Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
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Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Musicals
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

Picks and Pans

The Critics

Early dramatic criticism in America gained little notice. There were no professional critics, and eighteenth and early nineteenth-century newspapers rarely devoted space to a theatrical review. The criticism that did reach print generally went unattributed or was written under pseudonyms. Although some journals entirely devoted to the theatre appeared in the major cities that had a theatre following, most of these proved short-lived. Not until after the Civil War with the flourishing of the country’s newspapers did theatrical criticism come into its own. In the twentieth century, as New York became the center of the American professional theatre, criticism attained the power to make or break a show.

 

The Thespian Mirror

Payne, John H[oward]. The Thespian Mirror: A Periodical Publication. Comprising a Collection of Dramatic Biography, Theatrical Criticism, Miscellaneous Literature, Poetry. New York: Printed by Southwick and Hardcastle, 1806.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

John Howard Payne, American actor and playwright, began his professional relationship with the theatre as a critic at the age of fourteen. Although Payne’s father apprenticed him to a New York counting-house as a bookkeeper, the young man spent every moment that he could spare in the theatre and began publishing the third American theatrical periodical, The Thespian Mirror, in 1805. His weekly periodical contained biographies of noted actors, reviews of New York plays, theatre anecdotes, poetry, and miscellaneous articles. In the first issue, Payne stated that his periodical was “chiefly intended to promote the interests of the American Drama, and to eradicated false impressions respecting the nature, objects, design and tendency of Theatrical Amusements.” Shown is the title page and frontispiece with a portrait of actor Thomas Abthorpe Cooper.


The Polyanthos

Morton, Thomas. “Speed the Plough.” In The Polyanthos. Ed. Joseph T. Buckingham. Vol. 3. Boston: J. T. Buckingham, 1806. 205-209.
 

 

Photograph of miniature of Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe. [1809?].
From the Ingram-Poe Collection.

 

A monthly miscellany edited by Joseph T. Buckingham, The Polyanthos included theatrical reviews. Shown is a review of Thomas Morton’s “Speed the Plough.” Performed in Boston, this play’s company included Elizabeth and David Poe, the parents of Edgar Allan Poe. A less than favorable review for the show, Morton’s article did end on a positive note for the Poes.

 

The Thespian Monitor

 

Bangbar, Barnaby. The Thespian Monitor, and Dramatick Miscellany. Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1809.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 


In this small theatrical periodical, devoted nearly entirely to reviews of Philadelphia stage productions, a review of Hamlet takes to task John Howard Payne’s lead performance. Severely criticizing the young actor’s diction, pronunciation, emphasis, and delivery of lines, the author writes:


The following exclamation to his mother, against the conduct of his uncle, we cannot pronounce to have been either properly delivered, or gratifying to the audience who heard it. The rapid succession with which each line followed the other, was such as to produce very painful sensations in the hearer, and difficult “suspiration of forc’d breath” in the actor. They were rendered entirely indistinct and incomprehensible.

Payne went on to have a successful acting and playwriting career despite this early review.

 

The Mirror of Taste and Dramatic Censor

“Sketch of the Life of the Late Mr. Hodgkinson.” In The Mirror of Taste and Dramatic Censor. Vol. 1; no. 3. Ed. Steven Cullen Carpenter. Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep; New York: Inskeep and Bradford; Boston: William M’Ilhenny, 1810. 202-212.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

The Mirror of Taste is noted as the most important theatrical journal of its time. This monthly periodical presented not only local reviews but also reviews of stage productions in London. The periodical also included biographies of theatre personalities, articles on theatre history, poetry, plays and book reviews. Shown is a biography of the actor John Hodgkinson.


Jonathan Oldstyle

Irving, Washington. Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. New York: William H. Clayton, 1824.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Writing under the pseudonym of Jonathan Oldstyle, Washington Irving wrote a series of letters for The Morning Chronicle in 1802 and 1803, extending his commentary beyond just the plays and performers to the audience and critics as well.


As I entered the house some time before the curtain rose, I had sufficient leisure to make some observations. I was much amused with the waggery and humour of the gallery, which, by the way, is kept in excellent order by the constables who are stationed there. The noise in this part of the house is similar to that which prevailed in Noah’s ark; for we have an imitation of the whistles and yells of every kind of animal… Somehow or another, the anger of the gods seemed to be aroused all of a sudden, and they commenced a discharge of apples, nuts, and gingerbread, on the heads of the honest folks in the pit, who had no possibility of retreating from this new kind of thunderbolts. I can’t say but I was a little irritated at being saluted aside of my head with a rotten pippin.

 

The Broadway Journal

 

[Poe, Edgar Allan.] “The Theatre. The New Comedy by Mrs. Mowatt.” In The Broadway Journal. Eds. C. F. Briggs, Edgar A. Poe, and Henry C. Watson. Vol. 1; no. 13. New York: John Brisco, 1845-46. 203-205.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


The Broadway Journal centered around literary notices, book reviews, poetry, prose, biographies of writers, articles on the fine arts, politics, and theatre reviews. The journal was founded and initially edited by Charles F. Briggs, but later Edgar Allan Poe took over the majority of the editing and the publishing. Promoting his literary career, Poe published many of his own stories and poems.


Theatrical reviews found a small, but notable, place in each journal. In the March 29, 1845, issue, Poe reviewed at length Fashion by Anna Cora Mowatt. Although the play enjoyed popular success, Poe was initially less than enthusiastic in his comments:


We presume that not even the author of a plot such as this, would be disposed to claim for it any thing on the score of originality or invention. Had it, indeed, been designed as a burlesque upon the arrant conventionality of stage incidents in general, we should have regarded it as a palpable hit. And, indeed, while on the point of absolute unoriginality, we may as well include in one category both the events and the characters…Compared with the generality of modern dramas, it is a good play—compared with most American dramas it is a very good one—estimated by the natural principles of dramatic art, it is altogether unworthy of notice.

However, Poe went on to write more about Fashion, seeing the show “every night since its first production; making careful note of its merits and defects as they were more and more distinctly developed in the gradually perfected representation of the play.”

 

Walter Prichard Eaton

Theatre critic, author, and educator, Walter Prichard Eaton wielded much influence in the American theatre during the first half of the twentieth century through his outspoken critical commentaries. A somewhat conservative critic, Eaton contributed to various newspapers and theatrical journals, including The New York Tribune, The New York Sun, the American Magazine, and Drama. He taught modern drama and dramatic criticism at universities such as Columbia University and the Cambridge School of Drama. Eaton wrote several books on theatre including The American Stage Today (1908), The Actor’s Heritage (1924), and The Theatre Guild: The First Ten Years (1929). Eaton also served as a member of the jury that awarded the Pulitzer Prize for playwriting.


Shown are three letters from the Walter Prichard Eaton Collection, in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, from playwrights responding to Mr. Eaton’s criticism.

 

Autograph letter, signed, from Amélie [Rives Chanler] Troubetskoy to the Editor in Chief of The Public Ledger. 30 March 1916.
 

 

It really is not fair that the “dramatic critics” should be privileged to say whatsoever enters their minds about poor dramatists, while the latter must sit meekly and never utter a retort…I am really rather bored with these pea-cocking critics. I don’t care for peacocks anyway. They always strut about one’s garden to eat the heart out of the lettuce plants and nip off every pleasant bloom they pass!

 

Typed letter, signed, from George S. Kaufman to Walter Prichard Eaton. 29 December 1931.
 

 

 

Typed letter, signed, from Richard Rodgers to Walter Prichard Eaton. 10 August 1950.
 

 

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