Wednesday, September 21st, 2011...3:54 pm
A different Good Friday accord
Exploring the Harvard Theatre Collection’s rich trove of correspondence among nineteenth-century American theater managers and performers makes clear how small this community was. Letters in the HTC capture managers negotiating contracts for star performers, haggling over rights to popular plays, and planning parties to celebrate a particularly illustrious career. And despite fierce competition among theaters, successful managers understood that the right compromise could fatten everyone’s wallets. Few managers navigated this world as well as Augustin Daly (1838-99), a playwright and theater owner whose reputation as an autocratic manager did little to diminish his renown as a producer of Shakespearean comedies and original melodramas. Daly, who ran the Fifth Avenue Theatre, and then eponymous theaters in New York and London, was, in the overinflated prose of his biographer-brother, “the man who lifted the American stage from a very low estate to a position of great dignity” [Joseph Francis Daly, The Life of Augustin Daly (New York: Macmillan, 1917), p. vii]. Along the way, Daly managed to accumulate considerable wealth, as the appendices to that biography explaining the division of Daly’s estate attest. Such financial success undoubtedly was due in part to Daly’s skill at recognizing and cultivating talent, but Daly’s shrewd business acumen helped buttress the quality of his productions.
That fine business sense is on full display in one remarkable item, a letter in Daly’s hand, dated April 17, 1886, signed by many of the most prominent members of the New York theater community, pledging not to perform on Good Friday.
Daly, a Catholic, may very well have closed his own theater out of religious feeling, but coaxing his fellow managers to join him seems a stroke of business genius. After all, Daly might have reasoned, if I can’t make any money on Good Friday, why should anyone else? Moreover, the gesture kept the theaters, and particularly Daly as the sponsor of this practice, in good stead with local religious leaders, who, as ever, remained wary of the wicked stage. An unknown hand on the verso of the document takes this more cynical view, writing “some might call it diplomacy, but toadyism will be a better name.”
While the document is thus an interesting example of Daly’s business acumen, and of how theaters guarded their image in the community, the signatures themselves make for a stunning display. Among the names scrawled here are those of Dion Boucicault (ex-patriate Irish playwright, actor, and sometime manager), A. M. Palmer (then manager of the Madison Square Theatre, in whose office this copy was discovered), Lester Wallack (actor and manager of an eponymous theater), John Stetson (manager who promoted the performer Edward Harrigan, also a signatory, who led the groundbreaking musical comedy duo Harrigan & Hart), J. C. Duff (actor and manager, early official producer of Gilbert & Sullivan, and Daly’s brother-in-law), actresses Helen Dauvray and Ellie Ellsler, and Edward E. Rice (soon to produce Clorindy, a musical by African-American artists Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar).
The letter was evidently sent to local newspapers, as the New York Tribune printed a notice of the closures, along with a list of the signatories, on April 18, 1886. (To Ellsler’s name is appended the note “by Marc Klass [sic], manager,” undoubtedly a misspelling of Marc Klaw, soon to become a leading member of the Theatrical Syndicate, who fell into the theater profession as an attorney hired to litigate copyright infringements of Hazel Kirke, which made Ellsler a star.) Though it is unclear how long the New York theater community’s Good Friday détente lasted, it became a regular practice at Daly’s Theatre, continuing even after Daly’s death in 1899 [William Ellis Horton, Driftwood of the Stage (Detroit: Winn & Hammond, 1904), p. 193]. Above all, this document reveals that the New York theater community was, by the late 1880s, truly a community. And if these theatrical dignitaries were not about to share top billing on a playbill, they were at least open to joining their signatures in an expression of image-conscious public piety.