Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Theaters and Opera Houses
Author:
Meyer, Susan M.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Throughout his career, the theater and the opera were important influences on the work of Walt Whitman. In Specimen Days (1882), November Boughs (1888), and Good-Bye My Fancy (1891), as well as his early newspaper articles and poems such as "Song of Myself" and "Proud Music of the Storm," Whitman demonstrates his interest in both the theater and the opera and takes note of having visited some of the most important theaters and opera houses of his day. These establishments, located in New York City, included the Astor Place Opera House, the Bowery Theater, the Broadway Theater, Castle Garden, Niblo's Garden and Theater, the Olympic Theater, Palmo's Opera House, and the Park Theater.

The Astor Place Opera House was originally built for Italian opera and opened on 22 November 1847. In 1849 the rivalry between British actor William Charles Macready and the American star Edwin Forrest erupted in the infamous Astor Place Riot, in which thirty-one people lost their lives. One of Whitman's favorite opera singers, the tenor Alessandro Bettini, appeared at the Astor Place Opera House. Bettini inspired Whitman to write in "Song of Myself" of him, "A tenor large and fresh as creation fills me" (section 26). The Astor Place Opera House was eventually closed in 1850 and converted into a library and lecture room.

The Bowery Theater originally opened in 1826 but was destroyed by fire in 1828, 1836, 1838, and 1845 and was rebuilt each time. A succession of famous and talented actors appeared on its boards, among them Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin Forrest, Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, Charlotte Cushman, and Edward Eddy. The Bowery Theater came to be the gathering place of the lower class New York groundlings as opposed to the more elite audiences of the Park Theater. Whitman fondly remembered the Bowery as a democratic theater, and he enjoyed attending its productions alongside the leading authors, poets, and editors of the time as well as the cartmen, butchers, firemen, and mechanics who also attended the theater.

The Broadway Theater opened in 1847 and, when the Park Theater burned down, became the home for foreign stars. Forrest was appearing at the Broadway Theater during the Astor Place Riot, and Cushman appeared there as well. The contralto Marietta Alboni, whom Whitman claimed to have heard sing twenty times, appeared at the Broadway as well as at Niblo's Garden.

The Castle Garden featured Jenny Lind in her debut in 1850, and it was there that Whitman saw her perform. The Castle Garden also presented such opera singers as Balbina Steffanone, soprano, Ignazio Marini, basso, Angiolina Bosio, soprano, and Cesare Badiali, baritone, all of whom are mentioned by Whitman in his prose works in the 1880s and 1890s.

Niblo's Garden and Theater, built in 1827, became popular when the Bowery was destroyed by fire in 1828. The Olympic Theater opened in 1837 and then came under the management of William Mitchell in 1839 through 1850. For many years the Olympic operated outside the star system and provided lower class audiences popular entertainment. Whitman heard the popular singer Mary Taylor sing at the Olympic in 1847.

Palmo's Opera House was built by Ferdinand Palmo to introduce the Italian opera to New York. After two bad seasons, Palmo lost control of the Opera House, and the theater languished until taken over by William E. Burton in 1848. Palmo's was renamed Burton's Chambers Street Theater and became one of the most important theaters of the day.

Finally, the Park Theater, originally built in 1798, became the first important theater in New York and was known as the "Old Drury" of America. More aristocratic and elite than its rival, the Bowery, the theater specialized in performances by British actors such as Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, Edmund Kean, and Macready. By 1847 Whitman had become disillusioned with the bad taste and vulgarity prevalent at so many theaters, but he exempted the Park from his complaints, commending it on its intelligent audiences and its "dash of superiority thrown over the Performances" (Whitman 311).

Bibliography

Bogard, Travis, Richard Moody, and Walter J. Meserve. American Drama. Vol. 8 of The Revels History of Drama in English. London: Methuen, 1977.

Faner, Robert D. Walt Whitman & Opera. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1951.

Hartnoll, Phyllis. The Oxford Companion to the Theatre. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983.

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1988.

Odell, George C.D. Annals of the New York Stage. 15 vols. New York: Columbia UP, 1927–1938.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass." Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. Ed. Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. Vol. 2. New York: Putnam, 1920.


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