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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 211-226

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The Disavowal of Ethnicity: Legitimate Theatre and the Social Construction of Literary Value in Turn-of-the-Century America

Mark Hodin


On July 29, 1895, the New York Dramatic Mirror added a new department to its weekly coverage of theatre: "The Vaudeville Stage." Because vaudeville was "steadily coming into nearer relations with the regular stage," the editors explain, "it is evident that the leading newspaper of the theatre should lift this class of intelligence to the dignity of a carefully maintained and occasionally illustrated department" (8). The section provided just what theatregoers needed to navigate an expanding entertainment field: detailed summaries of bills playing in New York City's variety houses including audience responses to particular acts, lists of performers' engagements in cities across the nation, and a weekly profile of vaudeville stars, usually someone currently playing in New York. "The printing of a department like this one," the editors assert firmly, "will not, however, in any way interfere with the established form of the well-known policy of the paper, or affect any other feature or interest" (8). The Mirror's editorial policy, led famously by Harrison Grey Fiske, was known for its anti-commercial stance, and, over the next decade, the paper would become the nation's leading theatrical publication by staunchly criticizing the expansion of mass culture its back pages helped coordinate.

The Mirror's expanded format reflected wider developments in American theatregoing at the turn of the century, particularly an emerging desire among the middle classes to move freely between a variety of entertainment venues and formats. 1 These new market conditions of course compelled the Mirror's inclusion of vaudeville, but the structure of the paper's "departments" in fact proposed a way for legitimate theatre, and its leading publication, to prosper in this competitive marketplace. Like the paper's two halves, theatregoers could disavow their involvement in commercial amusement by supporting "serious" drama. [End Page 211]

The social work done by this theatrical practice has not been adequately recognized, for it seems to complicate a key assumption about the formation of modern culture in the US; namely, that faced with a society fragmented by urbanization and immigration, elite authorities imagined and instituted the meaning of legitimate culture as a process of retreat from, and refusal of, the "lowbrow." 2 Given its close association with such commercial amusement, American theatre has not proved a compelling site for scholars studying the production of literary value in these modernizing times. 3 In this article, I hope to suggest otherwise. My contention is that market pressure compelled legitimate theatre's advocates like the Dramatic Mirror to articulate the value of literary practice in explicitly social terms, as a privilege realized through mobility rather than removal. My thesis will be that such promotions drew by locating cultural legitimacy in unmarked identity, promising to restore for the dominant classes a threatened social order by confirming the dominion of "white" authority in an "ethnic" commercial landscape. To make this case, I'll focus particularly on the theatre criticism of James S. Metcalfe, the drama editor at Life magazine who gained national prominence early in the century by blaming the commercialization of theatre on a group of Jewish theatre owners. In order to understand how such an overtly ideological argument could be recognized by audiences as an expression of legitimate criticism, however, it will be necessary first to reconstruct the context of its articulation and appreciate the role of the professional theatre reviewer in the entertainment field.

The expression legitimate theatre itself is a useful starting place for such restoration work, for the term became vernacular within this turn-of-the-century amusement market. The legitimate prefix confirmed the fact that conventional stage plays no longer monopolized the definition of legitimate theatrical entertainment, while, at the same time, asserted that they did (or could), as a strategy for profiting under these new conditions. As such, legitimate theatre referred to the history of theatre's high...


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