An Old Play Gets a New Life in Oakham

Title page of Caroline Ticknor's manuscript of "Mrs. Dick"

The town of Oakham had a rich theater scene in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seemed that every week there was a theater or musical piece being presented in the Oakham Memorial Town Hall. In organizing the 250th anniversary celebrations of Oakham in 2012 I was given the responsibility to find a period theater piece that I would direct and that would be performed on Oakham’s stage.

During the year before production I went to many antique shows and shops and used bookstores looking for scripts from the late 1800s. It was a disappointing and futile search. Few people had any for sale and when they did the price was prohibitive, especially since I would need to read the piece for consideration and quick perusals showed that they were not suited to a modern day audience. I needed something special, a period piece that would be accessible and understandable to a modern day audience and yet keep all of the tone, style and form of a late nineteenth-century piece.

I was at my wit’s end when my husband suggested the obvious! The American Antiquarian Society was the place to go and where I should have started. Upon arriving at the Society I was disappointed to hear that the archives did not go much past 1875. But I was undaunted and asked the librarian who assisted me if I could still have a go at the records. Cordially, he wished me luck.

The first hurdle was, of course, the keyword search in the archives. A number of searches on “amateur theater,” “theater script(s),” and “theater publisher(s),” offered some results and pointed me to other keywords to search.

My surprise at finding information on theater and plays written after 1875 and especially in the 1890s was beyond belief. I was ecstatic and excited. I began writing request slips, turning them in at the desk, and receiving many pieces to review. Settling in at one of the comfortable desks I readied myself to spend hours reading.

It actually ended up being a week and a half. There were many scripts available and I spent the days perusing each, some from beginning to end, others just a few pages before setting them aside. Some were too dated or topical to the period and some were written in such a style as to confuse a modern day audience. I did not go through all of the Society’s materials but I did stop my quest upon finding the manuscripts of Caroline Ticknor and her unpublished play, “Mrs. Richard.”

Upon reading it I was taken with the humor, intelligence and delightful turn of phrase employed by Miss Ticknor. I had to learn more about her.

The Society has two boxes of manuscripts and letters by the prolific Miss Ticknor. She was the granddaughter of William Davis Ticknor who began his publishing career in Boston in 1832. His subsequent partners in this venture continued with his final alliance with James Thomas Fields. With the widely varying but well matched talents of the two partners Ticknor and Fields grew to become one the leading publishing houses in the 19th century. Ticknor was the first American publisher to pay foreign authors for the rights to their works beginning with a check to Tennyson in 1842. From the Old Corner Book Store Ticknor and Fields published the works of Horatio Alger, Lydia Maria Child, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alfred Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and John Greenleaf Whittier. The firm also published the Atlantic Monthly, Our Young Folks, and the North American Review.

His granddaughter, Caroline, deftly carried on the literary talents of the family, publishing the books Poe’s Helen, Hawthorne and His Publisher (actually her grandfather, William), May Alcott: A Memoir, and Dr. Holmes’s Boston, to name just a few titles. Short stories, magazine articles and other manuscripts too numerous to be named here made up a prodigious body of work.

During her lifetime she was also friends with Mark Twain and attended his 70th Birthday dinner at Delmonico’s in New York City in 1905.

Among the notable guests at Twain’s dinner were famed naturalist John Burroughs; steel industrialist and philanthropist Andrew and Mrs. Carnegie; Willa Cather, Pulitzer Prize winning author of O Pioneers! and My Antonia; Native American physician and author Charles A. Eastman; Little Lord Fauntleroy author Frances Hodgson Burnett; Atlantic Monthly editor and American Academy of Arts and Letters president William Dean Howells; and Standard Oil’s most senior and powerful board director, Henry H. Rogers, who helped reorganize Twain’s financial condition. A photograph of Caroline and the rest of her table at the dinner – which included Edward Skiddy Quintard, M.D., Twain’s personal physician; poet and literary translator Louise Morgan Sill; digestive medicine expert Dr. C.C. Rice; short story writer Olivia Howard Dunbar; fiction book author Weymer Jay Mills; Chicago Tribune journalist and humorist Berg Leston Taylor; and author Gabrielle Jackson – was published in Harper’s Weekly. To see that picture, visit this website.

We are currently in production for this rich, humorous, fast-moving comedy, “Mrs. Richard.” It is chiefly a show of manners and morals, melodramatic turns of fortune and a comedy of errors centering on the show’s namesake, Mrs. Richard, who is Mrs. Laura Garland, wife of the successful businessman, Mr. Richard Garland. The play evolves around Laura’s desire to be a great author and the twists and turns among her family and friends when a manuscript is mistakenly credited to her. The show is being produced in the style of the 1890s. Costumes, sets, lighting will all be in keeping with the later half of the nineteenth century. The manner and style of this period of theater will also be reproduced. It is becoming a joyous melodrama!

Even the Oakham town hall is being refurbished and restored to bring back to life the time in the town’s history when theater was a common entertainment and social gathering for the people of Oakham and those towns around it.

“Mrs. Richard” by Caroline Ticknor will be performed on Friday and Saturday evening, October 26 & 27, at 7:00 pm, and Sunday, October 28, at 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm, in the Oakham Town Hall. Tickets are $9.00 and can be obtained by calling 508-882-3990. Seating is limited so call ahead.

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