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

By Featherstone, Simon | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

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


Featherstone, Simon, Nineteenth-Century Prose


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.

**********

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.