The following review appeared 22 February 2007 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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I suspect that among the readers of the Mark Twain Forum there are those who, from time to time, have wished that they could visit the 19th century. We can all think of people and places in the past that we would love to drop in on. With The Psychoscope, Lawrence I. Berkove gets us as close to time travel as we are likely to come for a while. To read this book is to be invited to spend a week in Virginia City, Nevada in August of 1872.
The Psychoscope is a treasure. Its authors, Rollin Mallory Daggett and Joseph Thompson Goodman, were among the brightest literary lights on the frontier. Goodman was the owner-publisher of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise where Daggett was an editor. It was at the Enterprise that Daggett and Goodman became associates of Mark Twain. Their play is firmly rooted in the dramaturgy of its period, yet reaches toward the future of American playwriting. Realism mixes with fancy as the idealized world of the melodrama is stretched to include detailed scenes of gritty urban life. It would have been enough if Berkove had done nothing more than rescue the play from the mists of obscurity. But, with the presentation of this facsimile edition, he has set before us a rare treat and made it possible to examine a unique artifact of the American theatre.
The Psychoscope could be classified as a melodrama though it does not hew to all of the time-tried techniques of that genre. It does have a satisfying number of sensational incidents, a dastardly villain, and a beautiful, willowy heroine. It has stock characters which are familiar to us--social climbers, fallen women, a silly visitor from abroad--and stunning science fiction elements which are not. Daggett and Goodman introduce two remarkable devices which serve as the mainsprings of the action. One is a flame-thrower that can melt prison bars when one blows into it. The other is the psychoscope, the culmination of the inventor-hero's life's work, which projects a visual image of a person's thoughts upon the wall like a magic lantern. Our hero is a bit problematic because he is conspicuously absent from a long section in the middle of the play. It is during his hiatus--imprisoned for a crime of which, of course, he is not guilty--that the wonderful assortment of secondary characters get to carry the play. Notable among these is Philo Bundy, a direct descendant of Royall Tyler's Jonathan, and Tripp, the fast-talking newspaper reporter turned dramatic prodigy.
It is Bundy's adventure in New York's shadowy underworld that pulls this play from one genre to another. He is lured by a charming young woman to a house of dubious reputation and is there robbed by its lovely but lethal residents. The audience is tugged from the familiar world of the melodrama to a keenly observed, realistically presented scene of big city crime. The scene was controversial. Some of the actors balked at its realism and asked that it be excised. But Messrs. Daggett and Goodman would have none of it and the play was performed as written.
Berkove moves beyond his act of reclamation by expertly setting the play in its original context. Photographs of the playwrights, Piper's Opera House, and downtown Virginia City combine with a thorough and most helpful introduction to equip the reader with a sense of what life was like in a frontier city and of the air of occasion that surrounded the opening of a new play. That The Psychoscope was the work of local authors and featured a performance by the famous John McCullough added to the anticipation.
Perhaps the most remarkable contribution of Berkove's work is to show the evidence of an intimate relationship between a production and its critics. The Psychoscope played from the fifteenth through the eighteenth of August, 1872, and notices appeared after every performance. Berkove includes these as appendices. They provide a day-by-day record of a week when the on-going challenges of critics were met by McCullough and the actors of the California Theatre Company. And a very busy week it must have been at Piper's Opera House. The critic for the Territorial Enterprise gave this assessment of the first night's performance:
What "The Psychoscope" may be, as conceived by its authors, it is impossible to determine from the abortive rendition of last night. If it merited condemnation, then the company righteously dealt out to it justice untempered by mercy, for they damned it from the first scene to the last; but if it possessed a single redeeming quality, it is at least entitled to an humble place among the list of slaughtered innocents. At present we shall make no other claim for it than a modest crown of martyrdom. It was written in English, but spoken in God knows what dialect; it was designed to have some tolerable situations and effects, but by some strange fatality they all became simply intolerable; and the dialogue which was supposed to have some coherency, ran into utterances as confused and unintelligible as the jargon of Babel (61).
By the next Sunday, however, the same paper ran this notice:
Altogether, the rendition of "The Psychoscope" was perhaps the best yet given, albeit there was some lamentable blundering in the last act. But as we have abandoned all expectation of meeting with perfection anywhere in this world - and least of all behind the footlights - we accept the representation of last evening with a mingled sense of resignation and satisfaction. The play has vindicated its propriety and dramatic merit, and the favor with which it has been received demonstrates that it possesses in an eminent degree the elements of popularity. We feel no apprehension of its success wherever it may be produced, and confidently entrust its fate to the judgment of the world at large (73).
The community demanded more and got it. In return, it appears that the people of Virginia City continued their support so that toward the end of the run," the parquet and orchestra chairs were comfortably filled, and the dress circle was graced with a fair representation from our best society." I imagine that this was good news for John McCullough because the next day, the last day of the theatre season, was his benefit. Making the best possible impression on the Virginia City theatre-going public could only have improved his chances for a sold-out house and a big pay-day.
There is much in Berkove's book to reward the reader: the nascent
heat ray and the amazing, crime-busting psychoscope for the science fiction
fans, a snapshot of frontier life for the history buffs, a unique example
of play writing for the students of American drama, and a great ride for the
time-traveler in all of us.