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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 22 Feb 2007 10:24:59 -0600
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The following book review was written by James E. Lile, Jr., for the Mark
Twain Forum.



_The Psychoscope; A Sensational Drama in Five Acts_. R. M. Daggett and J.
T. Goodman. Introduction and Notes by Lawrence I. Berkove. _Mark Twain
Journal_, 2007. Pp. xxxv + 82. 5 1/2 x 8 1/2". Softcover. $15.00. ISBN

This book is available from the publisher's website at:

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
James E. Lile, Jr.
Missouri Southern State University

Copyright  2007 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

I suspect that among the readers of the Mark Twain Forum there are those
who, from time to time, have wished that they could visit the 19th century.
We can all think of people and places in the past that we would love to
drop in on. With _The Psychoscope_, Lawrence I. Berkove gets us as close to
time travel as we are likely to come for a while. To read this book is to
be invited to spend a week in Virginia City, Nevada in August of 1872.

_The Psychoscope_ is a treasure. Its authors, Rollin Mallory Daggett and
Joseph Thompson Goodman, were among the brightest literary lights on the
frontier. Goodman was the owner-publisher of the Virginia City _Territorial
Enterprise_ where Daggett was an editor. It was at the _Enterprise_ that
Daggett and Goodman became associates of Mark Twain. Their play is firmly
rooted in the dramaturgy of its period, yet reaches toward the future of
American playwriting. Realism mixes with fancy as the idealized world of
the melodrama is stretched to include detailed scenes of gritty urban life.
It would have been enough if Berkove had done nothing more than rescue the
play from the mists of obscurity. But, with the presentation of this
facsimile edition, he has set before us a rare treat and made it possible
to examine a unique artifact of the American theatre.

 _The Psychoscope_ could be classified as a melodrama though it does not
hew to all of the time-tried techniques of that genre. It does have a
satisfying number of sensational incidents, a dastardly villain, and a
beautiful, willowy heroine. It has stock characters which are familiar to
us--social climbers, fallen women, a silly visitor from abroad--and
stunning science fiction elements which are not. Daggett and Goodman
introduce two remarkable devices which serve as the mainsprings of the
action. One is a flame-thrower that can melt prison bars when one blows
into it. The other is the psychoscope, the culmination of the
inventor-hero's life's work, which projects a visual image of a person's
thoughts upon the wall like a magic lantern. Our hero is a bit problematic
because he is conspicuously absent from a long section in the middle of the
play. It is during his hiatus--imprisoned for a crime of which, of course,
he is not guilty--that the wonderful assortment of secondary characters get
to carry the play. Notable among these is Philo Bundy, a direct descendant
of Royall Tyler's Jonathan, and Tripp, the fast-talking newspaper reporter
turned dramatic prodigy.

It is Bundy's adventure in New York's shadowy underworld that pulls this
play from one genre to another. He is lured by a charming young woman to a
house of dubious reputation and is there robbed by its lovely but lethal
residents. The audience is tugged from the familiar world of the melodrama
to a keenly observed, realistically presented scene of big city crime. The
scene was controversial. Some of the actors balked at its realism and asked
that it be excised. But Messrs. Daggett and Goodman would have none of it
and the play was performed as written.

Berkove moves beyond his act of reclamation by expertly setting the play in
its original context. Photographs of the playwrights, Piper's Opera House,
and downtown Virginia City combine with a thorough and most helpful
introduction to equip the reader with a sense of what life was like in a
frontier city and of the air of occasion that surrounded the opening of a
new play. That _The Psychoscope_ was the work of local authors and featured
a performance by the famous John McCullough added to the anticipation.

Perhaps the most remarkable contribution of Berkove's work is to show the
evidence of an intimate relationship between a production and its critics.
_The Psychoscope_ played from the fifteenth through the eighteenth of
August, 1872, and notices appeared after every performance. Berkove
includes these as appendices. They provide a day-by-day record of a week
when the on-going challenges of critics were met by McCullough and the
actors of the California Theatre Company. And a very busy week it must have
been at Piper's Opera House. The critic for the _Territorial Enterprise_
gave this assessment of the first night's performance:

What "The Psychoscope" may be, as conceived by its authors, it is
impossible to determine from the abortive rendition of last night. If it
merited condemnation, then the company righteously dealt out to it justice
untempered by mercy, for they damned it from the first scene to the last;
but if it possessed a single redeeming quality, it is at least entitled to
an humble place among the list of slaughtered innocents. At present we
shall make no other claim for it than a modest crown of martyrdom. It was
written in English, but spoken in God knows what dialect; it was designed
to have some tolerable situations and effects, but by some strange fatality
they all became simply intolerable; and the dialogue which was supposed to
have some coherency, ran into utterances as confused and unintelligible as
the jargon of Babel (61).

By the next Sunday, however, the same paper ran this notice:

Altogether, the rendition of "The Psychoscope" was perhaps the best yet
given, albeit there was some lamentable blundering in the last act. But as
we have abandoned all expectation of meeting with perfection anywhere in
this world - and least of all behind the footlights - we accept the
representation of last evening with a mingled sense of resignation and
satisfaction. The play has vindicated its propriety and dramatic merit, and
the favor with which it has been received demonstrates that it possesses in
an eminent degree the elements of popularity. We feel no apprehension of
its success wherever it may be produced, and confidently entrust its fate
to the judgment of the world at large (73).

The community demanded more and got it. In return, it appears that the
people of Virginia City continued their support so that toward the end of
the run,". . . the parquet and orchestra chairs were comfortably filled,
and the dress circle was graced with a fair representation from our best
society."  I imagine that this was good news for John McCullough because
the next day, the last day of the theatre season, was his benefit. Making
the best possible impression on the Virginia City theatre-going public
could only have improved his chances for a sold-out house and a big pay-day.

There is much in Berkove's book to reward the reader: the nascent heat ray
and the amazing, crime-busting psychoscope for the science fiction fans, a
snapshot of frontier life for the history buffs, a unique example of play
writing for the students of American drama, and a great ride for the
time-traveler in all of us.