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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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)


The Academy of Music vs. the Old Bowery

Academy of Music and Old Bowery

To start with, here’s an engraving that I dearly love, “The Academy of Music and the Old Bowery,” by Thomas Nast from The Broadway Annual (1868).  Nast, one of the most prominent cartoonists of his time, sets up a standard view of highbrowuptownexpensivecivilizedWASP audiences at the Academy of Music and lowbrowdowntowncheapbarbaricIrish audiences at the (Old) Bowery Theatre.

At the time, establishment critics seemed never at a loss to complain about the “low” audiences that preferred vulgar entertainments (more on them in another post), and historians like Lawrence Levine, whose influential Highbrow/Lowbrow revolutionized the study of nineteenth-century culture, have demonstrated that praising theatre-as-art was the product of a very concerted push from above.  Nast’s image not only plays into this paradigm, but it says more about what a publication like The Broadway Annual–and its readership–made of such differences.

Following the image is the third part of an installment “New York Theatres” by Molyneux St. John (that’s Frederick Edward Molyneux St. John, who immigrated from England to Canada in 1868 and wrote a novel A Sea of Mountains (1877), as well as plays– at the New York Theatre in April 1868, he wrote what appears to be a burlesque adapted from a french source, Paris and Helen, or, the Grecian Elopement).  The Broadway Annual piece compares the Academy of Music, the Bowery, and the German Stadt Theatre.  At the start, St. John signals his concern with audiences, rather than architecture or production, noting that “it is the social diversity of their respective patrons from which they derive their peculiar interest” (801).  His discussion of the Academy is of great singers, the cultivation of American gentlemen, ladies’ fashions, and the after theatre dining habits of the audience.  While the Academy is compared favorably to an English opera house, “The Bowery has a veritable and unmistakble pit and gallery, with all the attributes of those places in a Dublin theatre.”  Here, there are the “lower orders of Americans” and “‘coloured gentlemen.'”  There is no mention of women, but “the pleasure or disapprobation of the audience at anything on or off the stage, is expressed with precisely the degree of fervor with which it is felt.”  He goes on to recommend that the theatregoer should “do as Rome does,” for if you show cultivated manners, you risk a “whipping.”

Following these broad strokes, the Nast image is a study in contrasts:

At The Academy of Music, the well-groomed, well-dressed (white) men seem to be engaging in polite conversation, while the ladies remain seated and unobtrusive.  The air is refined and genteel.  At The Old Bowery, the (largely immigrant) roughly-dressed men in the pit are entirely focused on the stage.  They seem to be shouting and gesticulating wildly towards the stage.  One imagines that, if unchecked, this would be depicting the beginning of a riot.

One of the challenges in writing a history of audiences in the period is the difficulty of resisting a narrative like Levine’s, which charts a progression across the century from rowdy to cultivated cultural landscapes.  While there is a clear bifurcation as separate theatres began to have enough audiences to be able to cater to particular tastes, the image shows that the New York theatre was no either highbrow or lowbrow, but that both universes were existing side-by-side.  That the Bowery is depicted and reported on (Molyneux describes watching a melodrama there, as well as offers more guidance for respectable theatregoers), betrays even a legitimate interest in the vigorous entertainment culture of working class Americans.

Looking more closely, I find it interesting that the Academy figures are clearly not interested in what is on stage.  The moment depicted is probably between acts or before a show and they, like the audience in that wonderful opera scene from The Age of Innocence, are looking at each other.  The Bowery audience, on the other hand, is almost fanatically focused on the stage itself (which is clearly depicting some thrilling scene).  It is almost as if Nast is telling his viewers that only the lower classes pay attention to what’s actually on stage!

If being a good audience member meant ignoring the stage, then studying the nineteenth-century is interesting indeed…