This week, I will be reading through The Library of America’s The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner. As a member of the academic proletariat, I have not have much funding to enjoy theater. I used to subscribe to an opera company but ended that a few years ago. I think the last play I went to was a production of The Tempest. That said, I approach these readings with a hypothesis that theater is a fundamentally more democratic, participatory, and communitarian form of entertainment compared to television and film. Television and film may have some egalitarian and democratic elements but these are ultimately undercut by its centralizing tendencies. As the editor of this collection, Laurence Senelick wrote in regards to post-war American theatre: “Political protest and social unrest more often generated the ‘alternative theater,’ residing in coffee-houses and church halls, spilling out into the streets, creating happenings rather than plays, liberating actors from texts and turning them into ‘participants,’ inciting young audience and infuriating older ones. Censors bristled as nudity, four-lettered words, drug-taking, sex acts both stimulated and actual invaded the stage.” (xxiv-xxv).
I read the first sixteen selections today. They mostly cover commentary on American theater during the 19th century. Three themes immediately come to the forefront: the theater as a democratic space, foreigner perspectives on American theater, and the theater as a site of moral reform and concern. There was also some articles speaking about the career of Edwin Booth and his famous Booth theater in New York. I am unable to speak much about his. He was the brother of the assassin John Wilkes Booth.
The Theater as a Democratic Space
I was just talking to a friend today about baseball. Specifically, how in the good old days, the rich saw the games in roughly the same place as the working classes. Their tickets were a bit more expensive, but they say not far from the bleachers, drank the same beer and ate the same hotdogs. Baseball games were just one of many ways that the local working classes interacted with the elite in a day to day basis. Now, of course, the elite can attend a baseball game and never interact with the “masses” and can enjoy catered meals, private bartenders and cushy seats in elaborate box seats. Inequality existed in the earlier setup but it was tempered by the necessity of the classes living and working near each other. From these articles on the theater, one gets the sense that the early American theater was a space where the classes mixed and where audiences participated in the festivities. In Washington Irving’s “Letters from Jonathan Oldstyle”, the narrator reserves an entire letter on the audience who “furnished no inconsiderable part of the entertainment.” (5) William Dunlap described the historical development of theater in New England, from Puritan prohibition to democratic acceptance. Walt Whitman describe the audience at the Bowery theaters as such: “Cheap prices and vulgar progammes came in. People who of after years saw the pandemonium of the pit and the doings on the boards must not gauge by them the times and characters I am describing. Not but what there was more or less rankness in the crowd even then. For types of sectional New York those days — the streets East of the Bowery, that intersect Division, Grand, and up to Third Avenue — types that never found their Dickens, or Hogarth, or Balzac, and have pass’d away unportaitured — the young shipbuilders, cartmen, butchers, firemen they, too, were always to be seen in these audiences, racy of the East River and the Dry Dock. Slang, wit, occasional shirt sleeves, and a picturesque freedom of looks and manners, with a rude good-nature and restless movement, were generally noticeable.” (52-53) Theaters seemed to have a been a public “third space,” where communities were reinforced and participated in. In these accounts, one imagines little “shushing” and many unsolicited opinions. It is also a place where the elite would have been in a minority and their habits – even undemocratic attitudes – challenged by a diverse and loud working class. The union hall or socialist lodge it was not, but it was a place were boundaries could be contested.
Alexis de Tocqueville suggests most clearly the nature of theater in a democracy as opposed to the more aristocratic Europe. Tocqueville believed that theater was “the most democratic part of literature” because of the class mingling I just mentioned and the lack of education or preparation required of the audience. Aristocratic theater workers to reinforce one aspect of human nature, supporting one “certain virtues.” Democratic theater is invested in a more diverse spectrum of emotions, the audience is bigger, the themes less moralistic, the sentiment greater, and the plausibility of plots neglected. “Most people who attend plays go in search of intense emotions of the heart rather than pleasures of the intellect. They expect to find not a work of literature but a show, and provided that the author speaks the language of the country correctly enough to make himself understood and his characters arouse curiosity and waken sympathy, they are happy. Immediately thereafter, they return to the real world, without asking anything more.” Despite these tendencies, theater audiences were smaller and American production in dramatic works stifled by its Puritan heritage and relative political stability.
Nineteenth-century moral reform struck the theater with the debate over nudity in performances. While I do not know this history, I get the sense that the line was not always clear between respectable theater “immoral” shows. Mark Twain’s described one “Black Crook” where costumes revealed “all possible compromises between nakedness and decency”. He pointed out that the show was widely attended and advertized all over the nation. Olive Logan a feminist critic of nudity in theater attacks what she saw as the widespread misuse and exploitation of actresses. Her solution is the moral reform of theater and the use of classical nineteenth century moral suasion to convince people to not attend or act in these shows. This theater became a space of competing moral visions, informed by the mass particiapation and breakdown of class discipline and division.
I think we need more of these spaces and since theater no longer provides it, we need to create new ones. Class conflict will be one-sided as long as the elite control access to space.