The lives of writers and scholars in early 20th century Philadelphia often involved the Franklin Inn Club, the artistic society, founded in 1902, which claimed among its members a large percentage of the city’s leading cultural lights. But despite the collective intellectual and artistic intensity housed within its relatively small space, the atmosphere at the Franklin Inn was remarkably relaxed; the building on Camac Street served as a gathering place for lunch, after-work dinner and drinks, and occasional picnic outings to nearby scenic locales. It also hosted an impressive number of amateur theatricals, one of which was held yearly to celebrate Ben Franklin’s birthday—and, judging by the programs I’ve found in the papers of John Louis Haney, president of Central High School from 1920 to 1943, noted scholar of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and long-term member of the Club, these theatricals were pretty riotous affairs, and prove that a literary society of that era was never in danger of taking itself too seriously.
We begin with an evening’s entertainment from 1917: The Yellow Dye, or, the Moulting Hero: a farce tragedy in five acts, being a pirated dramatization of Jorg Jib’s popular novel The Yellow Dove. Where to begin with the many joys on display within this small piece of paper? For one thing, we have a window into the literary tastes of the Club members; The Yellow Dove, an enormously successful popular novel at the time, clearly came in for some riotous and none-too-kind ribbing for lines such “she sank low in her armchair, her senses numb from the horror of the revelation. Her thoughts became confused like that of a sick person awaking from a nightmare to half consciousness, peopled with strange beautiful images doing the dark things of dreams. Cyril—her Cyril—a spy!”
From the gently sarcastic character appellations (“the hanemic hero,” “the ‘usky ‘eroine”; clearly George Gibbs had a fondness for cockney dialect) to the name itself, one can imagine the sort of “farce tragedy” the audience would have to deal with. All this, in addition to the all-male cast (the Franklin Inn didn’t admit women until 1980) would have lent the evening an air of appealing absurdity.
But if the adaptations were charming, it was the original plays that were the most riotous. The one-act play advertised for January 6, 1921 simply entitled Hootch has no relation to any other extant literary work, and perhaps that’s all for the best—but the tantalizing glimpses provided by the program raise all sorts of questions. Who is this family, the Swags—and what are they interested in? Why is Volstead Hunter “a martyr to duty?” And—perhaps most importantly—how can anyone with the name Swag, no matter how young, truly be an “innocent child?”
(Actually, the most important question is probably how Dr. (Ellis Paxson) Oberholtzer, famed biographer and club secretary, managed the “mature but still fascinating” role of Mrs. Swag.)
Calling such a play Hootch may have had to do with the play’s contents, but it also signals the implied state of the audience attending such a performance—and indeed, we have written evidence of the fondness for alcoholic refreshment evinced by the club’s members, in the form of an ode to cultural drinking.
While undated, one can imagine, considering its inclusion in the archives among other Franklin Inn material from the period, that its ironic repudiation of demon liquor was a reaction to the rules of Prohibition. But regardless of its era, its lines—alongside the spirited amateur theatricals it complements—give a sense of the ways in which the Inn’s membership melded high culture with a high tolerance for satire and spirits.