The Egyptian Hall and the Platform of Transatlantic Exchange: Charles Browne, P. T. Barnum, and Albert Smith

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This article examines the careers of three mid-century performers, the Americans Charles Browne and P. T. Barnum, and the Englishman Albert Smith. Their appearances at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly offer an alternative account of transatlantic cultural exchange to that developed through legitimate theatre. The theatre of display, parody, comedy, and fraud that they established negotiated the complex cultural and political tensions and borrowings between Britain and America in the period leading to and including the Civil War.

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The American humorist Charles Browne visited London in November 1866 to perform his comic lecture "Artemus Ward Among the Mormons" at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. The show was a version of a popular travelogue panorama, purporting to describe experiences of Utah and encounters with Mormonism, but it burlesqued the form through deadpan comedy, non sequiturs and absurdity, deliberately shoddy artwork in the panorama, and inept musical accompaniment. It was popular enough for the lecture to be published later in book-form, with the illustrations of the show and detailed indications of pauses and stage business, but the publication was posthumous. Browne was taken ill in January 1867, forcing him to end the show's run prematurely, and he died in Southampton two months later. Where Browne's panorama is mentioned in histories of Victorian performance it is usually as an eccentricity--Richard Altick, for example, refers to it as "presumably the first and last of its kind." (1) However, I want to argue that Browne's visit is significant in more substantial ways. First, it offers an insight into the cultural transactions of Britain and America at a time of political crisis for the latter and of the intensification of the development of mass culture in the former. Secondly, it forms part of a little-studied tradition of transatlantic exchange that worked outside of dominant literary and theatrical modes. Such genres as the popular lecture, the minstrel show, and travelling exhibitions were staged in venues other than legitimate theaters and the developing music halls, and they offer a different perspective upon the course of popular entertainment in the mid-century. The comic performances of Browne and his precursors provided a sophisticated subversion of the educative and improving premise of the nineteenth-century public lecture, offering instead frequently ambivalent commentaries upon contemporary approaches to culture and its transmission. This essay explores the political and cultural context and history of Browne's visit and sets his comic panorama alongside the performances of two other comic lecturers who also occupied the strange stage of the Egyptian Hall, the American showman P.T. Barnum and his English protege Albert Smith.

It was P.T. Barnum who most ostentatiously and controversially initiated the collisions and collusions that were to characterize the relationship between American and British popular culture in the mid-nineteenth century. (2) In the early 1840s, he had consolidated a career as an inventive and opportunistic showman by opening his American Museum in New York, and by promoting his most successful "attraction" to date, the midget "General" Tom Thumb. The radicalism of Barnum's redefinition of American culture within the changing displays and theaters of the Museum has been recently emphasized by Bluford Adams, (3) and it was this energy of populist-capitalist transformation of culture and spectacle that Barnum sought to export to Europe when he brought Tom Thumb to England in 1844. The English journalist Albert Smith's contemporary account of that visit gives a good sense of the impact of Barnum's radical entrepreneurialism, and of the wider fascinations and prejudices that characterized British responses to America in the period. During a "go-a-head day" in the Midlands, the sardonic Smith is exposed to Barnum's American challenge to British cultural hierarchies, beginning with their sacred center, Shakespeare. …