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Evangeline 1885 - The Earliest Stage Images of an American Musical

Evangeline; or, the Belle of Acadia

David S. Shields

Edward E. Rice (music) and J. Cheever Goodwin (lyrics) in 1874 created an extravaganza loosely based on Longfellow’s famous poem of the dispossession and removal of the Acadians from Canada to Louisiana, “Evangeline.” What Rice & Goodwin kept from the original was a French heroine forced to leave her Canadian home. The itinerary was rewritten to shunt her to Africa and by balloon to Arizona with the heroine never arriving in Louisiana. An amorous whale, a dancing cow, a mute solitary fisherman who wandered Zelig-like in an out of every scene and locale, a man in drag playing the chief comedy female, a troupe of girls in trouser-tights, monkeys, and palms trees made this entertainment a surreal journey into theatrical never never land. Rice considered it an American equivalent of French opera bouffe.

The plot? Brian D. Valencia has offered as cogent a summary of the pastiche as has ever been consigned to print: “In Goodwin and Rice's adaptation, Evangeline is not forced out of her geographically non-specific home (sometimes identified as Louisiana) until the end of Act 1, and not for ethnic or political reasons, as in the source poem, but because she is harboring deserting sailors. Naturally, she is arrested for this crime by the Dutch captain of the British Army, who intends to imprison her in the Bastille. But —as is revealed at the beginning of Act 2—the ship carrying her (as well as, naturally, all of the characters from Act 1) has run aground on the coast of a generic savage Africa, whose landscape glitters with forbidden diamonds! All the while, Evangeline is pursued by the foolhardy Le Blanc, the Acadian notary, who holds a secret will that will legally divert Evangeline's inheritance to his own pockets as soon as she signs her marriage contract, an event that is repeatedly, ludicrously interrupted.”

Rice, who played piano by ear, composed the score, using his own notation system to aid his playing. Hired arrangers set these performances into standard notation. Despite the cumbersome method of composition, the score would be the first to be wholly composed by an American for a work of musical comedy (though certain of the elaborate minstrel stage shows were thoroughly composed by single American song writers). The show premiered as a summer stop-gap at Niblo’s Garden, and was staged in mid-July with minimal décor. After its allotted weeks expired, Rice took the show on tour and gradually amassed the money to deck the show in more elaborate trappings and dress the characters in more splendid costumes. The most famous of the costumes was that of Evangeline’s dancing heifer, the first instance of the two man four footed stage animal. The heifer’s eccentric dance became one of the famous comic dances of the 19th-century theater. Unlike other extravaganzas of the era, no ballet corps had been employed, so the chorus did little more than military marching (to the “Evangeline March”) and do kicking. The cow was the central terpsichorean attraction. The music took the forms of ballads, marches, and the occasional song. Musical material was added and dropped with each revival and tour.

The part of Gabriel—the chief tights role of the show—became a spotlight role for shapely young women who could sing. A succession of galvanic girls played Gabriel—Fay Templeton, Irene Verona. The title role was created by Lizzie Harold, and likewise enjoyed a lineage of musical women— Jarbeau, Louise Montague. James S. Maffit, whose granitic and philosophical indifference to the stage action became one of the essentials to its humor played the lone fisherman  (indeed his entire career was devoted to the role). The single most famous revival of the show was that in New York in 1885. This was the version photographed by Benjamin Falk in his series of electric light images reproduced here. These eight images are the earliest stage pictures of any American musical theater work. They are drawn wholly from Acts I and II.  We lack any of the images treating the sojourn in Arizona in Act III.

ACT 1 Scene 1  Gabriel's Entrance into Arcadia

ACT 1 Scene 1  The Disruption of the Bathers. 

ACT 1 Scene 1  Lone Fisherman Rides the Whale