Fashion; or Life in New York

              

Fashion; or Life in New York

a Comedy in Five Acts

As an unknown, female, American  author writing in the 1840's, Anna Cora Mowatt had many negative preconceptions to overcome when she sat down to write her first dramatic work.  Remarkably, she achieved financial and critical success with her first attempt, a comedy called "Fashion."  In the play, she displayed an insider's knowledge of what was "in" and "out" with the well-to-do that fascinated her audiences without alienating  theater patrons who were native to that social class.  Rather than simply ridiculing fashionable foibles, the things that an outsider would find ridiculous, Mowatt's comedy cut to the heart of upper class discomfort with the artificiality and accessibility of fashion as a short-cut to social power as well as addressing lower and middle class annoyance with upper class snobbery and condescension.

Synopsis

This summary of the plot was provided by Edgar Allan Poe in his initial review of the comedy in The Broadway Journal after seeing the show's debut in the spring of 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 withhold 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-peddler, 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 peddler.

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 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 secrecy 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 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. 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 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.1

[Read Poe’s full commentary on Fashion here. ]


Characters

Adam Trueman: a farmer from CatteraugusWeekly Herald, March 29 1845

Count Jolimaitre: a fashionable European Importation

Colonel Howard: an Officer in the U. S. Army.

Mr. Tiffany: a New York merchant.

T. Tennyson Twinkle: a modern poet

Augustus Fogg: a drawing room appendage

Snobson: a rare species of confidential clerk

Zeke: a servant

Mrs. Tiffany: a lady who imagines herself fashionable.

Prudence: a maiden lady of a certain age.

Millinette: a French lady's maid

Gertrude: a governess

Seraphina Tiffany: a Belle

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Ball Room



Original New York and London Casts



NEW YORK.
Park, March 24, 1845
LONDON. 
Royal Olympic Theatre, Jan. 9, 1850 

Adam Trueman Mr. Chippendale
Mr. Davenport
Count Jolimaitre Mr. W. H. Crisp
Mr. A. Wigan.
Colonel Howard Mr. Dyott
Mr. Belton.
Mr. Tiffany Mr. Barry
Mr. James Johnstone.
Twinkle Mr. De Walden
Mr. Kinloch.
Fogg   Mr. J. Howard Mr. J. Howard.
Snobson Mr. Fisher
Mr. H. Scharf.
Zeke Mr. Skerrett
Mr. J. Herbert.
Mrs. Tiffany Mrs. Barry
 Mrs. H. Marston.
Prudence Mrs. Knight
Mrs. Parker.
Millinette Mrs. Dyon
 Mrs.  A. Wigan.
Gertrude Miss Ellis Miss F. Vining.
Seraphina     Miss Horn
Miss Gougenheim.


Style

Theatre historians generally regard Fashion as the first social comedy written by an author native to the U.S.  The play is a half-way point on the road between Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, the first play to contain a character that is uniquely an “American” type, and the numerous specimen of modern comedy generated by U.S. dramatists.  Most modern stagings of Fashion occur in academic settings, framing Mowatt’s melodrama as a representative of a bygone era in the evolution of this nation’s theatrical traditions.

                                        

Production History

  Playbill for Fashion, 1850
Fashion debuted at the Park Theater, New York, March 24, 1845.  Although it never achieved the notoriety or mass appeal of the dramatic adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Fashion enjoyed a respectably long period of popularity from its debut in 1845 to the beginning of the Civil War.  The comedy made Anna Cora Mowatt famous.  Its publication marked the end of her period of writing under various pseudonyms.  Fashion gave Mowatt a lasting place among the dramatists of the U.S. and established her as a member of the New York literati.  Her experiences with the play also opened the way for her successful career as an actress.

Lending the comedy extra longevity have been productions that used FashionPlaybill for 1974 Musical Adaptation of "Fashion" as a platform to spoof melodramas as a genre.  In 1924, the Provincetown Playhouse staged a very popular revival of the comedy that rewrote the script and encouraged audiences to boo and hiss the villains in what was imagined to be high Victorian style.  This production had a long run of 235 performances in its Off Broadway venue and  inspired a surge of new interest in the play from colleges and community theaters across the country.2

There have also been several musical adaptations of Fashion.  Deems Taylor's 1959 version, Fashion; Life in New York, played for fifty performances at the Royal Playhouse.  It starred Will Geer who would later achieve fame in the 1970's as TV's Grandpa Walton as Adam Trueman.  During the show's Boston tryout, the role of Count Jolimaitre was played by veteran comic James Coco.3

The 1970's saw two Off Broadway adaptations of the comedy that were produced within a year of each other.  The first was titled “Yankee Ingenuity.  The book was by Jim Wise and the score by Richard Bimonte.  It is a straightforward adaptation of Mowatt's script that played for twenty-nine performances at Meadow Brook Theater in Rochester Michigan as part of Oakland University's Theatre program.4 Don Pippin and Steve Brown’s “Fashion”  from 1974 was more high concept.  Mowatt’s plot and characters exist as a play-within-a-play in which most of the male roles are performed by women. The show ran for ninety-four performances at the McAlpin Rooftop Theater in New York.5




Further Reading on this Play

Anna Cora Mowatt and the Woman Who Did Not Write Fashion -- discussion of an early attempt to challenge Mowatt's authorship

NOTES

1. Edgar Allan Poe. "The New Comedy by Mrs. Mowatt." Broadway Journal. March 29, 1845, p. 112-116.
2.  Dietz, Dan, Off Broadway Musicals, 1910-2007 Cast, Credits, Songs, Critical Reactions and Performance Data of over 1800 Shows. (MacFarland & Co.: Jefferson, NC, 2007) page 141, column 1.
3.  ibid, page 140, column 3.
4.  ibid, page 141, colunm 1.
5.  ibid, page 140, column 2.

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Cover for "The Lady Actress"

For more in-depth information and analysis
 of
Mowatt's life and career, read
The Lady Actress:
Recovering the Lost Legacy of a Victorian American Superstar

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