If one chose one's theatre, it was not necessary to see an equestrian exhibition or sensational melodrama, as had so often been the case in the first half of the century. There was no need, as there once had been, to sit through cheap variety acts to enjoy Romeo and Juliet, or listen to a series of comic songs as entr'actes in a performance of Hamlet. And in response to a more intelligent audience, contemporary playwrights were beginning to write with a little more perception and sense of reality than had inspired Putnam, the Iron Son of '76, The Lady of Lyons, or The Drunkard.
Bronson Howard had written Young Mrs. Winthrop and Shenandoah, William Gillette his Held by the Enemy and Secret Service. There were The County Fair by Charles Barnard and Neil Burgess, and Steele Mackaye's phenomenally successful Hazel Kirk. A serious attempt to introduce realism to the stage was made by James A. Herne with Shore Acres and Margaret Fleming. Still more important, perhaps, were the plays of European dramatists. Ibsen, Pinero, Oscar Wilde, and Shaw all had a wide and friendly reception on the American stage.
In this golden age of the theatre, Mrs. Fiske was adding to her laurels in Becky Sharp and A Doll's House; Clara Morris played in Camille and Fanny Davenport in Tosca; Richard Mansfield introduced Cyrano de Bergerac; E. H. Sothern was starring in The Prisoner of Zenda, James O'Neill, the father of Eugene O'Neill, in The Count of Monte Cristo (in which he acted almost five thousand times), and William Gillette in Sherlock Holmes. Until he left the stage, Edwin Booth was the greatest of Shakespearean stars; his tour of the country with Lawrence Barrett in 1890 was a continuous triumph. There was none really to take his place. But Mansfield, Barrett, McCullough, and Mantell carried on the Shakespearean tradition among the actors, while Julia Marlowe was a lovely Rosalind in As You Like It, and Mary Anderson made an incomparable Juliet. Many other names -- producers, dramatists, and actors-might be mentioned: Charles Frohman and David Belasco; Augustus Thomas and Clyde Fitch; the Barrymores, John Drew, Otis Skinner, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Margaret Anglin. . . . There were also such foreign stars as Henry Irving and Tommaso Salvini, Helena Modjeska, Sarah Bernhardt, and Eleanora Duse.
Among the light operas, Pinafore, first of the delightful concoctions of Gilbert and Sullivan to cross the Atlantic, was a sensation. It was first played at the Boston Museum, on November 25, 1878, then in San Francisco and Philadelphia, and finally in New York. There it was produced simultaneously in half a dozen theatres. There were children's companies, church-choir companies, and colored opera companies playing Pinafore. The fish exhibition had to be removed from the Aquarium for an engagement in what had been Castle Garden. All New York, all America, sang and whistled "Little Buttercup."
Still another triumph was won by English operetta in the 1880's when Erminie had a phenomenal run of 1,256 performances at the New York Casino. Soon thereafter the Boston Ideals presented in Chicago the most popular of all American light operas, Reginald De Koven Robin Hood. It was followed by other De Koven scores, and at the close of the century John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert were further embellishing this type of polite musical entertainment with El Capitan and The Wizard of the Nile.
Concert singing, visits by foreign musicians, and orchestral playing also revealed a growing taste among the sophisticated for more serious music. Jenny Lind had paved the way for the tours of European artists in the middle of the century, and Ole Bull had made two memorable visits. In the 1890's Ysaye, Paderewski, Fritz Kreisler, Adelina Patti, Melba, Calvéé, and Madame Schumann-Heink were all on tour. Symphonic music had had its start with the organization of the New York Philharmonic as early as 1842, but it was not until 1878 that this orchestra had any real rival. In that year the New York Symphony Orchestra was established, to be followed in another three years by the Boston Symphony, and in 1891 by the Chicago Orchestra. Walter Damrosch and Theodore Thomas were adding a new interest to the musical scene.
Grand opera also had become firmly established. It had long been a distinctive feature of the social life of New Orleans, and there had been various attempts to introduce it in New York and other cities. Troupes of Italian singers had come and gone; elaborate opera houses had been opened-usually to fail after one or two seasons. "Will this splendid and refined amusement be supported in New York?" we find Philip Hone asking in 1833. "I am doubtful." And for almost half a century his doubts were largely justified. It was in 1883 that the Metropolitan Opera House, costing nearly $2,000,000, provided grand opera with its first really permanent home in America.