Peter Lee

History 579

Dr. Devine

Précis: 02/03/2005


Levine, Lawrence W.  Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in

America.  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.)


Lawrence W. Levine uses Shakespeare’s plays as a model for the evolution of American popular culture.  Specifically, Levine traces The Bard’s transition from a form of mass entertainment to a recreation reserved for the cultural elite.  Levine points out that in the nineteenth century, all segments of American society knew Shakespeare’s plays.  The plays themselves were open to ridicule, subject to farces, and minstrel shows, but were central to a night’s entertainment.  Levine clearly documents that theater advertisements for the common people clearly featured Shakespearian plays as part of the main attraction.  The audiences attending the plays were a “microcosm” of American society.  All facets of society attended one theater and as a result, the theater catered to a “shared public culture” during performances. (30)  The “honest folk” audiences even dominated the scenes, interacting with the players and sharing their knowledge of The Bard with the performers.  In contrast, Shakespeare today is respected, but belongs exclusively to high-brow socialites and intellectuals.

To explain this change, Levine theorizes that Shakespeare’s appeal to the audience underwent a transformation.  Nineteenth century audiences understood that Shakespeare’s plays were more than mere surface readings and physical appearances.  Instead, Shakespeare’s “values and tastes…seemed real and came to matter with the audience.” (36)  Such values included various characters’ long-winded and colorful monologues that paralleled nineteenth century American oration and eloquent use of language.  Overly emotional acting and characters’ struggles between good and evil also appealed to Victorian Americans.  Similarly, audiences appreciated Shakespeare’s clear-cut definitions of morality.  This emphasis on morality even induced writers to modify Shakespeare’s plays to ensure that the hero always won.  At times, audiences even preferred these adaptations to the original works.  Levine notes that Shakespeare’s “larger-than-life” dilemmas that forced characters to choose their own destinies rather than rely on fate especially found favor among nineteenth century audiences.  Shakespeare struck at the very heart of American values, for the masses found in The Bard the very essence of American identity.

However, this American melting pot audience did not last.  Levine points out that theater patrons segregated themselves as theaters began catering to different audiences: low-down laymen or the refined elite.  Incidents like the Astor Opera House Riot in 1849 further divided theatergoers into a class hierarchy.  Shakespeare, with its “immortal” plays, “sublime” poetry and “archaic” language, slowly fell out of favor with the everyday theater mongers. (68)  The end effect was society elevating Shakespeare to such a level of genius that any attempt to bring The Bard back to the masses, as Mark Twain attempted, was seen as akin to blasphemy.

Shakespeare became even more remote from the masses in the twentieth century, because many of the values that nineteenth century Americans cherished had declined.  Oration and flowery language became obsolete in American discourse.  In addition, the emotional acting that drove many nineteenth century audiences to tears became old-hat.  Levine believes that Shakespeare could have easily survived in radio and movies but the heads of these consolidated entertainment media believed Shakespeare was unprofitable and suitable only for critical acclaim.  Shakespearean farces that abounded in the nineteenth century limited themselves to satires on high society rather than poking fun at the plays themselves.  Levine concludes that Shakespeare was so removed from the people that even drivel that sounded archaic was food enough for today’s audiences, whereas a century ago, theater patrons would have pelted such a performer with putrid peaches for passing such “poetry” as serious Shakespeare.


Butsch, Richard.  The Making of American Audiences, From Stage to Television, 1750-

1990.    (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.)


Richard Butsch examines the changing characteristics of theater audiences in the

nineteenth century.  In particular, Butsch looks at the decline and fall of audiences’ control over the plays performed.  In the 1830s, the rowdy young men of the theater pit dominated Jacksonian theaters.  These working men, caught up in the ideals of individualism, independence, and egalitarianism, transferred their beliefs on to the stage.  The b’hoys encouraged encores of favorable performances, such as the various Mose plays, and applauded patriotic themes. 

The b’hoys also responded to performances they thought were unpatriotic or poorly done, and would make their dislike known by lobbing various articles at the actors on stage until someone pacified them with an apology or put on a show more to the b’hoys’ liking.  In short, the b’hoys made the theater theirs.  Unfortunately, the b’hoys’ rioting and violence required the police to step in.  The Astor Opera House Riots in particular led theater managers to impose more “respectability” upon theater patrons.  In addition to management control, the rise of the star system also helped control audiences.  Actors including Frank Chanfrau and Edwin Forrest portrayed the common man as everyday heroes and slowly reduced the b’hoys from being overly critical to fans and followers.  Wealthy patrons also excluded the b’hoys from the more fashionable and respectable theaters, especially opera houses.

            Audience sovereignty declined even further when theater managers started attracting women to fill the seats.  In the post-Civil War era, middle class women began exercising greater freedoms, such as shopping, and theaters quickly popped up in shopping centers.  Theater managers quickly appealed to these respectable women by banning alcohol and prostitutes and putting on shows that appealed to these ladies’ domestic nature.  The theaters themselves changed with permanent seats and matinee shows.  This transformation drove many of the ruffians and rowdy b’hoys out of theaters and into more masculine activities, like boxing and horse racing.  New theater etiquette further required the remaining men in the audience not to hiss at actors or throw vegetables at bad productions.  The theater audiences’ authority shrunk to the point of approving a performance through applause.


McConachie, Bruce A. and Daniel Friedman, eds., Theatre for Working-Class Audiences

in the United States, 1830-1980.  (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985).


Bruce McConachie posits a connection between mob violence and theater production in antebellum New York.  During this time, the rapidly industrializing nation made a transition from traditional artisan labor to a wage-based economy.  McConachie believes that this change created class tension between the new management and labor groups and led the working classes to seek relief in “violent sports and entertainment and in occasional mob violence.” (22).

One source of recreation for traditional workers – those wage slaves that clung to pre-industrial work habits – was the theater.  These workers found favor with one genre that theater managers produced: the apocalyptic spectacles.  These epic catastrophes between good and evil usually centered on a mild-mannered craftsman who must seek vengeance agonist a super-powered villain.  The protagonist becomes an “Avenger” and makes right the evil deed the villain has done, usually an act against a young woman.  In a grand climax, death and destruction ensues and claims the lives of innocents, destroys cities, and generates natural disasters, but the concept of good triumphs over evil. (The hero himself, however, may perish.)

McConachie believes that these plays were cultural parallels to the workers’ own changing society.  Real riots that broke out usually centered upon a group of young artisans striking out against some abstract change rather than one concrete person or object.  These abstract changes could include blacks entering the work force, industrialization replacing traditional means of work, the consolidation of wealth among a few robber barons, or a conspiracy of many such factors.  Like the Avenger in the play, these rioters perceived that these evil forces invaded their traditional paradise and they, in accordance to their traditional beliefs of Jacksonian individualism, must retake this lost paradise.  McConachie even points out that the mob actions at the Astor Place Opera House were directed at the building as a symbol of aristocratic power rather than at William Macready (34).  These riots were orchestrated in advance, and often coincided with patriotic holidays and events.  In a way, the riots themselves became symbols of traditional workers’ grievances.  In this context, McConachie believes that the apocalyptic plays that appealed to workers, while forms of entertainment, also served as a key to unlock workers’ motives and mindsets.