Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “The New Comedy by Mrs. Mowatt,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 112-121


[page 112:]


[Broadway Journal, March 29, 1845.]

THE plot of “Fashion” runs thus: Adam Trueman, a blunt, warm-hearted, shrewd, irascible, wealthy, and generous old farmer of Cattaraugus County, N. Y., had a daughter, (Ruth) who eloped with an adventurer. The father forgave the daughter, but resolving to disappoint the hopes of the fortune hunter, gave the couple a bare subsistence. In consequence of this, the husband maltreated, and finally abandoned the wife, who returned, broken-hearted, to her father’s house and there died, after giving birth to a daughter, Gertrude That she might escape the ills of fortune-hunting by which her mother was destroyed, Trueman sent the child, of an early age, to be brought up by relatives in Geneva; giving his own neighbours to understand that she was dead. The Geneva friends were instructed to educate her in habits of self-dependence, and to withold from her the secret of her parentage, and heir-ship; — the grandfather’s design being to secure for her a husband who will love her solely for herself. The friends by advice of the grandfather, procured for her when grown up to womanhood, a situation as music teacher in the house of Mr. Tiffany, a quondam foot-pedlar, and now by dint of industry a dry-goods merchant doing a flashy if not flourishing business; much of his success having arisen from the assistance of Trueman, who knew him and admired his hones: industry as a travelling pedlar.

The efforts of the drygoods merchant, however, are insufficient to keep pace with the extravagance of his wife, who has become infected with a desire to shine as [page 113:] a lady of fashion, in which desire she is seconded by her daughter, Seraphina, the musical pupil of Gertrude. The follies of the mother and daughter so far involve Tiffany as to lead him into a forgery of a friend’s endorsement. This crime is suspected by his confidential clerk, Snobson, an intemperate blackguard, who at length extorts from his employer a confession, under a promise of secresy provided that Seraphina shall become Mrs. Snobson. Mrs. Tiffany, however, is by no means privy to this arrangement: she is anxious to secure a title for Seraphina, and advocates the pretensions of Count Jolimaitre, a quondam English cook, barber and valet, whose real name was Gustave Treadmill, and who, having spent much time at Paris, suddenly took leave of that city, for that city’s good, and his own; abandoning to despair a little laundress (Millinette) to whom he was betrothed, but who had rashly entrusted him with the whole of her hard earnings during life.

Gertrude is beloved (for her own sake) by Colonel Howard “of the regular army,” and returns his affection. The Colonel, however, makes no proposal, because he considers that his salary of “fifteen hundred a year” is no property of his own, but belongs to his creditors. He has endorsed for a friend to the amount of seven thousand dollars, and is left to settle the debt as he can. He talks, therefore, of resigning, going west, making a fortune, returning, and then offering his hand with his fortune, to Gertrude.

At this juncture, Trueman pays a visit to his old friend Tiffany, and is put at fault in respect to the true state of Gertrude’s heart (and indeed of everything else) by the tattle of Prudence, Mrs. Tiffany’s old-maiden sister. She gives the old man to understand that Gertrude [page 114:] is in love with T. Tennyson Twinkle, a poet who is in the sad habit of reading aloud his own verses, but who has really very respectable pretensions, as times go. T. T. T. nevertheless, has no thought of Gertrude, but is making desperate love to the imaginary money-bags of Seraphina. He is rivalled, however, not only by the Count, but by Augustus Fogg, a gentleman of excessive haut ton, who wears black and has a general indifference to everything but hot suppers.

Millinette, in the meantime, has followed her deceiver to America, and happens to make an engagement as femme de chambre and general instructor in Parisian modes, at the very house (of all houses in the world) where her Gustave, as Count Jolimaitre, is paying his addresses to Miss Tiffany. The laundress recognizes the cook, who, at first overwhelmed with dismay, finally recovers his self-possession, and whispers to his betrothed a place of appointment at which he promises to “explain all.” This appointment is overheard by Gertrude, who for some time has had her suspicions of the Count. She resolves to personate Millinette in the interview, and thus obtain means of exposing the impostor. Contriving therefore to detain the femme de chambre from the assignation, she herself (Gertrude) blowing out the candles and disguising her voice meets the Count at the appointed room in Tiffany’s house, while the rest of the company (invited to a ball) are at supper. In order to accomplish the detention of Millinette, she has been forced to give some instructions to Zeke (re-baptized Adolph by Mrs. Tiffany) a negro footman in the Tiffany livery. These instructions are overheard by Prudence, who mars everything by bringing the whole household into the room of appointment before any secret has been extracted from the Count. [page 115:] Matters are made worse for Gertrude by a futile attempt on the Count’s part to conceal himself in a closet. No explanations are listened to. Mrs. Tiffany and Seraphina are in a great rage. Howard is in despair — and True man entertains so bad an opinion of his grand-daughter that he has an idea of suffering her still to remain in ignorance of his relationship. The company disperse in much admired disorder, and everything is at odds and ends.

Finding that she can get no one to hear her explanations, Gertrude writes an account of all to her friends at Geneva. She is interrupted by Trueman — shows him the letter — he comprehends all — and hurries the lovers into the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Tiffany, the former of whom is in despair, and the latter in high glee at information just received that Seraphina has eloped with Count Jolimaitre.

While Trueman is here avowing his relationship, bestowing Gertrude upon Howard, and relieving Tiffany from the fangs of Snobson by showing that person that he is an accessary to his employer’s forgery, Millinette enters, enraged at the Count’s perfidy to herself, and exposes him in full. Scarcely has she made an end when Seraphina appears in search of her jewels, which the Count, before committing himself by the overt act of matrimony, has insisted upon her securing. As she does not return from this errand, however, sufficiently soon, her lover approaches on tip-toe to see what has become of her; is seen and caught by Millinette; and finding the game up, confesses everything with exceeding nonchalance. Trueman extricates Tiffany from his embarrassments on condition of his sending his wife and daughter to the country to get rid of their fashionable notions; and even carries his generosity so [page 116:] far as to establish the Count in a restaurant with the proviso that he, the Count, shall in the character and proper habiliments of cook Treadmill, carry around his own advertisement to all the fashionable acquaintances who had solicited his intimacy while performing the rôle of Count Jolintaitre.

We presume that not even the author of a plot such as this, would be disposed to claim for it anything on the score of originality or invention. Had it, indeed, been designed as a burlesque upon the arrant conventionality of stage incidents in general, we should have regarded it as a palpable hit. And, indeed, while on the point of absolute unoriginality, we may as well include in one category both the events and the characters. The testy yet generous old grandfather, who talks in a domineering tone, contradicts everybody, slaps all mankind on the back, thumps his cane on the floor, listens to nothing, chastises all the fops, comes to the assistance of all the insulted women, and relieves all the dramatis personæ from all imaginable dilemmas: — the hen-pecked husband of low origin, led into difficulties by his vulgar and extravagant wife: — the die-away daughter aspiring to be a Countess: — the villain of a clerk who aims at the daughter’s hand through the fears of his master, some of whose business secrets he possesses: — the French grisette metamorphosed into the dispenser of the highest Parisian modes and graces: — the intermeddling old maid making bare-faced love to every unmarried man she meets: — the stiff and stupid man of high fashion who utters only a single set phrase: — the mad poet reciting his own verses: — the negro footman in livery impressed with a profound sense of his own consequence, and obeying with military promptness all orders from everybody: — the [page 117:] patient, accomplished and beautiful governess, who proves in the end to be the heiress of the testy old gentleman: — the high-spirited officer, in love with the governess, and refusing to marry her in the first place because he is too poor, and in the second place because she is too rich: — and, lastly, the foreign impostor with a title, a drawl, an eye-glass, and a moustache, who makes love to the supposititious heiress of the play in strutting about the stage with his coat-tails thrown open after the fashion of Robert Macaire, and who, in the end; is exposed and disgraced through the instrumentality of some wife or mistress whom he has robbed and abandoned: — these things we say, together with such incidents as one person supplying another’s place at an assignation, and such équivoques as arise from a surprisal in such cases — the concealment and discovery of one of the parties in a closet, — and the obstinate refusal of all the world to listen to an explanation, are the common and well-understood property of the playwright, and have been so, unluckily time out of mind.

But for this very reason they should be abandoned at once. Their hackneyism is no longer to be endured. The day has at length arrived when men demand rationalities in place of conventionalities. It will no longer do to copy, even with absolute accuracy, the whole tone of even so ingenious and really spirited a thing as the “School for Scandal.” It was comparatively good in its day, but it would be positively bad at the present day, and imitations of it are inadmissible at any day.

Bearing in mind the spirit of these observations, we may say that “Fashion” is theatrical but not dramatic. It is a pretty well-arranged selection from the usual [page 118:] routine of stage characters, and stage manœuvres — but there is not one particle of any nature beyond greenroom nature, about it. No such events ever happened in fact, or ever could happen; as happen in “Fashion.” Nor are we quarrelling, now, with the mere exaggeration of character or incident; — were this all, the play, although bad as comedy might be good as farce, of which the exaggeration of possible incongruities is the chief element. Our fault-finding is on the score of deficiency in verisimilitude — in natural art — that is to say, in art based in the natural laws of man’s heart and understanding.

When for example, Mr. Augustus Fog; (whose name by the bye has little application to his character) says, in reply to Mrs. Tiffany’s invitation to the conservatory, that he is “indifferent to flowers,” and replies in similar terms to every observation addressed to him, neither are we affected by any sentiment of the farcical, nor can we feel any sympathy in the answer on the ground of its being such as any human being would naturally make at all times to all queries — making no other answer to any. Were the thing absurd in itself we should laugh, and a legitimate effect would be produced; but unhappily the only absurdity we perceive is the absurdity of the author in keeping so pointless a phrase in any character’s mouth. The shameless importunities of Prudence to Trueman are in the same category — that of a total deficiency in verisimilitude, without any compensating incongruousness — that is to say, farcicalness, or humor. Also in the same category we must include the rectangular crossings and recrossings of the dramatis personæ on the stage; the coming forward to the foot-lights when anything of interest is to be told; the reading of private [page 119:] letters in a loud rhetorical tone; the preposterous soliloquising; and the even more preposterous “asides.” Will our play-wrights never learn, through the dictates of common sense, that an audience under no circumstances can or will be brought to conceive that what is sonorous in their own ears at a distance of fifty feet from the speaker cannot be heard by an actor at the distance of one or two?

No person of common ingenuity will be willing to admit that even the most intricate dramatic narrative could not be rendered intelligible without these monstrous inartisticalities. They are the relics of a day when men were content with but little of that true Art whose nature they imperfectly understood, and are now retained solely through that supine spirit of imitation which grows out of the drama itself as the chief of the imitative arts, and which has had so much to do in degrading it, in effect, by keeping it stationary while all of its sisters have been making rapid progress. The drama has not declined as many suppose: it has only been left out of sight by everything else. We must discard all models. The Elizabethan theatre should be abandoned. We need thought of our own — principles of dramatic action drawn not from the “old dramatists” but from the fountain of a Nature that can never grow old.

It must he understood that we are not condemning Mrs. Mowatt’s comedy in particular, but the modern drama in general. Comparatively, there is much merit in “Fashion,” and in many respects (and those of a telling character) it is superior to any American play. It has, in especial, the very high merit of simplicity in plot. What the Spanish play-wrights mean by dramas of intrigue are the worst acting dramas in the world: [page 120:] — the intellect of an audience call never safely be fatigued by complexity. The necessity for verbose explanation on the part of Trueman at the close of “Fashion” is, however, a serious defect. The dénouement should in all cases be full of action and nothing else. Whatever cannot be explained by such action should be communicated at the opening of the play.

The colloquy in Mrs. Mowatt’s comedy is spirited, generally terse, and well seasoned at points with sarcasm of much power. The management throughout shows the fair authoress to be thoroughly conversant with our ordinary stage effects, and we might say a good deal in commendation of some of the “sentiments” interspersed: — we are really ashamed, nevertheless, to record our deliberate opinion that if “Fashion” succeed at all (and we think upon the whole that it will) it will owe the greater portion of its success to the very carpets, the very ottomans, the very chandeliers, and the very conservatories that gained so decided a popularity for that most inane and utterly despicable of all modern comedies — the “London Assurance” of Boucicault.

The above remarks were written before the comedy’s representation at the Park, and were based on the author’s original MS., in which some modifications have been made — and not at all times, we really think, for the better. A good point, for example, has been omitted, at the dénouement. In the original, Trueman (as will be seen in our digest) pardons the Count, and even establishes him in a restaurant, on condition of his carrying around to all his fashionable acquaintances his own advertisement as restaurateur. There is a piquant, and dashing deviation, here, from the ordinary routine of stage “poetic justice,” which could not [page 121:] have failed to tell, and which was, perhaps, the one original point of the play. We can conceive no good reason for its omission. A scene, also, has been introduced, to very little purpose. We watched its effect narrowly and found it null. It narrated nothing; it illustrated nothing; and was absolutely nothing in itself. Nevertheless it might have been introduced for the purpose of giving time for some other scenic arrangements going on out of sight.

· · · · · · · · (1)  



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 121:]

1.  Here follows the cast, with some words of personal comment on the actors. — ED.





[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (The New Comedy by Mrs. Mowatt)