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The Cambridge History of American Theatre
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    Anthony, M. Susan 2015. Not a “Whorish Actress”: Celebrity and the Early American Stage. The Journal of American Culture, Vol. 38, Issue. 4, p. 401.

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    The Cambridge History of American Theatre
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Book description

The second volume of the authoritative, multi-volume Cambridge History of American Theatre, first published in 1999, begins in the post-Civil War period and traces the development of American theatre up to 1945. It covers all aspects of theatre from plays and playwrights, through actors and acting, to theatre groups and directors. Topics examined include vaudeville and popular entertainment, European influences, theatre in and beyond New York, the rise of the Little Theatre movement, changing audiences, modernism, the Federal Theatre movement, scenography, stagecraft, and architecture. Contextualising chapters explore the role of theatre within the context of American social and cultural history, and the role of American theatre in relation to theatre in Europe and beyond. This definitive history of American theatre includes contributions from the following distinguished academics - Thomas Postlewait, John Frick, Tice L. Miller, Ronald Wainscott, Brenda Murphy, Mark Fearnow, Brooks McNamara, Thomas Riis, Daniel J. Watermeier, Mary C. Henderson, and Warren Kliewer.


‘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 Source: Journal of Theatre Research International

‘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

‘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 - The Hieroglyphic Stage: American Theatre and Society, Post-Civil War to 1945
    pp 107-195
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    The period of American theatrical entertainment to be surveyed covers approximately three-quarters of a century, beginning in 1870 and ending in 1945. This chapter outlines some of the defining traits of the broad array of entertainment, and situates American theatre within the context of American cultural history. It explains some reservations about the privileged place of the standard history that maps the chronological development of American theatre from popular entertainment to the triumph of realism and modernism. The chapter also shows that a theatre of the real thing and a theatre of hieroglyphic spectacle are two dynamic, interrelated codes that operate within various forms and kinds of theatrical entertainment in American culture. Finally, the chapter suggests that a theatre of the eye, an American spectatorium, unites many of the seemingly disparate aspects of theatre, culture, and society during this era.
  • 2 - A Changing Theatre: New York and Beyond
    pp 196-232
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    The end of the Depression and the onset of World War II brought a temporary respite from the maelstrom of change that Americans had experienced since before the Civil War. In the waning years of the nineteenth century, centralization of organizational power became commonplace, and conglomerates exerted their influence upon all aspects of American life, from politics to family life and education to literature, the arts, and the use of leisure time. Throughout the final years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, artists and entrepreneurs waged private wars for the most public of cultural institutions, and the changes they wrought, in the process, markedly transformed the structure of the American stage. Perhaps the grandest American theatrical experiment of the modern era was conducted by the most unlikely of sponsors: the federal government.
  • 3 - Plays and Playwrights
    pp 233-342
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    American playwriting between the Civil War and 1896 provides a kind of barometer for the social and cultural changes occurring throughout the nation. The sensational melodramas of Dion Boucicault and Daly met the needs of their audiences. Their melodramas and later those of Bronson Howard, James A. Herne, William Gillette, Augustus Thomas, and others, dealt with the issues of the day: slavery, the West, divorce and women's rights, the stock market and Wall Street, problems of urban life, nostalgia for rural life, reconciliation of the North and South, and the upheavals of social position and class. The period between 1915 and 1945 was an extraordinarily innovative time for Western drama generally. In Europe, expressionism was adapted from the visual arts and poetry to drama, developing particularly in Germany from the work of August Strindberg and Frank Wedekind to a spate of plays by Georg Kaiser, Walter Hasenklever, Ernst Toller, and others.
  • 4 - Theatre Groups and Their Playwrights
    pp 343-377
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    The first serious attempt to create an American art theatre was the establishment of the New Theatre in New York in 1909. The hiring of Sothern and Marlowe was the first sign that the New Theatre was backing away from its repertory ideals before its first season had even begun. The three theatre groups of the teens that would change the course of American theatre and drama were in their origins indistinguishable from the humblest Little Theatre. These theatres are the Neighborhood Playhouse, the Provincetown Players and the Washington Square Players that were featured prominently in Mackay's book on the movement. Theatre histories have tended to consider the Washington Square Players and the Theatre Guild as two distinct organizations, but there are good reasons to see them as one continuous theatre that underwent a reconfiguration and renaming during a hiatus that lasted less than a year.
  • 5 - Popular Entertainment
    pp 378-410
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    The years between the conclusion of the Civil War and the end of the twenties represented a golden age of popular entertainment in America. Circus and the Wild West shows, as well as vaudeville, the burlesque show, and the minstrel show, are examples of variety entertainments. Acts inherited from both the circus and the minstrel show had appeared for many years in concert saloons, the cheap beer-hall theatres found in many large cities, and in the exhibition rooms and "theatoriums" attached to dime museums. By the 1890s, material from the concert saloon, the dime museum, variety, and to a considerable extent, the British music hall, had more fully developed into the new, unobjectionable, systematically organized kind of popular entertainment that was vaudeville, which would remain an important force in America through the 1930s. Vaudeville continued to feature shows made up of a wide range of comedy, song and dance, and other specialties, impossible to illustrate in all their variety.
  • 6 - Musical Theatre
    pp 411-445
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    Secular theatricals of various kinds became established in America about a century after the arrival of European colonists on the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. No single feature can be said to define American musical theatre immediately following the Civil War. American musicals after the late 1860s frequently possessed one or more elements perennially attractive to audiences. The conventions of the English popular stage and the new American ragtime style began to cross-pollinate closely after the turn of the century. The midtwenties was a fertile period for new shows of all kinds and the cluster of excellent shows between 1925 and 1928 included the work of master songwriters Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, Irving Berlin. This chapter presents a brief discussion of the Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration and their innovative musical Carousel.
  • 7 - Actors and Acting
    pp 446-486
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    The period from the end of the Civil War to the onset of the Great Depression was the most dynamic in the history of the American stage. This chapter focuses on signal developments within the acting profession, shifts in acting style, and the leading, most celebrated actors of the era. Acting in any age is largely defined by its stars. The chapter focuses on a few major figures as representative of many Gilded Age stars and their stylistic permutations. In the 1870s and 1880s, Edwin Booth was widely acknowledged to be the leading exemplar of the classical style, as well as the standard bearer of the profession. By the teens, professional theatre in America was centralized in New York, controlled by commercially oriented producers and production companies. Actors would be at the center of what would become an ongoing struggle between commercial and artistic interests in the American theatre.
  • 8 - Scenography, Stagecraft, and Architecture
    pp 487-513
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    The post-Civil War years ushered in an era of unprecedented and widespread theatre building in the country. During the last decades of the nineteenth century the building of theatres underwent pronounced changes not only from social, economic, and historical causes but also from a slow transformation of theatrical practice. Improvements in construction and stage technology led to efficient ways to change scenery, and shorter stage waits. Some of them were descendants of previous eras in stage history and adapted for contemporary use. By far, the most influential designer to appear on the American scene was Robert Edmond Jones. Jones's setting drew enormous attention and approval and, together with the work of his contemporaries Lee Simonson, and Norman Bel Geddes, changed the course of American scenography forever. In the hands of the New Stagecraft designers it took many forms, but American stage artists ranged among many styles to create the most accurate physical and psychological environment for the play or musical.
  • 9 - Directors and Direction
    pp 514-536
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    The evolution from anonymity to adulation is a slow process of reassembling variously assigned directorial tasks into a job description separable from other theatrical chores. This chapter focuses on the participants in that evolution, sometimes examining their best-remembered work but more often their responses to economic, social, or technological changes that affected the production process. It explores the ways in which the people combined directing with other jobs: theatre administration, writing, acting, stage managing, or teaching. The duties and possibilities kept changing as circumstances changed, and will continue to do so as long as playwrights hand us unsolvable staging problems, teachers devise new methods of actor training, theatre technology develops irresistible new techniques, and theatre economics devise new ways to do old tasks. The story of the evolution of the director did not end in 1945. At the end of the century, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers still has not written an official job description.

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

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