What do you do with a footnote to a footnote to history?

One of my side-side projects is to look at a window in the career of E.Z.C. Judson, aka Ned Buntline. Judson is perhaps one of the most important people in nineteenth century theatre history who had almost nothing to do with the theatre. Here is a succinct overview of his bizarre career, but some highlights:  Ned fought in several wars, sailed in the Navy, was convicted of instigating the Astor Place Riots (which he probably didn’t do), and “discovered” Buffalo Bill Cody.  During it all, he constantly wrote, eventually producing a string of newspapers and a dozen or so novels.

Judson’s first big success was the five-part The Mysteries and Miseries of New York (1847), which, like several city “mystery” books before it, purported to reveal the underworld of New York.  Unlike his predecessors, however, Ned was deeply familiar with the city’s darker side. In his newspaper Ned Buntline’s Own, he took a reformist’s mindset to attack the city’s criminals, prostitutes, and corrupt officials, but in his private life, he spent more than a fair share of his time in their company.  The book spawned several stage adaptations (now lost, as far as I can tell) and made Judson a sort of celebrity, something which seems to have gone to his head in all the wrong ways.

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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

DH Class Final Projects

This Spring, I taught at class on Digital Humanities for Theatre at NYU.  It was the first strictly DH class I had taught and it was a fascinating experiment.  The class was set up to be collaborative, project-based, and exploratory.  Typically, each class session would have us examining other projects or tool, writing about them in a class-wide Google Doc, and commenting on each others’ notes.  The class was a great mix of computer-savvy users and newcomers.  For the most part, we learned that good DH is really hard!

Students’ final projects let them apply something we practiced to a research project of their choices.  While most projects were map-based (i.e. looking at Ziegfield’s productions, Chicago jazz bars, Civil War battles, among a few), there were XML documents made and plenty of very creative projects that I would fund if I had the money.  Below are a few examples of projects that were executed in a spirit of fun but have a lot of promise:

Map: “Brothels of 1870”

One student began with an 1870s guidebook to New York houses of prostitution (brothels were closely allied to the theatrical life of the city), put it in a map, adding layers that showed nearby theatres, churches, and police stations.  This type of work, showing intersecting layers of culture and society provides a fascinating look at life in the city at the time.  And it’s fun.

Minecraft Globe

There is increasing interest in virtual reconstructions of historic theatres, but I doubt many students could learn to build a detailed virtual space in a couple of weeks, so: Minecraft.  I experimented with Minecraft extra credit in an ancient Greek theatre course with some interesting result, so two students built a scale version of Shakespeare’s Globe, following the basic rule of 1 block = 1 meter.  The result is rougher than any detailed reconstruction, but it allowed the user to enter the space, move through it, and be in the environment.  Plus, you get to fight zombies in the Globe.



Who doesn’t want a game where you kill each character in Hamlet, while making sure not to kill Harry Potter?  Isn’t that a traditional part of theatre pedagogy?

Hamlet Mole

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* note: there are only a sampling of excellent projects, and by no means represent what were the best.  Each student has given me explicit permission to post about their project.


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