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"The Picture Postcard is a sign of the times": Theatre Postcards and Modernism

From: Theatre History Studies
Volume 32, 2012
pp. 93-119 | 10.1353/ths.2012.0018

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The invention of the postcard in 1869 and the introduction of picture postcards not long after resulted in an international postcard craze that lasted until the onset of World War I. As theatre historian Veronica Kelly has noted in a study of the theatrical dimensions of this popular phenomenon, actresses, particularly those specializing in musical comedy, were a favorite subject within the postcard industry, extending the actresses' images beyond their theatrical origins to a much broader range of contexts and making those images available for a variety of consumer usages. It is worth noting, however, that the postcard vogue coincided with the rise of modernism and that, in addition to popular musical-comedy actresses, some of the more elite stage performers and controversial theatre artists of the period were represented on postcards. This essay considers the use of the postcard to circulate images of turn-of-the-twentieth-century star performers not typically considered in relation to modernism and of seemingly high-art modernists not typically considered as popular entertainment. In doing so, I raise questions about the relation of popular entertainment and modernism and suggest how postcards might be seen to problematize the perceived boundaries between high art and popular culture that have traditionally effected the segregation of popular entertainment studies and modernist cultural studies. At the same time, I consider how theatre postcards complicate the conventional geographic and temporal boundaries by which modernism has most often been understood. In these ways, the essay suggests how late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century theatre postcards provide evidence to support recent reconceptualizations of the field of modernist studies and of the centrality of theatre and performance within modernist cultural production.

Plain postcards, with the postal address and postage on one side and space for a message on the other, were initially proposed by a German postmaster in 1865 and came into use in Austria in 1869 with such success that sales are estimated at a million cards per month in the first year alone. Picture postcards followed soon after and were especially popular with tourists at European resorts in the 1880s and 1890s. Plain postcards were adopted in Britain in 1870, with picture postcards following in 1894, and the United States began issuing plain postcards in 1873 and picture postcards in 1893. During the peak of their popularity, postcards functioned as a form of popular entertainment as individuals around the world engaged in correspondence, collection, and exchange.

A few examples will give some sense of the range and focus of theatre-and performance-related postcards during the period in question. For representations of actresses, Ellen Terry provides a useful example, with a large number of postcards featuring her in costume for various roles, as well as out of character (figs. 1-4).

Postcards featured scenes from plays as well, as shown in the examples of productions of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, The Lower Depths, and Hedda Gabler (figs. 5-7). Dance artists were also popular subjects for postcards and were represented in genres ranging from ballet to modern dance to cabaret (figs. 8-11). Theatre-and performance-related postcards were not limited to performers but also included such key modernist playwrights as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, and George Bernard Shaw, as well as less widely recognized figures such as writer Cicely Hamilton and producer/ manager Lilian Baylis (figs. 12-16). Such postcards were most often formal studio portraits, but there were also occasional snapshots and cartoons (figs. 17 and 18).

In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin notes that the "uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition." Detaching a work of art from its "aura" of authenticity—its original "presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be"—thus inevitably detaches "the reproduced object from the domain of tradition" and from the "ritual function" associated with "the location of its original use value." In the case of theatre-related postcards, they were detached from the rituals of theatre-going and perhaps even play-reading. Indeed, as theatre scholar Viv Gardner has observed, postcards contributed...



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