Tales from the Vault: Mystery solved and connections made
July 28, 2017
In reviewing works on paper by Howard Pyle artist during the inventory supported by our IMLS grant, I examined a small drawing that he inscribed and gave to C. L. Ward in 1907. It depicts an old man gazing out a window at an equally ancient horse-drawn carriage. Pyle created the illustration in 1892 for Oliver Wendell Holmes’ book of light verse The One Hoss Shay with its Companion Poems, How the Old Horse Won the Bet & The Broomstick Train of 1892. To the lower left of the illustration, the artist drew the profile of a mustachioed man in a hat (right):
Pyle occasionally gave small drawings on which he made a quick sketch—probably spontaneously, often a pirate or Cavalier as here—to people with whom he socialized in New York and Wilmington. In this case, the recipient was C(hristopher) L(ewis) Ward, who lived not far from the Pyle family on Willard Street in Wilmington. The Wards and other families socialized in an informal salon dedicated to discussions of literature and art, and it may have been in such a setting that Pyle created the gift. The donor of the drawing, Mrs. C. Lalor Burdick, was the daughter of Christopher L. Ward.
Ward, a lawyer, was an amateur actor and participated in the Green Room Club, an amateur theatrical group that performed plays at various sites in Wilmington. Pyle’s two lines at the drawing’s top refer to this avocation:
Here’s Mr. Ward, the local showman / Who soon will rival even Frohman.
The reference to Ward’s thespian interests was obvious. I made a mental note to find out who Frohman was and continued moving along through the other 1,150 Pyle drawings in the inventory.
A little later, we acquired 5 of Pyle’s costume sketches for the 1909 Broadway play Springtime. For that acquisition, I investigated the New York theatrical world of the period. I encountered the name of Frohman again, and Pyle’s epigram to C. L. Ward (along with the artist’s familiarity with the New York stage) fell into place. Charles Frohman (1856-1915) began producing and promoting Broadway plays in 1889 and by 1915, when he died aboard the Lusitania, he had presented over 700 of them. He arrived in New York when the Broadway theater was thriving. Every night, electric lighting flooded the theater district, which everyone soon called the Great White Way. A proliferation of urban restaurants and affordable tickets made a “night out” affordable for the urban middle class. Women flocked to afternoon performances; male critics who disapproved of their enthusiastic and noisy appreciation of plays derisively dubbed them “the matinee girls.” Audiences thrilled to new stage technology that featured amazing special effects. The acting profession became, especially for women, more respectable, losing its earlier rather unsavory reputation. The word “Broadway” evoked not just a Manhattan locale but a place to see and be seen and a glamourous life freed from Victorian strictures.
Because Frohman believed that the public craved idols to gossip about and to regard as trendsetters, he created the “star system.” In an approach later adopted by Hollywood, he collaborated with magazines and photographers to feature celebrity pieces about the personal lives and tastes of his performers. Among the actors he promoted as fashion arbiters and lifestyle models were Lionel and Ethel Barrymore.
In Frohman’s biography I recognized a name from our illustration collection: Julia Marlowe. Although she was a successful actor by the late 1890s, it was her association with Frohman that made her a star. Under his management, she became the principal American interpreter of Shakespearean roles and a leading lady in lighter offerings.
In our illustration, Harry C. Edwards captures Marlowe’s 1903 appearance in The Cavalier (left):
She plays Charlotte Durand, mistress of a Louisiana mansion during the Civil War who realizes that her husband has become a Union spy. Through a series of intrigues, she exposes him, allowing Confederate troops to take him prisoner. Edwards shows Marlowe at the point when Southern troops are about to fire, the Union soldiers realize their fate, and a young girl in the lower left shrinks from the violence. Marlowe’s almost motionless figure, accented by the long columnar lines of her black and white attire, commands the viewer’s attention. With a quiet gesture and reassuring expression, she stands calmly amid the chaos at the play’s climactic moment.
For a lively account of the theatrical world of Howard Pyle’s lifetime: When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion and American Culture, by Marlis Schweitzer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.
Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration
This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services MA-30-15-0283-15.