Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Fanny Trollope

Chapter 13

Theatre — Fine Arts — Delicacy — Shaking Quakers — Big-Bone Lick — Visit of the President

The theatre at Cincinnati is small, and not very brilliant in decoration, but in the absence of every other amusement our young men frequently attended it, and in the bright clear nights of autumn and winter, the mile and a half of distance was not enough to prevent the less enterprising members of the family from sometimes accompanying them. The great inducement to this was the excellent acting of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Drake, the managers. [Mr. Drake was an Englishman.] Nothing could be more distinct than their line of acting, but the great versatility of their powers enabled them often to appear together. Her cast was the highest walk of tragedy, and his the broadest comedy; but yet, as Goldsmith says of his sister heroines, I have known them change characters for a whole evening together, and have wept with him and laughed with her, as it was their will and pleasure to ordain. I think in his comedy he was superior to any actor I ever saw in the same parts, except Emery. Alexander Drake’s comedy was like that of the French, who never appear to be acting at all; he was himself the comic being the author aimed at depicting. Let him speak whose words he would, from Shakspeare to Colman, it was impossible not to feel that half the fun was his own; he had, too, in a very high degree, the power that Fawcett possessed, of drawing tears by a sudden touch of natural feeling. His comic songs might have set the gravity of the judges and bishops together at defiance. Liston is great, but Alexander Drake was greater.

Mrs. Drake, formerly Miss Denny, greatly resembles Miss O’Neil; a proof of this is, that Mr. Kean, who had heard of the resemblance, arrived at New York late in the evening, and having repaired to the theatre, saw her for the first time across the stage, and immediately exclaimed, “that’s Miss Denny.” Her voice, too, has the same rich and touching tones, and is superior in power. Her talent is decidedly first-rate. Deep and genuine feeling, correct judgment, and the most perfect good taste, distinguish her play in every character. Her last act of Belvidera is superior in tragic effect to any thing I ever saw on the stage, the one great exception to all comparison, Mrs. Siddons, being set aside.

It was painful to see these excellent performers playing to a miserable house, not a third full, and the audience probably not including half a dozen persons who would prefer their playing to that of the vilest strollers. In proof of this, I saw them, as managers, give place to paltry third-rate actors from London, who would immediately draw crowded houses, and be overwhelmed with applause.

Poor Drake died just before we left Ohio, and his wife, who, besides her merit as an actress, is a most estimable and amiable woman, is left with a large family. I have little, or rather no doubt, of her being able to obtain an excellent engagement in London, but her having property in several of the Western theatres will, I fear, detain her in a neighbourhood, where she is neither understood nor appreciated. She told me many very excellent professional anecdotes collected during her residence in the West; one of these particularly amused me as a specimen of Western idiom. A lady who professed a great admiration for Mrs. Drake had obtained her permission to be present upon one occasion at her theatrical toilet. She was dressing for some character in which she was to stab herself, and her dagger was lying on the table. The visitor took it up, and examining it with much emotion, exclaimed, “what! do you really jab this into yourself sevagarous?”

We also saw the great American star, Mr. Forrest. What he may become I will not pretend to prophesy; but when I saw him play Hamlet at Cincinnati, not even Mrs. Drake’s sweet Ophelia could keep me beyond the third act. It is true that I have seen Kemble, Macready, Kean, Young, C. Kemble, Cook, and Talma play Hamlet, and I might not, perhaps, be a very fair judge of this young actor’s merits; but I was greatly amused when a gentleman, who asked my opinion of him, told me upon hearing it, that he would not advise me to state it freely in America, “for they would not bear it.” The theatre was really not a bad one, though the very poor receipts rendered it impossible to keep it in high order; but an annoyance infinitely greater than decorations indifferently clean, was the style and manner of the audience. Men came into the lower tier of boxes without their coats; and I have seen shirt sleeves tucked up to the shoulder; the spitting was incessant, and the mixed smell of onions and whiskey was enough to make one feel even the Drakes’ acting dearly bought by the obligation of enduring its accompaniments. The bearing and attitudes of the men are perfectly indescribable; the heels thrown higher than the head, the entire rear of the person presented to the audience, the whole length supported on the benches, are among the varieties that these exquisite posture-masters exhibit. The noises, too, were perpetual, and of the most unpleasant kind; the applause is expressed by cries and thumping with the feet, instead of clapping; and when a patriotic fit seized them, and “Yankee Doodle” was called for, every man seemed to think his reputation as a citizen depended on the noise he made.

Two very indifferent figurantes, probably from the Ambigu Comique, or la Gaiete, made their appearance at Cincinnati while we were there; and had Mercury stepped down, and danced a pas seul upon earth, his godship could not have produced a more violent sensation. But wonder and admiration were by no means the only feelings excited; horror and dismay were produced in at least an equal degree. No one, I believe, doubted their being admirable dancers, but every one agreed that the morals of the Western world would never recover the shock. When I was asked if I had ever seen any thing so dreadful before, I was embarrassed how to answer; for the young women had been exceedingly careful, both in their dress and in their dancing, to meet the taste of the people; but had it been Virginie in her most transparent attire, or Taglioni in her most remarkable pirouette, they could not have been more reprobated. The ladies altogether forsook the theatre; the gentlemen muttered under their breath, and turned their heads aside when the subject was mentioned; the clergy denounced them from the pulpit; and if they were named at the meetings of the saints, it was to show how deep the horror such a theme could produce. I could not but ask myself if virtue were a plant, thriving under one form in one country, and flourishing under a different one in another? If these Western Americans are right, then how dreadfully wrong are we! It is really a very puzzling subject.

But this was not the only point on which I found my notions of right and wrong utterly confounded; hardly a day passed in which I did not discover that something or other that I had been taught to consider lawful as eating, was held in abhorrence by those around me; many words to which I had never heard an objectionable meaning attached, were totally interdicted, and the strangest paraphrastic sentences substituted. I confess it struck me, that notwithstanding a general stiffness of manner, which I think must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, the Americans have imaginations that kindle with alarming facility. I could give many anecdotes to prove this, but will content myself with a few.

A young German gentleman of perfectly good manners, once came to me greatly chagrined at having offended one of the principal families in the neighbourhood, by having pronounced the word corset before the ladies of it. An old female friend had kindly overcome her own feelings so far as to mention to him the cause of the coolness he had remarked, and strongly advised his making an apology. He told me that he was perfectly well disposed to do so, but felt himself greatly at a loss how to word it.

An English lady who had long kept a fashionable boarding-school in one of the Atlantic cities, told me that one of her earliest cares with every new comer, was the endeavour to substitute real delicacy for this affected precision of manner; among many anecdotes, she told me one of a young lady about fourteen, who on entering the receiving room, where she only expected to see a lady who had enquired for her, and finding a young man with her, put her hands before her eyes, and ran out of the room again, screaming “A man! a man! a man!”

On another occasion, one of the young ladies in going up stairs to the drawing-room, unfortunately met a boy of fourteen coming down, and her feelings were so violently agitated, that she stopped panting and sobbing, nor would pass on till the boy had swung himself up on the upper banisters, to leave the passage free.

At Cincinnati there is a garden where the people go to eat ices, and to look at roses. For the preservation of the flowers, there is placed at the end of one of the walks a sign-post sort of daub, representing a Swiss peasant girl, holding in her hand a scroll, requesting that the roses might not be gathered. Unhappily for the artist, or for the proprietor, or for both, the petticoat of this figure was so short as to shew her ancles. The ladies saw, and shuddered; and it was formally intimated to the proprietor, that if he wished for the patronage of the ladies of Cincinnati, he must have the petticoat of this figure lengthened. The affrighted purveyor of ices sent off an express for the artist and his paint pot. He came, but unluckily not provided with any colour that would match the petticoat; the necessity, however, was too urgent for delay, and a flounce of blue was added to the petticoat of red, giving bright and shining evidence before all men of the immaculate delicacy of the Cincinnati ladies.

I confess I was sometimes tempted to suspect that this ultra refinement was not very deep seated. It often appeared to me like the consciousness of grossness, that wanted a veil; but the veil was never gracefully adjusted. Occasionally, indeed, the very same persons who appeared ready to faint at the idea of a statue, would utter some unaccountable sally that was quite startling, and which made me feel that the indelicacy of which we were accused had its limits. The following anecdote is hardly fit to tell, but it explains what I mean too well to be omitted.

A young married lady, of high standing and most fastidious delicacy, who had been brought up at one of the Atlantic seminaries of highest reputation, told me that her house, at the distance of half a mile from a populous city, was unfortunately opposite a mansion of worse than doubtful reputation. “It is abominable,” she said, “to see the people that go there; they ought to be exposed. I and another lady, an intimate friend of mine, did make one of them look foolish enough last summer: she was passing the day with me, and, while we were sitting at the window, we saw a young man we both knew ride up there, we went into the garden and watched at the gate for him to come back, and when he did, we both stepped out, and I said to him, “are you not ashamed, Mr. William D., to ride by my house and back again in that manner?” I never saw a man look so foolish!”

In conversing with ladies on the customs and manners of Europe, I remarked a strong propensity to consider every thing as wrong to which they were not accustomed. I once mentioned to a young lady that I thought a picnic party would be very agreeable, and that I would propose it to some of our friends. She agreed that it would be delightful, but she added, “I fear you will not succeed; we are not used to such sort of things here, and I know it is considered very indelicate for ladies and gentlemen to sit down together on the grass.”

I could multiply anecdotes of this nature; but I think these sufficient to give an accurate idea of the tone of manners in this particular, and I trust to justify the observations I have made.

One of the spectacles which produced the greatest astonishment on us all was the Republican simplicity of the courts of justice. We had heard that the judges indulged themselves on the bench in those extraordinary attitudes which, doubtless, some peculiarity of the American formation leads them to find the most comfortable. Of this we were determined to judge for ourselves, and accordingly entered the court when it was in full business, with three judges on the bench. The annexed sketch will better describe what we saw than any thing I can write.

Our winter passed rapidly away, and pleasantly enough, by the help of frosty walks, a little skaiting, a visit to Big-Bone Lick, and a visit to the shaking Quakers, a good deal of chess, and a good deal of reading, notwithstanding we were almost in the back woods of Western America.

The excursion to Big-Bone Lick, in Kentucky, and that to the Quaker village, were too fatiguing for females at such a season, but our gentlemen brought us home mammoth bones and shaking Quaker stories in abundance.

These singular people, the shaking Quakers of America, give undeniable proof that communities may exist and prosper, for they have continued for many years to adhere strictly to this manner of life, and have been constantly increasing in wealth. They have formed two or three different societies in distant parts of the Union, all governed by the same general laws, and all uniformly prosperous and flourishing.

There must be some sound and wholesome principle at work in these establishments to cause their success in every undertaking, and this principle must be a powerful one, for it has to combat much that is absurd and much that is mischievous.

The societies are generally composed of about an equal proportion of males and females, many of them being men and their wives; but they are all bound by their laws not to cohabit together. Their religious observances are wholly confined to singing and dancing of the most grotesque kind, and this repeated so constantly as to occupy much time; yet these people become rich and powerful wherever they settle themselves. Whatever they manufacture, whatever their farms produce, is always in the highest repute, and brings the highest price in the market. They receive all strangers with great courtesy, and if they bring an introduction they are lodged and fed for any length of time they choose to stay; they are not asked to join in their labours, but are permitted to do so if they wish it.

The Big-Bone Lick was not visited, and even partially examined, without considerable fatigue.

It appeared from the account of our travellers, that the spot which gives the region its elegant name is a deep bed of blue clay, tenacious and unsound, so much so as to render it both difficult and dangerous to traverse. The digging it has been found so laborious that no one has yet hazarded the expense of a complete search into its depths for the gigantic relics so certainly hidden there. The clay has never been moved without finding some of them; and I think it can hardly be doubted that money and perseverance would procure a more perfect specimen of an entire mammoth than we have yet seen. [Since the above was written an immense skeleton, nearly perfect, has been extracted.]

And now the time arrived that our domestic circle was again to be broken up. Our eldest son was to be entered at Oxford, and it was necessary that his father should accompany him; and, after considerable indecision, it was at length determined that I and my daughters should remain another year, with our second son. It was early in February, and our travellers prepared themselves to encounter some sharp gales upon the mountains, though the great severity of the cold appeared to be past. We got buffalo robes and double shoes prepared for them, and they were on the eve of departure when we heard that General Jackson, the newly-elected President, was expected to arrive immediately at Cincinnati, from his residence in the West, and to proceed by steamboat to Pittsburgh, on his way to Washington. This determined them not to fix the day of their departure till they heard of his arrival, and then, if possible, to start in the same boat with him; the decent dignity of a private conveyance not being deemed necessary for the President of the United States.

The day of his arrival was however quite uncertain, and we could only determine to have every thing very perfectly in readiness, let it come when it would. This resolution was hardly acted upon when the news reached us that the General had arrived at Louisville, and was expected at Cincinnati in a few hours. All was bustle and hurry at Mohawk-cottage; we quickly dispatched our packing business, and this being the first opportunity we had had of witnessing such a demonstration of popular feeling, we all determined to be present at the debarkation of the great man. We accordingly walked to Cincinnati, and secured a favourable station at the landing-place, both for the purpose of seeing the first magistrate and of observing his reception by the people. We had waited but a few moments when the heavy panting of the steam engines and then a discharge of cannon told that we were just in time; another moment brought his vessel in sight.

Nothing could be better of its kind than his approach to the shore: the noble steam-boat which conveyed him was flanked on each side by one of nearly equal size and splendour; the roofs of all three were covered by a crowd of men; cannon saluted them from the shore as they passed by, to the distance of a quarter of a mile above the town; there they turned about, and came down the river with a rapid but stately motion, the three vessels so close together as to appear one mighty mass upon the water.

When they arrived opposite the principal landing they swept gracefully round, and the side vessels, separating themselves from the centre, fell a few feet back, permitting her to approach before them with her honoured freight. All this manoeuvring was extremely well executed, and really beautiful.

The crowd on the shore awaited her arrival in perfect stillness. When she touched the bank the people on board gave a faint huzza, but it was answered by no note of welcome from the land: this cold silence was certainly not produced by any want of friendly feeling towards the new President; during the whole of the canvassing he had been decidedly the popular candidate at Cincinnati, and, for months past, we had been accustomed to the cry of “Jackson for ever” from an overwhelming majority; but enthusiasm is not either the virtue or the vice of America.

More than one private carriage was stationed at the water’s edge to await the General’s orders, but they were dismissed with the information that he would walk to the hotel. Upon receiving this intimation the silent crowd divided itself in a very orderly manner, leaving a space for him to walk through them. He did so, uncovered, though the distance was considerable, and the weather very cold; but he alone (with the exception of a few European gentlemen who were present) was without a hat. He wore his grey hair, carelessly, but not ungracefully arranged, and, spite of his harsh gaunt features, he looks like a gentleman and a soldier. He was in deep mourning, having very recently lost his wife; they were said to have been very happy together, and I was pained by hearing a voice near me exclaim, as he approached the spot where I stood, “There goes Jackson, where is his wife?” Another sharp voice, at a little distance, cried, “Adams for ever!” And these sounds were all I heard to break the silence.

“They manage these matters better” in the East, I have no doubt, but as yet I was still in the West, and still inclined to think, that however meritorious the American character may be, it is not amiable.

Mr. T. and his sons joined the group of citizens who waited upon him to the hotel, and were presented to the President in form; that is, they shook hands with him. Learning that he intended to remain a few hours there, or more properly, that it would be a few hours before the steam-boat would be ready to proceed, Mr. T. secured berths on board, and returned, to take a hasty dinner with us. At the hour appointed by the captain, Mr. T. and his son accompanied the General on board; and by subsequent letters I learnt that they had conversed a good deal with him, and were pleased by his conversation and manners, but deeply disgusted by the brutal familiarity to which they saw him exposed at every place on their progress at which they stopped; I am tempted to quote one passage, as sufficiently descriptive of the manner, which so painfully grated against their European feelings.

‘There was not a hulking boy from a keel-boat who was not introduced to the President, unless, indeed, as was the case with some, they introduced themselves: for instance, I was at his elbow when a greasy fellow accosted him thus:-

“General Jackson, I guess?”

‘The General bowed assent.

“Why they told me you was dead.”

“No! Providence has hitherto preserved my life.”

“And is your wife alive too?”

‘The General, apparently much hurt, signified the contrary, upon which the courtier concluded his harangue, by saying, “Aye, I thought it was the one or the t’other of ye.”’

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:50