From Traveling Show to Vaudeville: Theatrical Spectacle in America 1830-1910
Robert M. Lewis
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
$45.00, 384 pages, ISBN 0-8018-7087-9.
This is a book of excerpts from primary sources with introductory commentary by the author to explain and give context to the excerpts. The introduction gives a narrative overview of popular commercial entertainments of the nineteenth-century United States. This is followed by chapters on dime museums, minstrelsy, circus, melodrama, leg shows, wild west shows, amusement parks and vaudeville.
The author does not explain his title but he gives indications of his meaning. "From traveling show to vaudeville" in the title seems to suggest that the popular amusements included were chosen for sharing a variety format that could appeal to a broad range of tastes and a portability to better reach the rural and small-town population that characterized the nineteenth-century United States. The term "spectacle" is used to suggest "entertainment of the eye" for the masses, a distinction of popular entertainments from legitimate theater or high culture. Spectacle meant appealing to the eye, sensory and of a lower intellectual level.
Lewis gives no explanation either as far as the dates in the title are concerned, except to imply that these dates fit the heyday of popular variety entertainment. The year 1830 may be a bit too late to capture the rip-roaring tales of the pioneer traveling troupes of Sol Smith, James Caldwell, and Joseph Cowell, none of whom are included in the index. Yet there is no clearer date to mark the opening of this era of popular entertainment. The closing of 1910 is on firmer ground. It was the heyday of nickelodeon and apparently represents the displacement of live performance by recorded entertainment. It is also a reasonable point for marking the decline of road shows that had flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The introduction tries to encapsulate American entertainment history in twenty-one pages. It is too broad-brushed and wide-ranging, telling a little about an awful lot and not much about anything. It briefly mentions many examples of various topics raised—e.g. the conception of the "show," the importance of travel and variety format for commercial success—but skims across the examples too quickly to develop an understanding for the reader. A better choice might have been to delve more deeply into a selected few examples to illustrate the author's points and to be more explicit about their relevance to nineteenth-century social and cultural history.
Lewis's selection of documents and his commentaries indicate his considerable familiarity with American popular culture. The excerpts themselves are often fascinating. The scripts of minstrel and vaudeville sketches, and snatches of melodramas give the flavor of these widely enjoyed entertainments. Letters of P. T. Barnum and other impresarios give a sense of the ambitious logistics of a great traveling circus. Memoirs of Mark Twain, William Dean Howells and a host of others capture the marvel of these entertainments through their eyes as youths.
Unfortunately, the voices in most of the sources are those who, as adults at least, speak from the outside. There are, in the book as in archives, few voices of the "masses," and those few speak only a few lines, compared to the voluminous pages by professional writers going on about this or that. This is of course not a shortcoming of the book but of the culture that failed to preserve for history these "lesser" voices. Nevertheless, the excerpts are enlightening, particularly the longer ones. The shorter ones awaken one's desire to know more, but leave one mostly wondering what else they might have told one. The book concludes with a bibliographic essay that is a valuable guide to those who are not already scholars in the field of popular entertainments, and will save many graduate students from having to discover this work on their own.
The chapters intermix fictional accounts with non-fiction. If one does not read Lewis's introductory comments carefully, one can easily mistake a fictional account for an eyewitness's account. This could become a problem particularly for students not reading the commentaries carefully. Besides, readers must remember that the non-fiction sources should not be used as factual evidence for social histories but only as indicators of the discourses of the times helping their understanding of cultural histories.
This is not
a book intended as original scholarship. It surveys a great breadth
of material, mounting a sustained effort of scholarly inquiry
into new territory. Nevertheless it is an eminently useful book.
Lewis notes that he compiled the work from his experience as a
teacher of American history. Indeed, From Traveling Show to
Vaudeville: Theatrical Spectacle in America 1830-1910 may
be used by teachers of American history. It is an excellent reader
for introducing students to cultural history, bringing it alive
through primary sources. For this purpose its breadth is a virtue
rather than a shortcoming, providing as it does a panorama of
everyday life outside of home and work in nineteenth-century America.
Likewise, the book is useful to scholars who are non-specialists
in this field and who will find it an easy means of familiarizing
themselves with an unfamiliar topic as background for teaching
or their own research, or as an initiation into a new area of