The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVIII. The Drama, 1860–1918

§ 8. Augustin Daly

Tradition, on the whole, is the element which most handicapped the American drama. Daly scanned the German horizon for adaptations, as Dunlap had done before him; A. M. Palmer was as eager for the French play as were the English managers abroad, who would complacently have kept T. W. Robertson and Tom Taylor literary hacks at ten pounds a play, if they had not rebelled. When one puts down the titles of dramas which Augustin Daly (1838–1899) actually had a literary hand in, it is surprising how far afield from the American spirit he could get; with him adaptation meant change of locality only, and though one can imagine what the scenic artist might do with his “flats” in picturing New York during the time opera reigned on Fourteenth Street, one can but reservedly call Boucicault’s The Poor of New York (Wallack’s Theatre, 8 December, 1857) or Daly’s Under the Gaslight (The New York Theatre, 12 August, 1867) native dramas; they were domestic perversions of the same French source. The fact of the matter is that Bronson Howard, who came under the direct influence of the French drama of the time, felt, when he began to write such a comedy as Saratoga (Fifth Avenue Theatre, 21 December, 1870) that he must follow French convention; and when he reconstructed The Banker’s Daughter n the ground-plan of Lillian’s Last Love his originality was tied hand and foot. He was borrowing French villians, and making his American men exclaim “egad.”

Daly adapted and wrote over four dozen plays. Among his so-called original attempts, this generation can recall only Divorce (Fifth Avenue Theatre, 5 September, 1871), Horizon (Olympic Theatre, 25 March, 1871), and Pique (Fifth Avenue Theatre, 14 December, 1875); among his adaptations, Leah the Forsaken (Niblo’s Garden, 19 January, 1863), Frou-Frou (Fifth Avenue Theatre, 12 February, 1870), and Article 47 (Fifth Avenue Theatre, 2 April, 1872). But in these, as in most of his attempts, he does not deserve any more claim to native originality than Matilda Heron does for her version of Camille (Wallack’s Broome St. Theatre, 22 January, 1857), or A. M. Palmer for his productions of D’Ennery and Cormon’s A Celebrated Case, adapted by A. R. Cazauran (Boston Museum, 28 January, 1878), and D’Ennery’s The Two Orphans, adapted by Hart Jackson (Union Square Theatre, 21 December, 1874). What he did so successfully, and what Clyde Fitch did so well in later years, was to create rôles for the special qualities in his players: he wrote Frou-Frou for Agnes Ethel, Article 47 for Clara Morris, and Pique for Fanny Davenport.

The emotional play went hand in hand with the emotional actress, and one fails to find Clara Morris showing a penchant for the American drama; her success in Miss Multon, a play built on a French version of East Lynne (Union Square Theatre, 20 November, 1876), and her Cora in Article 47 measured her taste and training, rather than her Lucy Carter in Howard’s Saratoga, which Daly produced. Palmer and Daly gave their players large doses of foreign drama or the classics. In such tradition Fanny Davenport flourished, and Ada Rehan was reared.

This was an unsettled period, therefore, of taste and managerial inclination; it is necessary to pick up the scant threads of American drama and hold them fast lest they be forgotten. Such a play as Densmore’s pirated version of The Gilded Age, in which John T. Raymond made such a success during the early seventies, is scarcely known, even by Mark Twain’s biographer; Benjamin Woolf’s The Mighty Dollar (Park Theatre, 6 September, 1875), once the talk of the American theatre, is, so far as Woolf’s family is concerned, non-existent.

  • Up to the time I started in 1870 [wrote Bronson Howard in 1906], American plays had been written only sporadically here and there by men and women who never met each other.… Except for Daly, I was practically alone; but he offered me the same opportunity and promise for the future that he gave to himself. From him developed a school of managers willing and eager to produce American plays on American subjects.… It was not until about 1890 that they [the writers] suddenly discovered themselves as a body of dramatists. This was at a private supper given… to the veteran playwright, Charles Gaylor.
  • It was on this occasion that Howard founded the American Dramatists Club.

    At the same time other forces were preparing the way for the American drama, and these, viewed from a distance, are significant when one knows what actually followed them. In San Francisco, David Belasco was serving his novitiate as an actor, a playwright, a manager, and was coming into direct contact with the actors of the East, who travelled West for regular seasons. He was writing mining-camp melodrama, which was afterwards to flower into The Girl of the Golden West, and he was experimenting in all the subterfuges of stagecraft. The Frohman brothers were in their rough-and-tumble days, when Tony Pastor, Harrigan and Hart, the “Black Crook,” and the Callender Minstrels were the ideals of managerial success. Close upon Charles and Daniel Frohman came David Belasco to New York in the later seventies. They arrived at a moment which was propitious, for Bronson Howard, rightly designated the Dean of American Drama, as Dunlap is called the Father of the American Theatre, had insisted on A. M. Palmer’s advertising his play, The Banker’s Daughter, as an American Comedy, and he stood for the rights of the native dramatist as opposed to the foreigner. It was a long time in the managerial careers of either Daniel or Charles Frohman before they could be brought to think that the word “American” was of commercial advantage; and this attitude of theirs is the first suggestion of the future estimate of the theatre as a commercial enterprise, against which all later native art has had to contend.