Modeling Spectatorship

An article over at’s excellent American Studies website, “Class Warfare on the Urban Stage” has a wonderful illustration from the Harvard Theatre Collection entitled “The audience the showmen tried to tame; at the Bowery Theatre, 1878,” possibly about Yiddish audiences.  Here, a group of actors are attempting to quell disturbances by over-eager audience members throughout the house.  I am not sure what event (or play) is being depicted, or if the image depicts s a moment of drama interrupted or a moment of multiple conflicts: among people on stage, among audiences  and between actors and audience.  While there were plenty of theatre riots in the nineteenth century, they were probably not so rambunctious as this; however, the image conveys a good sense of what many people (theatre owners, cultural elite, literati, etc.) feared, namely, lower class audiences disrupting theatre, thus “dumbing down” the state of art in the city (see previous post):


Bowery Theatre


When looking at images of historic theatres, it is easy to gloss over the individuals depicted.  They come off like filler, but they are often included as arguments for how audiences should behave in public entertainments.  A case in point, is the following illustration of the Grand Hall of Barnum’s American Museum from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 1853 (image via New York Public Library):


Interior vew of the first grand hall of the Museum.

Regardless of what you think of Barnum, his museum, with its diverse collections of stuffed wildlife, freaks, artifacts, paintings, and show pieces, helped to reshape New York entertainment for “respectable” audiences.  Notably, alcohol and “loose” women were not allowed, and the museum’s galleries were intended for education, cultivation, and amusement.  The figures in this image create a model type of the mid-century spectator: nearly everyone is accompanied by a partner, they dress in nice clothes, their eyes are focused on the exhibits, and no one hurries.  While Barnum’s publicity tended to follow a “stun the audience with exclamations” strategy, the image is presenting the museum as a calm, well-ordered environment, populated by respectable people.

Although Barnum liked theatre, the reputation of the stage was questionable at best.  Because he was the type of guy who had his cake and ate it, he installed a “Lecture Room” in the museum.  People lectured on things like Temperance Reform, but he also presented plays, notable W.H. Smith’s The Drunkard and a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  In contrast to the Bowery image, this is a place where one could see “higher” entertainments.  Again, the audience seems to model spectatorship:


Interior view of the lecture room of the American Museum, New York.

(image via NYPL via Ballou’s again)

The audience is calm, and, like the Academy of Music audience in the previous post, and is focused more on reading and each other than the events transpiring on stage.

By contrast, I’m not so sure that these are the experiences the public looked for in attending the museum.  They are clearly not what Barnum advertised in 1863:

[Advertisements for Barnum's American Museum.]


Or what people remembered, if these songs are to be trusted:

Image 1 of 1, A visit to Barnum's museum. Air- The man in the mo

Image 1 of 1, Pat's curiosity shop. H. De Marsan, Publisher, 60

(songs from the Library of Congress American Memory Collection: America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets)