Mose the Fireboy: A Glance at New York, The Script

The script for “A Glance at New York,” for sale at Etsy.

The script for “A Glance at New York,” the play that introduced the character of Mose the Fireboy, has survived. Apparently none of the other Mose playscripts are available, although there may be some in private collections, but “Glance” is available through a script omnibus called “On Stage America!” edited by Walter J. Messerve, and various online dealers also offer their own printing. The play is long in the public domain, so anyone who wants to print up a copy and sell it may do so. I might even transcribe the play at some point and make it available as a PDF.

There are two things you should know about “A Glance at New York” at the outset: Firstly, it isn’t a play so much as it is a series of comic episodes set around the Bowery neighborhood of mid-19th century New York. Secondly, Mose is not the main character. In an early version of the play, he is reported to have barely appeared at all, but proved popular enough that the play was revised to include more of him. Additionally, characters that would become prominent in later Mose plays, such as his girlfriend Lize and his sidekick (and sometimes foil) Syksey, are mentioned in the play but barely appear.

The main character in “Glance” is George Parsells, a rube from Albany whose visit to New York includes repeatedly being fleeced by two local confidence artists. He has a frequently absent tour guide in the form of his friend Harry Gordon, a local with a yen for George’s cousin, who is also in town. And Harry went to school with Mose, and so, a third of the way into the play, invites him on a series of hikinks. They dress in women’s clothes and surreptitiously attend a woman’s bowling alley, they go to a bar called Loafer’s Paradise and start a fight, they attend a mock auction, and they go out to eat. George manages to get had everywhere he goes, with Mose often bailing him out by throwing punches. Oh, and at one point, Mose is handed an abandoned baby in a basket, whereupon he starts crying and declares that he will never abandon a baby in need.

There are a few elements of interest in this play. Firstly, it is genuinely funny — when George and Harry first meet, Harry insists on getting them a carriage, despite the fact that they only plan to travel a block. But to walk would be out of fashion, and so Harry sets off to find a carriage. When he returns, much later in the scene, Harry complains that he had to walk two blocks to find a carriage. The play is filled with these sorts of small, absurd moments , the sort Oscar Wilde would later excel at, where following fashion or convention leads characters to ridiculous action.

Secondly, the play works as a sort of inventory of popular confidence games of the era, all committed by a team named Mike and Jake. There is a pocketwatch scam, a billfold scam, a tour guide scam, and even a scam involving convincing George that the flashing light atop Barnam’s American Museum is comet. The auction George attends is one enormous confidence game, where he finds himself purchasing an enormous quantity of costume jewelry without meaning to. My research into history has led me to believe that a large, if scarcely mentioned, part of the economy of tourist and commuter cities was fleecing hayseeds, and “A Glance at New York” is like a master class in how to separate a county naif from his money.

But, finally, there is Mose, and it is easy to see why he became such an iconic figure of the American stage during this era. The play was written by a burlesque writer, and so is filled with the mannered conventions of the burlesque, including asides, interstitial songs, and broad comedy. But Mose was inspired by a genuine youth movement, members of who, as we have discovered, would have been in the theater’s pit, watching how they were represented onstage and ready to make trouble if they didn’t like what they saw. As a result, Mose has a swaggering verisimilitude that feels, at times, documentary. His onstage language is a warehouse of slang and idioms of the era, and he talks in a way that sometimes sounds transcribed from interviews with Bowery Boys. As an example, here is the famous monologue that introduced Mose, who is a butcher and volunteer firefighter, although he is thinking about giving up the latter:

I’ve made up my mind not to run wid der machine any more. There’s that Corneel Anderson don’t give de boys a chance. Jest ’cause he’s Chief Ingineer he thinks he ken do as he likes. Now, last night when de fire was down in Front Street, we was a-takin’ 40’s water; I had hold ov de butt, and seed she was gittin’ too much fer us; and I said to Bill Sykes: “Syksey, take de butt.” Says he, “What fur?” Says I, “Never you mind, take de butt.” And he took de butt; so I goes down de street a little, and stood on 40’s hose. Corneel Anderson cum along and seed me. Seys he, “Get off de hose!” Seys I, “I won’t get off de hose!” Seys he, “If you don’t get off de hose, I’ll hit you over de gourd wid my trumpet!” Seys I, “What! I won’t get off de hose!” And he did hit me over de gourd!

I realize this requires translation, and I am not sure I know enough about volunteer firefighting in the mid 1800s to completely explain it. But “Syksey, take de butt!” became a catch phrase from the play, and is widely misunderstood now, even though it is still quoted, so I will do my best to explain.

When Mose says he is thinking about giving up running “wid der machine,” he’s literally talking about a machine — a water pump on wheels, which groups of firemen would gather round, some in front, pulling, some at the back end, or “butt” end, pushing. There’s a common misapprehension that “take de butt” means “hold my cigar,” but, as best as I can tell, Mose is telling his friend Syksey to take over his position at the back of the pump.

The problem is that they have attached their pump to water from a rival station, and too much water is flowing through the pump for it to be effective. So Mose goes and stands on the hose to slow the flow of water, getting him in trouble with a Colonel Anderson, who is either in charge of his company or a rival company. Anderson carries a trumpet because, in the early days, this was how firemen signaled they were coming — old fire pumps sometimes had fanfare-style trumpets tied to the front, so firemen could blast out warning toots as they ran down the street. Colonel Anderson demands that Mose get off the house, and, when Mose refuses, the Colonel hits him with the trumpet.

At least, this is how I understand it. Whatever is going on, the play has provided a snapshot of the experience of a volunteer fireman, and, as the actor who played the role of Mose, Franck Chanfrau, was a former volunteer fireman, I think we can assume that it represents the sort of experience that actual firemen had at the time.

There are frequent flashes of this sort of of verisimilitude throughout the script, which, after all, presents itself as an observer’s representation of New York in 1848 (it’s original title was “New York in 1948”). When Mose first appeared onstage, he was played by a man who shared Mose’s experiences, and knew an actual Mose that he used as a template, and written by a man who knew that men just like Mose would be in the audience, and would rebel if they felt they were misrepresented. The play is exaggerated and comical, but rooted in fact, which is especially interesting.

The further we get from the first play, the further we get from reality. Mose started out as a real man, and as a realistic stage character; he would soon become increasingly fictionalized and exaggerated, finally becoming a tall tale, as we shall see.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.