The City Looking Glass, one of Dr. Bird's "'prentice" works, was written before he hit his stride as a playwright. His original manuscript (1828) is shown alongside the first printed edition, which appeared more than a century later. The undated drawing also shown, "Philadelphia Politeness," might almost have been made to illustrate this play, a "city comedy" that draws on traditions going back at least as far as Ben Jonson and whose milieu and mood--intentionally or not--the drawing captures perfectly.
The play concerns two college friends en route to marriage. One is thwarted by disagreements between his Philadelphia father and his intended's Virginian father, who favors slavery, high tariffs, and states's rights. The other finds an obstacle in the apparently disreputable background of the woman he fancies, raised the daughter of a brothel-keeper. Neither lover is thwarted permanently, of course. Even the "disreputable" young woman, well brought up at a proper school far from the bawd, turns out additionally to be the sister of the Virginian, kidnapped in infancy but thought by her family to have drowned--a romance motif fully indicative of the conventional character of this early work. However conventional it may be, it is also a sprightly portrayal of contemporary upperclass American manners and mores.
3. "The City Looking Glass. A Philadelphia Comedy. In Five Acts." (Not illustrated.)
Manuscript. Bird Collection, Department of Special Collections, Van Pelt Library.
4. The City Looking Glass: A Philadelphia Comedy, in Five Acts, ed. Arthur Hobson Quinn. New York: Printed [by the Pynson Printers] for The Colophon, 1933. [One of 465 copies.]
Department of Special Collections, Van Pelt Library.
Penn Professor Arthur Hobson Quinn's edition, available here, marked the play's first appearance in print. The actor-impresario Edwin Forrest claimed the rights to all of the plays Dr. Bird wrote for him and, in an old if not admirable theatrical tradition, he refused to allow them to be printed out of fear that other actors might also make popular vehicles of them. Bird's earliest plays no doubt also failed to appear in print because they failed to satisfy Bird himself. Dr. Bird was one of Professor Quinn's major discoveries: an American playwright of consequence in both his early and his late works.
5. "Philadelphia Politeness," watercolor, undated and unsigned.
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird.
Although this drawing lacks both a date and a demonstrable relationship to The City Looking Glass, it depicts a scene so close in spirit to that of the play that it begs to be shown alongside it.
Last update: 22 April 1996.