Was Augustin Daly, 19th Century Theater Genius, a Secret Progressive?

Why director Alex Roe calls "A Marriage Contract," from 1892, an "indictment of prejudice, privilege and complacency."

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Anna Stefanic, Trevor St. John-Gilbert in Augustin Daly's "A Marriage Contract." Photo: Hannah Stampleman.

Augustin Daly died in 1899, and yes, I know his name likely means nothing to you. But as an individual who runs a website named for a playwright who died in 1909, coming across Daly’s name — which happens approximately 10 minutes to never — gives me good cause to stop and take notice. As was the case when I received a press release announcing that NYC’s Metropolitan Playhouse (where, on occasion, I’ve served as a dramaturg and guest speaker) will revive a Daly drama from 1892 called A Marriage Contract. If the company’s research is correct, the play only exists in manuscript form and has remained untouched for 126 years — when it ran under the title A Test Case or Grass Versus Granite.

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The 1884 photo of Augustin Daly reading his latest play to his rapt company.

Now that your eyebrows are marginally higher on your face than they were just a few moments ago, let me tell you more about Daly. It’s as if the word “impresario” were coined just for him (though it wasn’t). He began his career as a young drama critic and added hyphens at top speed, including producer and playwright. Most scholars consider Daly to have been the first great American director, in the sense that we understand the term.

Daly’s stock company — for that is how theater then was organized — was arguably the finest of the age; names like Maurice Barrymore (ancestor of Ethel and John and Drew), Ada Rehan, Tyrone Power, Sr., and even Isadora Duncan lent Daly’s productions a luminary quality that we can scarcely imagine as we read accounts more than a century old. In that very courtly, sepia-toned “era of good feelings” before Broadway became Broadway, Daly’s name was profoundly esteemed, and it often meant as much to the box office in London as did in Gotham.

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The 1892 “burlesque” of Daly reading his latest play to his not-so-rapt company.

There’s a photo from 1884 of Daly reading his latest play to his company. For those of us who find such things to be amusing and alluring, it’s rather an iconic shot. What delights me more is that there’s another photo, dated from 1892, directly satirizing the 1884 photo. None of this would ever happen today. It was a but a wrinkle in time.

Or was it? Metropolitan Playhouse’s longtime artistic director, Alex Roe, unearthed A Marriage Contract and in it identified tremendous resonance to our own era in the long-forgotten voice of the master playwright. Called a “comedy of country and city life,” A Marriage Contract offers a pair of lovers, one from each locale, and notes that the “valiant effort of a city boy to break himself to his country wife’s little town nearly succeeds, in spite of inertia and judgement.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but as the press materials put it, “At least his failure opens some hitherto closed eyes and hearts.”

As in the two Daly plays that Roe has previously produced at Metropolitan — Under the Gaslight, in 2009; and Leah, the Forsaken, in 2017 — in the hostile and polarized 19th-century dynamic between urban and rural, between elites and masses, there’s so much that we, of the 21st century, will readily recognize.

A Marriage Contract runs at Metropolitan Playhouse through March 18. For tickets and more information, click here.

And now, 5 questions that Alex Roe has never been asked:

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What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I like to think it was perceptive — it was certainly flattering — to be asked by a Russian émigré how a production of The Cherry Orchard that I had adapted and directed managed, along with the laughter, to capture the sadness that infuses that play. He manifested to be surprised that an optimistic American would perceive the melancholy, but I think he tapped into an essential genius of theater that I always strive to awaken: to sneak up behind our consciousness and awaken both poignancy and laughter simultaneously.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
As they say, there are no stupid questions. Perhaps more true in theater than any other endeavor.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“You really want to be on Broadway, right?” It’s a common one, but always weird to me. Of all the streets in all the towns in all the world…

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How does someone find an unpublished play from 1892, and decide how viable and relevant it is to a 2018 audience? We would have to assume that most plays from 126 years ago and not exactly producible today, right?

I don’t know about most plays. People (in the aggregate) seem not to change so much from era to era, and as theater is a metaphor for real-life behavior, if you can envision a way to make the metaphor consistent and entertaining today, then the play has as good a chance of working now as it did whenever it was written. Was the proportion of connected, entertaining plays lower 126 years ago than it is now? I doubt it.

To pursue the question of viability further: to me, the distance of a play’s origin is not so much an obstacle, but an opportunity. Given that a metaphor works as much because of how it is unlike the thing it evokes as how it is like, I’d say that the older, more distant seeming plays have a special appeal.

So: viable or relevant? It’s in the heart. If I read a play and it resonates with me — whether a line or circumstance makes me laugh out loud or get a little teary — I am willing to bet that it will with at least a thousand other people in NYC, and that’s what I need to fill our house. Not so many, really. Finding plays from the 19th century is a library challenge — and it is both easier and harder in the age of the Internet. Harder because many libraries are shrinking their physical collections, but easier because the right search on the Web will unearth troves of scanned manuscripts. Brave new world! There is still a question of what to read among all that turns up, and my three favorite pointers are 1) picking up new works from an author I’ve already admired; 2) consulting old collections of popular plays — the ones that might include a gem that would be displaced in a later edition by O’Neill or Williams or whomever eclipsed an author of a bygone era; and 3) finding a reference to a script in a contemporary account of the theater of the day. Often, a personal memoir or a chapbook review will refer to a play that our world has long forgotten, but that made a deep impression in the day.

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Given the texture and tone of many 19th century scripts, how do you guide actors not to over-stylize their performance? What are the obvious pitfalls?

At Metropolitan, we’ve presented over 30 plays from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and as many others from earlier and later periods. Over-stylization has never been an issue. The best actors — and we are lucky to work with remarkable actors, a gift of producing in NYC — find truth and motivation in each line and moment. In some cases, the challenge is the reverse of the one implied in the question: many actors today are so accomplished at a stage language (movement, inflection, pace) that has what we take to be a relaxed, comfortable, “natural” contemporary feel, that they underplay the more formal, presentational language of an earlier age. They make it too easy.

The plays of the 19th century don’t want to be easy. They were speaking to a time that was in itself more formal and codified than our age. From hats to corsets, greeting cards to chaperones, the social norms of the era, which the theater was imitating, were enacted using what is to us a foreign system of signifiers and language. Then, the theater capturing that culture presented its own challenges — performance traditions, technical limitations — that lent themselves to a more presentational mode of performance than we expect from a straight play today. Of course, it was no more presentational than the least presentational 20th or 21st century musical; no more artificial than any fourth-wall-challenging avant-garde production today. Audiences seeing 19th-century plays today know what they’re seeing: they want manners and codes, or they feel cheated.

The challenge turns out to be assuring actors that they’re not lacking emotion when they honor both the social deportment and restrained manner of the 19th century, and at the same time not registering on the bogus meter when they fully invest in an audience aside, or an impassioned curse or lament, or a full-throated soliloquy.

The “pitfall” is the urge to be too contemporary-natural, which works completely against the truth as expressed by the play. And I go back to the idea of metaphoric behavior: If we all understand the language, and if that language is used consistently, the meaning is what we respond to, whatever the language is.

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Name the three most astonishing elements of Augustin Daly plays — and why you find them so astonishing.

The women’s roles are extraordinary. The three Daly plays we’ve presented thus far each depends on a central female role with integrity, wit and courage, a woman who defies the norms of the world she’s stuck in, to set a better example for everyone around her. The hapless Laura of Under the Gaslight; the persecuted Leah of Leah, the Forsaken; the betrayed Juno of A Marriage Contract — they’re all spirited rebels in the worlds of their plays; they’re inspirations to the people around them and the plays’ audiences. These women are further developed as characters and heroically formed as stage creations in ways that one would not expect from the late-19th century, though what is revealed is our ignorance today of the dynamism and sophistication of the 19th-century world and stage.

That said about the age, Daly was exceptional for his attention to plot and character truth. Compared to other authors of the era, when artists and audiences seemed willing to accept whatever plot devices and character turns the play might offer, Daly’s plays are remarkably thorough in their motivations, down to the crossing of stage. As a director himself, and one who helped start the careers of many a luminary of the period, he was very sensitive to the needs of an actor in a role. That he was so attuned really does surprise consistently every time the clouds part and a line or a plot-twist that we’ve been struggling to understand makes perfect sense in the playing.

Daly’s social conscience, too: anyone who assumes that these plays are merely histrionic escapism is in for a big surprise when they encounter the progressive indictments of prejudice, privilege and complacency that fuels each play. He was writing in the age of Ibsen and Chekhov, while A Marriage Contract references Zola (admittedly for comedic effect). While his mode might be lighter or more sensationalistic, underneath is the driving exploration of human foible and social inequities that it produces.