We’ve been thinking about entertainment cultures in the 19c city lately. I mentioned in lecture last week what a significant role P. T. Barnum played in popularizing the theater among middle-class families by staging “moral” plays such as dramatic adaptations of H. B. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, even earlier, extraordinarily popular temperance (anti-alcohol) plays such as W. H. Smith’s The Drunkard — which often featured an actual reformed drunk in the lead role, adding to the realism of the famous delirium tremens scene (when the drunk falls into a delusional fit on stage).
play with a
scenes contrast rural simplicity and come only when the protagonist, Edward Middleton, is at the
lowest point of his alcoholism. The city is a symbol of vice, a lack of
self-control. The municipal government’s inability to govern its inhabitants
(particularly in the notorious Five Points slum) mirrored the individual lack
of self-control that could lead to alcoholism, or “dipsomania,” at it was termed
then. The play was orignally staged in a museum in
nineteenth-century were a mixture of pop science and sheer sensationalism. They
might offer natural history specimens, but they could just as easily offer
freakish “curiosities” with spurious claims to authenticity. They also offered
popular readings, or “lectures”–sometimes even scenes from Shakespeare’s
plays–to audiences that perhaps would not attend the theater.
audiences and for folks who were attracted to freakish displays. The
combination must have worked: It played for an unprecedented 101 nights in
Following its extraordinary success in
his own “lecture room” not once, but twice, eventually accommodating 3,000
people. These renovations were undertaken largely to accommodate The Drunkard‘s
extraordinary success. He hadn’t taken such steps before because his museum
neighbored the Park Theatre (on Park Row, just across the street from the southern tip of City Hall Park). But once the Park burned down (again) in 1849 and wasn’t rebuilt,
Barnum decided to venture into the theatrical business.
the inventor of the museum by any means, but he transformed the institution in significant
ways and became one of the most successful and famous showmen in
result. In the early 1840s he bought an already existing museum and the stock
of another and launched his own enterprise. Older museums had attempted to
combine education, moral uplift, and amusement in order to refine their
audiences and, of course, to make money. Barnum understood better than earlier
museum owners that above all the public wanted novelty. He brought in trained
dogs, performing fleas, jugglers, ventriloquists, fat people, giants, dwarfs,
wax figures, scale models of the wonders of the world, Indians, and even the
“Feejee Mermaid.” Barnum also understood the
power of print: his advertisements literally papered the town; his illustrated museum guide a bestseller; and he
pioneered the celebrity autobiography.
Barnum also opened special hours for black patrons, which means two
things: his audiences were still carefully managed in important ways (in this case, segregated by race), but he also recognized blacks as a potential paying audience.
on stage at museums like Barnum’s. This made their spaces safe for some
Protestants who would not attend the more established theaters. These plays
drew on sentimental and gothic elements in a way that bridged the gap between
traditional theater and the freak shows on display in museums. In this way you
can think of the delirium tremens scene in The Drunkard–reportedly one of its biggest draws–as something like a freak show. People
would pay good money to see someone insane with liquor, just like they would
pay to see the Quaker Giantess. One of the motivations would have been to make
themselves feel normal.
plays had been popular at least since the 18th century, but became much more
common with the explosion of reform movements and the rise of melodrama in the nineteenth century.
William Dunlap, the original manager at the Park, had a play called Thirty Years, or The Gambler’s Fate.
Another such play had the enticing title, Wine, Women, Gambling, Theft,
Murder, and the Scaffold. Just in case you got hooked by the first part of
the title, it wanted to let you know where that would lead you. A number of
other temperance plays were produced in The Drunkard‘s wake. These include The
Bottle, Another Glass, Life, or Scenes of Early Vice, The Curate’s Daughter,
Aunt Dinah’s Pledge, The Drunkard’s Warning, The fruits of the wine cup, and
Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, an adaptation of the era’s most famous
famous museum enterprise and turned his energies to the traveling circus–a form
that still bears his name. But he’s important to us not only because he stands,
in New York and American history, at the crossroads between popular
entertainment and dramatic literature, but because he illustrates a conception
of celebrity he shared with the stars of the stage: As one theater critic of
the day put it, “Barnum himself is one of the curiosities [on display in his
museum] and we scarcely know which people would go further to see–Barnum, the
sea serpent, or a real mermaid.”
For more on Barnum:
My favorite recent book on Barnum is Benjamin Reiss’s The Showman and the Slave, which examines in detail Barnum’s early career, in particular his claim to have on display a 161-year-old slave woman who had been George Washington’s nursemaid. The standard biography remains Neil Harris’s Humbug. The best book on temperance is John W. Frick’s Theatre, Culture, and Temperance Reform in Nineteenth-Century America.
p.s. You can find an old Bowery Boys podcast on Barnum’s Museum here.