Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Theater in America, circa 1800

When Rebecca was a young woman, going to the theater was a popular pastime among those in her social set. The theater provided variety, with a mixture of Shakespeare, other favorites from the past and recent London hits. People went even though productions could be very uneven. Maria Fenno, Rebecca's best friend, reported to Rebecca from New York that she would be going to see King Lear, as performed by a "band of butchers," with a Cordelia "who has frequently been obliged to go to bed in the middle of a play in consequence of intoxication." On the other hand, America in 1800 had begun to attract young English actors whose stars rose much more quickly here than on the London stage. They would be the first matinee idols in the new nation.

Most of the social elite, as devotees of the English literary heritage, attended regularly. Others, like the Quakers, stayed away on principle. The middle classes generally avoided the theater, believing it to be a den of vice, and it can be argued that they were correct. Nearly every theater had its infamous third tier, the highest balcony where prostitutes displayed themselves and booked assignations. Theater owners early realized that this secondary attraction brought in a regular clientele, whose tickets provided the profit necessary to keep the dramatic arts alive in America.

The third tier was a frequent source of noise and disruption, but the prostitutes and their johns were not alone in impropriety. Wealthy young men felt entitled to exercise their wit in voices loud enough for the whole theater to hear. Rebecca's sister Rachel found their conduct disgusting on at least one occasion:

"We had several of them in our box at the theatre [who] annoyed me almost to death. Every word that [the leading actor] uttered was repeated by them with some comments."

Despite the rowdiness of the third tier and the "arrogance and affectation" (Rachel's words) of some young men, respectable men and women, safe in their theater boxes, continued to attend, and even to bring their adolescent children. In 1805 Rebecca wrote of taking 14-year-old Matilda Hoffman to see a play.

(Maria's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Rachel's is from the Gulian C. Verplanck Papers at the New York Historical Society, and the information about Rebecca and Matilda's theater-going is from a letter written by Rebecca in the Gratz Papers at the American Jewish Historical Society.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rebecca and the "Little Butlers"

(This narrative thread begins here.)

When Fanny Kemble realized that her estranged husband never intended to let her see her daughters, she left the United States. During her absence, Rebecca continued to be a good friend. The two women began a correspondence which survives only in part (so far as I have been able to discover): some of Fanny's letters are among the Gratz papers at the American Philosophical Society, but Rebecca's have been lost. However, it is easy to discern the letters' most important purpose -- to provide Fanny with news of her children. In an undated letter to Rebecca, Fanny wrote, "A thousand thanks for the accounts of my girls. How right, how wise, how good, how kind you are to tell me everything that you can about them, from Fanny's French studies to Sarah's brisk bonnet."

Given the rancor between the parents, it is surprising that Pierce Butler would permit his daughters to visit a woman who was very much their mother's friend. Butler could not accuse Rebecca, as he did other of Fanny's friends, of helping to destroy his marriage; she didn't meet his wife until their relationship was all but over. And here was an instance where Rebecca's reputation as a "good woman" and the inspiration for Rebecca in Scott's Ivanhoe probably stood her in good stead.

Rebecca invited Fanny's daughters to her house, and also seems to have taken them on excursions. In 1847, she wrote her niece Miriam Cohen after a trip to a charity bazaar, "The little Butlers seem entirely delighted and I go again to see them enjoy themselves." Rebecca's pleasure in the companionship of children as well as her keen observations must have made her ideal for communicating the girls' behavior and interests to their mother. To her own relatives, Rebecca wrote of her concern for the development of the children without a mother's influence.

After Fanny's return to America in 1848, her husband permitted her to see her daughters. She wrote to Rebecca about her older girl: "Sarah's mode of speaking of you pleased me extremely, not because it was affectionate, but because it was respectful and enthusiastic and bespoke in her some appreciation of that moral dignity & beauty which I would have her respect and admire and love above all things."

The affection between Rebecca and the little Butlers may have grown out of their peculiar situation but it endured. In 1856, when the girls had reached womanhood, Rebecca reported: "I have just had a visit from my young friends the Butlers -- Sarah came to tell me of her engagement to Mr. Sandford of New York...." (The engagement was not as enduring as their friendship. In 1859 Sarah married Dr. Owen Jones Wister of Philadelphia; her son was the novelist Owen Wister.)

Even at the beginning of the Civil War, in which Pierce Butler was a vocal southern sympathizer, Rebecca continued her concern. The younger daughter, Fanny Butler, who took her
father's side, had gone with him to Georgia in February of 1861. In March Rebecca was already asking her niece in Savannah for any news of the young woman. (She and her father were fine. They returned North for the war, during which Pierce Butler was in and out of trouble for his views, and went back to Georgia after to try to renew the prosperity of the family holdings.)

(As mentioned above, Fanny's letters are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Rebecca's are in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, No. 02639, the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I also used Malcolm Bell, Jr.'s Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family, for more information about the Butler's.)

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