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Urban Stages

Charles Wright reviews Mary C. Henderson's fascinating new book The City and the Theatre: The History of New York Playhouses. logo
Henry James, a New York native who spent relatively little time in his hometown, disparaged Manhattan's urban grid as an "inconceivably bourgeois scheme of composition and distribution, the uncorrected labour of minds with no imagination." If that opinion has contemporary proponents, historian Mary C. Henderson isn't among them.

In James's day, New York had a mere half million inhabitants; now, with a population exceeding eight million, the city is altogether more intricate and complex. But it's hard to imagine Professor Henderson conceding that any era of New York's development could have been unimaginative or blandly bourgeois. "New York City may be the sum of all of its wondrous parts," she writes in The City and the Theatre: The History of New York Playhouses: A 250-Year Journey from Bowling Green to Times Square (Back Stage Books, 382 pp., $24.95); "but that does not quite explain its attraction to its own citizens, to the millions of commuters who brave the merciless transportation system to work in its environs, to the millions of tourists who pour into the city from all parts of the country and the world -- some of whom may stay and be absorbed into the population -- and to the special industries and businesses that choose it as their base.... New Yorkers both native and new would agree that the city is life, and that it gives life and radiates life unlike any other city on earth."

Those words are eloquent enough to be inscribed on the Statue of Liberty's tablets, and they're not lacking in gravitas; Professor Henderson, who is curator of the Theater Collection of the Museum of the City of New York and has taught at various New York colleges, including Hunter and NYU, probably knows as much as any living soul about the development of the city and the history of its playhouses. After a distinguished career chronicling the theater's past, she remains as besotted with both the metropolis and its most glamorous industry as any fresh-faced thespian newly embarked on her professional rounds.

A few months before Richard M. Nixon relinquished the presidency, Professor Henderson published The City and the Theatre, an ambitious overview of Manhattan's theatrical past. Thirty-one years after its original appearance, the book is available in an updated and expanded edition, beautifully produced, from Back Stage Books. The City and the Theatre is a treasure trove of photographs, sketches and maps that illustrate all parts of this theatrical city's story, from the Dutch village of New Amsterdam to Disney's current reign in the 42nd Street New Amsterdam. In the first half of the book, Professor Henderson explores the relationship of New York and its theaters. The second half is devoted to "biographies" of 85 playhouses that exist or have existed in what is currently called the Theater District.

The saga of New York theater begins just prior to 1700 in a minuscule village that transformed itself, over the course of a century, into a busy seaport with 60,000 inhabitants and all the urban amenities such inhabitants required -- newspapers, schools, taverns, clubs, exchanges, a library, and, a theater. The English colonies (and, subsequently, the United States) bore the intellectual imprint of Puritan settlers and their Calvinist interpretation of scripture; Puritan teaching and homiletics took a dim view of dramatic art. Yet, despite the disapproval of theologians and the clergy, theater flourished in the colonies and the young nation -- most especially in the continent's most cosmopolitan municipality.

Through most of the 18th century, New Yorkers relied for dramatic entertainment on itinerant players performing in utilitarian spaces. In the 19th century, stock companies became common. As late as mid-century, the city's "merchant princes" were still subsidizing these companies because theater remained a taste of the elite. By the decade before the Civil War, however, audiences were becoming more diverse; and by the last quarter of the century, many of New York's playhouses were occupied by commercial productions that attracted tourists and business travelers for long runs, then took to the road to entertain the theater-hungry provinces. (The phrase "direct from Broadway," which presumably led to the christening of the whole industry as "Broadway," came into currency around this time.)

As the 19th century wore on, the city's theaters moved, again and again, into neighborhoods that were on the verge of being fashionable. This, says Henderson, is because wealthy patrons were the ones choosing sites for new theatrical venues, placing them near where they were building their own residences. Henderson's narrative follows the industry as it migrates northward from Park Place, up lower Broadway and the Bowery to Astor Place, Union Square, Madison Square, Herald Square and, ultimately, Times Square and above. "When the area surrounding the established theaters changed its character or lost its fashionable cachet," Henderson writes, "the playhouses abandoned by the northward migration [of the affluent populace] either disappeared entirely...or began dispensing entertainment appealing to the lowest common denominator in New York audiences." In more recent times, that pattern could be seen in the deterioration of theaters along West 42nd Street from "legit" to mainstream movies, burlesque, risqué movies and, finally, strip joints and peep shows before being reclaimed by the "New 42nd Street" movement.

Professor Henderson is as adroit in examining the economic, social and intellectual forces that have shaped New York and its cultural outlets as she is in handling aesthetic issues. She describes the architecture of theatrical venues; profiles the personalities in command of the emerging industry; and explicates the forms of entertainment that were on offer, from drama to melodrama, satire, operetta, grand opera, circus, scientific lectures, travelogues, the novelties of P.T. Barnum, minstrelsy, vaudevilles, and "burlesques" or parodies of great literary works. A few of Henderson's principal characters -- Barnum, William Macready, Tony Pastor, Laura Keene, Weber and Fields, Harrigan and Hart, Eva LeGallienne, and the Hammersteins, for instance -- are familiar, but far more are likely to be unknown to a new generation of readers. She's a dab hand at identifying the less famous personalities and putting them in context.

With its implicit claim of comprehensiveness, The City and the Theatre invites readers to engage in a game of cat and mouse, spotting authorial omissions or oversights. Ultimately, though, the author wins; although she omits a few theaters in her survey, she's careful to do so consistently and to explain why the omissions have been made. The book's two-part structure may sound like an uneasy fit, but that's not actually the case. The two sections share a liveliness of composition that neither flags nor admits any hint of pedantry, and this lends them a sense of belonging together.

Valuable as the author's opening chronological narrative is, it's the second half of the tome -- in which she strolls the streets of the present-day Theater District, summoning dozens of demolished or radically remodeled theaters back to life with her vivid, careful description -- that make it a treasured reference work. Those lost playhouses are Professor Henderson's stars, and they make The City and the Theatre indispensable for New York's most passionate playgoers.

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