(This is the second of two parts).
The “Mulligan Guard Ball” opened to great acclaim in January 1879. It contained all the elements of what soon became a familiar set of characters and scenarios for all future Harrigan and Hart productions. It was set amid the teeming tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. And it presented a story filled not only with Irish characters but also a racially and ethnically diverse supporting cast.
Two conflicts lie at the center of the story. The first finds the Mulligan’s son Tommy announcing his intent to marry Kitty Lochmuller, daughter of Dan’s perpetual nemesis, the German butcher who lives in his building. Dan adamantly rejects the idea as though it was unthinkable that the Irish and Germans ought to intermarry. Harrigan and Hart skillfully — and hilariously — capture the tension that existed in this era between the nation’s two largest immigrant groups.
The second conflict likewise focused on racial tensions, in this case between Irish and African American. The Mulligan Guards, a private militia club formed by Dan and his friends, head to the Harp and Shamrock Hall for one of their regular balls only to discover that somehow the hall has been mistakenly rented to a second militia club, a rival African-American group called the Skidmore Guards. After a tense standoff punctuated by threat and insults, the two sides reach a compromise with the Skidmores taking the upstairs room and the Mulligans using the first floor. The arrangement prompts one of the Skidmores to quip, in classic Harrigan and Hart fashion, “as long as we’re upstairs, we’re above the Irish.”
But not for long. The second floor eventually gives way, sending the Skidmores down upon the Mulligans. Harrigan’s stage directions in the script at this point are succinct: “Melee and Curtain.” In all the slapstick confusion, Tommy Mulligan and Kitty Lochmuller steal away and get married.
The success of “Mulligan Guard Ball” led to a string of “Mulligan” musical comedies over the next six years, including “The Mulligan Guard’s Chowder,” “The Mulligan Guard’s Christmas,” “The Mulligan Guard’s Surprise,” and “The Mulligan Guard’s Nominee.” By the early 1880s, Harrigan and Hart were national celebrities and crowds flocked to New York to see their shows. As their biographer E.J. Kahn, Jr. wrote, “A visit to New York would be as incomplete to the countryman if he did not see Harrigan and Hart, as if he had by some strange mistake missed going to Central Park.” Those unable to make the trip bought sheet music and sang Harrigan and Hart songs in parlors, saloons, and concert halls.
But there was more to the “Mulligan Guard” musicals than humor and music. They were filled with insight into the world of working-class immigrants. This fact stemmed in part from Harrigan’s Lower East Side upbringing, but also because of his relentless “research” as an adult. He drew most of his material — from plots, to dialogues, to costumes — directly from the daily lives of the immigrants in New York City. Colleagues noted that Harrigan would literally chase after people to buy their clothing for use in an upcoming production and sit in parks listening in on everyday conversations. Harrigan believed the more real his plays seemed, the more enjoyable it would be for those in the audience, particularly those who knew they were being depicted — i.e., his fellow Irishmen. “I sought above all,” Harrigan once confided, “to make my plays like pages from actual life.”
Harrigan and Hart’s focus on ethnic and racial interactions likewise added to the appeal of their comedies. Ethnic and racial jokes and stereotypes abound in the “Mulligan” plays — so much so that it is impossible to imagine them being staged today, even with a major rewriting. Although the Irish generally triumph by the end of each play, they do so only by the narrowest of margins. And they come in for their share of ribbing on everything from drunkenness and poverty, to political corruption and superstition. In essence, Harrigan wrote as an equal opportunity offender, allowing his characters to belittle each other with equal force. African Americans, for example, are portrayed in a fairly typical racist manner. Yet Harrigan presents them not as the weak victims of their Irish and German neighbors, but rather as a group that aggressively defend (with words and fists) themselves from the Irish whom they dismiss as troublesome “foreigners.” Only the Chinese, a group nearly universally despised in the 1870s and ’80s, receive unqualified negative treatment from Harrigan.
Harrigan and Hart’s works not only tell us a good deal about ethnic relations in the late 19th century, but also the social and cultural tensions within the Irish community. Nowhere is this more vividly portrayed than in two later musicals, “Cordelia’s Aspirations” and its sequel, “Dan’s Tribulations.” Cordelia, like many Irish women in this period, was assimilating to American life much faster than her husband. Desperate for upper-class respectability — “lace curtain” status as it would be derisively termed by working-class Irish — she manages to move the Mulligans to a home on Fifth Avenue. Cordelia basks in her success, but Dan is miserable, longing for the old neighborhood and friends. “I know you saved my money,” he complains to her, “and I know you’re trying to elevate me, but I can’t forget me neighbors. There’s no one up here to sit out on the front stoop and have a have a glass of beer wid me.” This theme of tension between Irish men and Irish women on the issue of seeking lace-curtain status would appear everywhere in Irish American literature for at least another 50 years.
Despite their astonishing success as a team, Harrigan and Hart split following a fire that destroyed their theater in 1885. Both pursued solo careers, but Harrigan was by far the more successful. He cemented his relationship with songwriter David Braham by marrying his daughter and the two collaborated on many successful productions for nearly a decade. Harrigan’s “Reilly and the Four Hundred” enjoyed wide popularity and a long stage run when it opened in 1892. He retired soon thereafter and died in 1911. Tony Hart’s solo career was undermined by poor health due to syphilis. He died of the disease in 1891 at the age of 36.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Jan. 19, 1937: aviator Howard Hughes sets a transcontinental air record, flying from Los Angeles to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds.
Jan. 20, 1961: John F. Kennedy is inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States.
Jan. 17, 1860: Gaelic League founder and statesman Douglas Hyde is born in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon.
Jan. 20, 1926: Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal is born in Knoxville, Tenn.