Thursday, April 9, 2009


Once you left the object lessons of the works for primary grade, the high school operetta, as you've probably figured out by now, wasnt really long on social consciousness. National politics, even for satire, rarely entered into the plot lines. Women's suffrage — as demonstrated in WILD ROSE and COLLEGE DAYS — was something more to be laughed at than anything else, and racial inequity... well, you've seen plenty here to know how that was handled. That's why TWILIGHT ALLEY (1919) by Mrs. Henry Backus and Paul Bliss (unsigned cover art, but something on that below) is a bit of a shocker. Surprisingly enough, TWILIGHT ALLEY is concerned with the plight of the poor, particularly those living in the crowded tenements of big cities like New York, and it approaches the problem with sensitivity and grace.

The story deals with Dame Needy, who, with her eight daughters and one son, lives in a run-down tenement building called "The Old Shoe". The kids are taught from an early age to work and work hard, and not to expect anything more from life. We see the daughters put through their paces of cleaning the Old Shoe, which is a near daily task because of the choking smoke (also known as the Black Bogie). The air is rarely clear; hence the neighbourhood is known as "Twilight Alley".Into this comes Lily, daughter of the rich property owner who holds the deed on virtually all of Twilight Alley. She's wandered there by mistake but takes pity on the daughters and invites them all to her home out in the country. So while Mom is asleep, the girls steal away for a party.

They're no sooner gone than the boys, who've finally had enough of life in the tenements, resolve to burn it down, but they're stopped just in time by Lily and the girls. Instead, the boys turn their wrath on the Black Bogie. After a furious play-battle (paralleled with an offstage action on the part of the residents involving an airplane that I gather seeds the clouds to make it rain and thus clean the air), they return with his wings (a black umbrella), his tail (an old rope), one of his ribs (a barrel stave), and his armour (a battered old dishpan). To tandem with their achievement, the city council passes a law that mandates a smoke consumer on every chimney, thus ensuring that Twilight Alley will see the sunlight yet again. Lily invites everyone back to her house to celebrate, and we're done.

The opening chorus sets us straight about the characters and exactly who and what they are:

Cleaning and sweeping
Oh the weary work

Must we ever be cleaning up

Then do it all again?

This is all we remember

This is all we remember

Every day, every day

Every day the same...

Dame Needy has little patience for her daughters' wish to see something green during the springtime:

Where do you see any green? I dont! Everything's grey, grey like the clouds, black like the smoke. No wonder they call this Twilight Alley.

Taken in all, it's a pretty sad (but never cloying) portrait of a family forced to move into such desperate conditions because of an unspecified financial problem. The father is no longer with the family, which just heightens Dame Needy's desperation and concern for her children, but she also helps other single mothers in the neighbourhood by taking some of them in while their parents are at work. One, Angelina, is apparently sick with a lung infection from the incessant smoky air; it's too dangerous to let her run around outside, so she's transfered that concern to her dolly.

My dolly is sick, my dolly is sick
It makes her cry
She comes from the land where sunshine is bright
And so, so do I

Hush little baby, dont cry
Hush little baby, dont cry
We will go out where the sun shines bright
You will be well by and by

But frankly, I cant imagine that TWILIGHT ALLEY was a big seller for Willis: it is so relentlessly bleak: almost every song until the finale is a sad commentary of some kind -- little Angelina only wants to see a butterfly once more. Eldest daughter Meg only wants to breathe clean air. The boys see their lives as living in a cave to hide from robbers; their best solution is to just burn down the whole filthy mess. And lurking in the background of the piece is a second, very big reason why this probably didnt do well: fear and suspicion between the rich and the poor. The kids are innocently past that, as you might expect — when Lily invites the girls up for the afternoon, they dont worry about the consequences. But, on their return, Dame Needy reminds them of who they are and who the rich people are and why the two should never meet.

In some respects, TWILIGHT ALLEY is arguably the RENT of its day, a musical snapshot of people that you dont even see as they pass you on the street, people that you probably would prefer not to see. So that would leave the question: who was this written for? The early 20th century was still a time of regimented class structure, with no real middle class to speak of. You were either rich or poor. And I can easily see parents from both social worlds up in arms about presenting a play like this, either out of shame or guilt or both.

The cover art artfully plays with the look of the "Old Shoe". As noted, it's unsigned, but the style smacks of the work of Percy Crosby, the artist behind the "Skippy" series of books, about a young boy who was, coincidentally enough, from the slums of New York. Crosby was quite the celebrated artist in his day — "Skippy" made him as much as $2400 per week (in 1921!) — but his work was out and out stolen by Rosefield Packaging Company, the originators of... (wait for it)... Skippy Peanut Butter, in 1933. Crosby tried to have the trademark annulled in 1934, but the courts have consistently continued to grant it to whomever manufactures the peanut butter. The litigation continues to this day.


Joseph Mitchell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sean Martin said...

Joseph, thanks for your comment, part of which follows:

"I was in the chorus in Twilight Alley when I was seven years old and in the second grade in the fairfield alabama elementary school. The time was 1934. Fairfield was a steel mill town west of Birmingham and was still coming out of the depression. When I read the play in 2004 I thought it described Fairfield. Mountain Brook, over the mountain, was the clean town I have lived in Durham since 2001 and am a retired professor of religion and philosophy. Do you know of other productions of the play and what were the responses to it?"

I've removed the personal data that followed, since that's never good idea to publish publicly on the web. Unfortunately, no, I dont know of any. I'm actually surprised when anyone comments to say they were in this or that production, just because of the age of these things more than anything else.