Drama 575

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AMERICAN POPULAR ENTERTAINMENT AND CULTURE: 1830s to the 1930s
Tom Postlewait

This seminar will consider the development of popular entertainment in the United States from the 1830s to the 1930s.  According to most historians and critics, this is the period in which 19th-century American entertainment--popular, romantic, sentimental, and quintessentially melodramatic--gave way to 20th-century theatre in the modernist mode.  Also, as Lawrence Levine and others have argued, the era witnessed the division, decade by decade, of popular and elite cultures into two opposing camps of “lowbrow” and “highbrow” tastes.  But there are many problems with these dialectical and evolutionary narratives, including the fact that many aspects of popular or lowbrow entertainment were as sophisticated and complex as the supposed highbrow culture.  And many great artists participated in both the popular and elite arts.  Also, popular entertainment was not displaced by modernism.  If anything, popular entertainment became even more pervasive and influential in American culture during the early decades of the twentieth century.  Revues, burlesque shows, vaudeville, musicals, comedies, and melodramas dominated Broadway.  And with the arrival of the new technologies of film, radio and television, popular entertainment spread throughout the nation during the twentieth century.  Moreover, the history and significance of popular entertainment in this era cannot—or should not—be separated from the social and economic transformations for workers, women, and minorities.  This era featured the changing status of women and their place in American life.  From the suffrage movement to the visual displays of women on stage and screen (e.g., Ziegfeld Follies, striptease), the ideas and images of women became complex, often contradictory conditions of modern life.  This era is also the turning point when African American theatre and music played a major role in the transformation of the American performing arts.  For various reasons, then, popular entertainment not only displayed the definitive aspects of modern American society but also contributed to the transformations of that society.

In order to take the measure of these developments we will investigate the careers of several major people who contributed to the making of the American entertainment industry, from P. T. Barnum to Flo Ziegfeld.  A parade of popular entertainers, playwrights, and producers from the era entices us: Barnum, General Tom Thumb, Jumbo, Dion Boucicault, Sol Smith, Lotta Crabtree, Adah Isaacs Menken, George L. Fox, Joseph Jefferson, Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show, Annie Oakley, Dan Rice, Denman Thompson, Kiralfy brothers, Harrigan & Hart, Fred Thompson and Coney Island, George Abbott, Clara Morris, Maude Adams, Charles Frohman, David Belasco, George M. Cohan, Weber and Fields, Tony Pastor, Will Marion Cook & Paul Laurence Dunbar, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, the Shubert brothers and their theatrical empire, Jacob Adler, Lillian Russell, David Belasco, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Charles Frohman, Irene and Vernon Castle, Clyde Fitch, Rin Tin Tin, Harry Houdini, Booth Tarkington, Moss Hart, Flo Ziegfeld, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, W. C. Fields, Joseph Urban, Bert Williams, George Walker, Ethel Waters, Marie Dressler, Sophie Tucker, Elsie Janis, D. W. Griffith, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee, Mae West, the Marx Bros., Busby Berkeley, Irving Berlin, J. Kern and O. Hammerstein II, Rogers and Hart, Rogers and Hammerstein, Ira and George Gershwin, Fred Astaire, Amos ‘n’ Andy, and Gypsy Rose Lee.  We will read several autobiographies and biographies, and we will examine some of the cultural histories of American popular entertainment from the 1830s to 1930s.  These works will immerse us in the era.  Out of these readings each student will develop a research project on a key individual, group, event, company, theatre, movement, issue, or idea.   The range of possible topics is close to infinite.