Gus Heege's farce comedy "Rush City" drew a good house at the Lansing last night. "Rush City" is a play of the farcical Hoyt order, largely and lengthily interspersed with specialties, some of which were very fair, especially Miss Osbourne's song, "The Game of Craps." Mr. O'Brien as Tarantula Tom gave a contortionist exhibition which called forth howls of delight from the crowded gallery. The play is of the Hoyt type, but nobody can do Hoyt but Hoyt. Some way or other he has a way of making nothingness hang together and, for the time, seems tangible. Mr. Heege cannot do that. He has written a very good comedy, but he cannot write a farce. There is in this one no thread of plot, and the play defies even the very loose canons of farce comedy. The central idea of the play is good and, what is better, new, but Mr. Heege never took the trouble to work out his idea; he forgets it at the close of the first act, which, by the way, is the best act. The plot which the author intended to follow before he forgot it runs thusly: John J. Rush , an enterprising real estate man, buys a tract of arid land in Alkali township, Tarantula county, Okl. He puts up a few buildings, digs acres of foundation holes and sells the town lots to New Yorkers. He picks up a motley colony and founds Rush City, where the rain never falls, and they have to set traps for the rattle snakes and keep the thermometer on ice. The citizens grow discontentek, the playwright gets tired, and the town is swept away by a cyclone. The scenery was excellent and, to anyone who has had the misfortune to dwell in a small Nebraska town, painfully reminiscent. There was a saloon, a Keeley institute, a real estate office, a peanut stand, the office of the Rush City Bazoo and a well equipped public cyclone cellar. The scenic effects of the cyclone were good and presumably realistic. The main objection to the play is that there is too much tedious and irrelevant joking. The play seems to have been too short and then lengthened by splicing it with cullings from the newspaper gag column of the last century. Occasionally the play on words was good, but for the most part they were grandfather jokes, jokes that had lost their teeth and wore white whiskers. There were some jokes there that were sprung on the field of Marathon, chestnuts that were popped at the pass of Thermopylae, and gags that had drooped and pined long 'ere Rome fell. If those mute jokes could speak what tales they could tell us of the forgotten glories of the past, of Ninevah and Babylon and kingdoms that have crumbled into dust. Even the cigar story was repeated, that tale upon whose lowly grave the grasses have many a year been growing. It is said that Nero once killed a slave for telling him a joke that was not new; in all probability it was the cigar story, and the bored emperor was justified in his course.
Actor and playwright Augustus (Gus) Heege (1862-1898) claimed to be the originator of Swedish dialect plays, making his fame with dialect plays such as Ole Oleson (1889), Yon Yonson (1891), in which he also starred, and A Yenuine Yentleman (1895); he also wrote satires such as Wanted: the Earth and Rush City. In 1893 newspapers reported that he was traveling in steerage to gather material for a new play.
Gus Heege married Mary Lillian (Lilly) Mandeville of Cleveland, Ohio; they had a son, Philip, who also became an actor. After Heege's death, Lilly Heege married Charles Whitney: their daughter was mystery writer Phyllis A. Whitney (1903-)
In 1931, Cather wrote that before 1913, when O Pioneers! was published, "the Swede had never appeared on the printed page in this country except in broadly humorous sketches; and the humour was based on two peculiarities: his physical strength, and his inability to pronounce the letter 'j'" ("My First Novels: There Were Two" in On Writing, 95-95).
Rush City: Rush City, a play by Gus Heege, opened at the Bijou Theatre in Brooklyn on April 16, 1894; it satirized western land promoters and other western types. Heege did not appear in the cast, which starred William A. Mestayer, and Sybil Johnstone.
Lansing Theatre: The Lansing Theater, on the southwest corner of 13th and P Streets, was built in 1891, displacing the Funke Opera House as the largest and finest theater in Lincoln. The owners were J.F. Lansing (b. 1842), a Lincoln real estate man, and his brother-in-law Henry Oliver (b. 1857); Edward A. Church was the manager. According to the program of the opening week (November 23-28, 1891) the auditorium consisted of the orchestra and parquet seating on the main level, with dress circle at the rear and sides; three tiers of five boxes each and six loges were at the sides. Above were the balcony and the gallery. With standing room, about 2500 people could be present.
The building also housed offices, including that of Cather's friend and fellow reviewer, Dr. Julius H. Tyndale. It was renamed the Oliver Theater in 1898.
Charles Hoyt: Charles Hoyt (1860-1900) was born in New Hampshire, moved west to a cattle ranch in Colorado, became a newspaperman, then wrote his first play and had it produced in 1883; he became one of the most successful producer-playwrights by the late 1880s, perfecting the style of Broadway musical in which a farcical, light-hearted plot gives opportunities for songs and specialty features.
Merrie Osborne: This actress was probably Merrie Osborne, who first appeared on the New York stage in 1889. She played in a Brooklyn revival of Gus Heege's Yon Yonson in February 1894, and though she was not in the original cast of Rush City, she may have been in one of its touring companies.
The Game of Craps: This song in Heege's Rush City was probably sung by Mrs. Winfield Moriarity, described by the New York Times as a "dashing divorcee" (17 April 1894); the role was played in the original New York cast by Sybil Johnstone.
Mr. O'Brien: Odell's Annals of the New York Stage lists nine actors with this surname active in New York in the early 1890s, but none has been linked to Gus Heege or Rush City (1894).
Tarantula Tom: Tarantula Tom is a character in Gus Heege's Rush City (c. 1893); he was played by Harry M. Marsh in the New York cast.
he has written a very good comedy: Gus Heege's best-known work was his Swedish dialect play, Yon Yonson (1891).
John J. Rush: A character in Gus Heege's Rush City (c. 1893), Rush is a real estate promoter who names a town after himself.
Cather's short story, "El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional" (1901) deals with a family of real estate promoters, the Gumps, who lure investors and settlers to their town with false promises of the great things to be expected of their town, El Dorado.
Alkali township, Tarantula county, Oklahoma: The fictional setting of Gus Heege's Rush City (c. 1893); Alkali township is named for the bad water, Tarantula County for the unpleasant fauna to be found there. The first land rush (or land grab) in Oklahoma was in 1889; later land rushes resulted as Native American lands were opened for settlement by non-Natives. The biggest was in September 1893, when about seven million acres of Cherokee land were opened.
Keeley Institute: Civil war surgeon Leslie C. Keeley (1832-1900) founded the first Keeley Institute in Dwight, Ill., for the cure of alcohol, tobacco, and narcotics addiction. The centerpiece of his "scientific" cure was injections of bichloride of gold—hence the common nickname, the gold cure. Keeley's success rate, which led to franchise institutes in every state in the U.S. (including at least half a dozen in Nebraska), was due more to his recognition of alcoholism as a medical disease, and to the residential treatment facilities where forms of group therapy were practiced. After 1900, however, the popularity of Keeley institutes declined rapidly, though the original one in Dwight celebrated is 60th anniversary in 1939.
field of Marathon: In 490 BC, the Persian emperor Darius I sent a fleet to punish Athens and Eritrea for helping a revolt among some of his subjects on his western border. The fleet landed at Marathon and was met and defeated by a much smaller force of Athenians and Plataeans on the plains of Marathon.
Herodotus's history of the Persian Wars (c.440 BC) says that a messenger ran from Athens to Sparta before the battle, asking for help. In the first century AD, Plutarch, citing the work of an earlier historian, now lost, gives the first account of a herald running to bring the news of the outcome of the battle from Marathon to Athens.
chestnuts: In slang, a chestnut is a saying, joke, song, etc, that has been repeated until everyone but the speaker or teller is tired of it. A popular fad in the 1880s and 1890s was to wear a chestnut bell on your coat, to ring when someone began a tired joke or story.
Thermopylae: In 480 BC, the army of the Persian emperor Xerxes I invaded Greece, attempting to cross the mountains at the narrow pass at Thermopylae. King Leonidas of Sparta, commanding a coalition of forces from the Greek city-states, held off the Persians for several days, inflicting great casualties. However, a Greek traitor showed the Persians another path that would have brought them to the rear of the Greek forces. Leonidas, with only about a thousand Spartan and Thespian men, stayed at Thermopylae to cover the retreat of the rest of the army: they were destroyed, but they inflicted such heavy casualties that eventually Xerxes abandoned his attempt to conquer Greece.
if those mute jokes could speak: In chapter 64 of Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain writes, "If these mute stones could speak, what tales could they tell . . . of fettered victims writhing under the knife." The initial phrase is probably older, but the source has not been found. A common variant is, "If walls could speak."
Ninevah: Nineveh, on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, was an important city as early as 1800 B.C. Under the Assyrians it became one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of 100,000-150,000 people by about 700 B.C. About 612 B.C. the city was attacked by the Medes and the Babylonians and destroyed. Legends remained of its greatness, but the site of the city was forgotten by classical times. Excavations began in the area in the nineteenth century; British archaeologist Sir Austin Henry Layard discovered the palace of the great builder Sennacherib in 1849. Continued excavations sent a stream of sculptures and clay tablets to European museums.
Nineveh and the greatness and fall of the Assyrian empire are mentioned several times in the Bible, notably in the books of Kings and the books of Chronicles, as well as the book of Jonah.
Babylon: The ancient city of Babylon—first mentioned in a tablet dating from the twenty-third century B.C.—in southern Mesopotamia, became the capital of successive Babylonian empires under such leaders as Hammerabi, in the seventeenth century B.C., and Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus in the fifth century B.C. However, the founding of a new capital at Seleucia led to the eventual abandonment of the city. Astronomy and mathematics, as well as literature, were highly developed by the Babylonians, although their Biblical reputation is bad, due perhaps to the long captivity in Babylon suffered by the Jewish people.
cigar story: Jokes about cigars were a staple of vaudeville humor, but it is unclear which one Cather had in mind.
upon whose lowly grave the grasses have many a year been growing: The trope of the lowly grass-grown grave (in contrast to the marble monument of the wealthy inside a church) is common in nineteenth century poetry, but no specific source has been found.
Nero: The Roman emperor Nero (37-68 A.D.) was the son of Agrippina the Younger, and thus a descendant of the emperor Augustus; he became the stepson and heir of his great-uncle, the emperor Claudius, after his mother married Claudius in 49. He was married to his stepsister Octavia in 53, and succeeded to the throne in 54, after Agrippina had Claudius poisoned. The first years of his reign were marked by moderation and liberality, but a liaison with Poppaea Sabina led to the murders of his mother in 59 and his wife in 62. A great fire in Rome in 64, rumored to have been set or ordered by Nero, was blamed on the Christians. Troubles brewed on the borders of the empire, but Nero turned all his attention on the gratification of his vanity and cruelty, so that his name has become a by-word for wickedness.
killed a slave for telling him a joke that was not new: Many acts of wanton cruelty have been attributed to Nero; the source of this story has not yet been found.