The Academy of Music vs. the Old Bowery

Academy of Music and Old Bowery

To start with, here’s an engraving that I dearly love, “The Academy of Music and the Old Bowery,” by Thomas Nast from The Broadway Annual (1868).  Nast, one of the most prominent cartoonists of his time, sets up a standard view of highbrowuptownexpensivecivilizedWASP audiences at the Academy of Music and lowbrowdowntowncheapbarbaricIrish audiences at the (Old) Bowery Theatre.

At the time, establishment critics seemed never at a loss to complain about the “low” audiences that preferred vulgar entertainments (more on them in another post), and historians like Lawrence Levine, whose influential Highbrow/Lowbrow revolutionized the study of nineteenth-century culture, have demonstrated that praising theatre-as-art was the product of a very concerted push from above.  Nast’s image not only plays into this paradigm, but it says more about what a publication like The Broadway Annual–and its readership–made of such differences.

Following the image is the third part of an installment “New York Theatres” by Molyneux St. John (that’s Frederick Edward Molyneux St. John, who immigrated from England to Canada in 1868 and wrote a novel A Sea of Mountains (1877), as well as plays– at the New York Theatre in April 1868, he wrote what appears to be a burlesque adapted from a french source, Paris and Helen, or, the Grecian Elopement).  The Broadway Annual piece compares the Academy of Music, the Bowery, and the German Stadt Theatre.  At the start, St. John signals his concern with audiences, rather than architecture or production, noting that “it is the social diversity of their respective patrons from which they derive their peculiar interest” (801).  His discussion of the Academy is of great singers, the cultivation of American gentlemen, ladies’ fashions, and the after theatre dining habits of the audience.  While the Academy is compared favorably to an English opera house, “The Bowery has a veritable and unmistakble pit and gallery, with all the attributes of those places in a Dublin theatre.”  Here, there are the “lower orders of Americans” and “‘coloured gentlemen.'”  There is no mention of women, but “the pleasure or disapprobation of the audience at anything on or off the stage, is expressed with precisely the degree of fervor with which it is felt.”  He goes on to recommend that the theatregoer should “do as Rome does,” for if you show cultivated manners, you risk a “whipping.”

Following these broad strokes, the Nast image is a study in contrasts:

At The Academy of Music, the well-groomed, well-dressed (white) men seem to be engaging in polite conversation, while the ladies remain seated and unobtrusive.  The air is refined and genteel.  At The Old Bowery, the (largely immigrant) roughly-dressed men in the pit are entirely focused on the stage.  They seem to be shouting and gesticulating wildly towards the stage.  One imagines that, if unchecked, this would be depicting the beginning of a riot.

One of the challenges in writing a history of audiences in the period is the difficulty of resisting a narrative like Levine’s, which charts a progression across the century from rowdy to cultivated cultural landscapes.  While there is a clear bifurcation as separate theatres began to have enough audiences to be able to cater to particular tastes, the image shows that the New York theatre was no either highbrow or lowbrow, but that both universes were existing side-by-side.  That the Bowery is depicted and reported on (Molyneux describes watching a melodrama there, as well as offers more guidance for respectable theatregoers), betrays even a legitimate interest in the vigorous entertainment culture of working class Americans.

Looking more closely, I find it interesting that the Academy figures are clearly not interested in what is on stage.  The moment depicted is probably between acts or before a show and they, like the audience in that wonderful opera scene from The Age of Innocence, are looking at each other.  The Bowery audience, on the other hand, is almost fanatically focused on the stage itself (which is clearly depicting some thrilling scene).  It is almost as if Nast is telling his viewers that only the lower classes pay attention to what’s actually on stage!

If being a good audience member meant ignoring the stage, then studying the nineteenth-century is interesting indeed…