June 18, 2012

James Fenimore Cooper: Upside Down

By the end of his life, James Fenimore Cooper was securely established as one of the most important writers in American history to date. His novels were international best-sellers, and his transition to historical works left him equally respected. Perhaps his greatest literary experiment, however, came in the year before his death when he wrote and staged a play.

Upside Down; or, Philosophy in Petticoats premiered on June 18, 1850 at the New York theater owned by sometime actor/magazine editor William Evans Burton. The play was staged for three nights before it closed; it was not published or staged again during Cooper's lifetime — or in the century. The three-act comedy, according to Cooper, was meant in "ridicule of new notions." In fact, it was a farcical critique of socialism ("Horace Greeley of course will not like it," predicated one review).

Though many members of the public knew the play was Cooper's, it was never officially announced as such — per Cooper's request. Perhaps this was the reason it was not successful: the theater's seats were mostly empty, even on opening night. Burton, who also played a role in the play, closed the show after its third performance, saying that it drew less than $100 a night.

No complete script of the play remains extant. One acquaintance of Cooper who attended on opening night admitted that the second and third acts dragged, though the audience seemed to like the ending judging by their "warm applause." One reviewer criticized that the play was "upon the whole a little too conventional or clossetty." This fault, it continued, would be corrected by the "judicious curtailment" of the performance: "and then the comedy of Upside Down will be right side up."

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