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The Soul of Pleasure: Sentiment and Sensation in Nineteenth-Century American Mass Entertainment

The Soul of Pleasure: Sentiment and Sensation in Nineteenth-Century American Mass Entertainment

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The Soul of Pleasure: Sentiment and Sensation in Nineteenth-Century American Mass Entertainment

Lunghezza:
505 pagine
7 ore
Pubblicato:
May 24, 2016
ISBN:
9781501703980
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

Show business is today so essential to American culture it’s hard to imagine a time when it was marginal. But as David Monod demonstrates, the appetite for amusements outside the home was not "natural": it developed slowly over the course of the nineteenth century. The Soul of Pleasure offers a new interpretation of how the taste for entertainment was cultivated. Monod focuses on the shifting connection between the people who built successful popular entertainments and the public who consumed them. Show people discovered that they had to adapt entertainment to the moral outlook of Americans, which they did by appealing to sentiment.

The Soul of Pleasure explores several controversial forms of popular culture—minstrel acts, burlesques, and saloon variety shows—and places them in the context of changing values and perceptions. Far from challenging respectability, Monod argues that entertainments reflected and transformed the audience’s ideals. In the mid-nineteenth century, sentimentality not only infused performance styles and the content of shows but also altered the expectations of the theatergoing public. Sentimental entertainment depended on sensational effects that produced surprise, horror, and even gales of laughter. After the Civil War the sensational charge became more important than the sentimental bond, and new forms of entertainment gained in popularity and provided the foundations for vaudeville, America’s first mass entertainment. Ultimately, it was American entertainment’s variety that would provide the true soul of pleasure.

Pubblicato:
May 24, 2016
ISBN:
9781501703980
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

David Monod is professor of American social and cultural history at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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Anteprima del libro

The Soul of Pleasure - David Monod

THE SOUL OF

PLEASURE

SENTIMENT AND SENSATION IN

NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN

MASS ENTERTAINMENT

David Monod

CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS

Ithaca and London

Adam and Emma

With my love

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. Enter Sentimentality: The Origins of the Entertainment Revolution

2. Laugh and Grow Fat: Minstrelsy and Burlesque

3. Looking Through: Sentimental Aesthetics

4. The Democratization of Entertainment: The Concert Saloons

5. Any Dodge Is Fair to Raise a Good Sensation: The Danger and Promise of Sensationalism

6. Art with the Effervescence of Ginger Beer: The Creation of Vaudeville

7. Spectacle and Nostalgia on the Road: Traveling Shows

Conclusion

Notes

Index

Acknowledgments

This book began as an unusual experiment. Instead of following my normal research practice and launching first into the scholarly literature, I started with the contemporary newspaper, magazine, archival, and memoir resources. My goal was to write a new history of the beginnings of mass entertainment which paid attention to the ways in which commercial amusements changed and were changed by the tastes and values of spectators. I therefore set out to learn new things about the attitudes and activities of Americans and not just about the process by which the entertainment industry grew.

The source material on nineteenth-century entertainment is extensive, but it is also fragmentary, disjointed, and scattered, and so the act of writing a first draft based entirely on those primary sources, made me feel a bit like Gideon Mantell building the Iguanodon without a blueprint. Because I was mostly dealing with snippets of information (theatre reviews, recollections of theatre experiences, texts of songs and skits, advertising and promotional material), volume became an important tool in deciding which connections to make and what directions to follow. In other words, rather than employing a common practice in entertainment history and offering examinations of a few representative individuals or works, I created a synthesis by knitting together the mass of tiny bits. I mention the process and goals here only because I believe they produced two unexpected results. First, it led me to a number of intriguing insights into the development of mass entertainment specifically and American culture generally. Second, it forced me to focus on finding linkages between the fragments of contemporary evidence, concentrating my attention on explaining why things changed. The book’s somewhat unconventional chronological and thematic armature was produced by these convergences.

I was very fortunate to have received support from the Office of Research Services at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. A Fulbright Canada award placed me at Vanderbilt University at a critical point in the writing of the manuscript. During my term at Vanderbilt I was able to focus on reading the secondary literature, revising the first draft, and presenting ideas to students and faculty. A heartfelt thanks to colleagues and friends who made my stay in Nashville so memorable and productive, especially Celia Applegate, Jonathan Bremer, Bill Caferro, Jim Epstein, Cathy Gaca, Sarah Igo, and Tom Schwartz. Several colleagues read, heard, or communicated with me about elements of this study, but I am especially grateful to the two who trudged uncomplainingly through the first draft: Richard Fuke and Darren Mulloy. I also appreciate the comments, encouragement, and advice I received from Robert C. Allen, Glen Hendler, M. Alison Kibler, Alan Lessoff, Michael Newbury, and David S. Reynolds. Thanks also to my colleagues in the History Department at Laurier: they are facing the contemporary challenge of teaching in the humanities with courage, good humor, and imagination, and they are models of what can be done.

I am indebted to the librarians, archivists, and staff who assisted my research at the Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library; the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library; the Harry Ransom Research Center; Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa; the Kentucky Historical Society; the Library of Congress; the American Antiquarian Society; Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library; and the National Museum of American History. The interlibrary loan offices at Wilfrid Laurier University and Vanderbilt were unfailingly helpful. Particular thanks to Helen Adair at the Ransom Center; Susan Halpert, Micah Hoggatt and Dale Stinchcomb at Harvard; Doug Reside at the New York Public Library and Sid Huttner at the University of Iowa for making their archives such uncommonly fine places to work.

At Cornell University Press, Michael J. McGandy guided the editorial process with candor and efficiency. Copyeditor Kate Babbit and Senior Production Editor Karen Laun worked hard to fix the errors and Canadianisms in the text and offered invaluable advice on how to make my arguments clearer. At Laurier, Cindi Wieg was a staunch ally who forced me to carve out time from university administration to write and edit and kept me organized and happy in the storm.

Books and lives move at different speeds, and this one is a repository of many memories: of road trips with George Urbaniak and Darryl Dee that provided laboratories for its arguments, of the kindness and hospitality of Michael and Maria Milde, and of conversations with Joan Monod that proved that zany comedy and melodrama can be truly indistinguishable. This book also holds, deeply nestled within it, years in the life of our household. I am so blessed to have shared those years with Michaela Milde and with her to be able to marvel at the miraculous growth of our kids, Adam and Emma, into such splendid young adults.

Introduction

In a literary bonne bouche published in American newspapers in December 1840, Thomas Haliburton, the Nova Scotia humorist, described the first visit of Sam Slick, his fictional Yankee peddler, to a theatre. Slick goes out to the Tremont in Boston, a big handsome playhouse that was home to melodramas, comedies, and circuses. Well, I never was at a theatre afore in all my life, Slick explains, for the minister didn’t approbate them at no rate. But since he was far from home and his preacher would never find out, the intrepid seller of gimcrack clocks decides to temporarily shelve concern for his soul: If I do go this once; it can’t do me no great harm, I do suppose, and a gal in tights is something new; so here I goes. The show did not disappoint him. The scene was a tableau that looked to Slick exactly like Genesee Falls, as nateral as life, and the beautiful four story grist mill taken off as plain as anything…. It was all but rael [sic]; it was so like life. The action, too, was equal to the scenes; it was dreadful pretty. When one of the female performers came out in tights, the folks hurrawed and clapped, and cheered like any thing. It was so excitin’ I hurrawed too … as if I was as well pleased as any of them, for hollerin’ is catchin’.¹

Slick’s misgivings about visiting a theatre were not just the stuff of comedy; moral anxiety prevented many Americans from patronizing popular entertainments in the nineteenth century. Twenty-five years after Slick hurrawed his first woman in tights, the young Frances Willard, who would one day lead the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, rationalized her first theatre experience. On a visit to New York, Willard decided to go to Wallack’s playhouse near Union Square. She believed Wallack’s to be the most respectable one there is, and she hedged her bets by buying a ticket to what she’d heard was a reputable play, the melodrama Rosedale; or, the Rifle Ball. In order to further increase her chances of spiritual remission, Willard asked a senior church member if he thought it would be alright. In the end, like Slick, she concluded that since no one knows me … no harm will be done. Willard afterward confessed a strong natural liking for the drama, and she admitted that she had spent an evening of wonder and delight at Wallack’s, but she remained an infrequent theatre patron.² Only when assured of anonymity (the next time Willard went out to a show it was in London, England) and after reaffirming their faith were people such as Slick and Willard able to enjoy a night in a playhouse. Customers like these were plentiful enough to keep America’s popular theatre on life support through the early decades of the nineteenth century, but little more than that. If commercial amusements were to thrive, new attitudes had to develop.

How did people in the United States overcome their hesitations and how did the popular theatre grow into a mass entertainment? From today’s perspective, it seems strange to even ask these questions, so closely has the United States become associated with contemporary popular culture. American movies, music, digital media, and celebrity marketing have been globalized and popularized to such an extent that they now define mass entertainment itself. It seems odd, then, to think back to a time when the American people were themselves learning how to enjoy commercial amusements, just as other people in other societies have since learned to do.

The process by which people come to like things that their parents did not is interesting and important, and it’s an understandable preoccupation of those working in a wide range of consumer-oriented businesses and scholars in many fields. In this book, I am not interested in understanding change in order to manage or reproduce it; my concern is with documenting how a singular and monumental shift in tastes occurred and in understanding the role that entertainment played in that transformation. Like other historians, I describe change not in an abstract way but as a product of the actions and choices of specific people who could have chosen to do something else or to have held different values. When dealing with really diffuse changes, such as those involving morals, perceptions, tastes and manners, the process of change over time, while evident in retrospect, is hard to pin down. This work relies on many individual examples to chart the transformation in tastes that occurred in the nineteenth century. The examples are used to illustrate trends or innovations that inspired others; they are not meant to suggest that there was no variation. Change in the nature, organization, and popularity of commercial amusement involved trial and error and it happened unevenly, in part for geographic reasons. the entertainment world was a relatively close one that was dominated by the cities of the Northeast (and increasingly by New York). In this world, people moved around frequently (players traveled among theatres) and successful innovations were disseminated, copied, and adapted reasonably quickly.

Today, movies, television, video games, and the Internet are what we understand as mass entertainments. But in the nineteenth century, popular commercial amusement was born in theatres and grew into a mass entertainment because large numbers of people began to go out to watch live shows in playhouses or mixed-use venues. In order to trace the process by which the live theatre developed into the first mass entertainment, this study focuses on the genres that were most commonly performed during the nineteenth century: minstrel shows, melodramas, burlesques, farces, and variety shows.³ These do not represent all the forms of entertainment people enjoyed, but together they are representative and numerically significant. By focusing on these types of amusements, I will document how attending a show developed into a socially and morally acceptable activity for a substantial portion of the population. I will also describe how the popular theatre influenced and adapted to changing tastes and values and how, in doing so, it grew into the first national mass entertainment.

The development of popular entertainment is a topic that has been attracting reflection, commemoration, and scholarship for almost 200 years. Until the 1970s, however, much of that research was concerned with describing the shows that were performed and the personalities involved rather than uncovering the forces that stimulated the theatre’s growth. Older works assumed that the taste for entertainment was a constant and that the theatre’s popularity was therefore a function of the talents of actors and playwrights, the entrepreneurship of managers and owners, the health of the economy, and the reasonableness of lawmakers. What occurred on stage, rather than what was experienced in circles and stalls, was the subject of the narrative. But as theatre historian Robert Lewis explained of nineteenth-century entertainment, its rise has to be seen in the context of a change in attitudes toward the theatre, for behind the showman’s entrepreneurial zeal and fascinating techniques lay something else—a striking change in American attitudes to ‘diversions’ and commercial entertainment itself.

More recent scholars who seek to historicize taste often describe it as axiomatically related to the expansion of the nation and the changing nature of its society. As the country became more urban and its population more diverse, they suggest, people turned to amusements as a release from the congested and chaotic environment. A few historians show how elite groups were important contributors to this development in that they promoted the theatre as a national project—a way of developing an autonomous and distinctly American identity—and that this helped weaken the moral opposition to it. Some have also seen entertainment as a way that elite groups disciplined and assimilated audiences by using the theatre to promote values.⁵ But the most pervasive interpretation ties the rise of the popular theatre to the development of the working class.

From the perspective of class, the theatre emerges as a site of labor struggle, race contestation, and gender definition. It was an arena in which working men, in particular, are seen to have forged their identity and exercised their power through a rowdy participatory culture that was racist, radical, and raucous. As historian Neal Gabler writes, the iron law of popular entertainment in America was that its forms were originated by the lower class (and later by youths and minorities, who would come to fill the inventive functions of the lower class) and that those forms invariably get adopted and then co-opted by the middle class. According to this approach, the birth of the popular theatre in the nineteenth century was, in the words of Cedric Robinson, an archeological marker for the earliest evidence of the appearance of a white working class.

While class formation, assimilation, nation building, urbanization, and entrepreneurship are all important elements in any account of the theatre, the development of mass entertainment also depended on a change of attitude. During the nineteenth century, religion was at the center of most Americans’ world view, and it played a decisive role in shaping tastes. As the stories of Sam Slick and Frances Willard suggest, it took a change in or a suspension of religious belief for people to overcome their moral concerns and go out to a show. This was not a function of class formation in any straightforward way, for as Richard Wrightman Fox notes, changes in ideas rarely follow mechanically upon changes in other social phenomena.

In exploring how values change, it is useful to differentiate broader cultural shifts in which the stage played a relatively small, albeit important, part from a process of assimilation, dissemination, and development within show business itself. I identify two significant transitions in the broader change in culture, morals, and taste: first, the new valuation of compassion that the Enlightenment inspired; and second, the retreat from sentimentality that the Civil War precipitated. Although I am not advancing a rigid and singular causal explanation of cultural change, I present the Enlightenment and the Civil War as temporal markers linked to shifts in behavior and thought that rippled through American society. The changes in culture I associate with these periods did not occur uniformly or suddenly. But change did take place, and it proceeded steadily over the course of the nineteenth century. In the pages to come I document how these cultural shifts occurred and how they inspired new ideas and practices that were disseminated, advanced, and adapted in the popular theatre.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, many Americans with sophisticated tastes did enjoy the experience of the theatre when they risked attending one. But the stage was regarded so unfavorably that few respectable citizens dared to go out to popular entertainment, and those that did seldom went with regularity. The public, a theatre lover lamented in 1810, seemed convinced that plays were moral cantharides which serve to inflame the passions and break down the ramparts behind which religion and prudence entrench the human heart.

This observer put his finger on the problem. What many of those with the financial means to become spectators objected to was that the theatre was a space infused with the excitement of expecting the unbelievable and experiencing the unusual. Behind closed doors and in the dim lamplight, the popular theatre exposed audience members to the possibility of living according to other values. This was the concern that lay behind the assertion, so often made in the early nineteenth century, that the stage was immoral. Potential theatregoers appear to have been worried that they might, like Haliburton’s Sam Slick, lose control of themselves in the playhouse and halloo a woman in tights. In doing so, they would somehow signal their acceptance of a value system opposed to the one that governed their everyday lives. In short, most people were unwilling, or unable, to imagine containing popular entertainment in its own sphere or to see it as disconnected from their real-life activities, relationships, and morals. The Theatre epitomizes every degree of corruption, declared Henry Ward Beecher, America’s most famous preacher, in 1843, summing up the concern. If you would pervert the taste—go to the Theatre. If you would imbibe false views—go to the Theatre. If you would efface as speedily as possible all qualms of conscience—go to the Theatre. If you would put yourself irreconcilably against the spirit of virtue and religion—go to the Theatre. If you would be infected with each particular vice in the catalogue of Depravity—go to the Theatre.

Since what was involved in the marginalization of entertainment in the early nineteenth century was the audience’s reluctance to compartmentalize activities and separate the theatre from their everyday concerns and morals, a major change in attitudes or tastes was needed for a show business to develop. Without this change, the pasteboard, the assumed identities, and the face paint could only ever be seen as the kind of deception and falsehood that Americans deplored in their daily lives. To put the case this way is, admittedly, to run against the grain of much contemporary scholarship. Many historians see the subversive nature of entertainment as the very thing that made it appealing, especially to working-class audiences.¹⁰ The conventional account rests on two presumptions: first, that the popular theatre was a low-brow entertainment for poorer people; and second, that it was by nature transgressive and carnivalesque. This study argues, in contrast, that the theatre was initially synced to the tastes of a middling-class, not a working-class, audience and that its expansion therefore depended on its assimilation into a respectable moral outlook. To show this, I look not to urbanization or secularization but to the development of a spiritual worldview that can be termed sentimental.

The change in public attitude that enabled the popular theatre to develop into a mass entertainment began in the 1820s. In 1848, as the New York Herald announced, there is a revolution going on in theatres, and it was one that involved not just growth but also diversification. According to theatre historian Rosemarie Bank, what was occurring was an expansion … of the concept of entertainment itself … into spaces unimagined by even the most ambitious [theatre] entrepreneurs in the 1820s.¹¹ In particular, this antebellum period saw the development and rising popularity of such light entertainments as farce, variety, burlesque, and minstrelsy. These genres have typically been seen as raucous and subversive; I reinterpret them as products of a sentimental outlook.

The growing influence of sentimentality or, as it was known at the time, sympathy caused a powerful shift in cultural and moral attitudes, especially among middling-class people. The primary purpose of sentimentality was the development of connections among people based on empathy or compassion. Empathy was understood to be a product of emotions, which is why sentimentalists saw feelings as more important than legal principles, customs, or social conventions in fostering community. Feelings were passions (which were seen as rude and even immoral emotions) that were directed in ways that realized God’s purpose, and sentimentalists saw themselves not as dreamy or tormented romantics but as people who had controlled their emotions and instincts and learned how to direct them toward the good. Novels and other forms of art came to be valued because they helped educate people about how to channel their feelings in uplifting or Christian ways. Sentimentality has sometimes been treated as a more primitive or fake form of romanticism, but this is a misleading approach. Where romantics struggled against humanity’s incompleteness, sentimentalists were optimistic about the human condition. Sentimentalists believed that people could learn to culture their raw passions, turn them outward in positive ways, and transform society by regrounding it on the spirit of compassionate love.¹² It was the sentimental turn in belief that prepared the ground for the growth of commercial amusements.

In order to describe the reciprocal relationship between performance and public tastes, I adapt philosopher Hans Robert Jauss’s notion of a horizon of expectation.¹³ Jauss coined this term with reference to reading, but it can also express an audience’s anticipation of what they wanted to see and hear at a show and how they wanted to experience it. I describe these horizons as partly perceptual and partly conceptual because there was more involved in going to a show than the mental or emotional stimulation one hoped to receive; audiences also had expectations concerning their experience of the theatre. How spectators wanted to see, feel, and hear entertainment—their expectations concerning their role as audience members—changed over time and differed according to the type of show they attended. Audiences did not watch a show in a theatre the same way that they watched one in a saloon where they were eating, drinking, and playing cards. They did not watch an operetta or a play the same way that they watched a variety show. These differences in expectation are critical to the argument this study advances.

The sentimental horizons of expectation were never fixed in place and were expressed in art and practice in varied ways. They were, however, expectations, so it is appropriate to focus on those agencies—such as the press, memoirs, and popular literature—that helped shape tastes. It is no coincidence that performance reviews became a standard feature of daily urban newspapers in the late 1820s, around the time that commercial amusement began to become more popular. In the 1830s, specialized magazines carrying theatre reviews such as Spirit of the Times and Godey’s Ladies Book also appeared. Until the 1850s, theatre critics were amateurs, which was why Edgar Allan Poe famously denounce them as illiterate mountebanks, but their lack of professionalism makes them all the more interesting as interpreters of patrons’ attitudes. The opinions of amateur critics are extensively employed in this study both to reveal spectators’ viewpoints and to chart peoples’ horizons of expectation, since reviews helped create those taste predispositions.¹⁴

Because popular performers were aware of their audiences’ expectations (both perceptual and conceptual), in part because they reproduced each other’s successful practices and in part because they paid attention to the aesthetic climate (if only by hearing the applause and reading the reviews), their art tended to reinforce them. Audience pleasure, however, gives way to boredom when expectations are repeatedly satisfied, and this naturally inclines spectators to anticipate and welcome novelty. This is why entertainment feeds on and drives changes in tastes. Shows that do not reflect the values of their audience are often received as incomprehensible or abhorrent, and those that fail to stretch those values are generally seen as old-fashioned. Popular entertainment and the culture of which it is a part changes through this kind of dialogic cycle of demand, satisfaction, and the generation of new ideas that reinvigorate, inspire and then satisfy consumer expectations.

Thanks to the sentimentalization of the theatre, entertainment began to reflect and advance the cultural ideals of the middling class. As many historians have shown, in the first half of the nineteenth century the middling sort expanded in number, influence and self-consciousness.¹⁵ This group, which included proprietors of businesses, professionals, modest investors and speculators, skilled tradespeople and clerical workers, can be characterized as affluent and upwardly mobile but not distinguished in terms of wealth and influence. But it is by their values rather than their incomes that most historians see them coalescing. Middling-class people tended to support economic and urban improvements, public education, and such cultural institutions as libraries and lyceums, and they were also inclined to employ sentimental arguments to advance gendered ideals of domesticity and moral uplift. This is not a group traditionally associated with popular entertainment, and particularly such ostensibly frivolous ones as farces, burlesques and minstrel shows. But as this book shows, the origins of mass entertainment can be traced to the growing appetite of the middling class for commercial amusements. The transition in values this involved was less a matter of people learning to compartmentalize entertainment and separate it from their day-to-day experiences than it was a redefinition of values that allowed people to include entertainment within what was becoming their moral outlook. Sentimental audience members in pre–Civil War America looked forward to an emotional thrill in the theatre; they wanted to be led to experience the deep feelings that performance art (like powerful preaching) could inspire. Of course, actors and managers encouraged and supported this transformation in taste. They were not isolated from the sympathetic turn and their values were influenced by it, but they also understood and seized upon the opportunity to secure a larger and more stable audience.

I divide the story of the rise of mass entertainment into two distinct phases, each of which involved the assimilation, dissemination, and modification of broader changes in values. The first phase, during which a sentimental popular theatre catering largely to the middling class grew, lasted roughly until the Civil War; and the second, which produced a mass entertainment for a more diverse audience, occurred over the next two decades. In the first chapter, I set the stage for a discussion of the entertainment revolution and describe some of the main features of the emerging sentimental culture. In the second and third chapters I explain how sentimentality, as a particular form of taste, expectation, and experience, transformed and legitimized new forms of amusement. Chapter 2 focuses on comedy and minstrelsy, and there I argue that the combination of slapstick humor, emotional sincerity, and family entertainment that characterized both minstrel shows and comedies not only reaffirmed the value of loving relationships but also drew attention to the superficiality of the material world. In chapter 3, I look at the domestic drama that emerged in the 1840s. Here I describe a new form of melodrama that revolved around affective relations, authenticity, realism, and the power of moral reform. This chapter also argues that the expressive goals of sentimental culture—absorption, Bildung (or self-cultivation and moral growth through experience), looking through appearances to connect with inner truths and empathy—helped produce a new horizon of audience expectations.

During the Civil War, the market for theatrical entertainment broadened beyond the middling class as commercial amusements finally came within the reach of a large number of working-class Americans. This new market provided theatrical entrepreneurs with enormous opportunities that they attempted to secure in various ways, and as the second half of this study shows, their efforts ultimately helped transform the sentimental stage and the broader culture of sympathy. The great beneficiary of this second phase in the rise of commercial amusements was the variety theatre. Variety was different in form and intent from the farces, burlesques, minstrel shows, and melodramas that dominated entertainment before the war. As its name suggests, the variety show was a salmagundi of short acts, skits, and stunts involving trained animals, singers and dancers, acrobats, comedians, and character delineators. It was the most flexible and inexpensive of all the forms of theatrical entertainment and was especially well suited to business cycles because it made variety performers responsible for much of the cost of mounting acts. Although its rise was anything but steady, variety grew after the Civil War to become the most popular type of show business. As with minstrelsy, historians have generally described it as a bawdy working man’s entertainment and trace its origins to dingy subterranean concert saloons.¹⁶ But this dates the amusement to the 1860s, when its popularity with soldiers and workers first attracted the attention of temperance and vice reformers. Variety was actually much older and it first emerged, much like burlesque and minstrelsy, as an entertainment for the middling class.

In the 1860s, however, variety became the first form of theatre to amuse people from all classes and all regions. Barrooms with variety stages became ubiquitous after the war, and while some of them attracted a primarily middling-class clientele, others catered to predominantly working-class consumers. But all concert saloons, as they became known, catered to male audiences, and church leaders and reformers regarded them as disreputable institutions geared toward drinking and sex. Certainly the variety they served up was dominated by female performers and it was a theatre very much concerned with looking at bodies. My argument, however, is that variety saloons did not develop outside the sentimental culture but reproduced it in parody form as female performers sang sentimental songs and then sat with the men in the audience, flirting with them and inducing them to buy liquor. Variety saloons provided a form of amusement that ostensibly satisfied sentimental expectations and the cultural link between the stage and home life, but it was devoid of spiritually uplifting qualities.

Partly because of cost and partly because of the shift in values that the war initiated, variety grew to become the first mass entertainment. In the late 1860s and 70s, its horizon of expectation was adopted by performers and spectators of minstrel shows, burlesques, and melodramas as they all competed to secure a share of the emerging market. In time, variety theatres became spaces where men and women of different ethnicities, races, and classes came together to watch a show. But the aesthetic stance the variety show developed was irony rather than sympathy. Irony on the variety stage was a pose, a way that performers communicated the idea that what they said should not be believed. In this sense, it was antithetical to sentimentality, which held that emotional transparency was essential to the appreciation of art. The impact of the rise of variety and the ironic pose represented a weakening of the sentimental aesthetic in the popular theatre and a shift of expectations from emotional absorption in a work to amusement by it. This was a second stage in the entertainment revolution as spectators of variety shows were encouraged to separate the morals and behaviors they saw on stage from the ones they followed in their daily lives. As audience expectations and performance practices cast free from their antebellum moorings, from the notion of sympathetically looking through the stage action and experiencing the essential humanity of the characters depicted, one of the sentimental culture’s most important public validations—its infusion of the popular theatre—was undermined.

These changes were part of the broader process of cultural change that hollowed out the sentimental world view. Historians such as James Roark and Drew Gilpin Faust have shown how the Civil War unleashed torrents of change that transformed mental habits, emotional attitudes, manners, and values. Although sentimentality did not disappear, it was transformed from within. As literary critic Elizabeth Duguette notes, Affective norms [were] inadequate to contain or prevent the often brutal social disruptions associated with the mounting passions of sections (north and south) at war, and this encouraged skepticism about sympathy’s social benefits and sparked interest in regulating and containing emotional expressions that seemed excessive. Compassion surrendered its presumed place as the cement of society to such values as obligation, regulation, self-interest, and power. After the war, a new cultural turn toward the material occurred, one that was enriched by startling scientific and technological discoveries. Realism became the dominant artistic and philosophical pose, and irony thrived in the gap that opened between individual gratification and the lingering faith in higher principles.¹⁷

The development of a mass entertainment and the change in audience expectations from sentimental absorption to the kind of attention given to a variety show is the subject of the second half of this book. Chapter 5 covers the immediate postwar years, during which the concert saloon business continued to expand significantly. As entertainment entrepreneurs and artists looked for ways of securing the mass audience that saloons attracted, lawmakers, reformers, and religious leaders moved to curb what they saw as the demoralizing growth of barroom theatres. The chapter describes the efforts of municipal and state regulators to undermine the nascent mass entertainment industry by severing the connections between drink, sexuality, and the stage. Theatre entrepreneurs looked for ways of countering the regulatory threat and responded by creating a clean variety that they called vaudeville. They created this entertainment as a way of appealing to women and children without sacrificing their existing customer base.

Just as it had before the war, popular entertainment played a significant role in shaping audience expectations. Chapters 6 and 7 investigate the influence of the variety theatre on the sentimental perspective. Chapter 6 focuses on how artists and spectators accommodated a new entertainment horizon centered on surface appearances. In vaudeville, the emerging mass theatre, the arousal of sympathy was replaced by more tangible goals: how to enjoy oneself, how to be physically attractive, how to be funny, how to flirt. At the same time, clothing became an increasingly important element and modern notions of the star personality began to develop. Chapter 7 then turns to postwar minstrelsy and discusses how it evolved into a type of blackface spectacle. As nostalgia for a lost plantation South became one of minstrelsy’s defining characteristics, looking through, an active and personally transformative perspective, became longing for and remembering, a much more passive way of perceiving.¹⁸

Sentimentality was not a fixed thing; it was a cultural expression with a history of its own. In the 1870s and 80s, audiences heard the same types of ballads and watched similar melodramas to the ones they had enjoyed before the war. But the expectations they brought to those forms were different. In antebellum America, amusements were viewed as a constitutive element in a sensorium and a taste system, and they provided affective individuals with the reassuring knowledge that they were members of a broadly respectable collectivity that held similar perceptions and feelings. While the sentimental genres and tropes survived after the war, their meaning altered as sentimentality lost its connection to empathy and became a synonym for melancholy personal emotions and mawkish presentations that were untrue to life.

By the turn of the twentieth century, sentimentality had come to be associated, in the minds of prominent artists, critics, and intellectuals, with working-class or cheap amusements and with emotionally unstable middling-class women and soft-hearted men. This was not a meaningful group in any sociological sense, but it carried a powerful cultural charge: sentiment was increasingly connected with the tastes of all those on the margins of the male-dominated, business-driven, increasingly rule-governed, atomized industrial society of the Gilded Age. For many influential liberal thinkers, sentimentality was for losers, and their interpretation has stuck like pitch to historians. The fact that sensibility had been a transforming, indeed radical, force in society before the Civil War was forgotten. A new artistic ethos was taking hold, one grounded in irony, fashion, empiricism, self-aggrandizement, material success, and biological racism. The visual world was becoming a place of surfaces rather than depths, of external attributes rather than inner meanings to be discerned. Not surprisingly, in the legitimate theatre of the 1870s and 80s, realism became all the rage.

Vaudeville was a popular entertainment that was ideally suited to the developing perceptual regime. Mobile and incandescent, it privileged appearances and individualized audience responses. Vaudeville turned performances into commodities, articles of consumption that were offered up to the atomized gaze of spectators. It also presented entertainment as a kind of respite that was designed for those seeking a little time off from everyday life. There was, of course, nothing wrong with this, and it remains the way most of us want to have our fun delivered, but the expectations on which modern mass entertainment thrived were different from those that had attracted antebellum audiences. Like their theatregoing forebears, late nineteenth-century spectators went out in pursuit of pleasure. Unlike audiences of their grandparents’ day, they were not especially interested in stopping to secure, far less to enjoy, the cultivation of their souls.

Chapter 1

Enter Sentimentality

The Origins of the Entertainment Revolution

Running an American theatre was a risky business in the first decades of the nineteenth century. According to a German tourist in 1837, of all the theatres in the United States there is but one which is known to have carried on a profitable business. The fault lies not so much with the managers as with the public itself. The Americans are not fond of any kind of public amusement … their evenings are either spent at home or with a few of their friends, in a manner as private as possible. Frances Trollope, an English visitor who spent the 1830s unhappy in Cincinnati, came to believe that Americans were simply too divested of gayety to enjoy an evening out. There is no trace of feeling from one end of the Union to the other, she snarled. If they see a comedy or a farce, they may laugh at it; but they can do very well without it. In France, Michel Chevalier observed in 1839, there were always queues in front of the theatres, but in the United States, the only lineups began at the doors of banks. Even Harriet Martineau who, like Trollope, visited in the 1830s (and unlike her compatriot quite enjoyed her stay), admitted that the Americans have little dramatic taste; and the spirit of Puritanism still rises up in such fierce opposition to the stage, as to forbid the hope that this grand means of intellectual exercise will ever be made the instrument of the moral good to society that it might be made…. The uncongeniality is too great.¹

In reality, the paucity of entertainments that European tourists described was a feast compared to the situation two or three decades before. Although the visitors couldn’t have known it, from 1790 to 1830, the theatre had actually set down reasonably resilient, if as yet spindly, roots. Through most of the eighteenth century, theatrical companies had made only migratory stops in colonial settlements and no town was able to sustain a permanent professional theatre. Historian Odai Johnson suggests that this was due to the small size of most settlements, but there was more to it than that. Although the towns of colonial America were certainly small, New York had 25,000 people in 1776, which made it equivalent in size to such places in England as Portsmouth, Lichfield, Saxmundham, and Newcastle-on-Tyne, all of which had permanent theatres by the 1740s and 50s. Bath, which was smaller than New York or Philadelphia, had two

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