On Stage

Highest Drama

No Texas theater season has ever been more dramatic than the first.

By John Lomax September 11, 2013

By some lights, you could say that the beginnings of professional drama in Houston (and for that matter, all of Anglo Texas) were inauspicious.

Looking at it another way, the very first theatrical company to call Houston home provided the most truly dramatic production in Texas history, onstage and off. Certainly not until Johnny Ace shot himself backstage on Christmas Day in the City Auditorium in 1954 did entertainers so thoroughly stun the town.  

Though on paper the Houston of 1838 was the capital of a fledgling nation, in reality the city was a festering, disease-ridden dump. The streets were clogged with dead dogs and horses, live feral pigs, and lined with drunken, brawling Bowie-knife-wielding “rowdy loafers.”

Rats swarmed in the millions; some would gnaw on even the living as they slept, and mosquito bites and water-borne ailments carried hundreds off to early (mass) graves.  Panthers and wolves lurked on the edge of town; the long sweaty nights were punctuated by their caterwauling and howls.

Saloons thrived in this muck.  How could they not? You’d have to be plastered to achieve even an hour or three of fitful sleep.

The Texas Capitol, Houston's only grand edifice circa 1838.

One of the first taverns was the Octagon, run by a lonely bachelor named Tom Hoffman.

Decades later, Presbyterian missionary the Reverend William Youell Allen not-so-fondly recalled the place in his Allen’s Reminiscences of Texas, 1838-1842:

The concern was an octagon boarded up about ten feet, and from the top of  this structure a tent was strung up for a roof. It stood upon the  principal street (Congress) about a square from the Capitol,  very convenient for those who sought their refreshments at its  bar. ‘Refreshments’ was General Houston's word in those days.  More than one decanter was smashed by a pistol ball in the same place.

Uncouth though his saloon may be, Hoffman was also a man who enjoyed the theater. A few months after the Octagon opened, he was in attendance at the town’s very first professional evening of drama, on June 11, 1838.

The playbill included a musical performance of “A New Texian National Anthem,” which apparently went on in spite of the fact that the Mobile, Alabama orchestra slated to perform it did not arrive by showtime, and two farces: The Hunchback and The Dumb Belle, or I’m Perfection.

All the scenery had to be repaired from the ravages it suffered on the voyage to Texas, but the company had a far bigger problem than that. Namely its stars: a Mr. and Mrs. Barker. Mr. Barker was reportedly an inveterate drunkard, and he and his wife were not getting along. Not at all. And by some accounts when the curtains went up one night a few weeks into the run, the curtains came down on their marriage, permanently. Turning to his wife and hoisting a cup and saying "I drink this to thee," Mr. Barker guzzled a quarter-pint of laudanum (an opium by-product) mid-performance and died a short time later.

How's that for drama, Houston?

[Note: The Telegraph and Texas Register, then the republic's paper of record, makes no mention of this suicide taking place on stage. It says only that Mr. Barker toasted his wife and drank it in her presence. He then fell into a lethargic slumber, and an hour later, alarmed at his appearance, Mrs. Barker sent for a doctor, who pronounced him dead.  And so departed half the cast of Houston's first visiting theater company.]

In any event, the little town was aghast. According to James L. Haley’s Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas, Sam Houston moved out of his house so that Mrs. Barker and her three kids could move in. Houstonians chipped in to feed and clothe the family.

To pay the community back, Mrs. Barker publicly performed a few scenes from Romeo and Juliet. The Octagon’s Hoffman was smitten in his seat and quickly proposed to the freshly-minted widow, who promptly accepted.

A happy ending? Hardly.

The Reverend Allen again picks up the story of this treacherous actress:

Tom had me to perform the service. His bride, an English woman, desired the Episcopal service, at least the ring part of it. I complied, but got no marriage fee. His wife staid with him about six weeks, made him give her a thousand dollars so that she might go to England for her young son. She returned to the States, but not to Texas nor to Tom. Married a man in Georgia, who sued for divorce when he learned that she still had a husband in Texas.

A fat stack of these couldn't persuade the Englishwoman to remain being Mrs. Hoffman.

So while Mrs. Barker / Hoffman was no dumb belle, neither did her plan work out to perfection. 

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