The Turn-of-the-Century American Theater Context

  • Richard Wattenberg
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)


Circumscribed as it was by diverse period assumptions and intellectual constructs, late-nineteenth-century frontier discourse was, nevertheless, transformed when it entered the theater. As a mode of representation, or (re) presentation, the theater production process inevitably impresses itself on the material with which it deals. In other words, the theater does not function as a transparent window through which either the actual frontier western experience or the experience as it was constructed through nontheatrical discourse can be viewed in its pure state. When set within a theatrical context, the turn-of-the-century frontier western “discourse” was unavoidably recast to meet the needs of prevailing theatrical practices that is, in the theater, frontier discourse was shaped to accommodate a “vocabulary” and “syntax” specific to the theater of the period. Insofar as this vocabulary and syntax set the parameters of theater representation, they can be seen as the distinguishing elements of what we might call “theater discourse.” Late-nineteenth-century frontier western drama should be understood, then, as the product of what Stephen Greenblatt referred to as a complex cultural “negotiation.”1 Drama representing frontier western experience is the outcome of an intersection of two discursive fields: one defining the limits of what was said about the frontier western experience, and the other defining the limits of what constituted theater or what could be expected of theater representations in the late nineteenth century.


Late Nineteenth Century Stock Company Audience Member Century Gender Ticket Price 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This theme, of course, has been explored by Richard Slotkin at length in his three volumes: Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973); The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890 (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1986); and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    In discussing the kind of social interaction that comprises “theatrical formations,” Bruce McConachie writes: “[G]roups of spectators and theater performers produce each other from the inside out as artists-to-be-experienced and audiences-to-be-entertained in a given historical period. The result is what may be termed a theatrical formation, the mutual elaboration over time of historically specific audience groups and theatre practitioners participating in certain shared patterns of dramatic and theatrical action,” Melodramatic Formations: American Theatre and Society, 1820–1870 (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992), xii.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Robertson Davies, The Mirror of Nature: The Alexander Lectures, 1982 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983), 9–13.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Daniel C. Gerould, “The Americanization of Melodrama,” in American Melodrama, ed. Daniel C. Gerould (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1983), 7.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    Alan Trachtenberg explores a similar contradiction when he speaks about the conflict between the ethical ideal and business ethics in the pursuit of success during the Gilded Age. See The Incorporation of America: Culture & Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 80–81.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Jeffrey D. Mason, Melodrama and the Myth of America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 18.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    Grimsted, Melodrama Unveiled: American Theater and Culture, 1800–1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 215–18.Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    See Richard Moody, America Takes the Stage: Romanticism in American Drama and Theatre, 1750–1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955), 105–107.Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    James Kirke Paulding’s The Lion of the West (1830) was written for popular comic actor James Hackett, who took advantage of Davy Crockett’s notoriety as a tall-tale humorist.Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    In regard to the change in perspective on frontier heroes, Henry Nash Smith describes “how slowly the Western hunter gained sufficient social standing to be allowed to marry the heroine. This fictional emancipation of the Wild Westerner was not clearly worked out before the late 1870s,” in Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 211.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    With regard to the interconnectedness of race and gender within the civilization/savagery dichotomy, see Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 21.
    Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820–1860,” American Quarterly 18 (1966), 151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 24.
    The effect of this hierarchy on males is the focus of studies about male gender construction in America—studies like E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic, 1993).Google Scholar
  15. Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: Free Press, 1996), 43–188; Bederman 1–44.Google Scholar
  16. 25.
    Kathy Peiss discusses how the subculture of young working women at the turn of the century was instrumental in this change. This is a case of a marginalized subculture impacting the broader culture even if the members of this subculture remain substantially powerless. See Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-ofthe-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 185–88.Google Scholar
  17. to what women were actually experiencing and doing” [Westering Women and the Frontier Experience: 1800–1915 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), 269]. Moreover, historians agree that when women went west for employment on the frontier, they often entered professions that could be viewed as extensions of their domestic responsibilities: teaching, health care, and missionary work. In this regard, see Julie Roy Jeffrey, Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West: 1840–1880 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), 11–12, 79–106; Myres, 238–270.Google Scholar
  18. Glenda Riley, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Woman on the Prairie and the Plains (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988), 102–147. In short, women’s role as the guardian of civilized values was upheld on the frontier, only here the realm of action was enlarged from the family to include the entire community. In either case, however, women’s role as protector of culture was subordinate to the male role, which revolved around more practical economic concerns.Google Scholar
  19. 29.
    See Rotundo, 222–284; Kimmel, 81–188; Bederman, 1–44. Bederman’s distinction between Victorian “manliness” and the late-nineteenth-century obsession with “masculinity” is especially relevant here. Also see John F. Kasson, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 179–83.Google Scholar
  20. 30.
    Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” in Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 45. Scott’s discussion of “conceptual language” is useful in the explication of dramatic structure, but it is important to recall that she uses “language” as post-structuralists do—not to “mean words but systems of meaning—symbolic orders—that precede the actual mastery of speech, reading, and writing” (37).Google Scholar
  21. 32.
    Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920, Vol. III: (1860–1920), The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America (New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1930), 191–92.Google Scholar
  22. 33.
    While this connection was challenged by those who opposed social Darwinism (for instance, at the turn of the century, social scientists like Franz Boas, who sought to move anthropology from a “diachronic” to a “synchronic” understanding of culture), the tendency to embrace evolutionary development was mainstream thinking until several decades into the twentieth century. Regarding Franz Boas’s critique of evolutionary approaches in anthropology, see Michael A. Elliott, The Culture Concept: Writing and Difference in the Age of Realism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 1–34. In Reluctant Modernism: American Thought and Culture, 1880–1900 (New York: Twayne, 1992), George Cotkin also discusses Boas’s rejection of overarching delineations of evolutionary progress (59–63).Google Scholar
  23. 34.
    For a thoughtful examination of “realism” in the American theater, see Brenda Murphy, American Realism and American Drama, 1880–1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  24. 35.
    Interrogating the concept “objectivity,” Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison explore the nineteenth-century understanding of “objectivity” and its relation to a naive faith in the truthfulness of photography and other modes of mechanical reproduction. See “The Image of Objectivity,” Representations 40 (Fall 1992), 81–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 36.
    See Arthur Hobson Quinn, A History of the American Drama: From the Civil War to the Present Day, vol. I (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1927), 108–114; and Richard Moody, 177–84.Google Scholar
  26. 37.
    Quinn, 108. In this context, see also Laurence Hutton’s discussion of Davy Crockett in Curiosities of the American Stage (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891), 30–35.Google Scholar
  27. 39.
    Frank Murdock, Davy Crockett; Or, Be Sure You’re Right, Then Go Ahead in America’s Lost Plays, vol. IV, Davy Crockett and Other Plays, ed. Napier Wilt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), 119.Google Scholar
  28. 40.
    All three of these stories appear in Bret Harte, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and Other Tales (New York: Signet, 1961).Google Scholar
  29. 41.
    “Amusements: Bret Harte’s New Drama: The Two Men of Sandy Bar at Union Square Theatre,” New York Times, August 29, 1876, 5. See Bret Harte, Two Men of Sandy Bar, in California Gold-Rush Plays, ed. Glenn Loney (New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1983), 103–75.Google Scholar
  30. 45.
    Alfred L. Bernheim, The Business of the Theatre: An Economic History of the American Theatre, 1750–1932 (1932; New York: Benjamin Blom, 1964), 31–33.Google Scholar
  31. For a brief, more recent account of this transformation of the theater, see John Frick, “A Changing Theatre: New York and Beyond,” The Cambridge History of American Theatre: Volume II: 1870–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 196–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 47.
    Bernheim and others, like Jack Poggi, Theatre in America: The Impact of Economic Forces, 1870–1967 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968), tended to view the disappearance of stock companies and the appearance of combination companies as a natural, historical progression. More recent historians have challenged the assumption that combination companies grew out of the old stock companies in a gradual and inevitable way.Google Scholar
  33. In this regard, Rosemarie K. Bank, “A Reconsideration of the Death of Nineteenth-Century American Repertory Companies and the Rise of the Combination,” Essays in Theatre 5.1 (1986), 61–75, questions the assertion of a predetermined connection between the demise of stock companies and the rise of combination companies.Google Scholar
  34. Peter Davis, “From Stock to Combination: The Panic of 1873 and its Effects on the American Theatre Industry,” Theatre History Studies 8 (1988), 1–9, has explored the impact of the Panic of 1873 on both these trends.Google Scholar
  35. 54.
    John W. Frick, New York’s First Theatrical Center: The Rialto at Union Square (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985), 1–10.Google Scholar
  36. 62.
    Regarding the construction of a “highbrow/lowbrow” cultural hierarchy, see Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), especially 219–242.Google Scholar
  37. 63.
    Mary C. Henderson, The City and the Theatre: New York Playhouses from Bowling Green to Times Square (Clifton, NJ: James T. White, 1973), 143. The Union Square Theatre was among the more prestigious of New York theaters—the home of Albert M. Palmer’s repertory company, which was highly esteemed for its “artistic and commercial success” (Henderson, 143). Perhaps this play was all the more shocking given the nature of the venue and the expectations that audiences brought to this theater.Google Scholar
  38. 68.
    Gunther Barth, City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 207.Google Scholar
  39. 71.
    United States Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Part 1, Bicentennial ed. (Washington: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1975), 321.Google Scholar
  40. 74.
    Theodore Kremer quoted in Montrose J. Moses, The American Dramatist (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1939), 302.Google Scholar
  41. Ironically but not surprisingly given the cost of admission, productions of spectacular melodramas at “ten-twenty-thirty” theaters were rather spare. Touring versions of “ten-twenty-thirty” melodramas tended to travel without scenery, depending on the stock scenery of the houses in which they performed. See Garrett H. Leverton, “Introduction,” in The Great Diamond Robbery & Other Recent Melodramas, America’s Lost Plays, vol. VIII (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1940), viii-ix.Google Scholar
  42. 75.
    Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon, 1993), 68–87.Google Scholar
  43. 76.
    Bruce A. McConachie, “Using the Concept of Cultural Hegemony to Write Theatre History,” in Interpreting the Theatrical Past: Essays in the Historiography of Performance, ed. Thomas Postelwait and Bruce A. McConachie (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989), 47. McConachie’s discussion in this essay (37–58) of how Kenneth Burke provides the rhetorical underpinning for an understanding of how theater communicates and disseminates ideology is very relevant here. 77. Michael M. Davis, 24.Google Scholar
  44. 78.
    Garff B. Wilson, Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982), 223–224.Google Scholar
  45. 80.
    Richard Moody, introduction to The Great Divide, in Dramas from the American Theatre: 1762–1909, ed. Richard Moody (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1966), 727.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard Wattenberg 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard Wattenberg

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations