Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Faust in America


For most of his life, Bram Stoker worked for the famous actor, Henry Irving. On many occasions, this work brought Stoker to America. As I'm about to set off on my own summer adventures, I found this passage about a trip in 1888 from Stoker's Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving especially appealing.

When we played Faust in America, it was curious to note the different reception accorded to it undoubtedly arising from traditional belief.
In Boston, where the old puritanical belief of a real devil still holds, we took in one evening four thousand eight hundred and fifty-two dollars more than a thousand pounds the largest dramatic house up to then known in America. Strangely the night was that of Irving's fiftieth birthday. For the rest the lowest receipts out of thirteen performances was two thousand and ten dollars. Seven were over three thousand, and three over four thousand.
In Philadelphia, where are the descendants of the pious Quakers who followed Penu into the wilderness, the average receipts were even greater. Indeed at the matinee on Saturday, the crowd was so vast that the doors were carried by storm. All the seats had been sold, but in America it was usual to sell admissions to stand at one dollar each. The crowd of "standees," almost entirely women, began to assemble whilst the treasurer, who in an American theatre sells the tickets, was at his dinner. His assistant, being without definite instructions, went on selling till the whole seven hundred left with him were exhausted. It was vain to try to stem the rush of these enthusiastic ladies. They carried the outer door and the checktaker with it ; and broke down by sheer weight of numbers the great inner doors of heavy mahogany and glass standing some eight feet high. It was impossible for the seat-holders to get in till a whole posse of police appeared on the scene and cleared them all out, only readmitting them when the seats had been filled. 
But in Chicago, which as a city neither fears the devil nor troubles its head about him or all his works, the receipts were not much more than half the other places Not nearly so good as for the other plays of the repertoire presented. 
In New York the business with the play was steady and enormous. New York was founded by the Bible-loving righteous-living Dutch. 
This passage appeals to me because of the sense that Stoker is making grand and sweeping judgements as a foreign observer. It's something that can be humourous, but is also important not to do when you are travelling. 

I also find this passage interesting because of the old stereotypes about Americans as superstitious religious fanatics. Stoker extols these stereotypes here. Stoker sees Americans' religious biases as more pervasive than their ability to appreciate art, literature, and theatre. 

It's funny that Stoker is unable to see New York, Boston, and Philadelphia as cultural centres themselves. Even by the late 1880s, New York was blossoming as a cultural centre.


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