One might not ordinarily associate comedienne Carol Channing with formidable erudition, but the Broadway premiere of Hello, Dolly! In 1964 would manage to unite them both thanks to the participation of Thornton Wilder. Wilder remains persistently underrated in the canon of American drama, partly because his own achievement had originally derived from fiction -- yet an examination of Wilder's own notebooks reveals that his own successful stage plays were frequently based on his own critical and scholarly engagement with the most abstruse sort of Modernist texts. Wilder would claim that his sprawling 1942 comedy The Skin of Our Teeth, which would win that year's Pulitzer Prize, had been based on James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (which presumably would have come as a great surprise to Tallulah Bankhead, who starred in Wilder's play). Yet it is my contention that among the many learned influences upon Wilder's imagination, it was ultimately the musicalization of his work in Hello, Dolly! that added an additional layer of allusion. Creating a musical that is consciously set in the late Gilded Age of America's "Gay Nineties," Hello, Dolly! manages to capture the essence of the most popular stage musical of that decade, Charles Hoyt's 1891 A Trip to Chinatown, while at the same time incorporating the structural and stylistic developments that had utterly transformed the American musical over the course of the intervening seventy years.
Charles Hoyt's A Trip to Chinatown "achieved the longest run (657 performances) of any nineteenth century American play." (Gassner and Quinn, 435). Hoyt's style was gently satirical farce, and despite the vast success of A Trip to Chinatown no-one was ever under any illusions about the literary merits of Hoyt's work. Montrose Moses, writing in 1911 not long after Hoyt's rather lurid demise-- Hoyt was infected with syphilitic pareisis and had a complete mental collapse eight years after A Trip to Chinatown premiered, was committed to a mental asylum and died soon afterward -- surveys his career and decides that all too often Hoyt
spoils the good-natured satire of his intention beneath cartoon motives and actions. This was the weakness of Charles Hoyt….His satire was spontaneous, but be became self-conscious whenever he attempted to cross the border into farce. His political pictures, his characterizations of conscientious churchmen, his thrusts against the sporting craze, the temperance movement, the militia, and the woman's rights movement would undoubtedly have placed him among the foremost American dramatists had he not persisted in upsetting his good work, which lay so largely in his ability to contrast, and in his resorting to the ridiculous and the incongruous. Hence, in Hoyt's plays there was an admixture of insight and shallowness. (270-1).
A Trip to Chinatown was Hoyt's most successful work, but it certainly leans more in the direction of "shallowness" than "insight." The plot of A Trip to Chinatown is simplistic, and reflects the construction of other farce-comedies of the era such as Charley's Aunt (1892). The setting of Hoyt's script is the San Francisco high society of Nob Hill, adjacent to Chinatown. Two young couples wish to attend a masquerade ball being held in the city. The couples are comprised of a brother and sister -- Rashleigh and Tony Gay. Tony is dating Rashleigh's best friend Wilder Daly. Meanwhile Rashleigh is dating a girl named Willie Grow. (Hoyt's character names with their ribald obviousness or even occasional allegorical cast suggest Restoration Comedy by way of the Zucker brothers or Mel Brooks -- the butler is named "Slavin Payne," Uncle Ben's hypchondriacal friend is named "Welland Strong," and the soubrette is named "Flirt." ) Rashleigh and Tony knows that their uncle and guardian, Ben Gay, will not permit them to attend so risque an event as a masquerade ball, so instead they concoct a plan: they will tell Uncle Ben that they are planning a trip to Chinatown, get his permission for that, then go to the ball instead. The couples even plan to bring in a widow Mrs. Guyer, to claim to Ben that she will be their chaperone on the tour of Chinatown.
The couples little suspect that Uncle Ben has plans of his own to attend the masquerade ball, who gives his permission for the trip to Chinatown a little too quickly. As we learn, Mrs. Guyer has written a letter to Rashleigh and friends to confirm an appointment to meet them, but instead the letter is read by Uncle Ben who thinks that Mrs. Guyer is trying to seduce him. He tells the kids to go on their tour of Chinatown and goes to meet Mrs. Guyer at the appointed place and time, but this is (of course) exactly where Rashleigh, Tony, Wilder, and Flirt are having dinner before attending the masquerade ball. Uncle Ben turns up and gets drunk, waiting for the tryst with Mrs. Guyer which never materializes. The young people leave with Mrs. Guyer, which is how Ben learns that she'd been there the whole time -- but as he goes to leave the restaurant, he discovers he has lost his wallet. Needless to say, no-one ever makes it to Chinatown, although there is one Chinese "specialty" dance number included in the show. By the time Ben gets home and meets Rashleigh and Tony again, he is aware of their transgression but they know about his adventure the night before.
These characters in the script as basically one-joke performances. In terms of dramaturgy it is not that far off from the tendency of American popular drama to reduce minor characters to recurring gags -- the handling of the butler Slavin Payne, or the hypochondriac Welland Strong, in A Trip to Chinatown are not far off from the one-joke role of Miss Ophelia in Aiken's stage version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, first staged in 1858 but still in constant repertory in the 1890s. In Stowe's novel Miss Ophelia is representative of a sort of chilly New England Puritan Christianity, but in Aiken's stage version, she is reduced to a one-word sit-com catchphrase ("Shiftless!"). Likewise in A Trip to Chinatown, whenever the butler asks politely "Is anything required of me?" Or "Any service I can perform, sir?," one of the Gays will immediately reply "Yes, get out!" whereupon he exits (Hoyt 112, 118). There is almost no organic connection between the prompts in the script for songs and the content of the actual songs themselves in A Trip to Chinatown. This is perhaps most starkly illustrated by the most popular number from the show, "The Bowery." The number is sung by the hypochondriac Welland Strong as a reminiscence presented to the youngesters, but obviously a song about New York's raffish Lower East Side neighborhood has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with San Francisco:
I struck a place that they called a "dive,"
I was in luck to get out alive;
When the policeman heard of my woes,
Saw my black eye and my batter'd nose,
"You've been held up!," said the copper fly.
"No, sir! But I've been knock'd down," said I;
Then he laugh'd, tho' I could not see why!
I'll never go there anymore!
CHORUS: The Bow'ry, the Bow'ry!
They say such things,
And they do strange things?
On the Bow'ry! The Bow'ry!
I'll never go there anymore! (Hoyt 120)
Neither the dialogue leading up to the song, nor the lyrics, bother to mention the fact that the Bowery is located next to New York's Chinatown. But this may come as no surprise in a play called A Trip to Chinatown in which none of the characters ever actually make it to Chinatown. On the whole it is closer to an American version of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta than it is to a twentieth century musical. A Trip to Chinatown pre-dates Hammerstein and Kern's Showboat by a good forty years, so that it makes no move in the direction of integrating song with book in the way that Showboat first did. But in point of fact, Showboat's original 1927 production would include the great hit number from A Trip to Chinatown, used to add "Gay Nineties" flavor. This was "After the Ball," added to the show in 1894 while it was on tour. But the touring productions of A Trip to Chinatown would routinely substitute different songs because the generic dialogue to introduce numbers ensured virtually anything could be sung. The novelist Willa Cather would review the touring production of A Trip to Chinatown in Nebraska in November of 1894, three years after the play had opened in New York, and predicted accurately that "Hoyt will not be played in fifty years from now; he will be unintelligible to another generation"; she would also record that the songs now included "Will You Be My Sweetheart," a song not even written until 1893 and was not in the original production. Another of the hit songs to come from the show -- "After the Ball" -- was also not present in the original production although…