- Childhood and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre: The Work of the Marsh Troupe of Juvenile Actors by Shauna Vey
Shauna Vey's microhistory of the Marsh Troupe of Juvenile Comedians—an antebellum company of child actors performing in popular melodramas, fantasies, and farces written for adults—functions as an act of recuperation, narrowing in on a successful yet unheralded theatre company working in America and abroad while also exploring larger interests around child labor, the commodification of idealized childhood, and the changing nature of entrepreneurship. This slim volume narrows its focus onto five members of the troupe: manager Robert Marsh, his children, Mary and Georgie, and two additional child performers, Louise Arnot and Alfred Stewart. "As members of a stock company led by an impresario," Vey writes, "these children were involved on a daily basis with the antebellum theatre's bid for respectability, shifting business practices, and cross-dressed and mixed-bill performances. They encountered the deep influence of melodrama, the shift to a wage-based economy, and the need for workplace reform. Their particular experiences illuminate the lives of nineteenth-century players" (3). Of great interest to Vey is the ever-shifting concept of childhood, and the Marsh Troupe serves as an allegorical site of investigation into the ideology of protected childhood and the paradox of the child performer who has "always occupied a liminal space between child and adult" (9). Here the child actor is rendered as a successful laborer and professional child while also remaining legally and financially dependent upon adult supervision and control. Both knowing and innocent, the child performer "exercises expressive agency, acts in a public sphere, and moves among adults. She is exposed rather than protected, free rather than confined" (9). [End Page 346]
For Vey, the Marsh Troupe operated at the intersection between emerging narratives of Romantic childhood and the illusory fiction of placing the mask of innocence onto the faces of laboring professionals. The book thus engages issues around agency and action. How competent were these young performers? Were they precocious savants, unwilling participants, or simply young people developing skills and techniques for long-term careers on the stage? Of course, Vey's study offers up scholarly challenges. None of her child subjects left behind memoirs, letters, or diaries. Denied access to their inner lives, the book is based solely on adult records and observations. Additionally, though the book is exhaustingly researched, Vey is required to utilize guesswork and conjecture to fill in historical gaps. Relying on trace elements, however, Vey teases out useful historical insights based on close readings of letters, gravesites, business records, law cases, contract disputes, playbills, performance esoterica, photographs, and other promotional materials.
The first chapter documents the early career of Robert Marsh and the origins of his juvenile troupe, which began performing in 1855 and grew in popularity over the course of the next three years. In the second chapter Vey turns to two episodes in the troupe's history during their 1857–58 season. The first focuses on how financial difficulties with business partners led to a showdown between Marsh and the mother of juvenile lead Louise Arnot that can only be described as a kidnapping. Although Vey cannot access firsthand accounts of the alleged crime, three separate newspaper articles paint the event in a narrative style that borrowed heavily from the dramaturgical conventions of melodrama. Casting the thirteen-year-old Louise as a damsel in distress rescued from her mother's amoral clutches by a heroic Robert Marsh, Vey cannot help but wonder how much of a role Louise actually played in her own drama. As an object of economic exchange between fighting business partners and parents, Louise remains the one figure who seemingly has minimal agency over her destiny.
Similarly, fourteen-year-old Alfred Stewart, who joined the troupe in 1857, quickly found himself involved in a controversy over a contract dispute that put into conflict outdated forms of apprenticeship and newly emerging realities of child labor driven by cash-wage...