Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order

By Postlewait, Thomas | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order


Postlewait, Thomas, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


Jane R. Goodall, Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin: Out of the Natural Order. New York: Routledge, 2002. xi + 266 pp. $16.99 paper.

Jane Goodall's study, as the title implies, takes up two expansive topics, which she attempts to join together. The two touchstones for this study are P. T. Barnum and Charles Darwin. Why are they yoked? Goodall has several explanations, which highlight her aims. Focusing on popular entertainment in London, New York, and Paris during the nineteenth century, she wants to demonstrate that (1) popular performers provided 'general communication' about evolutionary ideas; (2) popular theatre revealed an 'eager receptiveness to new ideas from the realms of science,' especially natural history or ethnology; (3) the two cultures of science and show business were involved in a 'dialogic' or 'dialectical' relationship about evolutionary theory; (4) various popular entertainers expressed an 'alert skepticism' and 'a sense of the ludicrous' about scientific ideas on human nature, and they therefore played a game of 'knowledge-making' under their own 'rules of humbug,' parody, and burlesque; (5) popular entertainment, in general, expressed 'cultural anxiety' rather than 'cultural shock' over Darwin's ideas; (6) late nineteenth-century entertainment took a pessimistic and sometimes hysterical turn as it confronted the social and cultural implications of social Darwinian ideas; and (7) science and show business became confused at the end of the century about 'each other's principles and priorities.' As this catalogue suggests, her arguments pull in several directions.

In the spirit of Barnum, Goodall brings together a diverse group of entertainers for this study, from Ojibbeway Indians and Saartje Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, to the 'Bold Grimace Spaniard' and Henry Mayhew who impersonated the London poor as part of his lecture and one-man show in the 1850s. Her research in the archives uncovers some fascinating illustrations and case studies (e.g., Forepaugh's Wild West, Tattersall's Zulu War, and the display of the 'Aztec children'). Indeed, her book is its own natural history museum of nineteenth-century popular entertainment. Throughout the era, as Goodall demonstrates, a wide variety of freak shows, circus acts, acrobatic acts, pantomimes, comic delineators, variety shows, minstrelsy, Wild West Shows, burlesque shows, and world fair exhibitions of non-European people were often presented and justified within the context of popular ideas derived from contemporary science. Popular entertainers and promoters were opportunistic in their selective raids on natural history, especially journalistic ideas about racial identities, missing links, 'savage' people and cultures, the childlike nature of 'primitive' people, the progress of civilization, the superiority of the white races, and the mental deficiencies of women. Thus Barnum, who surely had his tongue in his cheek, made cunning scientific claims about his 'living curiosities.'

Of course, Goodall is covering familiar territory in some cases. For example, it is well known that Barnum developed the American Museum on the model of Charles Willson Peele's natural history museum. It is also common knowledge that Barnum displayed the Feejee mermaid, Tom Thumb, and many other 'freaks' and 'monstrosities' under the rubrics of pseudo-science. Likewise, several studies of the world fairs (e.g., the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago) have pointed out that exhibitions of Eskimos, Chinese families, Egyptian belly dancers, African villagers, and other non-European people were framed and explained by the specious ethnological fantasies about the human races. And these ethnological and racist ideas were also prevalent in the popular appeal of minstrelsy and Wild West Shows, with their displays of native Americans. So Goodall, in the main, is presenting summaries of previous scholarship on these topics (e.g., the work of Richard Altick, Robert Bogdan, A. …

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