Of all the characters in the history of U.S. drama, Colonel Nimrod Wildfire of Kentucky occupies a special place. He claimed to be "half horse, half alligator [and] a touch of the airth-quake." He had "the prettiest sister, fastest horse, and ugliest dog in the deestrict." He could "tote a steam boat up the Mississippi and over the Alleghany mountains." His father could "whip the best man in old Kaintuck, and I can whip my father." All in all, the colonel was a wow back in the 1830sthe literary prototype of the tall-talking frontiersman, the first introduction to the stage of native Western humor. But what had happened to the play that first made him famous? Until last week, most scholars could point to that as a U.S. literary mystery.
Only a Memory. From 19th century diaries and newspaper notices, and old playbills, the play has long been known about. Its author was Novelist James Kirke (Westward Ho!*) Paulding, and it was first put on by famed Actor-Producer James H. Hackett under the title The Lion of the West. For London, Hackett had it rewritten as The Kentuckian, or a Trip to New York, and in the nation's capital its subtitle became A Trip to Washington. A hit for more than 20 years, the play was never published. After Paulding and Hackett died, the memory of their great creation, Nimrod Wildfire, remained; the play was apparently lost.
Last week, as the result of some diligent sleuthing by Professor James N. Tidwell of San Diego State College, the Stanford University Press was able to show the public The Lion of the West for the first time. Tidwell began his search for it in 1947 simply because he thought it might contain the origin of the phrase "up the salt river," meaning "to defeat a man politically." He collected everything he could on Actor Hackett's tours. He scoured the libraries of the Allegheny region, checked with rare-book dealers. Finally a colleague gave him an idea: if the play appeared in London, it must have received the permission of the Lord Chamberlain. Tidwell had the Lord Chamberlain's files searched, at last found the clue he was looking for. The place that the play turned up: the British Museum, where it was listed under the name of the author whom Hackett hired to adapt it for the London stage.
Pure Farce. Modern readers will find that The Lion holds up remarkably well. Its plot is pure farce, involving a phony British nobleman's quest for the hand of an American heiress, a social-climbing American mother, and a visiting English lady named Mrs. Wollope, who like Mrs. Trollope is collecting data on the domestic manners of the Americans. In the course of the play, Colonel Wildfire helps rout the phony noblemanand Mrs. Wollope as well. Sample dialogue:
Mrs. Wollope: . . . May I offer you a cup of tea?
Wildfire: Much objected to you, madam. I never raise the steam with hot water always go on the high pressure principleall whisky.
Mrs. Wollope: A man of spirit! Are you stationed in New York, sir?
Wildfire: Stationedyes! But don't mean to stop long. Old Kaintuck's the spot. There the world's made upon a large scale.
Mrs. Wollope: A region of superior cultivationin what branch of science do its gentlemen excel?