19th Century American Theater

Discusses the history of theater in America in the 19th century.

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By the mid-19th century, theater in the United States had undergone a dramatic transformation. Theater became enormously popular and attracted a more genteel and wealthy audience. The paper shows how plays by American writers began to showcase social concerns, and actors and actresses enjoyed a new-found status as respected members of society. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin became one of the most popular plays of the time and typified American theater’s new focus on social conditions. The paper shows that the last half of the 19th century marked significant changes in American theater. These changes were partially spurred by the large population growth in East Coast cities. As America grew, the number of theaters increased. Also as America’s leisure time increased and wages increased, Americans looked to the theater for entertainment. The paper explains that improvements in transportation allowed actors and actresses to tour parts of America that had never had professional theaters, and the result was an explosion in the popularity of the theater.
The historical accuracy of Uncle Tom’s cabin was also indicative of the move toward the historical accuracy of sets, costumes, and dialects seen in 19th century theater (Robinson). The play is a ‘melodrama’, or simply a play with music, allowing American audiences all over the country exposure to the music of the Negro spiritual, which contained a complex mixture of dialect and music that depicted black culture of the time. In ACT II, Scene 4, Topsy sings ‘Oh, I’se So Wicked’, a song that characterized the life and dialect of southern slaves, and depicted the degradation of slaves.”