In Which We Raise a Glass to “Ten Nights in a Bar Room”

June 6 was the natal day of a long-forgotten but genuinely important American author named Timothy Shay Arthur (1809-1885).

When I say that Arthur was important, I don’t mean literarily. Poe correctly assessed him as a hack, but that does not bely the fact that he was both extremely prolific and popular. Arthur specialized in catering to the female reader. He published and/or edited several magazines for that audience, including Arthur’s Home Magazine, est. 1852. This magazine was popular enough to outlive its author by over a decade, by which time it had been renamed Ladies Home Magazine (a title not unlike the similarly attuned Ladies Home Journal, which coexisted with it for a time). It was thus a precursor to the 20th century’s so-called Seven Sisters, a periodical of domestic life and morals for the Victorian Era. Above and beyond this, Arthur turned out more than 200 books: novels, collections of short stories and essays, and works of non-fiction, most of them with titles like Fanny Dale: or The First Year of Marriage (1843) or The Lady at Home, or Happiness in the Household (1854).

Above all topics, Arthur was associated with the cause of Temperance. He’d begun writing articles on the subject as early as the 1840s, and he also composed numerous works of moralizing fiction with that theme, the most successful of which by orders of magnitude was Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, and What I Saw There (1854). This was far and away the second most popular American novel of the 19th century after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published two years before. It is interesting to compare the two works. Both heavily didactic works of fiction advocating for a particular socio-political cause. As Uncle Tom was to Abolitionism, so was was Ten Nights to Temperance. (Stowe is the much superior writer of the two, however). Like Abolitionism, Temperance was considered a progressive cause in its day, closely identified with Feminism. The issue, in the context of the times, had to do with irresponsible male behavior in a time when men were the sole breadwinners, causing much misery for women and children.

Also like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ten Nights in a Bar-Room was quickly adapted for the theatre, and was a staple of stage and screen well into the early 20th century. William Pratt (quite a different William Pratt from Boris Karloff) turned Ten Nights into a play in 1858. I know it intimately, which is one of the reasons for this post. I’d seen friend Ian W. Hill’s production of it at Nada in the late ’90s, a version which incorporated zombies. Me being me, I was adamant that the thing had legs (if unsteady ones) even without zombies, so I approached him to co-produce a straight(er) version, which we presented at Brooklyn’s Waterfront Barge Museum in 2007. As a play, it is similar to and probably somewhat inferior to W.H. Smith’s 1844 The Drunkard. It’s about a guy who opens a tavern, thus unleashing demon rum upon his community and wrecking many a home, one in particular. The highlight of the show was a child singing “Father, Dear Father, Come Home With Me Now”. You get the picture. Not a wet eye in the house!

At any rate, Ten Nights in a Bar Room became one of those surefire melodrama warhorses, produced throughout the country for many, many decades. I am delighted to learn that Harry and Bess Houdini may have performed in a production of the play in 1898. A terrific article about that here.

The book cover design at the top of the post is very instructive, by the way. At the time the book and play were written, a bar-room was not a bar-room in the modern sense. The word suggests country songs, tall stools, a dart board and a pool table. Think, rather, of the word “pub”, which is short for “public house”. It’s literally a house into which the public is invited to eat and drink and rest for a fee. A digression, but I think an interesting one, and there are still some establishments out there (especially in the northeast) that are housed in the original kinds of structures with the same sort of atmosphere.

Not unexpectedly, given the popularity of both the book and the play throughout the late 19th century, it was subsequently adapted for the cinema many times. Biograph did a version in many short installments in 1901; Lubin announced a version in 1897 but seems to have released it in 1903. Broncho Billy Anderson did a version at Essanay in 1909. Thanhouser produced their own take in 1910; there’s great info on it here. The folks at “The Photo Drama Company” made one in 1913 featuring Violet Horner. This poster for a 1921 feature directed by Oscar Apfel emphasizes the show-stopping delirium tremens scene:

Charles Gilpin starred in an all-black production in 1926, probably the last silent version of the tale. The first talkie version was released in 1931, starring William Farnum:

That same year, D.W. Griffith’s last feature The Struggle was released. It was sometimes marketed under the title Ten Nights in a Bar Room, but was actually based on Zola’s  L’Assommoir. Perhaps in response to these two films, show boat captain Billy Bryant and his performing family brought their stage version of the play to Broadway in early 1932.

By this time of course, a major shift had occurred. The Temperance Movement had reached its Zenith (apologies to Sinclair Lewis) in the form of Prohibition, then crashed and burned. The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th in 1933, after this “Noble Experiment” proved a disaster. Temperance had originally been a voluntary movement, its members “taking the Pledge” to avoid intoxicating beverages. Outlawing them completely proved untenable, costly, and ineffective. Drinking and its ill societal effects actually become worse during the 1920s. And the Temperance message was now widely regarded as a joke. Melodramas like Ten Nights in a Bar Room and The Drunkard continued to be produced (indeed, still are) but now mostly as camp, Temperance advocate Carrie Nation was a floperoo in vaudeville.

I am interested to note that the BBC produced a television version of the play in 1953. Whether it was done as camp or if the producers risked critical opprobrium by playing it straight has not yet been discovered by your correspondent.

In related news, Steele Mackaye, another popular author of 19th century stage melodramas, was also born on June 6. Read about him and his theatrical family here.