Horatio Alger Theater Festival Explores Ninteenth-Century Rags-to-Riches Theme

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Horatio Alger Festival
Metropolitan Playhouse
220 E. 4th St.
New York, N.Y.

Barack Obama is a Horatio Alger story.  So too was Abraham Lincoln, Babe Ruth, Martin Luther King Jr., and Clara Barton.

The Horatio Alger story is an historical treasure in America, and central to American culture.  The Alger tale, and there were more than a hundred different variations published, was that of a hard-working young man from humble beginnings who avoided trouble, was trusted by all and believed that success came to those who labored hard and exhibited determination and honesty.  If anyone wanted to understand the American Dream, how to obtain it, and be admired by all for doing so, nineteenth-century author Horatio Alger told them.

Alger was a prodigious writer and former minister who wrote scores of novels during the Gilded Age, mostly rags-to-riches stories for boys.  Over the years, as the country was hit with depressions, wars and political scandals, his pure-as-the-driven-snow characters blossomed in the national psyche and the phrase “a Horatio Alger story” became a popular way to describe someone’s successful life.

What were his stories like and why do stories written more than one hundred years ago still resonate today?  Why do Americans still treasure his rages-to-riches theme?  The Off Broadway Metropolitan Playhouse in New York is explaining his stories in a unique “Horatio Alger Theater Festival” that started last week and continues through the end of the month.

The playhouse, which is at 220 E. 4th St. in Manhattan, is staging five plays by contemporary writers, all based on or connected to Alger’s short stories. They are:  Horatio’s Alger’s Boys, by David Lally; The Return of Ragged Dick, by Dan Evans; Shifting for Himself, or Gilbert Greyson’s Fortunes, by Michael Schwartz; Another Horatio Alger Story, by Jason Jacobs; and Pluck, by Adam Klasfeld.  The stories together detail the rags to respectability saga made so popular and historically useful by Alger. The plays are presented nightly through January 29 with several matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

Why a Horatio Alger festival now?

The Metropolitan Playhouse has presented festivals of nineteenth-century writers before, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but it’s the country’s current economic woes that prompted theater artistic director Alex Roe to stage the Alger festival this winter.

“The country is in terrible financial shape. Lots of people are just plain desperate.  Millions are out of work.  Everybody is watching every penny they spend.  I thought that if we took a look at Alger we would all see, once again, that the American dream has, through his works and those of others, flourished for a long time.  Maybe Alger and his eternal optimism will help give people some relief about our economic woes.  We should not give up hope,” said Roe.

He thinks a lot of people know of Alger through that tag, “a Horatio Alger story,” and want to know more.  “We did a festival of plays about Poe and we had a lot of people tell us that they appreciated the chance to learn more about Poe.  They knew his stories and his poems, but little about the man.  I think we’ll find the same thing about Alger,” said Roe.

“Some people have heard of his book Ragged Dick, but most don’t know that he wrote over one hundred novels. That’s a huge amount,” said Roe.

Roe would like people to learn more about Alger’s many stories, learn more about the writer himself and understand how his “Alger story” caught the public imagination in the nineteenth century and still does today.  He also wants playgoers to learn more about nineteenth-century America.

“Alger grew up in New York City from 1865 to the last days of the century. By studying his life you learn much about New York, the country and childhood in that era,” said the artistic director.

Roe was impressed by the plays he received after he put out the call for works about Alger.  “We had many already-written plays come in about his stories and novels,” he said.  “We also had a lot of plays by writers who knew little about him but who did a significant amount of research to produce their plays based on his stories.  They learned a lot about him and his work,” he said.

He was surprised to receive one play that chronicled a scandal in which Alger was forced out of a Unitarian church ministry in Massachusetts in the late 1860s because of his relationships with teenaged boys.

Indeed, Alger led an interesting life.  He was descended from one of the Pilgrims, and another one of his ancestors was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.  He was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1832 and entered Harvard University at the age of seventeen.  He began his long career as a writer at Harvard with the publication of several magazine articles in Boston journals.  He taught at public schools and then graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1860.  Ragged Dick, the story of a humble bootblack who worked hard, was admired by all and rose to middle-class respectability, was published in 1868 and became a best seller.  The book set up the template for all of the varied stories Alger would later write about:  hard work as a gateway to rags-to-riches success was the key to respectability in America.  His stories also attacked the belief that people who were born into poverty could not work their way out of it.  Alger’s stories meshed perfectly with the promise of the American Dream.

One of the major reasons for his success was his life in New York City.  The city had been home to tens of thousands of street urchins prior to the Civil War, but an even larger army of street vagrants flooded the city after the conflict.  Alger made it his business to start friendships with many of them, and the adults who knew them.  He used their stories and personalities for his works.  He also brought the history of post-Civil War life into his stories and, through his writing, scholars today can gain much understanding about 1865 to 1899 history, even thought it’s filtered through Alger’s quite optimistic eyes.

“People do not understand that, in New York City in the nineteenth century, there were so many terrific novelists, essayists and playwrights.  The city was the publishing heart of America.  We do a lot of nineteenth-century work at our playhouse, such as this festival.  It’s a good way to showcase history,” said Roe.  “Horatio Alger fits right in to our theater.”

Roe also wants people to understand how we might not remember the works of a writer, but always remember the effect he or she had on the country.  “That’s Alger,” he said. “His stories created a feeling in America that exists to this day.”

And if the festival is wildly successful, Roe will, of course, be “a Horatio Alger story” himself.

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