restricted access Midwest American Rural Landscapes and the Creation of a Unique Theatre Culture, 1870-1940
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Midwest American Rural Landscapes and the Creation of a Unique Theatre Culture, 1870-1940

Immigrants created this country, and agriculture developed it. This was especially true for the immigrant populations who settled in and eventually created the great breadbasket of America's vast middle. Small towns became powerful magnets that drew sprawling rural communities. These hubs nurtured an aesthetic that manifested itself in a unique theatrical culture, reinforcing specific ideas of what being an "American" meant. That culture produced many places of performance: opera houses, circle-stock theatres, traveling tent repertoire theatres, and airdomes. From 1870 to 1940, millions of people throughout the Midwest were entertained nightly by dramas, comedies, and vaudeville sketches that shocked, amused, titillated, or horrified. Farming communities convulsed in laughter to the antics of the Toby Show comedian, thrilled to the sensational drama Jesse James, and cringed at the immorality of Saintly Hypocrites and Honest Sinners. Don Carle Gillette, in an October 1927 New York Times article, claimed that that year an estimated 76,800,000 people saw 96,000 performances enacted by approximately four hundred tent repertoire companies.1 By the twentieth century, technology advanced and radio, silent films, and talkies became available. Yet for many years rural communities embraced the older, live entertainment venues of tent repertoire, circle stock, airdomes, and opera houses.

Rural communities and the entertainments they enjoyed constituted a theatrical micro-community—a stable tradition that endured in one form or another for over seventy years. More than just showbiz, this theatrical tradition [End Page 141] reflected local and national core values. These values, incubated within diverse immigrant populations, flourished in an agricultural structure and constructed a specific "American" identity, one that often conflated fundamental Christianity, hard work, gender role reinforcement, and distrust of urban life.

This essay explores that unique rural and small-town theatre culture by examining prominent plays and venues. It also examines the core values that allowed this culture to develop and, for a time, flourish. Theatre historians, a gender theorist, an elementary school educator, and an American president were key elements in the creation of this study.

Many factors affected rural values and gave midwestern rural culture its unique flavor and quality. The earliest was the impact of Jeffersonian idealism. America's third president was fascinated by many subjects. A Renaissance man, he was especially taken with agriculture. "From the age of twenty-three, Jefferson had maintained a 'garden book,' keeping track of flowers and plants at Monticello, and much of his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia, was devoted to describing the plants of his native state. 'No occupation is so delightful to me . . . as the culture of the earth.'"2 Further he wrote, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made this peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."3

In a January 18, 1803, letter to Congress, Jefferson declared that native peoples must be exposed to and become participants in "agriculture, to manufacture and civilization, in bringing together our settlements, and in preparing them ultimately to participate in the benefits of our government. I trust and believe we are acting for the greatest good."4 Given Jefferson's beliefs, it was not surprising that farming was the first and most crucial activity native peoples needed to perform to fulfill his idea of civilization. Jefferson celebrated decency and democracy as inherent in the rural life of the yeoman farmer. Urban life was evil, morally debased, essentially corrupting, and inherently undemocratic. Such a view was "one to which he would hold for the rest of his life. It was, moreover, a formulation that would exercise a special influence on both popular and intellectual culture in America, long after the passing of its most distinguished exponent."5 This philosophy would find expression in many plays of tent repertoire theatre, especially those that dealt with the character of Toby Tolliver, hero and driving force of the ubiquitous Toby Show.

By the 1870s "small town [and the surrounding rural society] was America's norm."6 Immigrants seeking economic, political, and religious freedom created rural towns...