The American Legacy
220 East Fourth Street ~ New York, New York 10009
(212) 995 8410
"Theatrical archaeologist extraordinaire" - - Back Stage
All that glisters...
The Gilded Age glitters its brightest, and Wall Street is minting millionaires. A few years after Charles Dow created his average, with New York setting trading volume records, and the latest crash over a decade past, speculation is the in the air like a contagion, and in Bronson Howard's smash comedy, no one is immune.
As the curtain rises, Nicholas (Old Nick)van Alstyne, the Master of Wall Street, is staking his very large fortune on a breakout but secret investment in a conglomerate named the Henrietta. Meanwhile, Old Nick's daughter Mary has brought home an English aristocrat, who is keenly interested in betting on a racehorse that happens to go by the name of ... Henrietta. And his feckless if endearing son Bertie is wagering to win the hand of his beloved, provided he can convince her that a portrait she finds in his room is not a love token from the notorious dancer: Henrietta.
The only member of the family not entangled with a Henrietta would be number one son Nicholas Jr…. except he is a scheming cad, who has betrayed his devoted wife, ruined his mistress, and happens to be working secretly and feverishly to tear down his father's investment and bankrupt the entire family. Subject to three Henrietta's and multiple treacheries, the van Alstyne household, and then Wall Street, and soon enough the economy of half the country are turned upside down and inside out. Six broken hearts, an untimely death, and a life's savings must all pass by before true love and dumb luck can save the day.
Among the biggest hits of New York's 1887 season, The Henrietta was a comedy both trenchant and absurd, mixing farce and tragedy in a delightful collision of styles. It was commissioned for a popular comic duo of the day, and it is rife with outrageous characters, tangled love affairs, and essential confusions that pop the seams of farce. Most fun are its persistent 'asides', and characters are defined by their relationship to the often-acknowledged audience.
At the same time, the humor is shadowed by a darkly serious concern for the corrosive influence of the business norms of the day, and the play is shaped by deeply affecting confrontations between parents and children, star-crossed lovers, lucky and unlucky investors.
As such, The Henrietta captures a changing world in ways that are awfully prescient. Written as the industrial economy gave rise to the financial economy (and agrarian life was already half-forgotten) the play paints a portrait of an admirable old order, founded on industry, fraternity, and charity,
supplanted by a new order of work obsession, egoism, and vanity. Old Nick is an exemplar of an heroic capitalist: rapacious and wealthy speculator, he sees love and commerce as a grand game, but he is also a big-hearted father and philanthropist. He is spoofed like Molière’s miser, but loved as only an American playwright could.
His children are another story. The new generation possesses either his ambition without his heart; or his heart without his head. His treacherous first son’s killer instincts are untempered by any heart at all, his social-climbing daughter dominates her titled husband like a "real housewife", and Bertie is an empty-headed lamb who lacks the spirit or wit to embrace the vices his inheritance affords him. That one of these three ends up Nick's successor—the new Master of Wall Street—is hardly reassuring for the morals and stability of the new age.
In this world, investing is brother to gambling, love is a business transaction, and men are reduced to business machines. Notably, modern technologies—the stock ticker, the telephone, and the electric light—have made it possible to work ‘round the clock and at home, and a central focus of the play is the corruption of the workaholic Nicholas. In the words of the stern moralist Dr. Wainwright: “furnace-bred young men of New York are ... mere bundles of nerve, that burn themselves like the overcharged wires of a battery.”
Not that it’s all doom and gloom, of course. In the end, whatever its cautions, the play offers a time
honored antidote in the form of a gamble far
more familiar and (hopefully) more healthful: the
gamble of love.
In its time, The Henrietta struck both a funny bone and a nerve. It ran over five seasons in New York, inspired two films (first with Douglas Fairbanks and later Buster Keaton), and in the words of the New York Times, it was "a real comedy of American life...a keen satire of the foibles and failings of men and women we see every day, a trenchant exposition in dramatic form of one of the greatest evils of our time".
Today, the resonances could not be clearer, while the humor has lost none of its glee. The play lampoons an enterprise free from government regulation, through which entire industries could be created, inflated, and burst at the whim of selfish gamesmen, and they played like addicts, the divide between work and home quite erased. And everyone, young and old, male and female, European and American, pious and profane, wants a piece of the action. Substitute real estate for railroads, the derivative for the margin, the crawl for the ticker, and the Blackberry for the telephone, and Bronson Howard's witty and warning satire of a new economy still shines 125 years on.
The Henrietta is Metropolitan’s fourth production in Season 21, a cautionary comic confection celebrating one more facet of The American Dream.
- Alex Roe