The American Legacy
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"Theatrical archaeologist extraordinaire" - - Back Stage
|In the Season
A Play in One-Act
SYBIL Well, to begin with, I'm tired to death of the Season. I'm so bored with the man who
takes me down to dinner. It always seems to be the same man at every house I go to.
Then---may I really confess?
---I miss that so much: the country, cows, and chickens, and ducks, and green things.
If you can believe it,I miss beyond words not seeing the sun set every day.
Isn't it foolish?
Langdon Mitchell (1862 – 1935)
Reviewing the 1892 London premiere of "In the Season," The critic for Pall Mall Gazette dismissed Langdon Mitchell's earliest playwrighting efforts as showing "a little light humour, a certain refinement, and some grace of style are his and, we fear, little more." And nearly 20 years later reviewing Mitchell's "The New Marriage," the critic for Theatre Magazine (Vol.l 14 1911) noted "... in essence the play is merely sport and banter- light satire with a farcical tendency."
Langdon Mitchell's reputation in American theatre rests almost completely on one play - The New York Idea. His first published play, Sylvian, a tragedy written partly in verse and more for the closet than the stage, appeared in a volume of verse in 1885, a year before he passed his bar exams to qualify as a lawyer. Among his ten other plays, Becky Sharp a dramatization of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, was a successful vehicle for the American actress Minnie Madden Riske. But only The New York Idea which Arthur Hobson Quinn, the drama historian, termed a "sterling comedy," could be considered a contribution to the developing American drama. It also helped spread the work of American dramatists abroad where it played in London, was produced in Germany as Jonathans Tochter under the direction of Max Reinhardt, and was translated into other European languages.
In an editorial in the NYTimes, in 1933, Mitchell reflected on his active period, 1890 to 1914, "It was an interim period. We were all too much affected by Zola and the pseudo-realism of that time. Further, we were up against the commercialism of the modern theatre. And think of the things that in 1895 and much later were taboo. You could not write a play about religion, politics, mythology, the life of the Negro, history - that is the actual past of mankind - and not about the Civil War, excepting as melodrama, and never about the Bible of the Revolution of 1776. The plays that the men of today write are far beyond anything that we fellows wrote in between 1900 and 1914. They are freer, larger, more important, vital and dynamic. The subject matter is more various and more important."
Mitchell was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 17, 1862. Mitchell's formidable father, Silas Weir Mitchell (1829 – 1914) was an eminent American physician, scientist, popular novelist, and poet. He is considered the father of medical neurology, and he discovered causalgia (complex regional pain syndrome) and erythromelalgia (inflamation of extremities, called Mitchell's Disease, after Dr. Mitchell himself), and he pioneered the "rest cure" for nervous exhaustion. Langdon's older brother, John, followed his father's vocation and became a physician. Langdon took up his father's avocation, and pursued writing as a career.
Langdon studied at the St. Paul’s School, in New Hampshire and later Dresden and in Paris. While he took courses at the Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, he began his writing career with a verse play and poems in Sylvian and Other Poems (1884). He was admitted to the bar 1886. He traveled to London in 1888, and in 1891, Mitchell married actress Marion Lea (1861 - 1944). They knew each other from mainline Philadelphia society. She had come to England in 1885 and had become a well-regarded ingenue on the English stage.
His earliest success as a playwright, In the Season, premiered in London in 1892 as one-act in an evening of three (Don Pedro and Ruth Underwood were the others). He wasn't acknowledged as an important playwright until his dramatization of Thackeray's Vanity Fair as Becky Sharp in 1899. Its significance on the American stage was heightened in that the adaptation had been written for a leading actor/manager of the day, Mrs, Minnie Maddern Fiske. (Pictured at Right.)
Then his most enduring, an original comedy of American life, The New York Idea (1906) was also in Mrs, Fiske’s répertoire, (Pictured at left).
His other plays include:
The Adventures of Francois (1900), adapted from his father's novel, starring his wife and Henry E. Dixey, popular comic of the day.
The Kreutzer Sonata (1906) adapted from Jacob Gordin's Yiddish dramatization of Tolstoy’s story and played by a leading star of the Yiddish stage, Bertha Kalich.
A Kentucky Belle (1907) unproduced commissioned work by actress Henrietta Crosman.
Step by Step (1909) adapted from a play by Hugo Mueller, commissioned by actress Mary Mannering, that failed on the road.
The New Marriage (1911) an original vehicle for Mrs. Fiske and company.
Major Pendennis (1916) adapted, again from Thackeray, a satiric novel, The History of Pendennis, for popular leading man, John Drew and a 75 performance run, successful for the day. (See picture left.)
His plays were adapted for film. The New York Idea (1920) starred Alice Brady, In 1935, KKO Pictures chose Becky Sharp to be the first full-length, photoplay produced in Technicolor, starring Miriam Hopkins.
In 1928, Mitchell joined fellow playwrights Jesse Lynch Williams, Lord Dunsany, Gilbert Emery and Rachel Crothers to create a playwriting course at the University of Pennsylvania, where he lectured for two years. Some of their lectures were published in The Art of Playwriting: Lectures Delivered at the University of Pennsylvania on the Mask and Wig Foundation (1928).
Ultimately, he is considered a solid craftsman whose plays provided good parts for talented actors and actresses. He referred to himself as much a dramatist as a playwright, for many of his works were adaptations, making novels and translations stage-worthy for a mainstream audience.
Throughout the 1880s, Mitchell wrote poetry and short stories, until he landed upon dramatic literature as his mainstay. He compiled a sizable portfolio, sometimes using the name "John Phillip Varley" starting 1884 with ‘Sylvian, and Other Poems' and then with work for magazines like Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, Lippincott Monthly Magazine, The Century Magazine and St. Nicholas Magazine (a children's magazine for which he wrote a story The Mischievous Knix). After he established himself as a playwright, he continued to write in other formats such as a novella, Love in the Backwoods (1896) and a collection of controversial essays in Understanding America (1927).
Mitchell was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters on Feb. 20, 1908. Mitchell died at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia on October 21, 1935. He had one son and two daughters with Marianne.
How "In the Season" Came to Be
Mitchell owes his start as a published poet to his father's many literary and publishing contacts from his eminent position as physician and his popularity as fiction writer, contacts such as Walt Whitman, William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic Monthly and H.L. Mencken, editor of The New Century. Mitchell owes his start as a playwright to his fiancee. Marion Lea (1864-1944) was a respected and resourceful figure in a large circle of London's top theatre professionals.
Marion was born in Philadelphia to an affluent Quaker family. Her father, Joseph Lea Jr., owned cotton manufacturing and printing factories, and three of her five sisters also developed careers in the visual and performing arts. In 1884, Marion went to London to live with her eldest sisters, Anna Lee Merritt (1844-1930), who was a versatile artist and writer. Anna had moved to London in 1871 and there found success as a painter, etcher, muralist, and author. Best known as a portrait artist, her famous subjects included James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry James. Her 1889 painting, Love Locked Out, was the first work by a woman purchased by the Tate Gallery. She also exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Paris Salon, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
(The Times-Democrat New Orleans, Louisiana 06 Apr 1891, Mon • Page 4
Miss Lea is of a rare type of beauty. She is tall and graceful, with a wealth of brown hair, and is accorded to be one of the most beautiful women on the English stage. Labouchere, in Truth Magazine recently, spoke of her as having talents rarely equaled by a woman of her age.
Marion Lea studied with Sarah Thorne at her 'School of Acting' in 1885, based at the Theatre Royal in Margate and by 1886 she was accepting engagements with various companies, touring through towns throughout England. She first got attention as Audrey in As You Like It with the St. James's Company, and then touring the provinces as Portia, as Charlotte in Arthur Wing Pinero's The Magistrate (1886) Smike in Nicholas Nickleby (1886), Confusion (1887), Held by the Enemy (1887), The New Magdalen (1887) The Pompadour (1888) The Monk's Room (1888), That Doctor Cupid (1889), Dumas' "The Duke's Boat (1889) and The Henrietta (1889) always well-received and re-engaged.
In 1889, she went to see a friend, Janet Achurch play Nora in the first English production of A Doll's House. Achurch's very personal and realistic style of playing and Ibsen's complex emotional play inspired Marion to team up with another actress, Elizabeth Robins, to secure the English rights to Hedda Gabler and work through the translation and a thorough rehearsal process, while continuing on with their other engagements.
In 1890, she was engaged for a prestigious As You Like It with Lily Langtry as Rosalind which opened at the St. James’s Theatre (London) on February 24 and ran until April 30 "Marion Lea's Audrey was the best that has been seen for years ; her open-mouthed and wide-open-eyed bucolic admiration of Touchstone and his fair, and yet to her incomprehensible, periods were above praise." She remained with the St. James's Company for much of the year.
With Elizabeth Robins, dissatisfied with the small opportunities for serious drama in London and having founded what they called the ‘Joint Management’, the two women borrowed sufficient money to lease the Vaudeville Theatre, pledging their jewelry and other valuables as security. They gained the support of Ibsen’s Signature English publisher William Heinemann and translators Edmund Gosse and William Archer, mediating feuds between the men when necessary. With Robins as Hedda and Lea as Thea, they recruited a cast and rehearsed. Robins drew on her knowledge of Norwegian to develop an English translation that was at once speakable, playable, and faithful to the original. The first English-language production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, translated by Edmund Gosse and William Archer, at the Vaudeville Theatre for a single matinee performance, April 13, 1891.
Langdon Mitchell had arrived in London in time to provide support and distraction to Marion, through the planning and rehearsal process of Hedda, and was inspired to develop projects of of his own, which Marion and her Hedda colleagues supported.
First Play Performed - George Cameron (February, 1891)
George Cameron was presented as part of an English theatre practice of the time wherein a theatre is made available for performances during its dark hours, in the afternoons or mornings, on dark nights or matinee days. These are referred to as "Matinee Plays" and were showcases for performers and for new plays, in the hopes of securing future bookings from a theatre-owner or actor/company manager. The performances could be quite elaborate or not at all.
From all evidence, Cameron was the first public performance of a play, albeit a short one, by Langdon Mitchell. His wife, Marion Lea appeared in it, along with Henrietta Cowen, who hosted this parituclar matinee series, and who was Lea's colleague from Hedda Gabler in which she played Aunt Julie.
This also marks the beginning of the professional partnership between Marion and Langdon, as she is going to perform in many of the plays he will write.
As described in the quote below, George Cameron is the name of a suitor to which two women believe they are both affianced. These are themes which Mitchell exploits in his two bona fide successes to come. It is a drawing room triangle, not unlike In the Season and not unlike The New York Idea with it's unreliable proposals of marriage and fidelity. It also bears a passing resemblance to The Importance of Being Earnest, which was four years yet to come, written by Oscar Wilde who was a friend of Lea's.
The Era, London, Greater London, England, 21 Mar 1891, Sat. Page 18
"In her matinee at Steinway Hall in the 13the installment Miss Cowan had adopted the novel plan of only introducing ladies on the platform. All the talent on the platform and all the loveliness in the audience belonged to the gentler sex, who displayed a great deal of enthusiasm...A sketch called George Cameron by Langdon Mitchell is a love story in which we learn that Edith Warren, engaged to George Cameron, is informed by Augusta Hillis that her hero is faithless - that he has already proposed to her. It turns out to be a case of mistaken identity, and the sketch has very little value beyond displaying the talents of Miss Marion Lea and Miss Cowen."
First Full Length Play Performed - Deborah (2-22-1892 - 2-26-1892)
Deborah was Mitchell's first full-length play, which he produced at the suddenly vacant Avenue Theatre. (The prospects of a popular English playwright, Henry Arthur Jones, had just gone bust at the Avenue Theatre. In years to come, Mitchell's well-made drawing room comedies would be compared to Jones.)
Langdon and Marion had gotten married, November, 1891, and he constructed this play for her.
Was is hubris for Mitchell to confide to a reporter, that he "has written several plays, but this is the first of them to be produced. If it succeeds, he intends to give up the law and devote himself to playwriting." (Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, Missouri, Sun, Feb 14, 1892 · Page 1)
Continuing on, in the same publicity announcement, Talking about his new play to the correspondent, Mr. Mitchell said: "My tragedy is no war play, though the scene is laid in a Louisiana plantation in the last year of the rebellion." The young son of a planter, who is engaged to his cousin, falls in love with a quadroon slave girl, Deborah. She has great influence over the slaves on the estate; when her half sister, who has escaped, is chased and killed, she rouses the slaves to revolt. The young man's father wounds Deborah, who, through love for his son, delays the negroes till he and his son escape and then dies. The play is in five acts.
The play opened to discouraging notices. And, adding insult to injury, a coterie of Marion Lea's important theatre colleagues were in attendance for the first-ever production of the young American playwright. All the reviews weren't scathing and, with a little re-write and re-title, to "A Slave Girl" it received out-of-town productions, which were far more favorably received. Needless to say, Mitchell never had any intention of devoting himself to the practice of law.
The Morning Post (London, Greater London, England) · 23 Feb 1892, Tue · Page 5
Yesterday afternoon a new five-act play by Mr. Langdon Elwyn Mitchell was performed for the first time. ...such a tale of misery, depression and horror has seldom been told in a modern melodrama. The subject could not possibly attract a West End audience. The frightful scenes depicted in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" cannot be revived wtih any hope of success. The fugitive slave. the lash, the bloodhounds and the brutalities of the plantation overseer are not dramatic. They are simply painful. At the close ... the incidents became so confused and inchoherent that it was not easy to understand the intention of the author, who was, however, called to the front when the curtain fell.
The Standard, London, Greater London, England 23 Feb 1892 , Tue, Page3
The matinee standard is certainly not a high one but "Deborah" the five-act play produced yesterday, is very far, indeed, below it. A more wrong-headed and ridiculous work is rarely inflicted on play-goers, even in the morning. Mr. Langdon's piece is hopeless.
Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, 25 Feb 1892, Thu • Page 5
The play is full of striking situations, and has a freshness which is in the treatment rather than the incidents. It is not a good play, but it is obviously written by a man who, with a little training, could write a very good one and it might easily be made into that. It fails merely because of the raw hand of the novice is felt in a few situations which might be easily modified.
The New York Times New York, New York Sun, Feb 28, 1892 · Page 13
At the Avenue Theatre Langdon Mitchell's American play "Deborah" in which Marion Lea (Mr. Mitchell's wife) impersonated a quadroon slave, attracted a capital audience amonmg whom were seen Ellen Terry, Lady Colin Campbell, Mr., Henry James, the American Novelist; Mr. Charles Wyndham, Mr. John Hare, manager of the Garrick Theatre, Oscar Wilde and a number of other members of the dramatic profession. The play proved to be a failure. Marion Lea was overweighted with an unsuitable role.
American author Henry James wrote to a friend that "It is a perfectly respectable & creditable effort, with no gross awkwardness or absurdity in it, nothing in the least calculated to make the producer redden in the watches of the night. But it is too long, too talky, too thin and too colourless, rather flat and rather grey. I should think that it was capable of compressibility into a quite practicable three-act drama (there are five, just heaven.) which would produce an effect. Marian (sic) Lea was clever and pretty."
A year later ...
The Era, London, Greater London, England, 23 Sep 1893, Sat • Page 15
On Wednesday next, Miss Isabel Bateman produces at the Prince's Theatre, Bristol a new drama entitled "The Slave Girl". This play which deals with the great struggle between the Northern and Southern states of America, a period of histroy which naturally lends itself to dramatic and romantic incident, was in its original form produced at a series of matinees at the Avenue Theatre, London, commencing February 22d, 1892, under the title "Deborah." Since then the author, Mr. Langdon Mitchell, has entirely remodelled and practically rewritten the play, a sympathetic ending in particular having been substituted in place of the mournful death of the heroine. It is a play of powerful and stirring situation, and should prove a valuable addition to Miss Bateman's already strong repertoire.
Strand Triple Bill Matinee (May, 1892) In the Season premieres
This first performance of In The Season was part of a matinee series of three one-acts produced by Mitchell himself. Included in the program, Don Pedro, a farce, and Ruth Underwood, a dramatic romance about Quakers and Civil War soldiers, with Marion Lea portraying the title character. Lea was herself a Quaker, which no doubt inspired the play.
Marion was busy appearing with Janet Achurch's company in A Doll's House and Forget-Me-Not and working again with Elizabeth Robins on a new play, Karin,
The critics reacted most positively to In the Season which starred May Whitty, who years later would play the lady who vanished in the Alfred Hitchcock film of a similar name.
"At the Strand theatre on Thursday, a "triple-bill" consisting of Don Pedro, a Spanish romance; In the Seaon, a "Society" play founded on a pretty love scene; and concluding with Ruth Underwood,a one-act drama, in whch the heroine is a Quakeress. "
The Morning Post,London, Greater London, England, 28 May 1892, Sat • Page 5
"In the Season" is so pleasantly written, and the subject is so sympathetic, that it is not unlikely to become popular. It was charmingly played by Miss May Whitty as the heroine ...It is rare to see so bright and clever a little play at a matinee, and quite as rare to see it well acted."
The Era, London, Greater London, England, 28 May 1892, Sat • Page 11
"In the Season" is a very agreeable little play. It is much such a piece as Alfred de Musset might have written, and was not altogether wanting in the French author's grace of style. This is a charming piece and Mis May Whitty has probably never played with such refinement, delicacy and feelings at the character of Sybil. Prettily dressed, and acting with utmost grace, she made the character most attractive. The little piece was well-written and sympathetic in tone, and is one of the most agreeably plays for three characters we have seen for some time."
The Pall Mall Gazette, London, Greater London, England, 27 May 1892, Fri • Page 2
Mr. Langdon Elwyn Mitchell, by "Deborah" and the three plays produced yesterday, seems to show clearly what is his capacity as a dramatist. A little light humour, a certain refinement, and some grace of style are his and, we we fear, litttle more - at least, if he has other qualities he keeps them hidden. To go at length through his three pieces seems hardly profitable. Except as first pieces, used one at a time, we are not likely to see them again. ... The second, "In the Season," is the best, and with some editing might pass, though it could hardly delight people. The long, long conversation between the young man who going to the Cape because he has lost faith in the girl whom he loves, and the girl who believes herself too proud to explain her conduct, yet finds an excuse for explaining and an opportunity of encouraging, has some nice points, and one or two neat touches of character.
Despite the growing interest in Marion's skills as an actress and as a manager, the couple returns home to the United States in July, 1892 - marking the end of Marion's career in England. She gives birth to their first son in November.
November 1892 Langdon Mitchell letter to Elizabeth Robins: The labour was long and dreadful, and to be plain, it came very near to death—there were complications, and Marion was pulled through only by the decision and ability of her Doctor. It was pretty awful—seen for me; —for her I can scarcely tell you what it was like—But that is over. And now she is resting + seeing no one.
Her friends will continue to support his work in England
Curtain Raiser for The Importance of Being Earnest (February, 1895) In the Season runs on the West End
Mr. George Alexander, the "Sole Lessee and Manager" of the St. James's Theatre and Oscar Wilde had become great admirers of Marion Lea, through her acting and management efforts on the historic first English production of Hedda Gabler. They had most likely seen In the Season at The Strand and remembered it for the occasion. The triumphant opening and the superlative critical promised a long run that was cut down to three months and 75 performances by Wilde's imprisonment for "gross indecency."
Curtain raisers served several purposes, one of which was to fill out a short evening, another was to opening the evening with a tone and style that complements the major event. But there was a third unsavory purpose, to provide time for the society swells and belles to arrive fashionably late without interrupting the evening's centerpiece. In the Season was over-looked in the reviews as much for being over-shadowed by the seminal Wilde work it was preceding as for the fact that most of the audience missed it. Miss Elliott Page as Sybil, however, was favorably singled out in one review and she was interviewed and illustrated in costume for, as pictured right. Note that Herbert Waring who played Sir Harry in 1892 plays him again for this production.
Curtain Raiser for Forget-Me-Not (June 3 - 8, 1895 ) In the Season and Langdon Mitchell premier on Broadway
Janet Achurch (1864 - 1916) was best known in London for her Nora in the first English production of A Doll's House in 1889. Marion Lea has trained and worked together in London. Lea took great inspiration from Achurch’s ground-breaking realistic performance as Nora and overhauled her approach to acting. So gifted was Achurch, George Bernard Shaw was a great champion and wrote Candida with Achurch in mind and would only allow the play to be performed if she played the title role. A tour of the United States for popular leading man Richard Mansfield (1857-1907) was planned to include Candida in the repertoire with Achurch in the role. Achurch sailed for New York on 16 March 1895.
Mansfield however canceled the production. He wrote Shaw, "Candida is not a play ...Here are three long acts of talk-talk-talk ... When I step upon the stage I want to act ... and hugging my ankles for three mortal hours won't satisfy me in this regard." Nor, it is reported, was he happy working with morphine-addicted Achurch, that when Mansfield inhaled her powerful aroma of stale tobacco and alcohol,” he decided he would neither produce Candida nor work with Achurch, and “put [her] on a ship home.” Unfortunately this stranded poor Miss Achurch, who had hoped that her performance in Candida could establish her in the United States. It may have been Marion Lea who stepped up to assist her West End chum to make her American debut.
Hoyt's Theatre was booked for one-week. starting June 3, and plans were made to present two of her past triumphs: the second half of the week she would again perform her sensational Nora - but the first part of the week was given to Forget-Me-Not a French costume drama in which Marion Lea had appeared with Achurch in London. In the Season would serve as curtain raiser.
Miss Achurch's reviews were resoundingly negative for both Forget-Me-Not and for A Doll's House. In the Season did not merit a mention in the reviews.
For the record, in 1897 she indeed debuted the title role of Shaw’s Candida at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.
The World of the Play
The London Season
The London Season was the time of year when society families left their country estates and headed to London to stay in grand houses and squares in Mayfair with names like Cadogan, Devonshire, Grosvenor and Landsdowne. Of course, the unspoken purpose for "The Season" was to bring together the right sort of people in an endless whirlwind of festivities and pleasure, while providing the setting for the largest "marriage market" in the world.
Young women would “come out” (that is, they “emerged into fashionable society”) during The Season, usually when they reached the age of eighteen. “Presentation at Court” was a necessary prerequisite for a young girl to “come out” or “appear” in society. Once she had been presented to the Queen (and/or King), the young debutante could then participate in the many activities and festivities of high-society, including parties, balls, and elegant dinners, etc.
Although The Season was generally believed to correlate with the parliamentary session, this was not always true. The Season was not as much based on the parliamentary session as it was on certain sports and pastimes—which were all momentously important to the higher classes—and therefore, Parliament found it necessary to work their session around these activities. Probably the truest statement made regarding the commencement of The Season appeared in the May 1886 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “The season depends on Parliament, and Parliament depends on sport.”
Still, the general rule was that The Season began after Easter (but sometimes as early as February), and continued through the end of August, keeping in mind that August 12 was the date by which most considered The Season “officially over”. Certainly there appeared “signs” of the season prior to Easter (again, sometimes as early as February), such as balls, dances, dinners, etc., but naturally no one really considered calling the period of time when these events occurred "The Season". So, what were the dates considered by the general masses to truly be “THE SEASON”? Generally speaking, the height of the London Season fell between early May and July 28.
Three major social events occurred in May. The first of these were the two greatest annual sporting events of The Season: “The Derby”—which was an exceedingly popular horserace, and for which parliament always adjourned; and “The Ascot”—a much more exclusive horse race.
Without Ascot, no Season could have been considered complete. Harper’s Magazine, May 1886, described Ascot Heath as “a sloping ridge of Moreland some thirty miles from London, the crest of which looks away across the Windsor woods." The Ascot races were always the high points of The Season. They were described as ‘the Eden of debutantes, and the milliners’ harvest”, because a greater display of wealth, fine clothing and good looks could hardly have been found at any other ‘butterflies’ feast” in the world. Most women attended Ascot simply to show off their gowns, to which they had attributed an extensive amount of time and money. Indeed, any amelioration in fashion that was seen at Ascot was sure to be quite in vogue by the following week, even in the most distant locations.
Another significant event in May that affected the commencement of The Season was the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art. This exhibition marked the first of the gala concerts and court balls, which followed the May Presentations. This set off the first round of newly-presented debutante balls, dances, parties, and other activities. Lady Violet Bonham-Carter remarked of her début in the early 1900s, “Coming out in those days was an event which happened suddenly. Overnight, in the twinkling of an eye, one was magically transformed from a child into a grown-up person.”
For most young women, the variety of activities and social life was thrilling and exciting. In her memoirs, Lady Dorothy Neville recalled that during her first Season she attended “50 balls, 60 parties, 30 dinners and 25 breakfasts.” A spirited and energetic young lady, if she had the spunk and stamina—and most of them did—could begin her social round at 10:00 in the morning with a ride in Hyde Park and end it at 3:00 a.m. the following morning at a ball.
Some young ladies, however, found the social whirl to be just a bit overwhelming. Lady Violet Bonham-Carter described her debut dinner with mixed emotions: “Eager as I was to be grown up, I found the rite bewildering and painful. For the first time in my life the hair that dangled down my back was put up...I was laced into a while satin dress by Worth and feeling rather breathless and a little cold, I went downstairs to face the forty strangers who had come to dinner. I had never seen one of them before and the twenty young men all dressed like waiters (only a little better) looked perfectly anonymous...”
Despite all the merriment and surface joviality, the unspoken and serious business of The Season was to allow young ladies from the “right backgrounds” to meet and marry wealthy eligible young men, also from the “right backgrounds”. Unfortunately, this often took place on the basis of very little familiarity with each other. Social decorum called for young girls to be chaperoned most every where they went, and this allowed couples little opportunity to speak privately or to get to know each other very well. Frequently, these couples jumped blindly into marriage. Sometimes, marriages were made based on reasons other than simply "love”. Family pressures, money, prestige and position sometimes played roles in marriage proposals and the acceptances thereof. However, because these couples had become acquainted with each other at the London “Marriage Market”, they usually had similar upbringing and back-grounds, and frequently discovered that they had most everything in common. If, in fact, they did not find true happiness in their marriage, they were, for the most part, “comfortable”—or at the very least, managed to “get along” together in a justifiably civil manner. Often, however, this included accepting adultery as a part of married life.
So, what did everyone do all day during “The Season”?
Well first, of course, prior to arriving in London, there would have been a detour to Paris to purchase a suitable wardrobe from the only prestigious dressmaker that mattered: Maison Worth. When a well-heeled young miss traveled to London for The Season, she could easily find herself with a wardrobe costing some $20,000—that would be the equivalent of about half-a-million dollars today!
Once the family was settled in a fashionable London neighborhood, such as Mayfair or Belgravia, the next thing on the agenda was (if this were the young lady’s first Season) to be presented at Court. Once her presentation was complete, a young debutante was considered formally “out” in fashionable society.
She would usually begin her day with a ride in Hyde Park, along the sandy tracks called “Rotten Row”, or along another path, “Ladies’ Mile”. Riding occurred year round in Hyde Park whenever the weather was pleasant, but during The Season, between the hours of ten and two o’clock, there appeared a class of riders who did not emerge at any other time of the year—namely, young ladies of the “leisured classes”, elegantly dress-ed in their smartest tailored riding habits, along with their fathers, who acted as suitable chaperones, and a spattering of young men.
Shopping, errands, letters. Then an elaborate luncheon followed, then men might be off to the club while women would go abroad in their carriages to pay yet more calls, or they might simply leave their card.
A variety of other afternoon activities in which to participate were available as well. Some options included cricket matches, promenades in the Park, scientific lectures, receptions, dramatic matinees, polo, races, lawn tennis and lawn bowling, small music and concerts, garden parties...archery, picnics, bazaars, café and men’s casino clubs, such as the Bachelor’s Club or the New Club, where ladies could be invited by members to dine before or after the theatre, and much more..... In the late afternoon, ladies and gentlemen mingled with other members of society, while enjoying a ride in “Rotten Row”—the previously mentioned bridle path in Hyde park. As five o’clock approached, thoughts turned to preparations for Afternoon Tea. Usually it was a light tea; enjoyed at home by family members, but on occasion, it could turn into quite an elaborate function. Sometimes, even a famous entertainer like opera singer Nellie Melba was hired to perform for up to 80 guests.
No sooner would afternoon tea be over (or however one chose to spend the hour between five and six o’clock in the afternoon) when it was time to change into evening wear for dinner at 7 o’clock. The evening meal was usually a formal gathering, where dozens of guests were served by butlers, footmen and waiters. Elegance abounded, and young girls, who just weeks before had been gawky school girls, now were expected to carry themselves as adults, dressed in beautiful and provocative Worth gowns, with tufts of tulle draped over their bare shoulders, and coronets or spark-ling jewels ornamentally placed in their elaborately piled hair. She was expected to keep up a conversation with the gentlemen, elegantly dressed in white tie and tails, who were seated on either side of her. It was at these dinners that many young ladies met their future husbands. Because they were still shy and unsure of themselves, some girls found these society dinners awkward and uncomfortable, but most young ladies managed them quite well indeed. This was really not so surprising, considering that most of the people these young debutantes met during The Season moved within the same magic circle of wealth and aristocracy as they did, and therefore, were found to be quite agreeable and well-mannered.
Dinner was followed by social activities that made one feel as if the day were only just beginning. Included were the theatre (where no one watched), the opera (where no one listened), or a private soirée (where everyone dished the dirt about everyone else). After all, the real purpose of these festivities was not to pay attention, but rather to “go out” and “to be seen” by fresh audiences. These activities were merely a precursor for the evening’s most important and main event : the fabulous balls, which began late in the evening, usually between ten o’clock and midnight, and could go on until three o’clock in the morning.
Some of these were costume balls or masked balls; some were elegant soirées, but all drew a sizeable crowd, and were of the utmost importance to the social entertainment provided by the London Season. Bear in mind that by pairing a couple up for the duration of a dance, it gave a wonderful opportunity to young people to work their powers of attraction on one another. Although matrimony was not the ONLY reason for The Season, it was indeed the most practical and of the most concern. Therefore, amusement, excitement and flirtation were key elements in the social interactions of young people, and no doubt contributed to the prevalence of marriages, which abundantly followed “The London Season”.
References in the Play
Langdon Mitchell and "The New York Idea"
Montrose Moses, in his introduction to the publication of The New York Idea, as part of Representative Plays by American Dramatists: 1856- 1911, places Mitchell's best work in the context of great comedy writing for the theatre:
The performance of The New York Idea at the Lyric Theatre, New York, on November 19, 1906, was one of the rare, distinguished events in the American Theatre. It revealed the fact that at last an American playwright had written a drama comparable with the very best European models, scintillating with clear, cold brilliancy, whose dialogue carried with it an exceptional literary style. It was a play that showed a vitality which will serve to keep it alive for many generations, which will make it welcome, however often it is revived; for there is a universal import to its satire which raises it above the local, social condition it purports to portray. And though there is nothing of an ideal character about its situations, though it seems to be all head, with a minimum of apparent heart, it none the less is universal in the sense that Restoration comedy is universal. It presents a type of vulgarity, of sporting spirit, that is common in every generation, whether in the time of Congreve and Wycherley, whether in the period of Sheridan or Oscar Wilde. Its wit is not dependent on local colour, though ostensibly it is written about New York. On its first presentment, it challenged good writing on the part of the critics. High Comedy always does that—tickles the brain and stimulates it, drives it at a pace not usually to be had in the theatre. Is it comedy or is it farce, the critics queried? Is Mr. Mitchell sincere, and does he flay the evil he so photographically portrays? Does he treat the sacred subject of matrimony too flippantly? And should the play, in order to be effective, have a moral tag, or should it be, what on the surface it appears to be, a series of realistic scenes about people whom one cannot admire and does not want to know intimately? Some of the writers found the picture not to their liking—that is the effect good satire sometimes has when it strikes home. Yet when Grace George revived "The New York Idea" in a spirit so different from Mrs. Fiske's, nine years after, on September 28, 1915, at the Playhouse, New York, the Times was bound to make the following confession: "A vast array of American authors have turned out plays innumerable, but not one of them has quite matched in sparkling gayety and wit this work of Langdon Mitchell's. And the passing years have left its satire still pointed. They have not dimmed its polish nor so much as scratched its smart veneer."