Robert M. Lewis. ed., From Traveling Show to Vaudeville. Theatrical Spectacle in America, 1830-1910. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. pp. 400.
In his anthology, historian Robert M. Lewis, a lecturer in American history at the University of Birmingham, England, has assembled a number of nineteenth-and-early-twentieth century sources from the wide gamut of America's spectacle enterprise. His project literally captures America at the moment of its transition from the wilderness of a frontier and predominantly rural culture stretching its borders to the West and South through conquest to what Walter Benjamin has called "the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". Lewis argues that, behind "the showman's entrepreneurial zeal and fascinating techniques" that the collected documents portray, the reader of his volume can discern the "striking change in American attitude to "diversion" and commercial entertainment itself" (2). This is the guiding principle behind each of the eight sections of this collection that draws the panorama of live entertainment in America manifested in the following types: the dime museum, minstrelsy, the circus, melodrama, the "leg show" burlesque extravaganzas, the wild west show, summer amusement parks and vaudeville.
Each section is prefaced by a general description of the type of entertainment and its liaisons with and critical detachment from its correlated European types and genres and followed by an exceptional and for the first time since their first appearance publication of a collection of primary and secondary sources that designate and bring to life the genre or type discussed. The primary sources vary from the scripts of performances, live shows and minstrel shows to the texts of popular melodramas and song lyrics, and the secondary sources range from reviews, interviews, letters and newspaper reports and clippings to memoirs, letters, diary entries. These sources do not simply give voice to forgotten texts and performances and sketch the audiences' reception of those types of live entertainment but also make the canvas of a gone and often forgotten period in the history of American culture.
The striking feature of this compilation of voices is not only the scholarly labor that underlies it and for which the editor must be praised but also the scholarly interest that the portrayals of the close encounters of intellectual voices from America and Europe may instigate. These encounters, which take the form of a number of intellectuals' responses to the artistic and cultural production of the times, reveal how the critical minds that represented two different and yet affiliated worlds, America and Europe, responded to the marvel of a prolific cultural production that was taking place in America and was often exported to Europe at the turn of the century. In that respect, the four strongest and most interesting sections in this book are "Minstrelsy", "Melodrama", "The Wild West Show" and "Vaudeville" in which this interplay of primary and secondary sources and the gamut of voices from America and Europe give rise to a lively world of performances and entertainment that was made in America not only to quench the thirst of its domestic audiences but also to converse with the European "high culture" that this American vernacular "in language and music", often expressed in the extreme form of the burlesque, would mock, criticize and even deconstruct, thus "asserting the common man's culture" (69). The readers of this book will definitely enjoy this journey into a forgotten but not, thanks to Lewis' meticulous research, lost world.
University of Athens, Greece