Theatre Traditions: East and West
Theatre in the West: The Romantic Theatre
- England, France, Germany, United States -


        Robert Cohen and Donovan Sherman. Theatre: Brief Version, 11th edition, Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2017; Chapter 7: Theatre Traditions: East and West, pgs. 204-205

         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

Objectives of Unit III, Lecture 6: The 19th Century Theatre of England, France, Germany and the United States
To identify the major historic contributions of the 19th Century Theatre of England, France, Germany
and the United States
to the development of western theatre and drama.

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. Shakespeare's Hamlet is a knight-champion.

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. Rostand's Cyrano is a knight-lover.


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. They have 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 by Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) for Sarah Bernhardt, the great 19th century French actress. No one produces the play (also called La 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)


15. Who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo?

Alexandre Dumas, pere
Alexandre Dumas, pere
Nineteenth century French writer, 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-historical fiction. 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 (1824-1879), a 19th century English 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.

Watch the famous "Nose Speech" from the first act of Cyrano as performed in 1950 by Jose Ferrer.


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.

     What are Geothe's three questions of artistic criticism?

  1. What was the artist -playwright, director, actor - trying to do?
  2. Did he do it?
  3. Was it worth doing?

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.

-United States-

26. What are the characteristics of a melodrama?

Poster for Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Nineteenth century melodrama contained a spotless hero who was usually falsely accused (but cleared by the end of 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). The stage musical was adapted to the screen by Universal in 1929 and again in 1936. A third adaption, by MGM staring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel was released in 1951. The 1929 version was a "part-talkie," a film which was mostly silent with 18 recorded musical segments (including seven songs from the Broadway show) which were synchronized to the action on the screen.

30. What types of plays did they present?


31. What was the difference between a 19th Century European Opera House and an American Opera House?

A European opera house was typically built and operated by the state and was an operation of the royal family. An American opera house, especially those in the larger cities, was usually financed and organized by the newly rich as a way to join "polite society." The opera house in the smaller American towns was usually managed by a local business man with the hope of making a small profit.

The Vienna Opera House, for example, which was built between 1861 and 1869, was originally the home of the Vienna Court Opera (Wiener Hofoper) and was operated by Habsburg Monarchy untill it's collapse after World War One. In 1920 the company became the Vienna State Opera under the First Republic of Austria. The stage and auditorium of the Opera House was destroyed by allied bombing at the end of World War II. The Opera House was restored to its original design after the war and reopened in 1949. Today the Wiener Staatsoper is one of the busiest companies in the world, producing 50 to 60 operas and ten ballet per season with approximately 300 performances a year.

Vienna Opera House
Vienna Opera House (1861-1869)
Notice that the Vienna Opera House uses the classic horse-shoe shaped auditorium. Note the Royal Boxes at the front of the house,
the rather large orchestra pit, and the five galleries hanging from the side walls of the auditorium.

The Metropolitan Opera House, which was built in 1883, was financed by a group of New York City's nouveau riche. Wealthy men with family names like Morgan, Roosevelt, and Vanderbilt who purchased stock in the newly organized "Metropolitan Opera-house Company of New-York." Each of the original 41 subscribers, who held 100 shares apiece, received the use of a private box from which they could view all performances. The opera houses' "golden horseshoe" literally became the "showplace for New York City Society. In 1940, ownership of the Opera House was transfered from the wealthy families who occupied the theater's boxes, to the non-profit Metropolitan Opera Association. In 1966 the company moved to the much larger, and better equipped, new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center.

Metropolitan Opera House
The Original Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, NY (1883)
Note the similarity between the Vienna Opera House and the old Metropolitan Opera House.

In 1867, Virginia City business man John Piper, owner of Piper's Corner Bar, purchased Maguire's Opera House, which he renamed the Piper's Opera House, with the hope of attracting the "theatre crowd." In 1875 his opera house, along with most of Virginia City, burned to the ground. Piper continued to promote shows in other venues, until 1878, when he had gathered the necessary funds to erect a new building at the rear of Piper's Corner Bar. The second Piper's Opera House burned in 1883 and was replaced by a third Piper's Opera House, which opened in March 1885. This venue still exists and can be rented or visited and toured during the summer months.
         From it's beginnings, the Piper's Opera House has been home to basketball games, roller-skating, dances, graduations, weddings and a host of other civic events. The opera house stage has hosted actors Maude Adams, Edwin Booth and Hal Holbrook; singers Lilly Langtry, Al Jolson and Tennessee Ernie Ford; producer/director David Belasco; writer/lecturer Mark Twain; social-reformer Henry Ward Beecher; boxer and World Heavyweight Champion "Gentleman Jim" Corbett; showman William F, Cody (Buffalo Bill); and the John Philip Sousa Band.
         Why did John Piper call his theatre Piper's Opera House? Probably because he thouht it would bring in a larger audience.

Piper’s Opera House
Piper’s Opera House, Virginia City NV, (1885)
This is the opera house, as it appeared before renovation.
Note the proscenium boxes, single side gallery, roller curtain, flat floor, individual chairs and lack of orchestra pit.

32. 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."

33. 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, the Gottschalk Theatre 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 Theatre & 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 Theatre Fire -- July 1910

34. 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 ($ 26.50 in 2016 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,

35. 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.

36. 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.

37. 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

38. 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.

39. 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: December 29, 2016
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Text Copyright © 1995-2016 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401