Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2009 Issue

A Glimmer in Time

8.15.57

High drama in the 1850s


The prices were low probably because the material was, while absurdly rare, difficult to describe, unknown and certainly unexpected. Most collectors and to a lesser extent dealers, rely upon collecting references. This material was invisible. For such things, while indirect references exist, they are deeply obscure. In the New York Times archive there is reference to Horace Greeley speaking to an empty auditorium at the dedication of the Music Hall in Kingston [August 12, 1858]. One of the broadsides is for this event. There were probably also local newspaper accounts as, at that time, Kingston and Rondout [then separate], with a reported population of 16,640, were supporting six newspapers: the Argus, Rondout Courier, Kingston Freeman, Kingston Press, Ulster Democrat and Ulster Republican. I believe the Argus was one of Horace Greeley's newspapers. He, of "Go west young man" fame, was the leading publisher in New York State. The population of Ulster County, of which Kingston was both its largest community and its county seat, was 74,772. Dutchess County's population was 62,800, Orange County's 61,700. Ulster was both important and populous.

That the city was supporting so much culture, as evidenced by these theatrical broadsides, seems as much a reflection of the times as of the place itself. An examination of Odell's Annals of the New York Stage for references to New York theatrical productions in that period suggests that threatres were many and the productions never-ending. Kingston, a mere 90 miles distant by train and steamboat was not only off-Broadway, it was a cultural backwater. The actors listed in the broadsides, with only two exceptions, fail to appear in any of the well-documented New York stage records. The two that are listed, Kate and Sallie Singleton, played supporting roles.

Of the ten productions advertised [there is one duplicate] the most interesting neatly dovetail the start of the Civil War. Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12th, 1861. The last three broadsides, by date, are April 10th, April 11th and April 13th 1861. Whether the show on the 12th was canceled is unknown. I of course looked to see if John Wilkes Booth, an actor before he was an assassin, might have been on the bill as hostilities broke out. Alas no, unless he performed under an assumed name.

The broadsides themselves tell an interesting story. The first five advertise performances over 8 days in 1857: August 8, 10, 11, 13 and 15. There is more or less a cast of 11, seven who appear in every production. They begin on the 8th with MacBeth, the Tyrant of the North, and follow with Romeo and Juliet or, The Italian Lovers on the 10th, Don Caesar de Bazan or A Match for a King on the 11th, Castle Spectre or the Unnatural Brother on the 13th and Pizarro or The Spaniards in Peru on the 15th. For those patrons too easily sated an under card was also offered every night: Rival Footman, or Johnny from York and Paddy from Cork on the 8th followed by Mischief-Making or the French Washerwoman; Spectre Bridegroom or a Ghost in Spite of Himself; Bee Hive or Industry must Prosper; and Two Gregories or Where did the Money Come From? All performances and all seats are twenty-five cents. No music is mentioned.

Another broadside announces the opening night of the Music Hall. It's dated Thursday eve. August 12th and appears to refer to 1858. This is "dedicatory exercises" featuring first an address by Horace Greeley then followed by a musical performance by what appears to be local talent. At the conclusion there is a Promenade Concert. For the men admission is $1.00, for the ladies fifty cents.

The final group of broadsides announces theatrical productions on April 10, 11 and 13, 1861. These productions again include both main and second presentations: Le Tour de Nesle or, the Chamber of Death followed by Country Cousin, on the 10th, Ingomar or, The Son of the Wilderness on the 11th followed by the Night Wanderer, and Black Eyed Susan, or All in the Downs and Paddy Miles Boy on the 13th. News of the shots fired at Fort Sumter certainly reached Kingston on the 12th. Theatrical tradition requires that the show go on and the evidence suggests it did. As to whether there were other performances on following days I don't know. With Lincoln barely sworn in the ground swell of anxiety and indignation was just beginning to take hold and the next drum beats heard were probably regimental calls to arms.

Rare Book Monthly

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