A Secret History-in Plain Sight
Updated: Mar 18
I've been reading about Victorian Culture to better understand the world The Judge was shaped by. With most of my research, I am motivated by the photograph of him sitting in his (now my) living room, ensconced by family heirlooms and cloaked in the clothes, attitude, and societal pressures of his time. As a woman of the 21st century, I am both intrigued and terrified of what a conversation with him would yield.
Should we talk about the subject of Theater, perhaps we'd find something in common. The Judge's second wife was a music teacher, his daughter performed on stage, starring in the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta, Patience, in 1912, and his granddaughter, whom he and his first wife raised, studied voice at Juilliard. Going to the theater to hear music--and perhaps to see plays--was something I imagine he did when he lived in New York and later in Passaic, New Jersey. Here in Kennebunkport, his friend, Booth Tarkington wrote books, plays, (some turned into films) and had been a member of the now-famous performing group, The Triangle Club, while at Princeton.
The fact that The Judge attended theater and associated with performers and playwrights, however, helps answer one of the burning questions I have about my imagined dialog with him: how judgmental was he? Where does his humanity, his sensibility as a man born in 1861 and raised in what is now considered a problematic era of values that gave privilege to white, wealthy men--relate to the progression of values and eventually to the world in which I now live?
I am discovering that the Victorian era was far more modern than I had assumed and that we are still embroiled in the tensions that erupted as science, faith, industrialization, immigration, and political leaders demanded attention and sway.
More on that later.
Back to theater and what I didn't know.
Among the scholarly essays in Victorian America, is one titled, "That Guilty Third Tier: Prostitution In Nineteenth-Century American Theaters" by Claudia D. Johnson.
The third tier, or gallery, was a place for prostitutes.
"The ritual of the third-tier was apparently very simple: the entire inhabitants of houses of prostitution would customarily attend the theater in a body, entering the tier by a separate stairway an hour or two before the rest of the house was opened. Unlike the higher class prostitutes who sat throughout the theater and met customers there by pre-arrangment through such means as newspaper advertisements, the lower class prostitutes of the third-tier made the initial contacts with their customers in the theater itself. Customers of long-standing took their places with the women in the third-tier. Other men were introduced to these prostitutes when mutual friends took them up to the third tier from other parts of the house. A bar was located nearby to serve the upper tier..."
Why does this matter?
It's possible to view this issue with other very important ones--the status of women on stage (considered scandalous and also morally problematic); prostitution itself, and harsh moral standards for women in disproportion to their rights. But I'm interested in something else.
Johnson presents fascinating points about what it meant for theater itself: theaters were built to provide for the third-tier--not only in size but with a side entrance--used exclusively for entry to the third tier and hidden from the main entrance. How many of us now, thankful for cheap seats in the "nose-bleeds", still use this door when ushers open it to speed the exodus after a performance?
The plays of the early Victorian era--most easily forgotten now--were mediocre in a time when American literature was gaining respect. Did catering to prostitution dampen the creation or interest in better drama?
To me, there's another point to be considered. Johnson notes that theater managers faced a dilemma--keep the practice of prostitution in the third-tier and maintain steady income but sacrifice respectability and audience members who avoided places of "vice", or clean-up their act and lose the income of one clientele in hopes that another would fill the seats.
We still occupy the theater of the Victorian age. We still need to "fill seats", especially when the pandemic ends. But many were built for a financial model that we no longer use. I say this not to lament that change, but to suggest that we are still paying the cost for this system--a cycle of needing to select plays to fill seats for theaters built to accomodate prostitution in the third-tier. Our perspective on our own tastes, culture, and the relevance of theater to serve the audience might be liberated a bit if we remember that this old system still burdens us.
Back to The Judge--he would have attended the theater in the later part of the Victorian age and into the 20th century. While the designated section for prostitution was gone, the theater district and the lingering moral judgement on it still carried stigma.
And yet, he went.
Many years ago, (in the wig and white hat on the left) on stage in the play Love for Love, a play from a period of drama before Victorian, but with its own scandals.