Slip Into Something Victorian

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Guest: Victoria Gray

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!

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17 Comments

  1. Great post, Victoria! No matter what the era, people need to be entertained.

    Best of luck with your upcoming release! Love the cover!!

  2. Denise Eagan says:

    Victoria! I thought I was the only one fascinated by 19th century theatre. It really did influence society too, didn’t it, like the Jenny Lind bed. So did you use this information in Destiny? How?

  3. Hi Denise,
    Actually, I began researching Victorian entertainment when I was plotting a romantic suspense I’m working on that takes place in Manhattan during the Gilded Age (late Victorian). New York was such a fascinating, exciting city…and still is!

  4. Thanks, Susan. Destiny comes out in May and I’m counting the days : )

    I think it’s a fascinating twist in history that a theater idol became one of the most infamous assassins in history. I’m sure John Wilkes Booth’s audiences never would have suspected the schemes brewing in his mind.

  5. My own dear great grandmother performed on the stage in San Francisco just before the turn of the century. We have photos of her in her costumes and a few playbills. It definitely was quite a colorful time of history and this great grandmother of mine was quite a character.

    Thanks for coming and visiting with us today, Victoria. Nice to meet you.

  6. E Ayers says:

    Hi Victoria,

    I’m looking forward to Destiny and I can’t wait to read it! If you remember, I had a sneak preview so I know this is going to be a great read! I’m marking the date on my calendar because a good book deserves to be read undisturbed.

    The Victorian era is such an exciting time in history. Everything was booming and blooming back then from factories to gardens.

    Today with Broadway shows on tour, we have more options to see first class performances, but there are others that are often overlooked. Local theater groups will perform those old standbys such as Guys and Dolls and admittance is about the same or less than a movie ticket. Also watch for productions through the local high schools and colleges. It’s not unusual for colleges and universities to bring in top notch performers, and tickets for a family to see the Nutcracker Suite isn’t going to going to require a second mortgage.

    I wonder what the performers of yesteryear would think of our movies with their high tech graphics? Can you imagine the look on the faces of Buffalo Bill and Annie if they watched Avatar? I think they would love it.
    E.

  7. Cheryl Bonner says:

    Hi Victoria,

    I can remember looking specifically for a Jenny Lind crib for my daughter. I never knew that it was named after an opera singer. Was it easy to use historical information in your novel or did you have to leave a lot of the history out?

  8. I wove the history throughout the Victorian/gilded age romantic suspense I’m working on…since it’s set in Manhattan in the theater district, the details added to the sense of history in the piece.

  9. One can only imagine the reactions of the nineteenth century performers to the technology of 2010…even in theatrical productions, the effects are amazing.

  10. Paisley,
    How fascinating! I’d love to have mementos like that. I have a few old photos of a great uncle who’d been involved behind the scenes in vaudeville in the 1920s…wow, did he look dapper in his suit and hat! I’d love to learn about the theatrical scene in San Francisco during that time. Was she there during the quake in 1906?

  11. Yes, my grandmother and her sister were small children when the 1906 quake happened and we have snapshots of tents people lived in after the quake and some other awesome scenes. One of my stories I have sort of used my great grandma as part of my character’s actions. It was great fun. She ended up living until she was way into her nineties…

  12. Cara Preston says:

    What a great blog post and a nice collection of historical facts. Victoria Gray, you do a great tapestry of history and romance. I’ve always loved the romantic notions of the Victorian era. I look forward to reading Destiny.

  13. Isabel Roman says:

    Victoria, I’m sprry to be late welcoming you, I’ve been up andout of the house since 7 then crashed once I got back home. I’m so glad you could join us today!

    I love stories about the theater, your post is great! For centuries people lost themselves in entertainment. Thanks for stopping by, Victoria, and don’t forget she’ll be back once Destiny is released!

  14. Hi Victoria,

    I’ll be one of the first in line for when Destiny arrives – can’t wait!

    Thanks for the awesome post. I’ve never delved into this area of Victorian history. Very intriguing.

    Take care,
    Tracey

  15. I feel honored to be a guest on this awesome blog. Talk about a treasure trove of research on such a broad range of Victorian-era topics. Thanks for having me : )

    I’ll be back in May with a blog post centered on the Civil War years, the time period in which Destiny is set. I’m looking forward to it!

  16. Kathleen Bittner Roth says:

    Very interesting. I, too, write in the Victorian era and find this kind of read fascinating. Thanks for contributing and yay! on Destiny!

  17. Deborah says:

    I agree about live entertainment. I love to visit NYC for the Broadway shows. And I’ve seen Wicked 3 times, twice in NY and once in London! (I’ve considered the Wicked world tour, see it in all the cities..)
    Thanks for an interesting post.

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