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"The Art of Acting"

March 22, 1890


Albert E. Sterner

"The Art of Acting"
 

Analogies, Shakespeare; Arts and Entertainment;
 

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.
 

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James. "Hullo, De Forest. How's the world usin' ye, my boy?"

De Forest. "Now is the winter of our discontent. Bad, bad, Jimmy. I'm playing Buckingham in Richard at fifteen a week. But, anon, what cheer with you?"

James. "Hippopotamus in the Tin Hippopotamus at two hundred. Come and dine with me."


In this Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Albert Sterner, a conversation between a Vaudevillian performer and a Shakespearean actor offers a revealing glimpse into the transformation of the American stage in the nineteenth century.

The plays of William Shakespeare were acclaimed in his own Elizabethan England, but lost favor over the next two centuries. They revived in popularity in the late-eighteenth century, and continued gaining force during the nineteenth century, a time in which esteem for Shakespeare reached almost cult-like status.

In the United States, Shakespeare’s plays were performed coast to coast, in large cities, small towns, isolated mining camps, and wherever an audience could be found. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, the famed French chronicler of American society, was surprised to find that Shakespeare was performed in "the recesses of the forests of the New World." On the east coast, about one-fifth of any theater’s seasonal offerings were Shakespearean plays. In the Midwest from 1800 to 1840, Shakespeare’s plays were more frequently staged than those of any other dramatist. After mid-century, the Bard’s works were produced with as much regularity in the Great Plains and the Far West.

The audiences were not merely the educated and wealthy, but spanned class, ethnic, and other dividing lines. At each performance, the Shakespeare play was the centerpiece, but it was paired with a short farce and interspersed between acts with various other popular entertainment, such as juggling, gymnastics, dancing, or singing of popular tunes. This was not a combination of high and popular culture; Shakespeare was entertainment for all Americans during much of the nineteenth century. The plots, characters, famous lines, and morals of his plays were widely known and understood. So much so that it allowed his work to be parodied in other venues.

Pictorial and textual references to Shakespearean plays appear repeatedly in the Harper’s Weekly cartoons of Thomas Nast. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884), the humor in a burlesque of Hamlet at a small Mississippi River town depends on the believability of its locale and the audience’s familiarity with the material. Spoofs of the plays abounded, such as the Bad Dicky version of Richard III. Shakespearean allusions were incorporated into popular songs and minstrel jokes, such as: "When was Desdemona like a ship? When she was Moored."

In the second-half, and especially the last-quarter, of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare became gradually disconnected from popular culture and associated with high culture. In 1849, a riot erupted at Astor Place Opera House in New York City when working-class fans of Edwin Forrest, the first American-born actor to attain world renown as a Shakespearean actor, halted a performance of William Macready with jeers and projectiles. The British-born Macready, whose style was more intellectual and aristocratic than the emotive Forrest, was supported by his upper-crust fans. Police broke up the resulting melee, ending with 22 persons killed and scores wounded. The Astor Place riot revealed growing class and ethnic tensions in the city and American theater generally.

In the 1850s and 1860s, some theaters advertised that Shakespeare’s plays would be performed without an accompanying farce or other entertainment. In later decades, such explanations were no longer needed since it was assumed that, in the words of Hamlet, "the play’s the thing." Consequently, as Shakespeare was sequestered among the smaller class of well-educated and elite patrons, there were fewer and fewer performances, and diminishing references in the wider, mass culture.

These changes in audience type and public awareness are evident in a Harper’s Weekly cartoon of January 19, 1889, "Readings in Polite Society."  It features an actor (in tuxedo, not costume) delivering a dramatic reading from Shakespeare to an exclusive, formally-attired gathering in a posh recital room. Rather than enthralled by the words, the spectators’ ignorance of the text induces them to yawn, nap, talk, or otherwise disregard the recitation. The caption asks, "Do we like Shakespeare?"; and answers flippantly, "We absolutely dote on him. Splendid old chappie!" In the same month that the featured cartoon, "The Art of Acting," appeared (March 1890), American critic A. C. Wheeler published in Arena magazine a eulogy on "The Extinction of Shakespeare."

Meanwhile, as the trajectory of Shakespeare was moving from popular to elite pastime, another type of theater was emerging from working-class culture to gain mass appeal. In the nineteenth century, immigrant and working-class men in the Bowery enjoyed variety shows which featured melodramas like Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl, physical and vulgar humor, special effects, animal acts, and folk songs.

In 1865, Antonio "Tony" Pastor, a former circus clown and acrobat who had entered show business as a black-face minstrel singer at age 12, opened a theater in the Bowery. In 1881, he moved his establishment to Union Square to attract a larger, more prosperous clientele. Pastor’s innovation was to take the variety-show format, remove the lewdness, ban alcohol and prostitutes, and promote it as family entertainment. He named it after a type of French theater, "vaudeville." It drew large crowds which, like Shakespeare had earlier, crossed class, ethnic, age, and gender lines. Vaudeville spread quickly to become the nation’s most popular form of entertainment until displaced by movies with sound in the 1930s.

In this cartoon, the Shakespearean actor, De Forest (who may be modeled on the late Edwin Forrest), complains of hard times to his Vaudevillian counterpart, whose wages are over 13 times higher for appearing in the "Tin Hippopotamus." De Forest’s extended, upturned hand is a gesture of supplication to his friend, who then offers to buy him dinner. De Forest’s Shakespearean prose includes the opening line of Richard III, which had been the most popular play in America for decades, but is here meant to sound stilted and out of place. Richard III killed the rebellious Buckingham, and the latter role seems to be death to De Forest’s career. Yet, the apparently older Shakespearean actor stands erect, adorned in somber, dignified dress—top hat, dark colors, and an umbrella to protect him from the elements (weather or lower-class).

By contrast, Jimmy the Vaudevillian wears a garish checked suit, with a casual bowler hat, and jauntily strikes a strut-like pose. He speaks in a friendly, colloquial manner, as he puffs away on his cigar. He is a working-class man who has become a popular and financial success. The use of "Tin" in the play’s title may allude to Tin Pan Alley, the musical district and genre which were developing in New York City at the time of this cartoon; or, the title could refer to a type of mechanical bank, "Tin Hippo," popular in the late-nineteenth century. The latter would reinforce the idea that the actor's vaudeville role was lucrative.

Robert C. Kennedy




"The Art of Acting"
December 16, 2017







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