• U.S.

Theatre: 300 Years: 100 Pages

3 minute read

Breeziest, most rambunctious, most irreverent of Broadway’s daily critics is the Journal and American’s tall, ruddy John Anderson. In his chili-sauce style, he has sassed Walter Winchell. greeted a stage character who took too long to die with “Here’s your shroud, Mr. Quimby, what’s your hurry?”, described a play as having “the same relation to the drama as a dollar watch has to the Greenwich Observatory.” This week Critic Anderson has published a richly illustrated book on the U. S. theatre,* turning its history into a swift, 100-page dash. His gulp-and-go-on method makes The American Theatre read like a Reader’s Digest version of a massive tome; but if valuable matters are slighted, dull ones are junked. Some facts:

< First theatrical performance in the Western Hemisphere took place in Mexico (c. 1530). First definitely recorded Colonial performance, at Accomac, Va. in 1665, was raided by cops. The actors had to dress up and give a second show before the judge, who acquitted them.

< So great was early prejudice against the stage that in Philadelphia a hospital refused money raised by a benefit performance; in Newport, R. I., Othello was billed as “A Series of Moral Dialogues” and the playhouse dubbed “A Histrionic Academy.” A big factor in making an honest woman of the theatre was George Washington’s great love for it.

< Early audience behavior can be gauged from an old program note respectfully requesting spectators “not to spit on the stove.”

< First important native play was The Contrast, in which the homespun hero, disdaining fashionable life, states his preference for “Tabitha, her Bible, a cow, and a little peaceable bundling.” In an early Negro play, the white author’s ear for dialogue produced: “I don’t know what ole missee can see in him to make her likee him so much but I must holee my tongue.”

< Most successful 19th-Century playwright was famed Irish-born Dion Boucicault whose The Streets of New York played 2,800 times in all, London Assurance 2,900 times, The Colleen Bawn, 3,100.

Toward the end, fleetly dropping pungent comments, Anderson whizzes by Clyde Fitch, William Vaughn Moody, Eugene O’Neill, Maxwell Anderson, Sidney Howard, George S. Kaufman, George Kelly, Clifford Odets and others like a dogsled carrying serum to Nome; calls the Federal Theatre an artistic flop; describes the U. S. theatre’s 300-year achievement as essentially “journalistic.”

*THE AMERICAN THEATRE — Dial ($5). Included is a history of the U. S. cinema by Renè Fülö-Miller.

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