19. Dover Street Rag | The Grand Opera House

A comment received after the posting of chapter 18 of this e-book —  that these  “Eliot pieces have an energy derived from a rediscovery of the poet from considering him in a way he has never been examined,  as a creature of the urbanized  Northeast”  —  has, never mind being gratifying,  reminded me of what sparked this series in the first place:  accordingly I claim the privilege of dedicating it to the memory of James E. Miller, the Helen A. Regenstein Professor of English Language and Literature in the University of Chicago. I was looking forward to sending these essays to Professor Miller, who has died in the midst of their publication, without so far as I know any knowlege of them.  The comment just received made me realize how much of a response this series is to Professor Miller’s work,  which I will admit I found startling at first,  when he cast his last book as importantly a response to three books of mine.  I never knew Professor Miller and, now, alas, never will.  But I see now that his work as I engaged with it over the last five years  finally inspired my own in  these essays on  TS Eliot’s Boston.

“Slumming,  for [TS] Eliot, was no pasttime; he took it too seriously.” For dear life, in fact, I’d say, adding to Lyndall Gordon’s mordant observation that one reason Eliot took it so seriously — one reason in Boston’s slums “he clung to decadence” (her words again) — was rather an odd and today largely forgotten and overlooked institution of Eliot’s era, Dover Street’s Grand Opera House, Victorian Boston’s temple of extreme melodrama.

Melodrama?  Although a full discussion of that must wait for the next chapter, sufficient now to make University of Illinois literary historian Charles Sanders’ answer in his “The Waste Land: The Last Minstrel Show?” “If anyone would know, Eliot should: as an undergraduate at Harvard, he regularly attended melodrama at the Grand Opera House in Washington Street, Boston.” There he sat, probably week by week as that’s when the show changed, Sanders wrote, using Eliot’s own word, “entranced.”

All this in The Journal of Modern Literature, of which what on earth the audience of this old South End landmark of a century ago would have made I would not know.

To be sure, all during his youthful Boston decade as a Harvard student in the 1900s and 1910s — never mind his summers before that as a boy on Boston’s North Shore — the brilliant young poet-to-be of Gordon’s “somewhat Lamian smile” (or was it Gioconda’s smile instead, as Bertrand Russell more famously thought?) spent a great deal more time escaping Cambridge and Beacon Hill and Back Bay, those Boston Brahmin locales he necessarily lived and worked in mostly, than most have noticed. The habit of hard drinking and roughhousing came early to the otherwise super-refined Eliot, and so his frequent forays into Boston slums: Roxbury, North Cambridge, Dorchester and,where he chiefly indulged those tastes, the South End.

I say indulged on purpose.  Boston  Brahmins then of Eliot’s sort, though they certainly sought fullfillment, and achieved it often enough for the glory of American civilization in its still formative stages, and could certainly give way to habits good and bad that could be called indulgent, never really sought enjoyment; they may never, indeed, have enjoyed anything in our sense of the term. Certainly TS Eliot, nominally Unitarian, and a resentful one at that, even when he converted to Anglicanism, was more a Calvinist than not. “Disillusioned with his own social class, Eliot turned instead to Boston’s slums,”  Harold Bloom writes — notice how all the witneses I call agree — but does not hide either that while that may have begun as a search for ‘real life’ in the face of the over-refined Boston Brahmin mores of Eliot’s own class, something in TS Eliot preferred South End Dover Street to Back Bay or Beacon Hill Beacon Street. Yes, “he was depressed and repelled by the ugliness,” Bloom continues, the ugliness of Roxbury and North Cambridge and the South End, but he was, Bloom adds, “moved and attracted too.”  His forays to Dover Street were more than poetic  ‘field trips’.

Did grand uncle Charles Eliot’s splendid Boston parks, the equally visionary fellow Brahmin’s landscapes, his answer to the slums, an answer acclaimed as far away as Paris, exert any similar attraction for young Eliot? None at all so far as I can see. No more President Eliot’s Brahmin vision of modern Harvard and of a new kind of American higher education. No. Poet Eliot, unlike landscape designer or educator Eliot, preferred the “lonely, sordid, decadent culture,” in Paul Brians’s words, of Boston’s slums, as also the slums of Paris during his year abroad. Yet the young man of such odd tastes,  perhaps,  made finally of them as magnificent a body of work as either of his relatives,  made it out of his “impersonal, tawdry modern city” — Brians’ words –city we have been exploring here exactly as the other side of the progressive metropolis Eliot’s parks exemplify and the  world capital of education the other Eliot would make it.

The poet, of course, dealt with words, not trees, less fashionable today in our relentlessly green culture, his the art of  “blending references to the classics”, as Brians puts it, “with the most sordid type of realism, then expressing the blend in majestic language which seem[ed] to mock the subject.” 20th-century modernism defined. And  “from these [slum] scenes” — Bloom it is who draws up our sum —  “Eliot began to build the image of the wasteland.”

First, however, there was the sport — something never taken lightly in Boston either — the urban sport, the young mans sport, the entertainment if you will : and perhaps the most spacious and memorable opening  line in the English  language in the 20th-century:  “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky”.

R I A L T O   A N D   U N D E R G R O U N D

Eliot probably meant by that invitation to refer more to Scollay Square — gaudy pendent to Boston’s main downtown rialto — than to seedy, vice-ridden Dover Street.  But almost at the corner of Dover and Washington streets there was a curiously fugitive bit of Boston’s rialto somewhat stranded in the underworld, and thus rather differently flavored, as it were.  And that’s where Eliot himself most evenings headed for in Boston for the better part of a decade: the Grand Opera House, even then a very confusing institution. So much so that even in Eliot’s own time as a regular there the Boston Globe editorialized that it should really “change its name”. Why? Complained the Globe,  it was “not an opera house and not particularly grand.”

Indeed, the South End’s Victorian Grand Opera House should never be confused, for example, with Charles Bulfinch’s 18th-century first Boston Threatre or with the contemporaneous second Boston Theatre of 1854 on the downtown Boston Washington street rialto — Washington is a very long street and lives many lives — that did function as the city’s home for grand opera from 1854 into the 1900s. That theatre impressed even the Prince of Wales during his 1860s visit to Boston; Gustav Mahler himself conducted opera there in the 1900s. (More confusingly, it was on the foundations of this theatre that in the 1920s was built the palatial BF Keith Memorial Theatre that now functions so admirably as the present-day Boston Opera House.)

Nor, above all, should the South End’s Victorian Grand Opera House be confused with the now legendary companion of Symphony Hall of 1900, the august Boston Opera House of 1909 further up Huntington Avenue, the only entirely real such ever to exist in Boston with its own distinguished resident company, orchestra and corps de ballet, the Boston Opera Company, none of which, alas, survived World War I. That opera house knew Caruso and Pavlova, neither of whom I’m sure had ever heard of the Grand Opera House.

TS Eliot, who knew both institutions, gave his heart to the one in the  South End, as did so many Americans to its fellows elsewhere, on the main streets of the American West as well as buried in big cities. “Throughout the 19th-century,” DB Wilmuth explains in The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, “ almost any city of any size built an ‘opera house’ which was not necessarily intended for grand opera but was a multi-use performance space that could house a range of traveling entertainments”, which in the case of the South End version hosted only afew very popular operas and operettas in its earliest years.

The only artistic venue in many cities or in a great metropolis the only one of its kind, in the latter case the nature of the institution changed a bit. No more than Boston’s were  New York’s or Chicago’s Grand opera houses dedicated to grand opera.  More usually they presented when in a metropolitan context often naieve and sensational productions, rooted perhaps in outdated but longstanding values, values still cherished in the surging city which attracted so many rural folk, but where in drama as in other fields mew values and tastes and new missions were always pushing the edge.

In old cities like Boston, this is not unusual. Three of Boston’s most venerable and distinguished institutions have been affected by this sort of ‘mission creep’, so to speak: the Boston Athenaeum, the Harvard Musical Association and the Christian Science Monitor.

The Athenaeum was once nationally cutting edge — it was deeply involved in the founding of the Boston Public Library, the world’s first big city tax supported circulating public library — and in the erection of the world’s first purpose-built art museum open to all — the Museum of Fine Arts —  and thereafter the engine of the American Athens, having done its job, so to speak, was content to decline, if that is the word, into a lesser role in Rome than it had played in Athens.

Similarly, the Harvard Musical Association, which pioneered serious music in Boston in the 19th-century — an orchestra “largely corresponding to that of the HMA” according to Michael Steinberg performed with Hans von Bulow the world premiere, for instance, of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 —  and which after the founding of the Boston Symphony and its rise to world stature became a private musical club (of which, full disclosure, I have for many years been a member).

Finally, the Christian Science Monitor. That newspaper, one of the great journals of the world to this day, spearheaded a non-profit more thoughtful method of news reporting in the face of the yellow journalism of the 1900s. Then, in the face of NPR and PBS particularly, it somewhat lost its way. Certainly it lost, if not its  Emersonian genetic code, then the global perspective of its  point of departure by sundering once close ties to Boston.

Once in a while an institution reinvents itself in such a situation. For the Lowell Institute, another characteristic Boston non profit, founded in the early 19th-century in the age of the lecture platform and popular lyceum, the advent of educational radio and television in NPR and PBS provided an opportunity under visionary Boston Brahmin Ralph Lowell, for yet more success in an entirely new media environment.  Today, WGBH, which is the crown jewel of PBS, is still allied to its founder, a council established by the Lowell Institute.

The South End’s Grand Opera House was no such august institution. But it was a not unimportant Boston theatrical landmark of drama in Victorian and Edwardian times, however oddly outdated conceptually. Architecturally, for instance, it was of no small note, the design of Snell and Gregerson, the architects of the Boston Music Hall on the downtown rialto, where the Boston Symphony was founded in the same decade. No less than The New York Times pronounced the Grand Opera House as combining both monumental and practical aspects in “one of the largest theatres in America.” Indeed, the theatre seated nearly 3000 people. The Globe stressed the box and balcony fronts within, “in gold groundwork with raised bright  figures in papier mache.” It was, in fact, with a lofty dome and huge chandilier, quite a splendid interior, worthy of the opening night attraction, “The Arabian Nights”, featuring  “mechanical electrical transformations [and a]  bewitchingly beautiful ballet.”

Nor was attending the Grand Opera House cheap.  Seats ranged in price according to Donald King from twenty cents in the rear balcony to a dollar in the orchestra. The twelve boxes were even more expensive. Class distinctions were rigidly observed. The Globe noticed in 1888 that “the ushers downstairs are now all ‘gemmen of color’, arrayed in an expanse of immaculate shirt bosom and a display of white gloves;” this in an era when every hotel in Copley Square proudly boasted entirely African-American servants. There was little chance of the holders of top price tickets and those with the lowest price tickets ever meeting within the Grand Opera House. As was the custom then: “in an annex to the south of the main entrance [was] the entrance to the ticket office of the upper gallery, which is reached by winding stairs”.

No grand stairacse for the poor; that would have to wait for the movie palace. Where Eliot and his friends sat we don’t know really, though one word in “The Waste Land” manuscript gives a clue: “up.”

T H E   L A D Y   N A T A T O R S

Yet it was always a case of whatever style inside, none outside. Or at least very little. DC Wyman, our hero of the Back Bay pick up of some chapters ago certainly knew that in Boston one did not seek out the demi-monde anywhere near Dover Street. Consider the Grand Opera House’s theatrical neighbors, of one of which we know more than most that while seedy enough has also its amusing side: the lady natators a few doors away at the old Dime Museum, by Eliot’s day the Hub Theatre. Natorium, of course, as any collegian knows (so many college pools being so-called) is latin for swimming pool, and the pointed insistence in such a locale of such a name, like grand opera house, tells its own story.

Something of what was going on was told by Joseph Chamberlain, whose  popular  column, “The Listener” in the  Boston Evening Transcript, also a book, treated the patriacate to rather a delicate discussion of the subject. Never mind the “octoroon sword dancer” at the Dime Museum, Chamberlain went at once for the lady natators. He recounts how “stalwart and graceful” were “the girls perform[ing] remarkable feats in the water”, and then goes on to describe how “a man who leered at them one night over the edge of the pool and made an impertinent remark to one of them, found himself drenched with a swift torrent of water.” He left very little doubt both sides in the altercation were playing their parts well.

More than that, even by cab from Copley Square, rather than the grimy Elevated trains that rumbled all day and night overhead down Washington Street, to attend the Grand Opera House was to go slumming. Although Woods was right, the Grand Opera House was not really a local theatre, but “a high-priced theatre depending for its patronage upon the wider public of the city and suburbs”, that just made the contrast starker. (So too for me did learning whilst doing the research for this series in Boston business directories of the period that my grandfather;s “rescue” lunchroom was bookended on both sides by saloons!) Woods was also right that the Grand Opera Houses patrons — melodrama being as we will see a highly moralistic genre — did not all intend “to do wrong” when they made their trip to Dover Street. But suburban middle class virtue allied to suburban middle class vice was a potent combination, and which was worse I wouldn’t want to say!

S P O R T S   A N D   C R I M E

There was at the Grand Opera House, as there was throughout the Dover Street red-light district, a strong sports culture with more than a few links to crime beyond prostitution, already discussed here. And at the Grand both played somewhat into the other. (From The Boston Globe, August 17, 1888: “the Boston and Chicago Base Ball clubs will visit the Grand Opera House this evening and witness the performance of “One of the Finest”. . . . [an] admirable melodrama.” Decades later the connection was still there, surfacing in a press report of May 25, 1917 in the Globe about a fire at “Murray’s pool room at 1156 Washington St., South End,” described as “well known to the sporting fraternity the country over”, noting too that “an athletic associatin occupies quarters on the same floor” and there were “bowling alleys in the basement”, all details unlikely to surface in a business directory. The building, it is stated, was “a six-story brick structure directly at the entrance of the Dover St. Station of the Elevated . . . . in what may be termed a dangerous district, between a theatre and a hotel.”

Dangerous? Very. Headlines from the Globe like “Goon Poy . . .44 Dover St. . . charged with illegal sale of opium” (August 6, 1909) or “Police Descend on South End Saloons/Vain rush for exits made” (January 22, 1909) appeared regularly in Eliot’s day. Anyone on the way to the evening performance of the Grand Opera House on the fourth of July in 1906, had to contend with “Peter Sullivan . . .[who] tried to shoot William Collins . . . at the corner of Washington and Dover Streets about 7:30 last evening. The bullet narrowly missed both Collins and patrolman Ryan, who was standing at the corner, but did strike Frederick W. Beer, 47, of . . .Brighton, who had just descended the steps of the Dover St. station. . .”

Nor did it ever stop. It is a curious fact that both vice and virtue kept much longer hours in Victorian and Edwardian Boston than either does today. Just as the Copley Square public library was then open at night untill 10 o’clock (today it is 9:00) so too a hundred years ago in Eliot’s era the city enjoyed what it cetainly does not today: “all-night service in the Tremont Street subway was innaugurated shortly after midight this morning,” the Globe reported on December 11, 1910, this “in addition to the surface night-car service heretofor provided.”

It would be a mistake, however, to think the Grand Opera House — in the same way as Holy Cross Cathedral — was built in the wrong part of town. The cathedral was certainly a mistake, begun before the South End’s decline was clear. But the opera house was erected in 1887, when the decline of the area was very clear, and distinctly a part of the business plan. An institution that sought a metropolitan audience needed, of course, to be on a main subway and elevated line, but an institution like the Grand Opera House, in some respects problematic and too raffish and garish and apt to attract the wrong sort,  needed also to be in a part of the city  where it would be, so to speak, welcome.

What good cover the South End was for the Grand is suggested by an article by Rollin Lynde Hart entitled “The South End Revisited”, an article which appeared in the lofty Boston Evening Transcript itself, about which, of course, TS Eliot would famously have a thing or two to say about in his poem of that title. The articles significence is, first, that Hart’s upper class approval of middle class virtue is to say the least rather condescending: “it is encouraging to find . . . melodrama, in which the villain with black mustachios comes horribly to grief in the last act while the lovely and virtous heroine is made . . .triumphantly glorious’.  He characterizes  “the Grand Opera House [as] preach[ing] its mighty gospel of sound morals, high sentiment and just retribution”. Second, however, comes the judgementalism. Quoth Hart: “a less exhilerating moral atmosphere pervades the numerous [nearby] dance halls.” Middle class virtue. Middle class vice. Hart clearly did not want to live to close to either. But both found their Bostonian home on Dover Street.

In this connection it is interesting that the Grand Opera House was an institutional experience not unlike many of Boston’s upper class and world renowned institutions. Like the Athenaeum it had “members”; like the Boston Symphony it had “subscribers” to an annual season. It had its special days: “annual engagements” of classics like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and East Lynne, this last one of Eliot’s particular favorites, of which more next time. Witness this notice form the Globe of 19 May, 2907, Eliot’s freshman year at Harvard”:

Messrs Stair and Wilbur and Magee issue an announcement to their patrons regarding the 30th season at the Grand Opera House, which closed last night. . . .[T]he theatre will reopen early in August in one of Charles E. Blaney’s melodramatic productions. It is hoped the coming season will see a great increase in the subscription list of the Grand Opera House. This action on the part of patrons involves no responsibility.

That TS Eliot was not the only Harvard undergraduate drawn all across town to this institution in such regular fashion  is also suggested by the fact that I have located at least one advertisement for the Grand Opera House in a spring 1910 number of the Harvard Lampoon, and is confirmed too by the fat that a complete run of the Grand’s programs from 1889 to 1902 exists in the Harvard Theatre Collection, amassed in the decade before Eliot’s by another undergraduate devote and later Boston lawyer, Henry Munroe Rogers.

W H I T E   S L A V E R Y

Boston’s temple of melodrama was a temple of extreme melodrama. The Grand Opera House pulled out all the stops all the time. Its production values were not refined. Rather, they were stupendous, something like a cross between the Ice Capades and Ben Hur.

If a production called, for example, for bloodhounds baying in the background, there were real bloodhounds, “gaunt and hungary beasts”, restrained to be sure, but not their scarifying baying, well advertized. If Indians were called for, there were “real Sioux Indians from South Dakota”, and much less spiritual in their performance than the great Sioux chief in front of the Museum of Fine Arts. The latest thing was not scanted either. A real locomotive on the stage, “the engine snorting and looking as if it was aboutto plunge into the audience” was the chief feature — what else? — of “The Rocky Mountain Express” in December of 1905. Nor was anyone surprized when “Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl” opened, that “a real fire engine . . .a motorcycle . . .a motor boat and two automobiles” appeared on stage.

The actors, of course, were not real in that sense, although some startling things happened from time to time — in 1898 there was “Stuart, the male Patti, whose make-up, dresses and action as Isabella, the daisy queen” projected “a soprano voice of very high range . . . [used] with all the ease of a prima donna” — but the actors’ reality came from faithfully holding to the rigorous, unyielding requirements of the stock plots and stock roles: “Cowboys” and “Indians” contended fiercely, “cunning Chinese criminals”, “Vermont Yankee yokels”, “Irish servant girls”, wild chases, “shrewd Jews” and “innocent maidens”, “villainous bankers” and “exotic Gypsys” and desperate rescues — all these the Grand thrived on; not least “the white slave.”

A production of that title played the Grand Opera House between 1889 and 1894 no less than four of those seven years, in 1889, 1890, 1893 and 1894. Many years later, in 1927, nearly four decades after that melodrama first opened in Boston,  TS Eliot in an essay entitled “Wilkie Collins and Dickens” opined therein that “it is to be hoped some scholarly and philosophic critic of the present generation may be inspired to write a book on the history and aesthetic of melorama”, to which it is not to much to say Eliot grew addicted at the Grand Opera House at Washington and Dover streets.

In the same essay Eliot named as foremost among American examples of the genre, as representative and presumably a favorite, “The White Slave.” Next time.

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The Harvard Theatre Collection, whose esteemed curator, Frederick Wilson, dead this year, has helped me so much over the years, is always the gold standard in any research about American theatre. As usual the curator and staff of the BPLs Microtext department have been unfailingly supportive also.


Bloom, Harold. THE VICTORIAN NOVEL (Chelsea House) 2004

Brians, Paul et al. READING ABOUT THE WORLD (Harcourt) 1999


Chamberlain, Joseph S. THE LISTENER (Copeland and Day) 1896

Eliot, TS “Wilkie Collins and Dickens” in SELECTED ESSAYS (Harcourt) 1932

[Grand Opera House/building,staffing,sub culture] NY Times  July 26,1887  (; BGlobe Jan 1 1888; Aug i4,2888; Aug 17,1888;May 25,1917;19 May 1907.

[Grand Opera House/productions] BGlobe May 29,1888;April 29,1888;July 29,1888;Feb.27,1912; Dec.27,1908; July 3l, 1908; Sept.11,1898.

[Grand Opera House/locale] Tremont St. Subway: Dec 11, 1910; Murray’s pool room: May 25,1917; crime: Aug 6,1909; July 4, 1906.

Harte, Rollin Lynde. “The South End Revisited” in BOSTON EVENING TRANSCRIPT (May 7, 1906)

Herndon, Richard. BOSTON OF TODAY (Garland) 1892

King, Donald. THE THEATRES OF BOSTON (Theatre Historical Society) 2005

Miller, James E. TS ELIOT’S PERSONAL WASTE LAND (Penn State University Press) 1977

Miller, James E. TS ELIOT:THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN POET (Penn State) 2005

Rogers, Henry M> Memorial Collectin of Musical and Theatrical Programs, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard College Library

Sanders, Charles. “The Waste Land: The Last Minstrel Show?” JOURNAL OF AMERICAN LITERATURE (1980)

Steinberg, Michael. THE CONCERTO (Oxford) 2000

Wilmuth, D. M. “Architecture, theatre” in THE CAMBRIDGE GUIDE TO AMERICAN THEATRE (Cambridge University Press) 2007

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