D3plus and Theatre History

After reading Anastasia Salter's ProfHacker post on D3plus visualizations, I was intrigued by D3's ability to create creative, interactive visualizations.  I've been thinking about exploring other paths to visualizing my genre data beyond network graphs, and this seemed like an intuitive, clear approach.  After adopting the example she recommended, I created the following graph of genres at rival New York theatres in the 1839-1840 season: The Bowery Theatre and The Park Theatre (see this post for another view of the data). Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 1.59.13 PM   As in a network graph, the size of the nodes within the bubbles represents the number of productions of each genre for that theatre.  While it does not show connections between theatres, it can help give us a sense of the generic fingerprint of each theatre. The result isn't earthshattering, but a) it's more intuitive and effective than a bar chart, b) I did it in about 30 minutes, so c) it's looking like a great gateway drug to the rest of D3! For a more complete and interactive graph, see the code that I adapted from this D3plus example.
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A Network Perspective on Male/Female Co-Stars in New York City Theatre (1839)

Following my previous post, which looked at Genre Networks in five antebellum New York City theatres, I have started working on a graph of actors and actresses through August-December 1839.  Using the same theatres (The Park, the Bowery, The National, The National (at Niblo’s), and the Chatham), I built a different graph that attempts to measure what actors appeared with what actresses.  I am interested in finding out how connected prominent actresses were to the male stars of the period and vice/versa.  The idea for this project began while I was transcribing Odell and noticing that there was a high number of theatrical couples appearing together onstage.  I was curious to see if having a husband/wife team onstage was an significant draw, so I recorded how often husband/wife pairs were present in productions compared to those same actors appearing with someone else.

From the data that I have used, the answer is highly variable.  What I did find, however, suggests that a look at actor networks in the period can provide insight into the lives of performers that might be more obscure if we only looked at the data on a close basis.  This is what I love about digital humanities work: it has the potential to provide a wider perspective that one might not otherwise notice on the day-by-day scale.  However, as many people will say, “distant reading” is not an end-product, but a means to indicate directions for further work.  In making this graph, I found some great clues that I look forward to researching in detail.

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Genre Networks in Antebellum NYC Theatres

When I first saw Gephi (in a talk by Micki Kaufman on Kissinger), it completely blew my mind. Like many, I was wowed by the pretty graphs. There were shapes, colors, and who doesn’t like to see a lot of important-looking circles connected by all sorts of lines? Although I had little to no experience in Digital Humanities, I wanted to do that. Badly. And I did: I found out the first rule of gephi: it’s easy to make a pretty visualization that signifies almost nothing.

Well, there was a dissertation to finish, work to pursue, and a million distractions, so, while I concentrated on Digital Pedagogy, I never quite got back to Network Analysis for a while. Now, after a lot of reading in Network Theory, Social Network Analysis, and experimenting with software, I am beginning to use network visualization for good. This is the beginning of a research/visualization project that I’m working on currently to answer some historical questions about nineteenth-century New York theatre.

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Theatre Etiquette (1833)

I’m a big fan of nineteenth-century etiquette manuals but few of them take the time to describe an etiquette of going to the theatre, so I was overjoyed to come across The Gentleman and Lady’s Book of Politeness and Propriety of Deportment, Dedicated to the Youth of Both Sexes (translated from the 6th Paris edition) from the Two Nerdy History Girls blog post on “the fine art of walking city streets in the 19th century” from the same book.  Along with sections on the usual repertoire of c19 advice (dining, receiving visitors, conversation, carriage of the body, letter-writing, hosting, etc.), there is a rather lengthy section on home and public amusements, including parties, parlor games, concerts, and theatre.  According to the editors, the book is faithfully translated so as to remain true to French culture, part of the theatre advice seems distinctly American, with a reminder of how class was reformed in theatre audiences during the early 1830s. Continue reading

Helen Jewett, or Notes on Procrasto-Reading

When I have WAY too much to do, I tend to do one of three things: 1) clean the apartment, 2) play Minecraft (more on that in another post), 3) rummage about in the 1830s.  Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of the latter.  I have an enduring fascination with the Bowery Theatre, having written about it previously.  One of the city’s longest-living theatres, it opened in the 1820s and lasted for about a century.  In its heyday of the 1830s, the theatre, located just below Canal St. on the Bowery, was a focal point of New York culture.  Historians like to talk about the theatre (nicknamed “the Slaughterhouse” due probably to its high degree of “Blood and Thunder” melodrama) as a place dominated by local roughs with coarse tastes.    And while some elite contemporaries agreed, it was still a fabulously decorated, fine-looking establishment.

Which brings me to my current research on brothel life in the 1830s and the famous murder of Helen Jewett, a prostitute at a nearby brothel who was known to be an avid reader, theatregoer, and patron of the Bowery.  Her case is well-written about in Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett.  At the time, Jewett’s murder on April 10th 1836 was front-page news, and many of her letters to a young lover were printed in the days after her trial, more for their emotional outpouring than lurid details as one might expect from a woman of her status in society.  According to the New York Herald, 20 April 1836, actors at the Bowery recited her letters to each other during rehearsal as if it were grand drama.  Which begs the question: what show were the Bowery actors rehearsing at that time?

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