Sunday, October 23, 2011

Novel-Based Victorian Melodrama


By E. M. Sanchez Saavedra

On November 17, 1877, theatergoing residents of Montpelier, Vermont, were treated to a double bill by Johnston’s Theatre in the Village Hall. “The Best Bill Ever Presented in One Evening” included two popular dramas: Dion Boucicault’s “Streets of New York” and a tongue-in-cheek theatrical adaptation of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth’s serial, “The Hidden Hand.”

The playbill from that performance encapsulates the hand-in-glove relationship between popular (sub-) literature and popular drama that has existed since the seventeenth century. Although “Streets of New York” was based upon no particular novel, its author had adapted several fictional works in his other plays, including a story by Captain Mayne Reid, and many incidents in this play had counterparts in contemporary novels.

The first play dealt with a topic uppermost in America’s consciousness – financial panic. In 1873 and 1877, back-to-back economic crashes had all but paralyzed U.S. industry, resulting in high unemployment, the rise of labor unions, violent strikes and a desperate gold stampede in the Black Hills. Seemingly, the current depression was part of an inflexible 20-year cycle of “boom and bust” that had begun in 1837. “Streets of New York,” also entitled “The Poor of New York,” was set in a banking and brokerage house during the panics of 1837 and 1857. First presented in December 1857 at New York’s Wallack’s Theater, the play became a standard American drama for the remainder of the century. Boucicault’s “Shaughraun” and “Octoroon” also became antebellum hits.

Dion Boucicault, born in Dublin on December 26, 1822, attended London University and presented his first play in 1841 at Covent Garden Theatre. He toured the United States from 1853 to 1860, acting and lecturing. In 1860, his “Colleen Bawn” became a smash hit at the Adelphi and a string of other stage successes followed. In 1874 he returned to the U.S. where he managed several theaters, taught dramatic arts and continued to write plays. He died in New York City on September 18, 1890.

The second play was based on an 1859 serial which had first appeared in Robert Bonner’s controversial story paper the New York Ledger. Bonner, a Scotch-Irish immigrant, lived the Horatio Alger myth of rags to riches. Born in Ramelton, Co. Donegal, April 28, 1824, he immigrated to Hartford, Connecticut at age 15 and began work as a compositor for the Hartford Courant. In 1844, he moved to New York and became foreman of the New York Mirror. Here he became an innovative pioneer in display advertising art and layout. In 1851, he purchased the lackluster Merchants’ Ledger and Statistical Record, a financial paper, and transformed it into a highly successful story paper, aimed at the family. Inspired by the London Journal, the deeply religious Bonner provided female readers with a mix of romance fiction, poetry by “Fanny Fern,” advice columns and practical articles on domestic economy, child care and other topics of general interest. He renamed the paper The New York Ledger in 1855 and made it into one of America’s best-known journals. Although he allowed no advertising in his own paper, he flooded other daily and weekly papers with Ledger ads. These were startling enough to excite comment. He would purchase an entire page of the New York Tribune (or two or three or seven), for example, and place one tiny ad at the exact center, surrounded by blank space! Alternatively, he would fill the page with a short sentence, “The Ledger is full of good things,” repeated endlessly. He would publish the first chapters of a new serial in a daily paper and then promise the rest in the Ledger. By contributing to a favorite charity, or paying unheard-of sums, he would coerce “respectable” authors like Edward Everett and Henry Ward Beecher to pen an article or story for the Ledger. Charles Dickens received $3,000.00 for “Hunted Down.” By 1880, the paper had a readership of over a million.

In middle age Bonner became a horse breeder and racer and his trotters won many coveted racing trophies. He engaged in philanthropic causes, including raising funds for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Princeton University and his own Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. He died on July 7, 1899.

His most popular regular contributor was Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth (1819-1899), whose long string of given names was quickly abbreviated to “E.D.E.N.” After her husband deserted her in 1844, she turned to fiction to support her children and herself. After establishing her reputation in serials for The National Era, she signed an exclusive contract with Robert Bonner in 1856. Unlike most novelists, she earned about $10,000.00 per annum from royalties. She produced over sixty novels. In 1859 she introduced “Capitola, the Madcap Heiress” from Virginia in “The Hidden Hand.” Bonner would reprint this serial twice and it has appeared in dozens of hardcover and paperback formats to this day.

Quickly adapted for the stage, “The Hidden Hand” became a mainstay of touring companies. Like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” also first serialized in The National Era, several companies specialized in the play, including “Whiteley’s Original Hidden Hand Company,” managed by Harry M. Clark, calling it “The Greatest Sensational Drama Ever Written.”

Capitola, an unconventional and spunky female character, was unique for her milieu and suited Bonner’s editorial policy admirably. Unlike “Big Lize,” Ned Buntline’s boozy whore with a heart of gold, in his Mysteries and Miseries of New York, Capitola was a chaste and virtuous Virginia aristocrat who was forced to make her way in a hostile world. Her marriage provided the happy ending required by readers in the Family Circle who had agonized over her fictional tribulations.

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