The Most American Thing in America
Circuit Chautauqua as Performance
Publication Year: 2005
Between 1904 and the Great Depression, Circuit Chautauquas toured the rural United States, reflecting and reinforcing its citizens’ ideas, attitudes, and politics every summer through music (the Jubilee Singers, an African American group, were not always welcome in a time when millions of Americans belonged to the KKK), lectures (“Civic Revivalist” Charles Zueblin speaking on “Militancy and Morals”), elocutionary readers (Lucille Adams reading from Little Lord Fauntleroy), dramas (the Ben Greet Players’ cleaned-up version of She Stoops to Conquer), orations (William Jennings Bryan speaking about the dangers of greed), and special programs for children (parades and mock weddings).
Theatre historians have largely ignored Circuit Chautauquas since they did not meet the conventional conditions of theatrical performance: they were not urban; they produced no innovative performance techniques, stage material, design effects, or dramatic literature. In this beautifully written and illustrated book, Charlotte Canning establishes an analytical framework to reveal the Circuit Chautauquas as unique performances that both created and unified small-town America.
One of the last strongholds of the American traditions of rhetoric and oratory, the Circuits created complex intersections of community, American democracy, and performance. Canning does not celebrate the Circuit Chautauquas wholeheartedly, nor does she describe them with the same cynicism offered by Sinclair Lewis. She acknowledges their goals of community support, informed public thinking, and popular education but also focuses on the reactionary and regressive ideals they sometimes embraced. In the true interdisciplinary spirit of Circuit Chautauquas, she reveals the Circuit platforms as places where Americans performed what it meant to be American.
Published by: University of Iowa Press
Series: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture
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Ten years have passed since I presented at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education the first paper from what would turn out to be the research for this book. During that time, I have been the recipient of the generosity of many people and institutions, and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge their largess. ...
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Introduction: Remembering the Platform
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Marian Castle, reflecting back on her experiences as a booking agent and superintendent for Circuit Chautauqua during the 1920s, predicted in 1932: “But who can say that some future historian may not write: ‘The circuit Chautauquas, which flourished from 1904 to 1930, should be ranked as one of the most significant indications of an awakening American culture?’”1 ...
1. America on the Platform
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Those attending the 1917 Lincoln Chautauqua in Mooresville, Indiana, for six days in late July must have had the European war very much on their minds. Mooresville is only about ten miles southwest of Indianapolis and at that point had a population of just over 2,000.1 While the war had been raging in Europe for almost three years, the United States had been involved for just over three months, ...
2. Community on the Platform
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When Ben R. Vardaman, an Iowa businessman and editor of Merchants Trade Journal, stepped off the train platform in Valley City, North Dakota, “one July, eleven bands met [him].”1 The small town rang with the glorious sounds of music, cheers, and anticipation. Crowds gathered at the station eagerly awaiting the guest of honor. Vardaman had pioneered the idea of a special ...
3. The Platform in the Tent
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Chautauqua’s visit was heralded with the transformation of the town by pennants, window displays, and placards. Large signs hung across streets exclaiming that “Chautauqua is coming!” The breeze would set these notices fluttering, and the whole town quivered with the excitement of it all. ...
4. Performance on the Platform: Oratory
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No single figure is more identified with Circuit Chautauqua than William Jennings Bryan. His politics, character, moral values, oratory, and even blind spots and failures found their truest expression and most sympathetic reception on the Circuits. The political battles he waged were on behalf of the citizens who comprised Chautauqua audiences, ...
5. Performance on the Platform: Theater
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In 1913 the Redpath Bureau sent the Ben Greet Players out on Circuit Chautauqua. They opened the week of May 18 near Albany, Georgia, and toured for almost fifteen weeks, closing near Pittsburgh.1 They had two plays in their repertoire—Comedy of Errors, “with every tart Elizabethan phrase that might wound soft sensibilities” excised, and a similarly bowdlerized She Stoops to Conquer.2 ...
Conclusion: The Palimpsestic Platform
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As the black-and-white movie begins, a huge crowd waits at the train station. Men have their jackets slung over their shoulders, children run excitedly, and all those gathered fan themselves in the noonday heat. A train whistle is heard in the distance, and immediately the band begins to play, while the crowd’s enthusiastic exclamations can be heard over the music. ...
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Page Count: 286
Publication Year: 2005
Series Title: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture