- The Matinee Audience in Peril:The Syndicate's Mr. Bluebeard and the Iroquois Theatre Fire
When Oliver Wendell Holmes advised the court in 1919 that "the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic," his dictum was persuasive because it conjured a terrifying communal understanding of how dangerous (not to mention how common) theatre fires were. Of all the images that might arise in our public memory, however, there is only one that holds the title of the "worst theater fire in U.S. history"—the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903.1 There are several reasons to consider this calamity the worst of its kind. The fire (and the panic it caused) killed approximately six hundred patrons, about a third of the auditorium's capacity. Further, the horror of the Iroquois tragedy has less to do with magnitude than it does with context: because this fire started during a matinee performance, most of the spectators present (and thus, most of the victims) were women and children. Finally, not one person deemed responsible for the loss of so many lives was held responsible. All those initially charged were acquitted, and not one of the victims' families was compensated for damages or suffering.
Rather than relying on familiar approaches to live-audience scholarship, this paper will venture into the abyss of audience experience, anchored by the extant survivor narratives that were published in a frenzy of public memorial following the Iroquois disaster. Keeping in mind the sage warning from Dennis Kennedy that "almost anything one can say about a spectator is false on some level," I nevertheless wish to paint a portrait of the matinee spectator in order to hold this snapshot of reception up against the production that played while the fire burned.2
Significantly, the attraction that drew a record-breaking (and capacity-busting) [End Page 23] audience to the opulent new Iroquois Theatre was the Theatrical Trust (or Syndicate)'s extravaganza Mr. Bluebeard. In the Bluebeard myth, the vicious title character methodically murders his wives and hides their dead bodies, warning each subsequent wife not to explore the basement where they are hidden. When each new wife goes against Bluebeard's wishes and enters the basement, she discovers a pyre of corpses that she will soon join, and the cycle begins again. The disturbing parallels between the fictional characters onstage and the rhetoric following the Iroquois disaster point to a shared understanding of the female spectator (whether as wife or patron) as responsible for her fate, given her "natural" curiosity and propensity to hysterics.
There is no doubt that the audience sought by this Syndicate-owned house was a female one, given its location and the nature of its threshold.3 Located on the corner of Dearborn and Randolph Street (Chicago's equivalent to Broadway), the Iroquois Theatre was within strolling distance of the State Street department stores and boutiques that had begun to transform the Loop into a premier shopping destination by the turn of the twentieth century. As cultural historians have noted, "the feminization of State Street . . . gave the illusion of safety to middle-class city and suburban women and children,"4 a perception that was made all the more visible by the increased foot patrol of police officers in this part of Chicago. On average, one hundred thousand passengers per day traveled to the Loop, most of whom made a day of shopping, lunching at a tearoom, and/or taking in a matinee performance at one of the many theatres on Randolph Street. As a journalist noted in 1904, because the Iroquois was built "nearest State Street, [with] the imposing entrance, sixty feet high, leading into a brilliantly decorated lobby, [the Iroquois] is expected to catch many strangers before they get further up the street."5 The foyer was sumptuously designed with marble and mahogany, with grand staircases on either side of a wide promenade that would accommodate the most corseted and bustled of late Victorian ladies' style. In short, the threshold to the Iroquois provided a luxurious framework for patrons to display their fashionable frocks, reassuring visitors that...