Penn Library Exhibitions

Robert Montgomery Bird: Writer and Artist

The City Looking Glass
Philadelphia Politeness
"Philadelphia Politeness"
watercolor, undated and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

The City Looking Glass, one of Dr. Bird's "'prentice" works, was written before he hit his stride as a playwright. His original manuscript (1828) is shown alongside the first printed edition, which appeared more than a century later. The undated drawing shown above, "Philadelphia Politeness," might almost have been made to illustrate this play, a "city comedy" that draws on traditions going back at least as far as Ben Jonson and whose milieu and mood--intentionally or not--the drawing captures perfectly.

The play concerns two college friends en route to marriage. One is thwarted by disagreements between his Philadelphia father and his intended's Virginian father, who favors slavery, high tariffs, and states's rights. The other finds an obstacle in the apparently disreputable background of the woman he fancies, raised the daughter of a brothel-keeper. Neither lover is thwarted permanently, of course. Even the "disreputable" young woman, well brought up at a proper school far from the bawd, turns out additionally to be the sister of the Virginian, kidnapped in infancy but thought by her family to have drowned--a romance motif fully indicative of the conventional character of this early work. However conventional it may be, it is also a sprightly portrayal of contemporary upperclass American manners and mores.


"The City Looking Glass: A Philadelphia Comedy; In Five Acts"
Robert Montgomery Bird Papers
Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt Library


The City Looking Glass: A Philadelphia Comedy, in Five Acts
ed. Arthur Hobson Quinn
New York: Printed [by the Pynson Printers] for The Colophon, 1933
[one of 465 copies]
Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt Library

Note: The full text of Professor Quinn's edition is available through the Penn Library's Center for Electronic Text & Image: url=

Penn Professor Arthur Hobson Quinn's edition marked the play's first appearance in print. The actor-impresario Edwin Forrest claimed the rights to all of the plays Dr. Bird wrote for him and, in an old if not admirable theatrical tradition, he refused to allow them to be printed out of fear that other actors might also make popular vehicles of them. Bird's earliest plays no doubt also failed to appear in print because they failed to satisfy Bird himself. Dr. Bird was one of Professor Quinn's major discoveries: an American playwright of consequence in both his early and his late works.


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