Augustin Daly: The Man Who First Tied a Damsel to Railroad Tracks


Today is the birthday of pivotal American playwright, producer, and critic Augustin Daly (1838-1899).

The son of a North Carolina sea captain. He moved to New York as a young child with his mother and brother when his father died at sea. The family were inveterate theatre goers paving the way for Daly’s lifelong association. He began his professional career as a critic starting in 1859. He began adapting and writing plays at around the same time.

Daly was to become one of the most prolific and influential American theatre artists of all time. Though dismissed by later generations, I believe time will give him his due. Though not a great literary man, he was hugely influential on the craft of the stage itself. His main modus operandi was to gobble up existing properties (foreign hits, Shakespeare, and novels) and adapt them — a method which I believe strongly presages the later working methods of Hollywood. His productions were known for their heightened realism (for the time), for spectacular special effects (also anticipating Hollywood), and for establishing rituals of what we now think of as melodrama.

His adaptation of the German play Leah the Forsaken (1862) was his first success. Under the Gaslight (1867) remains his best known original play — it purported to bring audiences to gritty urban realms and introduced the soon-to-be-overused device of a villain tying a heroine to railroad tracks. (This invention would outlive Daly in earnest by at least a couple of decades in the movies.  But people were still sending it up as comedy as late as Dudley Do-Right cartoons in the 1960s.


Mack Sennett’s parody of the ritual, 1914, a sure fire sign it was already old hat by then

A Flash of Lightning (1868) was the follow up to Gaslight. In 1870 he produced Bronson Howard’s successful Saratoga. Horizon (1871) was an adaptation of a Bret Harte story set in the wild west. His Dickens adaptations included Pickwick Papers (1868) and Oliver Twist (1874). His numerous Shakespeare adaptations were criticized by Shaw and others for the audacious manner in which Daly cut passages and scenes and switched things around. 

Starting in 1869, he managed his own stock company based at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. He was to build his own Broadway house a decade later and another theatre in London in 1893. At various times his company included Ada Rehan, Maurice Barrymore, John Drew Jr, Tyrone Power Sr (father of the Hollywood actor), Maude Adams, Isadora Duncan, and Fanny Davenport. He continued working until his death in 1899; the shadow he cast (though the public has forgotten him)remains to this day.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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