Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830-1980

Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830-1980

Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830-1980

Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830-1980


This collection of essays defines and explores American theatres that consciously appealed primarily to workers. The scope of the book extends from the 1830s to the 1980s. Different authors focus on how various plays related to the audience as a class, the historically dynamic interaction between spectators and actors, and why certain plays gained popularity. The collection encompasses essays concerning New York theatre in the 1830s and 1840s, Pittsburgh theatre in the 1870s, various immigrant productions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the politically radical theatre of the 1930s, a concluding section on recent and contemporary theatre for workers, and an overview of the history, politics, and aesthetics of theatres doing shows for working-class audiences today. An original and comprehensive bibliographical essay regarding the history of theatres for workers in the United States completes the volume.


Bruce A. McConachie and Daniel Friedman

Theatre for working-class audiences has a long history in the United States, a history that has been largely ignored by cultural historians in general and by theatre historians in particular. We hope that this collection of pioneering essays on the topic will end the neglect of this rich vein of our cultural heritage.

As with any new area of investigation, it is incumbent upon those doing the research to define the limits of their work and to justify those boundaries as a distinct field of study. Specifically, given the controversies raging in the areas of performance study, sociology, and political science, we must define what we mean by the terms theatre and working class and the relationship between them.

First, our approach to understanding these terms is historical; that is, we consider both theatre and the working class not as static, unchanging categories, but as social phenomena in history. They have evolved within the crucible of social interaction, and as such they have changed and are changing as human history continues. The apocalyptic melodramas of the 1830s and 1840s were quite different from the agitprop skits of the 1930s or the passionate political romances of the New York Street Theatre Caravan in the 1980s. In like manner, the Bowery "b'hoys" who packed the theatres along that famous street to applaud such shows as Nick of the Woods were different in significant ways from the primarily immigrant radicals who cheered for the Prolet-Buehne's 15 Minute Red Revue in the early 1930s and from the office workers who laughed at the portrayals of their bosses in The Union Is Us, performed in the hallways of Columbia University by Workers' Stage in 1982. Our understanding, then, proceeds from history to denotation, not the other way around.

In defining theatre and working class we have, of course, judged each category to have enough in common to distinguish it from other categories related to it. Thus, despite vast differences in content, dramatic structure, and performance . . .

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