OFF BROADWAY: Tiffanys Revisited

The U.S. theater, known as the fabulous invalid for generations, was in a particularly palsied state in the 1840s. Sniffed a young Brooklyn Eagle critic named Walt Whitman: "Bad taste carries the day with hardly a pleasant point to mitigate its coarseness." New York's Park Theater, for one, was fast approaching the day when patrons sat on bare benches, watching rats fight the actors for stage center.

In this atmosphere arrived an unlikely heroine: a strong-jawed, 26-year-old matron named Anna Cora Mowatt. Anna's lawyer-husband had broken down physically and financially, and Anna...

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