The Thespian Mirror II

See below.

The Critics I

Early dramatic criticism in America gained little notice. There were no professional critics, and eighteenth and early nineteenth-century newspapers rarely devoted space to a theatrical review. The criticism that did reach print generally went unattributed or was written under pseudonyms. Although some journals entirely devoted to the theatre appeared in the major cities that had a theatre following, most of these proved short-lived. Not until after the Civil War with the flourishing of the country’s newspapers did theatrical criticism come into its own. In the twentieth century, as New York became the center of the American professional theatre, criticism attained the power to make or break a show.

The Thespian Mirror I

Payne, John H[oward]. The Thespian Mirror: A Periodical Publication. Comprising a Collection of Dramatic Biography, Theatrical Criticism, Miscellaneous Literature, Poetry. New York: Printed by Southwick and Hardcastle, 1806.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

The Thespian Mirror

John Howard Payne, American actor and playwright, began his professional relationship with the theatre as a critic at the age of fourteen. Although Payne’s father apprenticed him to a New York counting-house as a bookkeeper, the young man spent every moment that he could spare in the theatre and began publishing the third American theatrical periodical, The Thespian Mirror, in 1805. His weekly periodical contained biographies of noted actors, reviews of New York plays, theatre anecdotes, poetry, and miscellaneous articles. In the first issue, Payne stated that his periodical was “chiefly intended to promote the interests of the American Drama, and to eradicated false impressions respecting the nature, objects, design and tendency of Theatrical Amusements.” Shown is the title page and frontispiece with a portrait of actor Thomas Abthorpe Cooper.

Speed the Plough

Morton, Thomas. “Speed the Plough.” In The Polyanthos. Ed. Joseph T. Buckingham. Vol. 3. Boston: J. T. Buckingham, 1806. 205-209.

The Polyanthos

A monthly miscellany edited by Joseph T. Buckingham, The Polyanthos included theatrical reviews. Shown is a review of Thomas Morton’s “Speed the Plough.” Performed in Boston, this play’s company included Elizabeth and David Poe, the parents of Edgar Allan Poe. A less than favorable review for the show, Morton’s article did end on a positive note for the Poes.

Photograph of miniature of Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe

From the Ingram-Poe Collection.

Photograph of miniature of Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe. [1809?].

The Thespian Monitor, and Dramatick Miscellany

Bangbar, Barnaby. The Thespian Monitor, and Dramatick Miscellany. Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1809.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

The Thespian Monitor

In this small theatrical periodical, devoted nearly entirely to reviews of Philadelphia stage productions, a review of Hamlet takes to task John Howard Payne’s lead performance. Severely criticizing the young actor’s diction, pronunciation, emphasis, and delivery of lines, the author writes:

The following exclamation to his mother, against the conduct of his uncle, we cannot pronounce to have been either properly delivered, or gratifying to the audience who heard it. The rapid succession with which each line followed the other, was such as to produce very painful sensations in the hearer, and difficult “suspiration of forc’d breath” in the actor. They were rendered entirely indistinct and incomprehensible.

Payne went on to have a successful acting and playwriting career despite this early review.

Sketch of the Life of the Late Mr. Hodgkinson

“Sketch of the Life of the Late Mr. Hodgkinson.” In The Mirror of Taste and Dramatic Censor. Vol. 1; no. 3. Ed. Steven Cullen Carpenter. Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep; New York: Inskeep and Bradford; Boston: William M’Ilhenny, 1810. 202-212.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

The Mirror of Taste and Dramatic Censor

The Mirror of Taste is noted as the most important theatrical journal of its time. This monthly periodical presented not only local reviews but also reviews of stage productions in London. The periodical also included biographies of theatre personalities, articles on theatre history, poetry, plays and book reviews. Shown is a biography of the actor John Hodgkinson.

Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.

Irving, Washington. Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. New York: William H. Clayton, 1824.

From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Jonathan Oldstyle

Writing under the pseudonym of Jonathan Oldstyle, Washington Irving wrote a series of letters for The Morning Chronicle in 1802 and 1803, extending his commentary beyond just the plays and performers to the audience and critics as well.

As I entered the house some time before the curtain rose, I had sufficient leisure to make some observations. I was much amused with the waggery and humour of the gallery, which, by the way, is kept in excellent order by the constables who are stationed there. The noise in this part of the house is similar to that which prevailed in Noah’s ark; for we have an imitation of the whistles and yells of every kind of animal… Somehow or another, the anger of the gods seemed to be aroused all of a sudden, and they commenced a discharge of apples, nuts, and gingerbread, on the heads of the honest folks in the pit, who had no possibility of retreating from this new kind of thunderbolts. I can’t say but I was a little irritated at being saluted aside of my head with a rotten pippin.