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  • American Traveling Tent Theatre, 1900–1940: Rural and Small Town Tent Show Plays Performed in the Midwest (Including Scripts of Popular Tent Theatricals) by Dawn Larsen and Richard L. Poole
  • Steven Dedalus Burch
American Traveling Tent Theatre, 1900–1940: Rural and Small Town Tent Show Plays Performed in the Midwest (Including Scripts of Popular Tent Theatricals). By L. Dawn Larsen and Richard L. Poole. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2014. 668 pp. $350.00 paper.

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As this volume's introduction states, histories of American theatre "focus almost exclusively on urban theatre" (1), which appears obvious at first glance. After all, one of the primary ingredients for a vibrant theatre culture is a large enough, informed populace who are at least somewhat economically well-off and who possess the leisure time necessary to indulge in theatregoing. This is also true of other national Western theatre cultures, which rate and support their theatres based on successful productions in taste-making urban centers like London, Paris, and Berlin. Likewise, American theatre is primarily aware of shows emanating from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Little attention has been paid throughout the years to the underside of American theatre (i.e., traveling tent theatres along with community theatres), even though such a focus reveals much about American culture.

For the first half of the twentieth century, traveling shows were found in tents, local opera houses, and at county and state fairs, along with further varieties of live entertainment, such as circuses, religious revival services, carnival shows, musicals, and one-night stands at railroad stops. Their history in America goes back to the seventeenth century, though it truly flourished throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, until such performances were undermined by Hollywood, radio, and the Great Depression. Until then, the Midwest circuit demanded and reinforced the "specific rural American identity [that] combined fundamental Protestantism, individual responsibility and suspicion of urban life" (2). The authors contend—and the playscripts selected for this anthology certainly bear this out—that for "theatre to be acceptable in small town/rural America, it had to reflect rural/small town values [and] its plays, its personnel, the physical structure of its temporary auditoria had to be acceptable and accessible to the rural community" (3).

For the history of this particular brand of American theatre, the authors acknowledge a large debt to William Slout's classic Theatre in a Tent: The Development of a Provincial Entertainment (1972) and also provide a bibliography of the frankly slim studies previously available. What Professors Larsen and Poole provide in this entertaining study is an anthology of eight playscripts from the tent theatre repertoire, along with an analysis of key stock characters, genres, and themes, especially focusing on the nativist elements that audiences responded to.

The anthology proper begins with an 1858 temperance chestnut, Ten Nights in a Barroom by William W. Pratt, used in its day primarily for moral instruction [End Page 316] regarding the harmful effects of drink on families and the community. That play is followed by the first of three scripts by Charles Harrison, a ubiquitous presence in the tent theatre during the early twentieth century. The Awakening of John Slater (1914) was a rustic play that identified the citified wife Adele as a malevolent and manipulative con artist whose relationship to the titular John is poisonous until her con is discovered and she is carted off to jail (and the marriage dissolved). It also contains a character, Lun, who functions as a "Toby" character, a "rube" with whom the agrarian audiences of this theatre generally identified. The Toby type became the "standard for all the silly kid roles" (81) as well as the standard name for this particular subgenre.

The next play in the anthology, Clouds and Sunshine (ca. 1909), is a Toby show by Cal Herman. At times, the term "Toby show" was used as a generic term for all tent shows, described by Larsen and Poole as a "traveling vaudeville-type melodramatic tent show featuring a character called Toby … a bucolic comedy juvenile leading man … [a] red-headed, freckled-face, silly kid rube character" whose makeup also included a blacked-out tooth...


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