That’s Entertainment – in the Victorian Era
Golden Globes. Oscars. Emmys. Tonys. Americans celebrate their love affair with entertainment with a variety of awards for cinematic, television, and stage shows. This American love of performance is far from new. Our country’s cultural history is filled with traveling troupes performing everything from Shakespeare to broad physical comedy, Wild West shows featuring celebrities such as Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, and vaudeville performers singing, dancing, and acting in comedic skits.
The Victorian era was particularly rich for the theater. Live performances increased in popularity as more working class and middle class Americans enjoyed escape through theatrical entertainment while forms of performance evolved.
As is true today, Broadway served as a show business hub. The theater district was a thriving, bustling place. Soprano Jenny Lind, actors Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, and actress Laura Keene were among the performers who graced the stage during the years from 1850 through 1865. Dramas or light comedies featuring realistic characters and situations were favored. Laura Keene, perhaps best known in history as the actress who cradled Lincoln’s head after John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot, was a star before she ever set foot on the stage at Ford’s Theater.
Extravaganzas emerged following the Civil War. Stage spectacles with a fantasy theme offered engaging entertainment, as did burlesque musicals. The arrival of Lydia Thompson and her performing troupe, known as the British Blondes, led to a spike in popularity of these musicals. Wearing form-fitting tights during an era when the female body was covered to the ankles by full skirts, the troupe’s performances were condemned by the press. As one could readily predict, the label of indecency led to runaway popularity for the play. Then, as now, a little scandal can be good for business.
Over the last few decades of the nineteenth century, the burlesque musical evolved into the burlesque extravaganza, a variety show format that spoofed literary targets and celebrities. Musical comedies also gained popularity. Satire and exaggeration were put to the side in favor of realistic humor featuring everyday situations. Performers Ned Harrison and Tony Hart created a series of musical farces known as Mulligan Shows. Featuring average men with street smarts, the shows were smash hits between 1878 and 1884.
The last decade of the nineteenth century, sometimes referred to as the “Gay Nineties” was a vibrant time for musicals. Dozens of musical comedy farces and burlesques were produced each year in Manhattan alone. Vaudeville was also popular during this era. A comedy duo, Weber and Fields, provided inspiration for later comedy acts with their slapstick comedy. Blending insults with pratfalls and punches, they were masters of physical comedy. Other famous vaudevillians were actress Marie Dressler and glamorous songbird/actress Lillian Russell.
Theater lovers were not relegated to Manhattan. Theater troupes travelled the country by rail, bringing productions of their stage shows to far corners of our nation. Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley even traveled the country with their Wild West show. Showboats floated along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, offering performances of melodramas as well as vaudeville.
Americans still love the theater. Movies and television provide inexpensive access to great performances, but few experiences match that of a live show. Just ask someone who’s seen Wicked or The Phantom of the Opera. Theaters have been a beloved part of the American cultural fabric for many years. Theaters and the people who perform on their stages will continue to occupy a special place in American hearts for many years to come.
Stay tuned in May when Victoria’s first novel, Destiny, will be available from The Wild Rose Press!