Representative Plays by American Dramatists: 1856-1911: Rip van / Winkle
This is the history of the evolution of a play. Many hands were concerned in its growth, but its increase in scenic effect as well as in dialogue was a stage one, rather than prompted by literary fervour. No dramatization of Washington Irving's immortal story has approached the original in art of expression or in vividness of scene. But, if historical record can be believed, it is the actor, rather than the dramatist, who has vied with Irving in the vitality of characterization and in the romantic ideality of figure and speech. Some of our best comedians found attraction in the rï¿½le, yet, though Charles Burke and James A. Herne are recalled, by those who remember back so far, for the very Dutch lifelikeness of the genial old drunkard, Joseph Jefferson overtops all memories by his classic portrayal.
As far as literary value of the versions is concerned, it would be small loss if none of them were available. They form a mechanical frame-work as devoid of beauty as the skeleton scarecrow in Percy Mackaye's play, which was based on Hawthorne's “Feathertop” in “Mosses from an Old Manse.” It was only when the dry bones were clothed and breathed into by the actor's personality that the dramatizations lived. One can recall no plot that moves naturally in these versions; the transformation of the story into dialogue was mechanical, done by men to whom hack-work was the easiest thing in the world. Comparing the Kerr play with the Burke revision of it, when the text is strained for richness of phrase it might contain, only one line results, and is worth remembering; it is Burke's original contribution,—“Are we so soon forgot when we are gone?”
The frequency with which “Rip Van Winkle” was dramatized would indicate that, very early in the nineteenth century, managers of the theatre were assiduous hunters after material which might be considered native. Certainly Rip takes his place with Deuteronomy Dutiful, Bardwell Slote, Solon Shingle and Davy Crockett as of the soil.
Irving's “Sketch Book” was published in 1819, and, considering his vast interest in the stage, and the dramatic work done by him in conjunction with John Howard Payne, it is unfortunate that he himself did not realize the dramatic possibilities of his story. There is no available record to show that he either approved or disapproved of the early dramatizations. But there is ample record to show that, with the beginning of its stage career, nine years after publication, “Rip” caught fire on the stage both in America and in London. Mr. James K. Hackett is authority for the statement that among his father's papers is a letter from Irving congratulating him upon having made so much from such scant material.
The legendary character of Irving's sources, as traced in German folk-lore, does not come within the scope of this introduction. The first record of a play is Thomas Flynn's appearance as Rip in a dramatization made by an unnamed Albanian, at the South Pearl Street Theatre, Albany, N. Y., May 26, 1828. It was given for the benefit of the actor's wife, and was called “Rip Van Winkle; or, The Spirits of the Catskill Mountains.” Notice of it may be found in the files of the Albany Argus. Winter, in his Life of Joseph Jefferson, reproduces the prologue. Part of the cast was as follows:
Derrick Van Slous—Charles B. Parsons
Knickerbocker—Moses S. Phillips
Rip Van Winkle—Thomas Flynn
Flynn was a great friend of the elder Booth, and Edwin bore Thomas as a middle name.
In 1829, Charles B. Parsons was playing “Rip” in Cincinnati, Ohio, but no authorship is mentioned in connection with it, so it must be inferred that it was probably one of those stock products so characteristic of the early American theatre. Ludlow, in his “Dramatic Life,” records “Rip” in Louisville, Kentucky, November 21, 1831, and says that the Cincinnati performance occurred three years before, making it, therefore, in the dramatic season of 1828–29, this being Rip's “first representation West of the Alleghany Mountains, and, I believe, the first time on any stage.” Ludlow proceeds to state that, while in New York, in the summer of 1828, an old stage friend of his offered to sell him a manuscript version of “Rip,” which, on his recommendation, he proceeded to purchase “without reading it.” And then the manager indicates how a character part is built to catch the interest of the audience, by the following bit of anecdote:
It passed off there [in Cincinnati] without appearing to create any interest more than a drama on any ordinary subject, with the exception of one speech, which was not the author's, but introduced without my previous knowledge by one of the actors in the piece. This actor was a young gentleman of education, who was performing on the stage under the name of Barry; but that was not his real name, and he was acting the part of Nicholas Vedder in this drama. In the scene where Rip returns to his native village after the twenty years of sleep that he had passed through, and finds the objects changed from what he remembered them,—among other things the sign over the door of the tavern where he used to take his drinks,—he enquires of Vedder, whom he had recognized, and to whom he had made himself known, who that sign was intended to represent, saying at the same time that the head of King George III used to hang there. In reply to him, instead of speaking the words of the author, Mr. Barry said, “Don't you know who that is? That's George Washington.” Then Rip said, “Who is George Vashingdoner?”To which Barry replied, using the language of General Henry (see his “Eulogy on Washington,” December 26, 1799), “He was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen!” This woke the Cincinnatians up.
Joseph Jefferson rejected this emendation later on, giving as his reason that, once an audience is caught in the flare of a patriotic emotion, it is difficult for an actor to draw them back effectively to the main currents of his story. We have Ludlow's statement to the effect that Burke's version was not unlike that produced by him as early as 1828–29, in the middle West. Could it have had any relationship to the manuscript by Kerr?
In Philadelphia, at the Walnut Street Theatre, on October 30, 1829, William Chapman appeared as Rip, supported by Elizabeth and J. (probably John) Jefferson. Winter suggests that the dramatization may have been Ludlow's, or it may have been the first draft of Kerr's. Though it is generally conceded that the latter play was the one used by James H. Hackett, in a letter received by the Editor from Mr. James K. Hackett, it is suggested that his father made his own version, a statement not proved, but substantiated by Winter.
The piece was given by Hackett, at the Park Theatre, New York, on August 22, 1830, and Sol Smith, in his “Theatrical Management in the West and South,” declares, “I should despair of finding a man or woman in an audience of five hundred, who could hear [his] utterance of five words in the second act, ‘But she was mine vrow’ without experiencing some moisture in the eyes.” While the Galaxy, in a later year, for February, 1868, states: “His Rip Van Winkle is far nearer the ordinary conception of the good-for-nothing Dutchman than Mr. Jefferson's, whose performance is praised so much for its naturalness.” The statement, by Oliver Bell Bunce, is followed by this stricture against Jefferson: “Jefferson, indeed, is a good example of our modern art. His naturalness, his unaffected methods, his susceptible temperament, his subtleties of humour and pathos are appreciated and applauded, yet his want of breadth and tone sometimes renders his performance feeble and flavourless.” On the day before its presentment by Hackett, the New York Evening Post contained the following notice:
Park Theatre, Mr. Hackett's Benefit. Thursday, 22d inst. First night of Rip Van Winkle and second night of Down East.—Mr. Hackett has the pleasure of announcing to his friends and the public that his Benefit is fixed for Thursday next, 22d inst., when will be produced for the first time the new drama of “Rip Van Winkle; or, The Legend of the Kaatskill Mountains”—(founded on Washington Irving's celebrated tale called “Rip Van Winkle”)—with appropriate Dutch costumes; the River and Mountain scenery painted by Mr. Evers, all of which will be particularly described in the bills of the day.—Principal characters—Rip Van Winkle, Mr. Hackett; Knickerbocker, Mr. Placide; Vedder, Mr. Chapman; Van Slous, Mr. Blakely; Herman, Mr. Richings; Dame Rip Van Winkle, Mrs. Wheatley; Alice, Mrs. Hackett; Lowenna, Mrs. Wallack.
Durang refers to the dramatist who is reputed to have done the version for Mr. Hackett, as “Old Mr. Kerr,” an actor, who appeared in Philadelphia under the management of F. C. Wemyss. However much of an actor John Kerr was, he must have gained some small reputation as a playwright. In 1818, Duncombe issued Kerr's “Ancient Legends or Simple and Romantic Tales,” and at the Harvard Library, where there is a copy of this book, the catalogue gives Kerr's position in London at the time as Prompter of the Regency Theatre. He must have ventured, with a relative, into independent publishing, for there was issued, in 1826, by J. & H. Kerr, the former's freely translated melodramatic romance, “The Monster and Magician; or, The Fate of Frankenstein,” taken from the French of J. T. Merle and A. N. Bï¿½raud. He did constant translation, and it is interesting to note the similarity between his “The Wandering Boys! or, The Castle of Olival,” announced as an original comedy, and M. M. Noah's play of the same name.
There is valuable material in possession of Mr. James K. Hackett for a much needed life of his father. This may throw light on his negotiations with Kerr; it may also detail more thoroughly than the records now show why it was that, when he went to England in 1832, he engaged Bayle Bernard to make a new draft of the piece, given in New York at the Park Theatre, September 4, 1833. It may have been because he saw, when he reached London, a version which Bernard had shaped for the Adelphi Theatre, 1831–32, when Yates, John Reeve, and J. B. Buckstone had played together. But I am inclined to think that, whatever the outlines of the piece as given by Hackett, it was his acting which constituted the chief creative part of the performance. Like Jefferson, he must have been largely responsible for the finished product.
Hackett's success in dialect made him eager for any picturesque material which would exploit this ability. Obviously, local character was the best vehicle. That was his chief interest in encouraging American plays. Bayle Bernard had done writing for him before “Rip.” In 1831, J. K. Paulding's “The Lion of the West” had proven so successful, as to warrant Bernard's transferring the popular Col. Nimrod Wildfire to another play, “The Kentuckian.” Then, in 1837, Hackett corresponded with Washington Irving about dramatizing the “Knickerbocker History,” which plan was consummated by Bernard as “Three Dutch Governors,” even though Irving was not confident of results. Hackett went out of his way for such native material. Soon after his appearance as Rip, the following notice appeared in the New York Evening Post, for April 24, 1830:
Prize Comedy.—The Subscriber, desirous of affording some pecuniary inducement for more frequent attempts at dramatizing the manners and peculiarities of our own country, and the numerous subjects and incidents connected with its history, hereby offers to the writer of the best Comedy in 3 acts, in which a principal character shall be an original of this country, the sum of Two Hundred and Fifty Dollars—the decision to be made by a committee of competent literary gentlemen, whose names shall duly be made public. The manuscripts to be sent to the address of the subscriber through the Post Office, before 1st September, next, each accompanied with a letter communicating the address to which the author would desire his production returned, if unsuccessful, together with his name in a sealed enclosure, which will only be opened in the event of his obtaining the Prize.Jas. H. Hackett,64 Reed Street, New York
Many such prize contests were the fashion of the day.
Mr. James K. Hackett, in reminiscence, writes: “My mother used to tell me that Joe Jefferson played the part like a German, whereas Rip was a North River Dutchman, and in those days dialects were very marked in our country. But my father soon became identified with the part of Falstaff, and he used to say, ‘Jefferson is a younger man than I, so I'll let him have Rip. I don't care to play against him’.”
A stage version of the Irving story was made by one John H. Hewitt, of Baltimore, and during the season of 1833–34 was played in that city by William Isherwood. It was after this that Charles Burke (1822–1854) turned his attention to the play, and, as is shown in the text here reproduced, drew heavily upon Kerr. Winter says that he depended also upon the dramatic pieces used by Flynn and Parsons. The date of the first essayal of the part in New York was January 7, 1850, at the New National Theatre. But, during the previous year, he went with the play to the Philadelphia Arch Street Theatre, where his half-brother, Joseph, appeared with him in the rï¿½le of Seth. Durang, however, disagrees with this date, giving it under the heading of the “Summer Season of 1850 at the Arch Street Theatre,” and the specific time as August 19. In his short career Burke won an enviable position as an actor. “He had an eye and a face,” wrote Joe Jefferson, “that told their meaning before he spoke, a voice that seemed to come from the heart itself, penetrating—but melodious.” He was slender, emaciated, sensitive,—and full of lively response to things. Like all of the Jeffersons, he was a born comedian, and critics concede that W. E. Burton feared his rivalry. Between Burke and his half-brother, there was a profound attraction; they had “barn stormed” together, and through Burke's consideration it was that Joe was first encouraged and furthered in Philadelphia. Contrasting Burton and Burke, Jefferson wrote in his “Autobiography:”
Burton coloured highly, and laid on the effects with a liberal brush, while Burke was subtle, incisive and refined. Burton's features were strong and heavy, and his figure was portly and ungainly. Burke was lithe and graceful. His face was plain, but wonderfully expressive. The versatility of this rare actor was remarkable, his pathos being quite as striking a feature as his comedy. … His dramatic effects sprung more from intuition than from study; and, as was said of Barton Booth, “the blind might have seen him in his voice, and the deaf have heard him in his visage.