Introduction: Popular Entertainment and American Theater Prior to 1900


Introduction: Popular Entertainment and American Theater Prior to 1900

Although Col. George A. Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn on 25 June 1876 was anything but a theatrical event, it certainly became one very soon after. By the middle of August, theatergoers in New York City were flocking to Wood’s Theatre for Harry Seymour’s blood-and-thunder reenactment Sitting Bull; or, Custer’s Last Charge.1 Meanwhile, out on the Plains a scout and part-time actor and playwright named William F. “ Buffalo Bill” Cody accidentally found himself on 17 July face to face with a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hair. The two exchanged a single, simultaneous blast of gunfire, which only Cody survived. Taking his opponent's scalp in hand, Cody almost immediately began to weave the brief skirmish into a larger and more complex battle of deliberately taken revenge for Custer, with Cody as the hero. Moreover, according to most reports, Cody fought while decked out in “a stage costume of black velvet slashed with scarlet and trimmed with silver buttons.”2 Although he was at this particular moment in the employ of the U.S. Fifth Cavalry, Cody had by this time become something of a celebrity on the East Coast for his highly stylized (some might say cliché-riddled) touring stage reenactments of his own exploits. Thus, his wearing of a stage costume both arises from his ongoing interest in performing a frontier persona and inflects the event with a theatrical note. And in the autumn of 1876, Cody further embellished the importance of the skirmish, and hence his reputation, by starring in New York in a play he had commissioned about his killing of Yellow Hair called The Red Right Hand, or The First Scalp for Custer. The printed programs for this show reportedly included “poetry and news releases about [the Little Big Horn battle],” by which “Cody and his managers traded on the audience’s belief that they were transmitting news from the front, representing events actually unfolding on the plains even as spectators sat watching them in Boston, New York, or Omaha.”3

The transmutation of current events into theater represents but one ingredient in the United States’ long history of imbuing popular modes of entertainment with matters of cultural or national consideration. As a further example of this phenomenon, consider Royall Tyler’s The Contrast (1787), where the character Jonathan goes out in search of a circus-like place he had heard of where “a hocus pocus man … could eat a case knife” only to find himself in a proper playhouse watching Sheridan’s School for Scandal. The joke is that when “they lifted up a great green cloth,” Jonathan naively believed he and the rest of the audience were merely looking “right into the next neighbor’s house.”4 The Contrast is generally credited as “the first comedy written by an American to be produced professionally” and the character of Jonathan as the first instance of the now-familiar Yankee rube character type.5 Jonathan’s misapprehension of the nature of the space in which he finds himself one evening once again points to a relationship between popular theatrical entertainment and the crafting of the very frameworks within which knowledge of the world could be organized or produced. Which is to say, Jonathan’s search for a performer of tricks leads him and, by extension, those who have come to the theater to watch an actor perform this role to a lesson in theatrical verisimilitude.

In 1993 Gary A. Richardson observed that “Whether out of religious, aesthetic, or ideological bias, the nation’s cultural arbiters have traditionally been, at best, ambivalent about America’s drama and its functions. This is especially true of drama before O’Neill, about which the prevailing opinion seems to be that the less said the better.”6 Fortunately, this assessment is far less true than it may have been a decade ago, for much admirable scholarship has in recent years given serious consideration to American theater prior to the advent of literary Modernism.7 Nevertheless, compelling and important questions still remain, among them questions about the extent to which developments in American popular entertainment prior to 1900 contributed contemporaneously to the culture’s questions about such matters as high- and lowbrow art, popularity versus artistic quality, and the representation of political and social events as entertainment. We presently live in an age dominated by such mechanically reproducible media as television, cinema, and photography. Thus, when it comes to assessing that which the stage at one time could offer its spectators and participants, we may at times be hard-pressed to recall that for most Americans prior to 1900, the most widely available and accessible medium of visual entertainment was theater (and theater-like productions such as Cody’s persona and the Wild West show). It is to this set of concerns that the contributions to this special issue attempt to speak.

In the first essay, Jason Shaffer takes up the question of how people in the newly founded republic of the United States wrestled with post-war concerns about the articulation of gender. With the reemergence of professional theater in the 1780s, those with questions about how one socially comports oneself as a man or as a woman found themselves looking to the stage for answers. Shaffer looks closely at the New York career of an actress known today only as “Mrs. Harper,” finding that her repertoire of roles, as well as both the praise and the controversies generated her performances, "reflected, and occasionally challenged, the changing symbolic role of women in the political culture of the 1780s." In a similar vein, Sheila C. Moeschen’s essay on what she calls “affliction melodramas” investigates theater’s power to articulate and challenge prevailing assumptions about identity, in this case in relation not to gender but to physical disability. Considering broadly the cultural work performed by American melodrama’s representation of an increasingly visible community of the “deaf/dumb and blind,” Moeschen links the use of such disabled characters as blind orphans and deaf and mute peasant girls to the formulaic demands of mystery- and intrigue-oriented plots. The upshot is that these “affliction melodramas,” with their extensive visual coding of the body in various modes of ability and disability, had the effect of enabling the administrators of “asylums” for the disabled to invoke such signs and meanings in their own educational performances and, hence, of mediating broader cultural attitudes about physicality.

The next two essays, by Matthew Rebhorn and Rebecca Jaroff, take up the question of how popular theater contributed to or challenged prevailing assumptions about Native Americans and the ideology of U.S. imperialism. In Rebhorn’s analysis of Edwin Forrest’s radical reworking of an American mode of acting, the performance of “Indianness” becomes, to a certain extent, a mode for interrogating American imperial aims. Situating Forrest’s widely popular performance of Metamora within contemporaneous theories about elocution and, more fundamentally, a “native” American voice, Rebhorn reminds us that imagining the frontier has always had more cultural power than have the physical frontier spaces themselves. Also interested in the staging of Native American identity by Euro-American writers and performers, Rebecca Jaroff usefully compares two radically different versions of the Pocahontas story, Pocahontas, or The Settlers of Virginia by George Washington Custis and The Forest Princess by the actress and playwright Charlotte Barnes. Viewing the latter as a direct response to and revision of the former, Jaroff demonstrates how Barnes ultimately reveals both the legacy of injustice that followed in the wake of Jackson’s Indian removal policies and, in a more meta-theatrical sense, the legacy of gender-based limitations with which a performer such as Barnes must continually wrestle.

As any reader of Mark Twain knows, the post-Civil War period is marked to a great extent by the perduring appeal of blackface minstrelsy. In the concluding essay, Leslie Pasternack considers how one particularly successful minstrel partnership, namely that of James McIntyre and Thomas Heath, adapted over the years to changing theatrical conventions. Most refreshingly, Pasternack reveals how the images of femininity in the work of McIntyre and Heath—from the grotesque blackface “gal” of their early sketches to the white sex object of their Ham Tree Girls chorus—establish and maintain a link between the oldest blackface traditions and what she calls “the commodification of race and sexuality in the twentieth century.” In this respect, Pasternack’s essay, while situated simply at the tail end of a critical chronology that begins with the post-Revolutionary republic, nicely caps a series of investigations that demonstrate popular entertainment's contributions to the cultural, social, and political conversations of its day. Considered more broadly, the five essays gathered here attest collectively to the immense power of theater prior to 1900 not only to entertain but to establish and negotiate the very terms by which audiences both learned about and confirmed their worlds. Buffalo Bill Cody taught the world to see the American West, even as he invented the terms by which that West was, and in many ways still is, represented. Similarly, the various ways in which post-Revolutionary War actresses and the writers and performers of Native American characters, affliction dramas, and minstrel shows used drama clearly reveal popular theater's indispensable and perhaps even necessary articulations of gender, race, class, and physical type. Which is to say, attitudes toward and ideas about such categories correlate directly to the means by which they are widely shown to us, that is, by which they are dramatized through popular terms.

Nicolas S. Witschi

Western Michigan University


1. Roger A. Hall, Performing the American Frontier, 1870–1906 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 86.

2. Louis S. Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (New York: Knopf, 2005), 118.

3. Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 221–22.

4. Royall Tyler, The Contrast (1787), in Don B. Wilmeth, Staging the Nation: Plays from the American Theater, 1787–1909 (Boston, Mass.: Bedford Books, 1998), 3.1.128–29, 155–56.

5. Wilmeth, Staging the Nation, 2, 11.

6. Gary A. Richardson, American Drama from the Colonial Period through World War I: A Critical History (New York: Twayne, 1993), ix.

7. A small but hardly comprehensive survey of such work would include: Alan L. Ackerman, The Portable Theater: American Literature and The Nineteenth-Century Stage (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); Rosemarie K. Bank, Theatre Culture in America, 1825–1860 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Richard Butsch, The Making of American Audiences: From Stage to Television, 1750–1990 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001); John W. Frick, Theatre, Culture and Temperance Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Hall, Performing the American Frontier; Jeffrey D. Mason, Melodrama and the Myth of America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix, Wearing the Breeches: Gender on the Antebellum Stage (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000); David L. Rinear, Stage, Page, Scandals, and Vandals: William E. Burton and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004); and Susan Harris Smith, American Drama: The Bastard Art (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

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