Representation of Immigrants in Literature Criticism: Overview - Essay

Criticism: Overview

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wittke, Carl. “The Immigrant Theme on the American Stage.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 39, no. 2 (September 1952): 211-32.

[In the following essay, Wittke classifies the representation of immigrants in American theatre in the last half of the nineteenth century, including Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish Americans.]

The contact of successive immigrant waves with a New World environment is one of the central themes of American history, for the United States represents the experience of many peoples from many lands, speaking many tongues, in a republic with political unity and cultural diversity, and where there are other tests for a patriot than a man's accent, birthplace, or the color of his skin.

One of the still largely unexplored phases of the history of American immigration is the characterization of the immigrant for purposes of comic relief and dramatic entertainment on the American stage, and the emergence of certain immigrant stereotypes which still affect the thinking of many Americans about their fellow countrymen from other lands. Americans have not only been concerned about immigrants, but amused by their deviations from the standard American pattern. By 1850, when the American melting pot boiled over for the first time from the immigrant tide from Europe, the American stage began to exploit the peculiar and the ludicrous in the lives of the newcomers for purposes of public entertainment. Character actors and so-called “comics,” in a time when theater standards were low and slapstick comedy popular, created certain easily recognizable stereotypes of nationality groups which the average American readily accepted as authentic because of his own daily associations with the people he saw on the stage.

Early American comedy had portrayed familiar native types, such as the frontiersman or the Negro, to provide comic relief in more serious plays, but by the latter half of the nineteenth century playwrights and actors shifted to the humor which they found in the lives of the foreign-born, and they have continued to exploit its possibilities to the present day, in theater, screen, and radio. In almost every case, the comedy of the situation depended largely upon dialect, racial speech characteristics, and the unusual customs, folk habits, and character traits which actors mimicked with greater or less authenticity. In these stage presentations, however crude, exaggerated, untrue, and even unjust they may have been, we have the beginnings of a certain realism in the American drama, for they were based on actual observation of life experiences.

Such immigrant caricatures suggest a close parallel with the Negro of the American minstrel show. A unique American institution which could have originated in no other country, minstrelsy had only moderate success when it was exported to Europe, for foreigners had no understanding of the peculiar conditions from which it developed. The sources of American minstrelsy were the singing and dancing of slaves in the Southland; and on the humor and pathos, and the peculiarities of dress, manner, and speech of the Negro, the white minstrel built his performance.

In adapting the Negro folk figure to the stage, a stage type of Negro was evolved for purposes of comic effect. The Negro of the minstrel jokebook tradition became a shiftless fellow with unusual weaknesses for chicken coops, watermelons, big words which he only partially understood, crap games, and razors used primarily for social purposes. The burnt cork performers “made up” with large mouths to reveal rows of shining white teeth and exaggerated grins, and dressed in outlandish and gaudy costumes. Their songs revealed “the white man in the woodpile” and many were composed by white men who had never seen a cottonfield.1

As the Negro came into his own after the Civil War, as a self-respecting and progressive citizen, he resented such ludicrous caricatures, which became steadily worse as the professional minstrel show tapered off into atrocious imitations by present-day amateurs, both male and female. Negro leaders felt that the stage Negro did immeasurable damage to race relations by creating an inaccurate and unjust stereotype of a whole people, and their resentment extends to such modern portrayals as “Amos and Andy.”

In the late nineteenth century the minstrel show degenerated into a tired businessman's variety bill, and minstrel men began to clutter up their programs with sentimental Irish ballads and “Dutch” slapstick comedy. Dan Bryant, for example, one of the minstrel “greats,” as early as the 1860's washed off the burnt cork and appeared with great success in Handy Andy, Rory O'More, and The Irish Emigrant. Johnny Allen, another popular minstrel, turned to low Dutch characters and advertised in the Clipper for engagements for his “Schneider, or, Dot House von der Rhine,” and Joseph Murphy left the minstrel semicircle for such Irish plays as Kerry Gow and Shawn Rhue, and “Dutch, Irish and Ethiopian delineations of character.”2 As early as 1859 Bryant's minstrels featured songs like “MacFadden Fadden Trio,” written by J. H. Unsworth, author of “eccentric specimens of Ethiopian Hibernicism.”3 In 1875 the Cincinnati Enquirer referred to D. L. Morris as “‘the black Dutchman’ of the minstrel stage who was ‘infinitely ludicrous in his murdering and misapplication of the Queen's English,’”4 and Carncross' Minstrels, playing in Philadelphia in 1889, introduced the song, “Down Went McGinty,” in a travesty known as McGinty in Town.5

The Irishman, “as an insistent figure” on the American stage, emerged in the 1850's when thousands of Irish arrived in the New Canaan with empty pockets but high hopes and were left stranded in the eastern port towns. For the most part they were marginal, unskilled laborers and were forced to live in tenements that were “human rookeries.” The drink evil hounded the early Irish in America and saloons and gang politics were closely intertwined. Irish immigrant boardinghouses, closely allied with grogshops, were notorious for overcrowding and lack of cleanliness. When Paddy arrived, clad in caped and high-waisted coat, brimless caubeen, knee breeches, woolen stockings, and rusty brogues, he was herded by immigrant runners and “shoulder hitters” into the broken-down shacks of Irish “shanty towns.” In the second generation this type of Irishman largely disappeared, and as Orestes A. Brownson predicted, “out from these narrow lanes, blind courts, dirty streets, damp cellars, and suffocating garrets” would come men and women whom the country would delight to own and honor.6 The playwright and actor, however, found his material for the theater in the congested areas of the first generation Irish, and before the end of the 1850's the stage Irishman had become a full-grown giant of the American stage and threatened to dwarf all other types, including the Negro and the Yankee.

Scotch and Irish characters were seen on the American stage as elements in the melting pot as early as 1767, in a poor musical comedy known as The Disappointment, or The Force of Credulity,7 and an able student of early American drama has found Irish characters in twenty-two American plays before 1828. Some already suggested the “disturbing presence” of the Irishman in the United States,8 and Irish airs, jigs, reels, and brogue were not unknown before the flood of Irish came in the 1850's.9

Tyrone Power, famous portrayer of comic Irish characters on the English stage who made three tours of America to introduce comedies in the 1830's with Irish settings, dances, and songs, generally avoided the grosser caricatures of Irish character. O'Flannigan and the Fairies, or a Midsummer Night's Dream, not Shakespeare's, a musical fairy story in which Power appeared in 1837, was based on the Irish belief in fairies and preached a vigorous lesson in temperance, because the entire action turned out to be the creation of a wild Irishman's brain, fired with too much whisky.10 During the 1840's the struggle for Irish freedom stimulated plays that were both historical and nationalistic. By 1850 a whole series of “Mose and Jake” plays portrayed the life of Bowery boys and city loafers in which “fightin' Mose,” a broth of a “b'hoy” in red flannel fireman's shirt, chewed tobacco like a virtuoso, spoke in extravagant Irish speech, wore “soaplocks,” and outraced all others “with the machine.” “Mose” strongly suggested an Irish ancestry, and was the forerunner of the full-grown stage Irishman of the next decade. By the middle of the 1850's “Mose” had given way to the urban Irishman, who remained the standard character in the theater for nearly two generations.11 Costumed in ragged and dirty clothes, he usually was portrayed as an impudent, pugnacious, and eloquent character who swung a wicked shillelah for the protection of widows, children, and Irish maidens about to be seduced, revealed an unquenchable hatred for “dirty peelers,” otherwise known as policemen, and got off “Irish bulls” which became a part of American folk humor.

Playwrights like James Pilgrim, Samuel D. Johnson, John Brougham, and Dion Boucicault turned to mass production of farces and melodrama on Irish themes and characters; and outstanding actors like Barney Williams and John Drew introduced their plays to American theater audiences from the Atlantic to the Pacific.12 A six months' tour of California netted Williams and his actress wife a profit of $40,000.13 W. J. Florence toured the country as an early specialist in Irish comedy parts,14 and in 1858 he joined the temperance league and gave “a series of lectures on that topic, with Hibernian illustrations.”15 The Irish skits of Mr. and Mrs. F. S. Chanfrau were presented to packed houses on New York's East Side before the Civil War.16 Less well known, but comedians of considerable talent, were John T. Kelly, a star on Broadway in Irish vaudeville and musical comedy;17 the Russell Brothers, famous for their “Irish Servant Girls” act;18 and Barney Gilmore, an Irish singer and dancer of the Chauncey Olcott type, who did Hibernian specialties in vaudeville and melodrama.19

From a reading of the lines of these Irish specialists, one must conclude that their success depended primarily on their powers of mimicry, make-up, and dialect, for neither the plot nor the jokes seem funny by modern standards. In terms of box office receipts, however, Irish comedy was a paying proposition. The Florences earned more than $500 a week in Chicago in the 1850's, and stars like Barney Williams and John Drew presented Irish plays in the same city to houses which sometimes netted nearly $600 a night.20 From the Civil War to World War I, the American variety stage exploited Irish and other foreign-born groups for comic effect with continuing financial success.21 The Gold Rush made San Francisco “a theatrical suburb” of New York, and Chanfrau, Florence, and other Irish comedians played to large audiences in youthful California, where theaters were still close enough to saloons to permit the audience to drink before, during, and after the performance. Plays about Mose, the Irish firefighter from the Bowery, and other Irish-American comedy patterned largely on the performances of Barney Williams, were as popular on the Pacific coast as in the large eastern cities.22

The popularity of Irish songs which helped to reinforce certain features of the Irish stereotype began nearly a century ago. They ran the whole gamut from the comic to the sentimental and heroic. In recent decades some of the best have been written by Jewish tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley. “Billy” Scanlan, singer and Irish dialect comedian, popularized “Peek-a-Boo” and “Moonlight on Killarney,”23 and the constantly expanding Irish repertoire not only gave Americans such timeless favorites as “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Sweet Rosy O'Grady,” and “My Isle of Dreams,” but such forgotten leaders in the American hit parade as “There Never Was a Coward Where the Shamrock Grows.”

Plays on Irish themes featuring Irish immigrant characters were so numerous after 1850 that for forty years only the blackfaced minstrel could compete with the stage types from the land of brogue and “bulls.” Many of these Irish plays which were extraordinarily successful at the box office had little merit as literary or dramatic productions, but two Irish-American playwrights, Dion Boucicault and John Brougham, ranked among the most prominent American dramatists of their time.

Boucicault came to New York in 1853. Although he used other themes, he achieved his greatest popularity as an interpreter of Irish characters. With the talented actress Agnes Robertson, his second wife, Boucicault toured the country for many years. He never hesitated to help himself generously to the work of others, although he revised and frequently improved what he borrowed. His The Poor of New York, for example, first played in 1857, and later reissued in several forms, as The Poor of Liverpool and The Streets of London, was based on Les Pauvres de Paris, which in turn had been presented in New York as Fraud and Its Victims. Boucicault copyrighted it as his own.24 The play depicted the suffering in the metropolis from the Panic of 1857, and the New York Herald pointed out that the “only real local character [was] Dan, the firebug.” The author and star was urged to take the play to Washington for the education of congressmen.25 Boucicault's “The Colleen Bawn” (1860), dealing with Irish gentlefolk, had more than three thousand performances. The Shaughraun (1874), full of Irish bonhomie, was a more authentic portrayal of the Irish type. Boucicault wrote or adapted 124 plays, and thrilled his audiences with melodramatic effects for years, yet he lived long enough to see his own plays become old-fashioned.26

John Brougham spent fifty years on the stage and wrote about seventy-five plays, all of which have been forgotten. He made his debut at the Park Theatre in New York in 1842, and his reputation rested largely on his portrayal of comic Irish characters. Laurence Hutton thought he “deserves a colossal statue in [the] Pantheon” of American burlesque.27 W. J. Florence starred as Tim O'Brien, an honest Irish laborer, in Brougham's The Irish Emigrant, a play which stressed the more bizarre features of Irish life.28 Among his other notable plays were Life in New York; or Tom and Jerry on a Visit, The Irish Yankee; or the Birthday of Freedom, and a farce, Take Care of Little Charley, modeled on the French, LaFille bien Garde, in which Brougham played a funny Irishman.29 By the close of the 1850's Irish farces, with their practical jokes, rough comedy, and absurd characters, had become “the most favorite class of modern dramatic entertainment,”30 and their simple, romantic plots usually were generously interspersed with Irish songs, jigs, and reels.31

A brief description of several Irish immigrant plays will indicate the character of these productions. They do not read well to the modern reader; they follow a standard pattern which permits virtue and honesty to triumph in the end, and their success apparently depended almost entirely on the character actors who performed in them.

Brougham's The Irish Emigrant told in two acts the simple story of a truckman and a poor, hungry, ragged Irish immigrant who found $5,000 but was too honest to keep the money.32 James Pilgrim's Shandy Maguire dealt with oppression in Ireland, in which the revenue man and the landlord were the villains, the squire's worthless son lusted for the old miller's daughter, and the characters and the audience were reminded that “there are hearts across the big waters, in the New World, that have stretched forth a helping hand to poor Ireland, and will do it again.”33 The farce, Brian O'Linn, was specially written for Barney Williams, the hero of the play. Williams appeared in dark brown breeches, gray stockings, a frieze coat and red vest, and the cast included several Irishmen, a Catholic priest, a British army officer, and women in Irish peasant dress. As the curtain rose Williams was seen in his mother's humble cottage, trimming his shillelah and singing an Irish love song. The dialogue was full of witticisms and extravagant Irish blarney, but the plot stumbled along through absurd and tumultuous scenes in which the hero made love to the girl Sheelah, and fought periodically with the police. The action is so preposterous that it strains both the patience and the credulity of the modern reader,34 but the play was a great success.

Irish Assurance and Yankee Modesty was a comedy built around the desires of Pat, “the devil after the girls,” and his amorous pursuit of a “tigress Yankee girl.”35Ireland and America, another special creation for Barney Williams, opened with an Irish fair and a chorus, singing

The flowers of all Europe
Are the pretty girls of Paddy's land.

The villains were the excisemen, who interfered with the Irishman's harmless desire to distill “the mountain dew,” and the hated redcoats whose captain was intent upon seducing the hero's (Jimmy Finnegan's) Peggy. While under the influence of liquor, Finnegan was impressed into military service by “kidnappers that crawl through the lanes and valleys of our beloved country.” He escaped to “the home of the stranger—America,” and Act III found him in New York, breathing “the free air of that glorious land of liberty,” where after three years of honest toil he was doing pretty well financially. For melodramatic effect, the playwright contrived to have him meet his ancient enemy, the British captain, who had been expelled in disgrace from the army, and now was engaged in robbing new arrivals from Europe as a New York immigrant runner. The beloved Peggy arrived with her mother on an immigrant ship in time to fall into the clutches of the erstwhile captain, who steered her party to an immigrant boardinghouse where he planned to divest her of both her money and her virtue. Meantime, the hero, now a successful Irish-American businessman, had resolved that it was his duty to rescue his fellow countrymen from their unscrupulous exploiters. He donned his old clothes to visit the dens where Irishmen were being fleeced, and the outcome was inevitable. In a final scene, in an old house where the villain held Peggy under lock and key, there was a terrific fight, and after the hero had cracked a sufficient number of heads with his trusty shillelah, the girl rushed into his arms.36

The action of A Day in New York (1857) opened with immigrants landing at Castle Garden, and was likewise concerned with an Irishman's beautiful daughter, who was imprisoned by an immigrant runner in one of the Bowery's dens of iniquity.37 Brougham's The Irish Yankee; or the Birthday of Freedom, sounded the patriotic, nationalistic note. Its characters included Washington, costumed as he was when he crossed the Delaware; Lord Howe, Israel Putnam, and the Irishman O'Donahoo, a name “with a real good potato flavor,” dressed in pantaloons and entrusted with carrying a secret letter to the Commander in Chief. Before the play ended, the audience saw the Boston Tea Party and a tableau of Bunker Hill, and listened to “The Star Spangled Banner” (not yet written at the time of the Revolution). In the final scene,

The soldier, tired of war's alarms
Beat a retreat to beauty's arms.(38)

William Kelly's The Harp Without a Crown, or Mountcashel's Fair Daughter belonged in the same general category. It opened with the defeat of the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne, and dealt with the continuing struggle of Irishmen to maintain their liberty and their faith. It featured much marching, many flags, and hair-breadth escapes; the lines abounded with “achuslas” and “ashtore machrees,” and the play ended with the dying hero kissing the green flag and sighing for Ireland with his last breath.39 In The Hills of Erin, or Ireland's Last Struggle (1866) the hero's experiences took him from Libby Prison to all the “woes beyond the seas.”40

Although Irish plays were still being produced throughout the 1870's, and many of the earlier favorites revived, their vogue began to decline in the 1880's. Bridget and Pat ceased to be major characters, and were retained, if at all, primarily for comic relief, and Irish skits were confined largely to the shorter performances of the vaudeville stage. By 1900 Irish plays were still romantic, but less realistic; the actors no longer dressed in rags; and scenes of extreme poverty no longer symbolized the Irish stage character. The Irishman had become Americanized and with Americanization Irish caricatures had become less popular; yet vaudeville actors, until the movies dealt their craft a knockout blow, continued to portray Irishmen working on a...

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