Theatre Traditions: East and West
Theatre in the West: The Romantic Theatre


        Robert Cohen. Theatre: Brief Version, 10th edition: Chapter 7, pgs. 213-214.

         George Aiken / Harriet Beacher Stowe. Uncle Tom's Cabin
         Charles Fechter / Alexandre Dumas, père. The Count of Monte Cristo
         Alexandre Dumas, fils. The Lady of the Camellias (Camille)
         Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. Faust
         Edmond Rostand. Cyrano De Bergerac

1. Define romantic drama.

Romantic drama is the theatre of the "long ago and far away." The audiences of the early 19th century wanted to escape the dull, petty frustrations of their lives.

2. What are the characteristics of a romantic hero?

The romantic hero makes no comprises, appeases no one. To him every issue is clear, and if he goes down in defeat, he goes down fighting knowing that his cause is just.

3. What is the difference between the knight-champion and the knight-lover?

Poster for Hamlet
A Knight-Champion
The knight-champion was loyal to his lord, dedicated his life to the protection of the weak, rescue of the innocent, and fought the endless battle against the forces of evil.

The knight-lover placed women on a pedestal, and worshipped them from afar. After a brief glimpse of her beauty, he was transformed forever. He would write poems to her beauty, and sing of his undying devotion, but he could not touch her. It was better to yearn for the ideal, than to desecrate it by turning it into reality.

4. Why did England not produce any major 19th century romantic dramatists?

Because the actor-managers rediscovered the works of Shakespeare. His plays posses many of the elements of romantic drama--A broad sweep of action, many short scenes, and a dedication to love and adventure.

5. Which playwright's work was performed, in England, during this period?

William Shakespeare. He was, in a sense, one of the theatre first "romantic" playwrights.

6. Which of Victor Hugo's dramas was influential in getting romantic drama accepted in Paris' conservative state theatres?

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo
Although Hugo (1802-1885) is today primarily remembered for two novels: Les Misérables (1862) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831); his romantic tragedy: Hernani (1830), set in the ficticous Spanish court of Don Carlo I (1500-1558) helped shatter the neoclassical rules which had restrained French drama since the Renaissance.

7. What happened during its initial performances?

The audience, composed of supporters of both the neoclassic and romantic movements, "rioted" through fifty-five performances.

8. What is the relationship between 19th century opera and romantic drama?

Many 19th century dramas become the source for 19th century operas. Victor Hugo's Hernani was adapted by Giuseppe Verdi into Ernani (1844).

9. Which form, the drama or opera, has held the stage best?

Poster for Tosca
Tosca, the Opera
The opera. There are few, if any, productions of the original dramas, but the operas have become part of the standard repertory. Puccini's Tosca (the opera) is based on a play written for Sarah Bernhardt, the great 19th century French actress. No one produces the play (also called Tosca), but Pucinni's opera is one of the war- horses of the operatic repertory.

Scenes from LA Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca (2013)


10. Who is the most often produced opera composer on the stage of Metropolitan Opera in New York City?

Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).

    Where was he from?

Italy. He was born in Parma and died in Milan, the home of Teatro alla Scala (La Scala Opera)

11. What opera did he compose for the opening of the Cairo Opera House?

Aida (1871). It is probably his most famous, and grandest opera. It is also one of the few, perhaps only, Verdi opera which is not based on an earlier drama. It is an original story drawn from Egypt's colorful past.

12. Who was Richard Wagner?

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) was a German composer who believed that opera should be a "total art work." He created music dramas (not operas), based on Teutonic myths and legends, which unified the elements of music, drama, design and movement. In Wagner's music drama, there was no longer a distinction between a recitative and an aria, instead there was one long continuous melody line. In his later work, these melody lines were created by combining musical themes (motifs) which represented different characters, objects, and emotions in the drama.

13. What is a leitmotif?

Leitmotif is a clearly defined musical theme, representing a person, object or idea, which appears at the appropriate moment in a dramatic (usually an opera or film) work. In addition to the music dramas of Wagner, leitmotifs can be seen in John Williams' scores for the three Indiana Jones and six Star Wars films.

14. What is considered Wagner's masterpiece?

Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876). The "Ring" is actually four music dramas: Das Rheingold ("Rhinegold"), Die Walkure ("The Valkyries"), Siegfried and Gotterdammerung ("The Twilight of the Gods") with a combined playing time of 17 hours. Wagner began working on Das Rheingold in November 1851 and finished Gotterdammerung, the last of the series, in November 1874. The premiere performance in August 1876 was on the stage of Wagner's just opened opera house (Festspielhaus) in Bayreuth.

15. Who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo?

Alexandre Dumas, pere
Alexandre Dumas, pere
Alexandre Dumas', père (1802-1870) first major success was as a playwright. His Henri III was successfully produced in Paris in 1829. He soon shifted from writing romantic drama to writing romantic novels. His major works include The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1845).

    Why was his stage adaption of Monte Cristo not a theatrical success?

His 1848 adaption of the 117 chapter, 1300 page novel (originally published in 18 installments in the Journal des Débats) required a cast of a 100, was written in 20 acts, and took two days to perform. Thirty five years later, Charles Fechter, a 19th century actor / manager, developed a more workable (9 scenes, 5 acts + Prologue, cast of 24) adaption. This version, starring James O'Neill, was first presented on the massive stage of New York's Booth Theatre in February 1883.

16. Who performed it in the United States during the late 19th century?

James O'Neill as Monte Cristo
James O'Neill as Monte Cristo
James O'Neill (1847-1920), an acknowledged Shakespearean actor, played the title role of Edmond Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, at least 6000 times over a 30 year period. His performance was recorded on film by Edwin Porter in 1913.

17. What was his relationship to Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953)?

He is Eugene's father.

18. What type of plays did Alexandre Dumas, fils write?

Alexandre Dumas, fils
Alexandre Dumas, fils
Alexandre Dumas, fils (1824-1895) wrote, what he believed, were realistic dramas. But most modern directors see his plays as being very romantic.

    What was his relationship to Alexandre Dumas, père?

He was his son.

19. What is the title of his (A. Dumas, fils) most often revived work?

La Dame aux camélias', known as Camille in the English speaking world, began life in 1848 as a novel. Four years later, in 1852, Dumas, fils adapted his story of the love between Marguerite Gautier (a courtesane based on Marie Duplessis, the playwright's real-life lover) and a young, Armand Duval to the French stage. In 1853 it becomes the source of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata.

20. Why is it now considered a romantic, and not realistic drama?

What was "here and now" in 1852 is now "long ago and far away."

21. What is the title of Edmund Rostand's most important work?

Edmond Rostand
Edmund Rostand
Edmund Rostand (1868-1918) is best remembered for Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), the story of a 17th century (1619-1655) French nobleman (with a very large nose) and his love for his cousin Roxanne.

22. What position does it hold in dramatic literature?

It is probably the best example of a 19th century romantic drama.

Jose Ferrer as Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

Cyrano de Bergerac

23. What position does Johann Wolfgang von Goethe hold in German literature?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Goethe (1749-1832) is Germany's greatest literary figure. He is to German literature what Shakespeare is to English drama, and Moliere is to French comedy.

24. What is his most important play?

Faust (Part I: 1808, Part II: 1831): the story of a man, Henrich Faust, (suggested by the life of Dr. Johann Georg Faust (1480-1540), an itinerant alchemist, astrologer, and magician) who sells his soul to Mephistopheles, the devil for all knowledge. Mephistopleles will be Faust's servant on earth, and Faust will be the devil's servant in the after-life.

25. What German theatre did he manage?

He was the manager of the state theatre at Weimar. He required his actors to attend rehearsals. He permitted only two responses from his audiences. If they liked the show they could applaud. If they did not like the show they could remain silent.
F. W. Murnau's 1926 expressionistic film interpretation of Goethe's Faust
With Gosta Ekmann as Faust and Emil Jannings as Mephisto


26. What are the characteristics of a melodrama?

Poster for Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Melodrama contained a spotless hero who was usually falsely accused (but cleared by the last act) and an evil black hearted villain (who was often a banker or lawyer). Background music underscored sentimental speeches and the action sequences, just like in a film. The greatest excitement was the chase.

27. How large an audience did the 19th century melodramas attract?

Melodrama developed the largest popular audience in American theatre history.

28. What was the title of America's most successful 19th century melodrama?

Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was based on Harriet Beacher Stowe's novel of the same name. The play, adapted by George Aiken, was written in six acts, included 30 scenes, and was performed by a cast of 25. There were American productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin into the 1930's.

29. What was the importance of the showboat to the westward movement of the American theatre?

"Major Bowes' Amateurs In Person" on the Golden Rod Floating Theatre
Note that the Goldenrod is not powered, there is a steam boat behind it to push it up stream.

In the early part of the 19th century, most major American cities were built along a river (usually the Mississippi or Ohio) or a canal. Mounting a theatre on a flat boat, and taking the show to the major cities along the river was an efficient way to tour, and no "western" community was large enough to support a resident theatre company.

William Chapman's two hundred seat Floating Theatre is considered America's first showboat. Starting in 1831, it traveled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. By thy 1850s there were dozens of showboats plyings the water ways of the midwest. They continued to operate into the middle of the 20th century. In the late 1950s, the Golden Rod, pictured above, was permanently docked on the St. Louis waterfront. It was the home of an acting company who performed classic 19th century melodrama, like The Drunkard (1844) and The Octoroon (1859), each weekend. I saw a number of these productions while I was living in southern Illinois.

The American showboat was immortalized first in the novel by Edna Ferber (Show Boat, 1926), and later in the Jerome Kern - Oscar Hammerstein II musical: Show Boat, (1928).

30. What types of plays did they present?


31. Where was Aberdeen's first theatre located?

According to the Early History of Brown County (1965), Aberdeen's first "theatre" was located in a hall above Frenchie's Saloon. In a 1973 taped oral-history interview, Lorraine Roesch quoted her mother, Mrs. A. N. Aldrich (one of Aberdeen's pioneer families) saying "I remember Aberdeen's first theatre upstairs over a saloon with a stairway up the outside of the building. Here I saw the drama: The Two Orphens by a traveling troupe."

32. Who built Aberdeen's first opera house?

In September 1884, three years after the railroad arrived, Charles Gottschalk (1860-1944) opened the National Skating Rink, a large wooden structure located on the south east corner of Lincoln Street and Third Avenue. This enterprise lasted about six months. Three years later, in 1887, Gottshcalk turned what had been his indoor skating rink into the Aberdeen Opera House (also known as the Gottschalk Opera House or simply, The Gottschalk). This was Aberdeen's first playhouse. It had a seating capacity of 700 and a 40 foot wide by 25 foot deep stage with a 20' by 14' proscenium opening.

Gottschalk Opera House
The New Gottschalk Opera House & Hotel -- 1902-1910

The original Gottschalk burned in 1902 and was replaced with another wooden structure the same year. The second Opera House, which was somewhat larger (Seating capacity: 860, Stage: 54' wide by 30' deep by 44' high, Proscenium: 30' wide by 22' high), burned eight years later (1910) in one of Aberdeen's most spectular fires. It was replaced in May 1913 by the new, fire proof, Aberdeen Theatre (Seating capacity: 940; Stage: 54' wide by 34' deep by 54' high; Proscenium: 32' by 25') which in November of 1914 became the Orpheum Theatre. Aberdeen was one of twenty-six South Dakota towns with at least one theatre or opera house listed in the 1908-09 issue of the Julius Cahn - Gus Hill Theatrical Guide. The Guide, which was the "bible" of the theatrical booking agent, gave the seating capacity and stage dimensions of the houses available to the traveling rep companies.

Gottschalk fire
The Gottschalk Opera House Fire -- July 1910

33. Who used Aberdeen's opera house?

Mlle Rhea
Mlle Rhea
The Gottschalk was used primarily for local political meetings, church revivals, school graduations, and amateur theatricals. Once or twice a month a professional acting company would arrive in town and present a repertory of two to five plays. They traveled by rail bringing their props and costumes with them and expecting the local theatre to provide the needed scenery and furniture. They would stay in a local hotel for two day to a week performing a differnt show each night. If their visit was successful, the company would return the following year with new scripts.

In September 1888, Mlle. Rhea and Her Grand Company of Players were in Aberdeen for two days. They presented two plays at the Gottschalk: Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and Adrienne Lecouvreur, a French tragedy by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouve. Tickets were priced at $ 1.00 ($ 24.00 in 2010 dollars). Mlle. Rhea (Hortense-Berbe Loret, 1844-1899) was a popular, well known Belgium born and French trained, European actress who performed for 17 years in Brussels, Rouen, Paris, St Petersburg and London. She arrived in the United States in 1881. She performed her repertory in a heavily accented English.

Probably the most successful touring company to play Aberdeen was the Clint and Bessie Robbins Company of Youth and Cleverness. They appeared annually on the stages of the Orpheum and Capital Theatres for nearly 20 years from the late 1910s through the mid 1930s. In the fall of 1928, Clint and Bessie Robbins and their company of 13 actors were in town for six days. They gave six performances of three plays: The Behaviour of Mrs. Crane, Stella Dallas and The Noose on the stage of the Orphum Theatre. Their last visit was in the late 30s and they were forced to perform in a tent because no theatres were available. By the early 40s most of the traveling shows had left the business, a victim of the movies who had stolen both their theatres and their audience. According to Billboard magazine, in January 1942 the Robbins were operating a gift shop in southern California and in 1944 they were working at a defense plant in Portland, Oregon,

34. What was the star system? What was its relationship to the actor-manager system of production?

In the star system, the production is built around the lead actor, the "star". He owned the company. His wife was usually the leading lady, and his son and daughter would often play the "romantic" leads. Plays were selected to show off the star's talents. The supporting cast was there to assist the star. The star-system was an outgrowth of the actor-manager system which dates back to the English Restoration.

35. Who was Edwin Booth?

Edwin Booth as Hamlet
Edwin Booth as Hamlet
Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was America's leading 19th century Shakespearean actor. He used a subtle, psychological approach. He brought Shakespeare to the American stage, using for the first time, a full accurate script. In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, he performed Hamlet for one hundred consecutive nights, setting a record that would stand until the 1922-1923 John Barrymore production at New York's Sam H Harris Theatre. He briefly retired from the stage after his brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre.

     Sir Henry Irving?

Sir Henry Irving as Hamlet
Sir Henry Irving as Hamlet
Before arriving in London in 1866, Henry Irving (1838-1905) had performed in Sunderland (1856), Edinburgh (1857-1860), Manchester (1860-1865) and Liverpool (1865). With performances of Hamlet (1874), Macbeth (1875) and Othello (1876) he gained a reputation as England's greatest actor. In 1878, after forming a partnership with actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928), he became actor-manager of London's Lyceum Theatre where they successfully revived Goethe's Faust and Shakespeare's Hamlet. In 1895 he became the first actor in British history to be Knighted.

     Sarah Bernhardt?

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), "The Divine Sarah" debuted on the stage of the Comédie Française in 1862. After a successful 14 year career in France she arrived in London (1876) where she quickly established herself as the leading actress of the day. Her first (of nine) American tours was four years later in 1880. (Her last American visit was in 1918). In 1899 she founded, in Paris, the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt. The same year, at the age of 55, she played the title role in Shakespeare's Hamlet in Paris, London and New York. In 1900 she took her talent before the camera making eleven films including both Alexandre Dumas' fils La Dame aux Camélias (1910 and 1912) and La Tosca (1909). Even though her left leg was amputated at the age of 71 (1915), she continued to perform, playing parts she could act while seated, until her death in 1923. During her 62-year career, she played some 70 roles, all in French, in more than 125 productions. She is probably the first truly international star.
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet
From Le duel d'Hamlet (France, 1900)

The rooster image is the logo of the Pathé Frères Company. All their early films
contain the logo, though it usually isn't as large as it is in this film.

36. What German manager showed the world that it was possible to produce romantic drama in a realistic style?

Georg, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen
Georg II
Duke of Saxe-Meiningen
Georg II, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, operated a small, professional court theatre. He used the ensemble system of production. He believed in a long (six to eight months) rehearsal period. His sets and costumes were historically accurate. He used a realistic style of production, but the plays he presented were romantic. He toured his company for 16 years (1874 to 1890) and influenced production techniques in Paris and Moscow.

Set for Cathy from Heilbronn
Set for Cathy from Heilbronn by Heinrich von Kleist (1810)
Painted by the Brueckner Brothers, Coburg, for the Meiningen Company

37. What were his two most often performed productions?

William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Friedrich Schiller's (1759-1805) Wilhelm Tell (1804), the romantic German drama about the Swiss hunter, an expert with a crossbow, who was forced by Hermann Gessler, the tyrannical Austrian over-lord to shoot an apple off his son's head.

38. What is a stock set?

A collection of "generic" sets which the theatre manager would use for his (or visiting) company's productions

    What were some of the scenic designs theatre managers stocked?

A small local theatre would own at least four basic sets, a...
  1. Kitchen set,
  2. Parlor set,
  3. Woodland scene, and
  4. City street scene.

Kitchen drop

Fancy parlor drop

Woodland drop

City street drop

The manager would decide which of these four designs (or back drops) would best fit the settings required for each play he presented. The action was set either in the city or in the country (woodland scene) and delt with the lives of the rich (who lived in the parlor) or the poor (who seemed to spend most of their time in the kitchen).

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Updated: November 12, 2014
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Text Copyright © 1995-2014 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401