FOR ALL the lavish prodigality of these affairs, and despite the widespread publicity they obtained, they were not important. They directly touched the lives of only a very small coterie in the upper brackets of the fashionable world. Society in a broader sense, members of the community in which wealth was allied with culture, had many other forms of recreation where their patronage had some real significance. One of these was the legitimate stage, as contrasted with the more popular theatrical entertainment of the urban democracy.
The small, luxuriously appointed theatres where reserved seats ranged in price from one to three dollars had become the home of a relatively exclusive amusement. Every city had its fashionable playhouses. Writing of New York, Henry Collins Brown speaks of the friendly social atmosphere of Wallack's, Daly's Fifth Avenue Theatre, the Madison Square ("most exquisite theatre in all the world"), and the Union Square. In Chicago there were McVicker's and Hooley's; Boston offered the Museum and the old Boston Theatre. These houses appealed to the carriage trade. Here, in a new elegance of surroundings-the pit had become the parquet with sloping floor; upholstered plush seats were furnished throughout; steam heat (the Lyceum also had "medicated air, charged with ozone") had replaced the foyer stove; and the new electric lights were being installed -the world of fashion could enjoy the play in a quiet and comfortable atmosphere far removed from the democratic hurlyburly of mid-century.
The productions at these theatres generally centered about some starred actor or actress, although a few able stock companies still survived, and they often achieved long-sustained runs comparable to those of today's popular plays. With the great expansion of popular entertainment for the masses, it had become not only possible but also necessary for managers of the better theatres to pay more attention to the cultural standards of their comparatively limited and sophisticated audience. There were revivals of Shakespeare and other classic writers; wellstaged productions of serious contemporary drama, both American and foreign; and comedies and light operas which bore little resemblance to the blood-and-thunder melodrama and questionable burlesque that ruled at the people's theatres.
Contemporary critics often failed to realize that the divorcing of popular entertainment from the legitimate stage rivaled development of the star system as the outstanding feature of theatrical history in the second half of the century. Forgetting the slapstick and circus stunts with which it had been so heavily cluttered, they looked back nostalgically to the theatre of an earlier day and remembered only Shakespeare. They could not understand how a public which had once seemed to enjoy the drama so much had shifted its allegiance to vaudeville and burlesque. Deciding it had degenerated into "vulgarians," they damned the producers for their "practical, shopkeeping cultivation of this popular appetite." They often seemed totally unaware that vaudeville's assumption of the task of entertaining the million, which the theatre itself had once borne, was actually affording the legitimate stage far greater opportunity for the development of the drama than it had ever had before in the democratic society of America.
In time they looked back upon this period, as dramatic critics are so wont to do, with entirely different eyes. In retrospect the actors and actresses who supported the legitimate stage, even the plays produced at the more fashionable playhouses, took on Olympian stature. The years between 1870 and 1890 were said in many critical memoirs to stand out as the theatre's golden age. The last decade of the century fell under something of a cloud. The rise of a theatrical trust, dominated by a group of managers who appeared to be deserting the ways of Wallack and Daly, threatened to impose a monopolistic control which considered only the box-office. But even in those days there could be no real question that dramatic standards were far higher than in mid-century.