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    The Cambridge History of American Theatre
    • Online ISBN: 9781139054720
    • Book DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521472043
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Book description

The Cambridge History of American Theatre is an authoritative and wide-ranging history of American theatre in all its dimensions, from theatre building to play writing, directors, performers, and designers. Engaging the theatre as a performance art, a cultural institution, and a fact of American social and political life, the History recognizes changing styles of presentation and performance and addresses the economic context that conditions the drama presented. The History approaches its subject with a full awareness of relevant developments in literary criticism, cultural analysis, and performance theory. At the same time, it is designed to be an accessible, challenging narrative. Volume One deals with the colonial inceptions of American theatre through the post-Civil War period: the European antecedents, the New World influences of the French and Spanish colonists, and the development of uniquely American traditions in tandem with the emergence of national identity.

Reviews

‘Wilmeth and Bigsby’s history is the finest written about the American theatre in many years. A must for all college and university libraries.’

Source: Choice

‘The essays give the reader not only the flavour of the times but also a growing sense of national identity that the theatre began to reflect.’Michael Whitlatch, Buena Vista University

Source: Journal of Theatre Research International

‘Nowhere has the American theatre been treated to such a thorough discussion of its culture, plays and players, directors, designers, architects and producers, also encompassing the development and transformation of the theatre within the country’s changing social and political climate.’

Michael Whitlatch - Buena Vista University

‘All three volumes have greatly contributed to a better understanding of the American theatre as a reflection of the changing political, social and cultural face of the United States.’Michael Whitlatch, Buena Vista University

Source: Journal of Theatre Research International

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  • 1 - American theatre in context, from the beginnings to 1870
    pp 111-181
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521472043.004
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Explaining audience response necessarily leads the historian to embed performance events into their social and cultural milieu; spectator response, in turn, is potentially the most important key to historical context. This chapter focuses on the context of American theatre from 1600 to 1870. It talks about historical audiences and the major genres they enjoyed. Because the most relevant context for theatre audiences is frequently other types of performances, the chapter also includes comments on sporting events, religious rituals, and other kinds of public performances beyond the theatre. It emphasizes the boundaries of cultural systems, especially as they helped to construct the dimensions and dynamics of class, race, and gender in American history. The chapter discusses folk and elite performance from 1600 to 1770, popular performance in the New Republic from 1770 to 1830, and commercial performance from 1830 to 1870.
  • 2 - Structure and management in the American theatre from the beginning to 1870
    pp 182-215
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521472043.005
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The critical element in social management of the theatre is an understanding of the nature of the community of which the theatre is a part, and communities are shaped primarily by geography and economy. It is in this context that one can understand the large-scale structural shifts in the American theatre between 1752 and 1870. To better comprehend why the institutional conventions of theatre were the way they were at any time, and why they changed as they did, it is helpful to understand the changing structure of the society. The single professional theatrical company that dominated the American colonies before the Revolution was of this sort, organized and managed according to contractual provisions common in the English theatre. Most of the other changes in management practices that took place after 1810 were responses to the star system.
  • Plays and playwrights: to 1800
    pp 216-249
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521472043.006
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The years leading up to and during the American Revolution saw a remarkable flurry of dramatic activity, despite some serious restrictions placed on the theatre, both real and perceived. Undoubtedly, the most important dramatist of the age was a woman, Mercy Otis Warren. A number of playwrights presented a variety of dramatic works during the war years. Among the leading patriot writers, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, John Leacock, and Robert Munford are most frequently mentioned, each building on the political satire and social farce that had become an American standard. Barnabas Bidwell's piece, written while the author was a student at Yale, may be considered a refinement of the college commencement discourse; similarly, Peter Markoe's poetic tragedy may be seen as a successor to The Prince of Parthia and Samuel Low's farce a continuation of Androboros and the writings of Warren.
  • Plays and playwrights: 1800–1865
    pp 250-302
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521472043.007
  • View abstract
    Summary
    By the end of the Civil War, the theatre had emerged from the margins of American society to assume a position of central cultural importance for many, particularly urban, Americans. An appreciation of melodrama's techniques and appeals provides an understanding of the audiences who watched it as well as the function of American plays within nineteenth-century culture. Although melodrama was becoming the preeminent form in an American theatre soon to be dominated by the rising middle and working classes, American playwrights were already serving patrician audiences who controlled the theatres for most of the century's first three decades. Serious considerations of the nation's historical past were limited to the work of James Nelson Barker, whose attempts in Superstition to use the colonial period to earnest didactic purpose were neglected by subsequent American playwrights. On the whole, romanticism's pervasive influence tended to relegate history to the realm of quaint locale.
  • European actors and the star system in the American theatre, 1752–1870
    pp 303-337
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521472043.008
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter talks about European actors who have had a substantial impact on the history of the American theatre. The lure of powerful personality and physical beauty did much to help stars become the pivoted figures of the early nineteenth century, and one can identify continuation of the theme of the actor as a surrogate figure for monarchy. The royal aura of the actor served ultimately to tie the theatre to the mainstream of American social and political life rather than isolate it as an irrelevancy. The romantic actors invested the roles they played with an emotional urgency that made neoclassicism appear stilted and archaic. For the first hundred years of its existence, the language of the American theatre was exclusively English. Actors originating from outside English-speaking countries, such as the famous Placide family, which came from France, had to abandon their native language on stage.
  • The emergence of the American actor
    pp 338-372
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521472043.009
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The emergence of the American actor was marked by the expansion of the eccentric business line as varieties of ethnic, racial, religious, and linguistic difference proliferated. This chapter discusses Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn as a rich archive of cultural performances, especially, but not exclusively, performances onstage. The general tendencies remarked in the preceding glosses on Huckleberry Finn and the culture of performance may be more clearly delineated by a look at the careers of three prominent and immensely successful performers. Their lives embody the emergence of the American actor in the crucible of national legitimation. They are the close contemporaries Edwin Forrest, Ira Aldridge, and Thomas Dartmouth Daddy Rice. The work of three American actors in particular, though they had very different theatrical careers in other ways, shows the apparent atomization of the culture of performance into tests of dominant personality: Charlotte Saunders Cushman, George Washington Lafayette Fox, and Edwin Booth.
  • 5 - Scenography, stagecraft, and architecture in the American theatre: beginnings to 1870
    pp 373-423
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521472043.010
  • View abstract
    Summary
    From the moment that theatrical activity took root in America, there was a slow, steady development from immigrant art to native art, which necessarily embraced the structures that housed the entertainments and the manner in which they were presented to the public. The building of the new and better theatres in the closing years of the eighteenth century and the ascendancy of the melodrama in popular favor in the next century brought necessary changes in stagecraft. With a thriving theatrical profession permanently established, with architect-designed playhouses, and with the art of scene painting brought to new heights, theatrical entertainment followed the growth of the nation and began to move westward with the population. While theatre building and dramatic performances were spreading rapidly along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Georgia, events in history were determining the next phase of American theatrical history. Frontier theatre was largely unaffected by the fervor of religious scruples against playacting that was in colonial cities.
  • 6 - Paratheatricals and popular stage entertainment
    pp 424-481
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521472043.011
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Over the last thirty years or so, scholars have expanded the definition of the theatre to include many nonlegitimate forms such as tent shows, the circus, children's theatre, and ethnic acts, and the term paratheatricality suggests something even more far-ranging. If one looks at the streets, the markets, plantation yards, religious campgrounds, summer gardens, and museums, however, a different, and the author argues more vital, theatrical tradition comes into view. America gained its cultural identity on the terrain of the popular and the vernacular. From Mitchell's house, the kind of localized burlesque rooted in the figures and concerns of the street moved in many directions. More than a particular property of one manager and writer, burlesque is best viewed as a persistent modality in American popular theatre, one that informed the creation of minstrelsy, the further development of pantomime, and, after 1850, the rise of the leg show and of musical comedy.
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