sentimental comedy The Bauble Shop ( 9-11- 94), Empire), which told how a middle-aged English lord is saved from despair and disgrace by the affectionate attention of a young daughter of a poor, besotted toymaker. For John Drew, his part marked a refreshing departure from the light-as-air farces of recent years. For his leading lady, Maude Adams, her glowingly warm portrayal gave her a further boost toward stardom. Beautifully mounted and filled with excellent supporting players, the piece had to be held over for an additional month beyond its two-month booking before setting out on a cross country tour.


In contrast to these fading players, the young producer Charles Frohman was staking his claim to theatrical prominence with noteworthy rapidity. He opened two more productions on a single evening. The more publicized and eagerly awaited of the pair proved a disappointment. John Drew was the star of Henry Guy Carleton's That Imprudent Young Couple ( 9-23- 95), Empire), with Maude Adams again as Drew's leading lady and his niece, Ethel Barrymore, in a minor role. Carleton's story centered on John Annesley and Marion Dunbar, both of whom have been promised in marriage to others, but who after a whirlwind courtship marry secretly. Marion gives John some letters to mail to the folks back home, telling them the news, but John forgets to post the letters. As a result, the newlyweds return to Tuxedo and instantly cause consternation. When John's quick-tempered uncle discovers that Marion is the daughter of a woman who years before had divorced him, he cuts John's allowance from $15,000 per annum to $1000. This would be bad enough in itself; however, Marion compounds their problems by blithely arriving home at the same moment to announce that she has just been on a shopping spree and that her bills total $1000. The couple attempts to live valiantly, if comically, on the installment plan before the playwright balances the books for a happy ending. Critics felt the comedy fell to pieces after a promising first act. Skilled playing, E. G. Unitt's excellent settings, and William Furst's attractive incidental music could not repair the damage, so the comedy was taken off after two weeks.


Frohman's response to That Imprudent Young Couple's debacle was to offer a hasty mounting of Madeleine Lucette Ryley's Christopher, Jr. ( 10-7- 95), Empire). Actually, the mounting was not all that hurried, for Drew and his fellow players had been offering it on the road. Since Christopher Colt, Jr. ( Drew), has mistakenly entered a young lady's stateroom, fallen asleep, and remained there overnight, he has been forced to marry the girl. Once ashore, however, he conveniently forgets her--an easy thing to do since he never really got a good look at her. Although he lives a costly man-about-town life, he takes a room in an attic and pretends to poverty when his father comes to visit him. But his father's mission is to insist that his son marry, and, for farcical purposes, the old man will not listen to his son's explanation of why he cannot. The father ( Harry Harwood) introduces the bride-elect, Dora ( Maude Adams), and Christopher proceeds to make himself as undesirable as possible. Of course, it turns out that Dora was the girl on the ship, and all ends happily.


Similarly, R. C. Carton's adaptation of his L'Ami des femmes as The Squire of Dames ( 1-20- 96), Palmer's) had been offered to London shortly before the playwright died. But the lack of announcements in American papers suggest that the producer, Charles Frohman, only became interested in importing it after columns of eulogies had filled theatrical sections. Having decided to do it, though, he gave it his best shot. John Drew was staffed--his third starring role of the season--and many of the players regularly associated with him were reenlisted in support: Maude Adams, Arthur Byron, Ferdinand Gottschalk, and Annie Irish. The slightly watered down story told of a capricious, rebellious wife who leaves an erring husband for a doltish lover. It takes the sometimes subtle, always sensible counsels of a blasé, no-longer-young man of the world to bring about a curtain-time reconciliation. Drew and the increasingly admired Miss Adams won the most laurels, and the play ran, with a slight interruption, for three months.


The season's first big success at a prime playhouse was Murray Carson and Louis N. Parker's Rosemary ( 8-31- 96), Empire), which Charles Frohman mounted for his star, John Drew, supported by an excellent cast that included Maude Adams, Arthur Byron, and Ethel Barrymore. Drew played middle-aged Sir Jasper Thorndyke, who takes a pair of eloping lovers under his wing only to be smitten by the bride-to-be. He resists temptation and sees to it that the pair are married. Years later, after the youngsters have lived out their lives and died and he is a doddering old man, he revisits the inn where he took the girl to watch the coronation procession and there briefly remembers the idyll. Drew was "delightfully light and airy in the gay passages. . . . Always essentially the man of the world, he composed with admirable skill the picture of senility in the last act or epilogue." Many reviewers felt Miss Adams gave her most beguiling performance yet, and they found promise in Miss Barrymore's portrayal of a rustic maid. The play ran into the winter, then toured.


That runaway success was James M. Barrie's The Little Minister ( 9-27- 97), Empire). Barrie supposedly dramatized his story specifically with Maude Adams in mind, and whether or not that is true (the play was performed first in America), the play launched the radiant young actress on a career as one of America's most enchanting, beloved stars.

Two of the most unusual figures in the town of Thrums, a town torn by labor strife, are its austere young cleric, the Rev. Gavin Dishart ( Robert Edeson), and the daughter of Lord Rintoul, Lady Barbara ( Adams), a girl who sympathizes with the discontented weavers and sometimes disguises herself as a gypsy to help them. She is known affectionately as Lady Babbie or "the Egyptian." When troops are called in to arrest rebellious workers, the seeming gypsy girl tricks the minister into sounding the alarm. Later, after she has changed her garments, the soldiers question her and the minister. She leads them to believe she is Dishart's wife, and in his confusion he does nothing to deny this. By the time Dishart learns the truth and an accommodation has been reached between the authorities and weavers, Dishart has totally succumbed to Babbie's charms. That old Scottish law (used in so many plays a decade or more back) to the effect that if a couple declare themselves man and wife before witnesses they are considered married brings about a happy curtain. Strang observed of Miss Adams's playing, "She was dashing, careless and free as the tantalizing gypsy girl; as the daughter of Lord Rintoul, graceful and spirited, serious and sympathetic." Other critics and audiences agreed. The play was soon moved to the Garrick, returning to the Empire for its 300th and final performance in mid-June, when Frohman presented an American Beauty rose to each lady in the audience.


The charge that Shakespeare's tragedies were neglected by the young, Trust-affiliated producers because they could not make money on them was silenced for the moment when Charles Frohman spared no expense on a revival of Romeo and Juliet that was booked to run for only a fortnight. Even the most virulently anti-Trust reviewers conceded the production was ravishingly beautiful (though they gave no details). Frohman's principals represented some fascinating, daring casting. Maude Adams was Juliet; Faversham, Romeo; and Hackett, Mercutio. Critics agreed that Miss Adams was no tragedian, but her youthfulness, beauty, charm, and sincerity carried the evening. (Winter was a rare, dour exception to the judgment.) Faversham, boyishly handsome, was physically an ideal choice for Romeo, but in his case the reviewers divided into two sharply disparate camps. The commentators drew together again to belittle Hackett's rough, boisterous Mercutio. Most playgoers, asking only to be entertained, seemed to feel that Shakespeare had been reasonably well served.


Yet another lovely star appeared in short order. With Fanny Davenport dead, one question was who would perform Sarah Bernhardt's roles on American stages. For the moment the answer seemed to be Maude Adams. The play was Edmond Rostand's L'Aiglon ( 10-22-00, Knickerbocker), which Charles Frohman offered in Louis Parker's translation. The story of the brief life and pathetic death of Napoleon's son was well known and, in this drama, had been a huge success in Paris. Critical response to the work was largely favorable, but interest in the star overwhelmed it. Dithmar's reaction was representative: "She looks the scion . . . to the life. One never thinks of her as a woman from the beginning of the play to its sad last scene. . . . Her portrayal is flawless. Not a gesture or a pose is out of place. . . . The young artist's integrity of purpose, her dramatic aptitude, and sympathy shine through all the performance." The production fattened Frohman's coffers for nine weeks and did even better on tour.


Winsome Maude Adams gained further laurels when Charles Frohman presented her as Phoebe in James Barrie's Quality Street ( 11-11-01, Knickerbocker). The play was set in Napoleonic times, and its impoverished, schoolmarm heroine must resort to disguise to ensnare her vacillating soldier-suitor.


Having offered playgoers John Drew and Ethel Barrymore, among others, Charles Frohman now brought forth the actress who was judged his leading attraction at the time, Maude Adams. "Were the young actress a Bernhardt, a Duse and Calvé rolled into one," Theatre remarked, "the ovation she received . . . could not have been noisier or more genuinely spontaneous." The magazine went on to opine that her "fair face is her fortune, and dainty gestures, coy glances, mischievous playfulness . . . a source of unmixed delight." Her vehicle was another matter. The play was Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Pretty Sister of José ( 11-10-03, Empire), and its leading role, that of a girl wary of men and matrimony, was not unlike Ethel Barrymore's a few weeks earlier. Pepita is a country girl who comes to Madrid and almost against her will kindles the first sparks of real love in the dashing, womanizing bullfighter, Sebastiano ( Henry Ainley). She rejects him so persistently that he finally stalks off, vowing enough is enough. Only then does Pepita's heart melt, and she attempts to rekindle his ardor by dancing for him in a café garden. The dance unnerves Sebastiano. He becomes careless when he enters the bullring and is gravely wounded. Pepita devotedly nurses him back to health. The part of Pepita's simple-minded brother was so insignificant that many reviewers took no notice of the actor who played it, young Edgar Selwyn.


Since late December Maude Adams had been playing in a revival of The Little Minister. As business began to wane, Charles Frohman added a curtain raiser, a second English play, Frederick Fenn and Richard Bryce's 'Op o' Me Thumb ( 2-6-05, Empire). Miss Adams, in a broken straw hat and tattered, ill-fitting clothes, was cast as a laundress who lives in her dream world but is poignantly made aware that no Prince Charming awaits her.


Occasionally alloyed outrage swiftly gave way to occasionally modified rapture when what so far has proved the season's most durable work premiered. James M. Barrie's Peter Pan ( 11-3-05, Empire) told, as its rarely used subtitle revealed, of a "boy who wouldn't grow up." His flying nighttime visit to a Bloomsbury household confronts its children with comically menacing Indians and pirates, the latter led by a pirate chief who bears a remarkable resemblance to their father ( Ernest Lawford). The title role gave Maude Adams the greatest part of her career, the sweet, whimsical, hoydenish characterization in which she has passed into theatrical legend. Not every aging critic was enchanted. A few railed against the play's treacliness, and a few even claimed to find the star no more than acceptable. But a second theatrical legend, that the play and its star initially were not received mostly with huzzas, is just that. Thus Theatre allowed, "There was not a flaw in her performance of the title role. She was, in turn, elfish, wistful, tender, joyous, sad. She danced and tripped, whistled and sang as gaily as the rest of the children, and invested the part with so much charm, poetry and atmosphere that it would be difficult to conceive of the part being better played." Peter Pan ran out the season. Maude Adams revived it regularly until her retirement in 1915, and since she left the stage others have flown happily to Never Land.


Maude Adams remained America's most beloved actress, so whatever profit Miguel Zamacoïs's The Jesters ( 1-15-08, Empire) reaped in its seven-week run probably was to her credit. In Paris, Bernhardt had triumphed in the play, but a number of reviewers felt the role of a prince who disguises himself as a hunchbacked fool to court a beautiful princess was unsuited to Miss Adams's more gentle, wistful art. One critic raised another objection: "Many of her quickly rippled phrases were almost unintelligible at the back of the house, and her habit of changing vowels into curious diphthong sounds-'All my luck, I claim' into 'Ool my luck, I cle-eem'--did not add to the effect."


December's biggest hit was a Charles Frohman importation, James M. Barrie's What Every Woman Knows ( 12-23-08, Empire). With Maude Adams, Broadway's most charming and popular actress, as Maggie Shand preaching Barrie's thesis on the potency of charm and secretly helping her ridiculously conceited husband climb the political ladder, it was hailed, appropriately, as "one of his most engagingly whimsical and insistently charming works." The comedy packed in audiences for six months. The rising Richard Bennett played Maggie's husband, John.


On the other hand, a beloved English playwright and America's favorite actress--for whom he often had written--scored a much bigger success, although critical opinion held the play "so thin in idea and texture as to be practically no play at all." The nonplay was Barrie's The Legend of Leonora ( 1-514, Empire) and the star, of course, Maude Adams. Baffie's story told of a woman on trial for murder-for pushing a man from a speeding train after he refused to close a window and thus stop the draft that would give her baby a cold. Barristers, judge, jury, and gleefully perjuring witnesses turn the law topsy-turvy to acquit her. One equally prejudiced reviewer wrote that the star "never played with finer touches of delicate and ingratiating humor, or richer glimpses of real womanliness and tenderness, so that the general adoration seems the most natural thing imaginable."

Maude Adams herself

Maude Adams [née Kiskadden] ( 1872-1953) was born in Salt Lake City and was carried on stage by her actress mother, Annie Adams. She was still a youngster when she played her first speaking roles in small California towns before moving to San Francisco. She came east in 1888, where she performed in such plays as Lord Chumley, A Midnight Bell, and All the Comforts of Home. After a time she was John Drew's leading lady until Charles Frohman elevated her to stardom. At this time stage historian Lewis Strang wrote, "In figure almost painfully slight and girlish; her face elfishly bewitching in its very plainness; her eyes large, blue and roguish; her hair ashen brown and delicately rippling; unusually gifted intellectually, and with a personality of the most persuasive magnetism, Maude Adams is to-day the most popular woman on the American stage."