The Lost Museum Archive

A Visit to a New York Theater, 1802

by Washington Irving

The audiences that attended urban theaters early in the nineteenth century comprised a cross- section of the city's population. Such mixing of classes at “entertainments” upset many elite observers. From the vantage point of the “pit”— the floor facing the stage—Washington Irving, author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, complained about the rowdy behavior of artisans, journeymen, and apprentices (the “gods” in the upper gallery seats). His observations were printed in the New York Morning Chronicle in 1802.

My last communication mentioned my visit to the theatre; the remarks it contained were chiefly confined to the play and the actors: I shall now extend them to the audience, who, I assure you, furnished no inconsiderable part of the entertainment.

As I entered the house, some time before the curtain rose, I had sufficient leisure to make some observations. I was much amused with the waggery and humor of the gallery, which, by the way, is kept in excellent order by the constables who are stationed there. The noise in this part of the house is somewhat similar to that which prevailed in Noah's ark; for we have an imitation of the whistles and yells of every kind of animal. . . . Somehow or another the anger of the gods seemed to be aroused all of a sudden, and they commenced a discharge of apples, nuts, and ginger-bread, on the heads of the honest folk in the pit, who had no possibility for retreating from this new kind of thunder-bolts. I can't say but I was a little irritated at being saluted aside of my head with a rotten pippin, and was going to shake my cane at them; but was prevented by a decent-looking man behind me, who informed me it was useless to threaten or expostulate. They are only amusing themselves a little at our expense, said he, sit down quietly and bend your back to it. My kind neighbor was interrupted by a hard green apple that hit him between the shoulders‹he made a wry face, but knowing it was all in a joke, bore the blow like a philosopher. I soon saw the wisdom of his determination,‹a stray thunder-bolt happened to light on the head of a little sharp-faced Frenchman, dress'd in a white coat and small cock'd hat, who sat two or three benches ahead of me, and seemed to be an irritable little animal: Monsieur was terribly exasperated; he jumped upon his seat, shook his fist at the gallery, and swore violently in bad English. This was all nuts to his merry persecutors, their attention was wholly turned on him, and he formed their target for the rest of the evening.

Source: New York Morning Chronicle, 1802