When Gerald Bordman began this Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, he choose the 1869–1870 season because it was one in which the American theatre turned a corner and began a new era in ambitious and quality theatricals. It is too tempting not to look back to that post–Civil War season and see how New York theatre at the end of the twentieth century compared. Are we again on the brink of a new era or in the diminishing shadows of a declining one?
Wily producers such as Augustin Daly and Lester Wallack were the most influential figures on the Street in 1869. Not only did they produce plays and own playhouses, they also ran theatre companies, directed productions, and, in the case of Daly, wrote and/or adapted dozens of plays. One hundred and thirty years later the solo producer is an endangered species. Theatre companies, groups of producers, and even corporations present plays. Usually they are businessmen and women, rarely directors, never playwrights.
While the established stage stars (such as John Gilbert, Charlotte Crabtree, Edwin Booth, and Mrs. Gilbert) who dominated the Broadway stages in 1869 were American, most of the plays were foreign or American adaptations of European works. In many ways the Chronicle of Comedy and Drama began before there truly was an American theatre. The great American playwrights were still waiting in the wings or were yet to be born. Of the eighty different productions seen in that long-gone season, only six were original American scripts. British and French plays were the norm; American theatre was really European theatre with American actors. Yet how do we compare today? With many fewer productions, the ratio of American to foreign works is probably inaccurate, but the figure of fourteen native works on Broadway during the 1999–2000 season, as compared to the five British ones, is somewhat comforting to the patriotic playgoer. Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway are even more American, and musicals (which barely existed in 1869) are once again a homegrown product. But one still has to ask how American the American theatre really is.
The matter of revivals is also of interest. In that 1869–1870 season, only a quarter of the productions were new. Revivals of everything from classics like Twelfth Night and The School for Scandal to the more recent popular favorites such as East Lynne and Uncle Tom's Cabin dominated New York theatre. No one then seemed to be concerned that contemporary theatre meant old theatre. Yet today our many musical and non-musical revivals give us a sense of inferiority, as if we are falling behind because we cannot begin to complete with the glory years of the 1920s when over a hundred new plays opened in one season. Perhaps a bit disconcerting is the fact that many of the revivals today are of plays from not that long ago. Of the nine Broadway revivals seen in this last season, only two were more than twenty years old. Is the repertory shrinking, or is it simply safer to revive a two-decade-old hit rather than risk a production of an old classic or a new script?
Which brings us to the problem of finances. Comparing ticket prices and expenses now with those of 1869 is frustrating, even when adjustments are made for inflation. The $4 top asked 130 years ago may translate close to the $70 top for a non-musical on the Street in 2000. But $4 was an elitist price, and lower-priced seats were always available. By the end of the twentieth century all the prices were elitist. There was no such thing as “popular prices” on the Street in 1999– 2000. Even previews were full-priced, and the range of price choices for the ticket buyer was practically nonexistent. Wallack boasted that his theatre took in $27,000 during the month of October 1869. The similar-sized Plymouth Theatre brought in $349,000 during one week in October 1999. Compare that to the inflationary rise of ticket prices over 130 years and it is clear something is wrong. Not only had the ticket prices