Pfaff’s bar was located in the heart of Manhattan’s theater district, meaning that actors, playwrights, musicians, and drama critics often retired to the beer garden at 647 Broadway after an evening at the theater. The career of John Brougham, who was both an actor and a playwright, is representative of the playful and often ad-hoc nature of the antebellum theater, which was characterized by outlandish burlesques, adaptations of Shakespeare (either humorous or sincere), historical romances, minstrel shows that featured white actors dressed as African and Native American characters, and, in most cases, immediate feedback from boisterous audiences that let actors know exactly how they felt about any given performance. Brougham's many productions throughout the 1850s and into the 1860s include Metamora; or The Last of the Pollywogs (1859), a parody of James Fennimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826) that, like his 1856 play Po-ca-hon-tas, or, The Gentle Savage, took advantage of audiences' fascination with Native American themes. His 1858 farce Columbus el Filibustero!! A New and Audaciously Original Historico-Plagiaristic, Ante-National, Pre-Patriotic, and Omni-Local Confusion of Circumstances, Running Through Two Acts and Four Centuries cleverly employs the conventions of the theater to critique the narratives of U.S. national origins.
A string of theater critics, including Fitz-James O'Brien, Ned Wilkins, and William Winter, contributed to the weekly "Dramatic Feuilleton" column for The New York Saturday Press, which regularly called for a more restrained, more "natural" style of acting than over-the-top productions like Brougham's usually allowed for. Wilkins and O'Brien were playwrights as well—they wrote the comedies Young New York (1856) and A Gentleman from Ireland (1858), respectively—and Winter would become, by the second half of the nineteenth century, a prominent theater critic for The New York Tribune. The Saturday Press included regular commentary on musical performaces (such as Ada Clare's review of Anna Riviere Bishop and Arthur Napoleon at the Palace Garden), and even printed the humorous lectures by Pfaff's regular Artemus Ward.
The metadata and abstracts for a variety of different theatrical texts—plays, speeches, operas, musical compositions, and dramatic criticism—are searchable on the site; where available, links have been provided either to external websites that house digital reproductions of these texts or to a CONTENTdm viewer for texts from the Saturday Press, Vanity Fair, or The New York Leader.
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The Vault at Pfaff's
27 Memorial Drive West, Bethlehem, PA 18015