Yesterdays: 1910 — The Sperryville Dramatic Club puts on a play

Here’s how the Blue Ridge Guide of April 14, 1910, described this upcoming event:

The Sperryville Dramatic Club, composed of excellent home talent, solicits the patronage of the public, Friday evening, April 29, 1910, at the Masonic Hall, Sperryville, when they give a rendition of W. C. Parker’s famous farce comedy, “All a Mistake,” in three acts. The cast of characters given below is a positive assurance of the success of this entertainment, and to those who desire a pleasant evening, interspersed with song, laughter, mirth and music, this is indeed an exceptional opportunity. The proceeds — every penny — will be used toward adding needed volumes to the Sperryville High School Library.

Cast of Characters:

Capt. Obadiah Skinner, retired sea captain, (Jas. M. Yates)
Lieut. George Richmond, his nephew, (Jas. W. Menefee)
Richard Hamilton, a country gentleman, (L. H. Bruce)
Ferdinand Lighthead, a neighbor (E. M. Swartz)
Nellie Richmond, George’s wife (Miss Virginia Mecham)
Nellie Huntington, a friend, (Miss Charlotte Persinger)
Cornelia, (Nellie) Skinner, Obadiah’s sister (Miss Zulene Hupp)
Nellie McIntyre, a servant, (Miss Anna Smith)

From the Blue Ridge Guide, a synopsis of “All a Mistake,” the three-act play performed April 14, 1910 by the Sperryville Dramatic Club.

Now, this “famous farce comedy” by W. C. Parker (was just one of the many farce comedies written by Walter Coleman Parker, who was quite well known in his time. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines a farce as “a comic dramatic piece that uses highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters, extravagant exaggeration, and violent horseplay. The term also refers to the class or form of drama made up of such compositions. Farce is generally regarded as intellectually and aesthetically inferior to comedy in its crude characterizations and implausible plots, but it has been sustained by its popularity in performance and has persisted throughout the Western world to the present.”

This is true. For example, Steve Martin, the well-known comedian, wrote a farce in 2002 called “Underpants.” Set in Germany in 1910, and adapted from a German film of that year called “Die Hose,” it involves a young woman whose loses her panties in a parade, bends down to retrieve them, exposing herself to a number of men who observe the event and became obsessed with her.

The Sperryville farce, “All a Mistake,” was also set in 1910, but was notable for another reason: the “newness” of things. The farce was performed in Sperryville’s new Masonic Hall, built in 1908; funds were raised for the library in the Sperryville High School, which had just opened that year. And Sperryville itself was newly reaching its economic peak in 1910.

In putting on the play, the Sperryville Dramatic Club likely used a 57-page copy of the farce as published in 1903 by T. S. Denison & Company in Chicago. The booklet noted all the characters, their costumes, the properties needed to put on the play, a synopsis of the program and a sketch of the stage settings, stage directions and all of the lines to be spoken by the cast.

The Masonic Hall in Sperryville was an ideal setting for the play. It was a two-story building, with the upstairs used for the meeting of the Masons. Downstairs, the hall on first floor had an entrance off of Main Street. This was where dances were held, plus town meetings, traveling shows, and entertainments. For plays, there was a stage at the far end of the hall.

The booklet for the play, “All a Mistake,” contained certain words, expressions, references, and dialects no longer understood today. For example, one of the cast members uses the expression, “Why, it’s worse than breaking stone for the State!” This refers to prisoners breaking up large stones into small stones for use in road and building construction back in the early 1900s and before, this being part of the regular punishment for prisoners in those days. The play also makes reference to the Spanish-American War of 1898.

As to the play itself, this would have been quite an undertaking for the Sperryville Dramatic Club. The 1910 story involves a young man bringing his bride-to-be home to meet his father, who will disinherit him if he does not marry a young woman the father has selected for him. Other couples appear with similar situations, and schemes are set up to disguise real relationships with switched relationships, with an insane asylum next door providing a cover for everyone to act crazy at times in order to direct an escape for these relationships that are “all a mistake.” The Sperryville actors had to carry out these complex relationships with fast-paced spoken lines and actions, some of them bizarre when they had to act insane. The fact that four of the females in the play were named “Nellie” added to the chaos.

The play took about two hours to perform. The weather for Friday, April 29, 1910, was fair with temperatures in the 60s. The sun was setting a little after 7 p.m., and so it was a pleasant evening as people had gathered to see the play at the Sperryville Masonic Hall.

As to the raising funds to add books to the Sperryville High School Library, it might be noted that the Virginia State Board of Education had designated quite a few books that were to be used for such purposes. The list covered a speller, history of France, history of England, Southern history, civil government, elementary economics, Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Latin composition, Latin grammar, trigonometry, agriculture, chemistry, physical geography, commercial geography, bookkeeping, and included a dictionary. Groan.

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