- The Wild West Turns East:Audience, Ritual, and Regeneration in Buffalo Bill's Boxer Uprising
No one had expected the performance in Pittsburgh to erupt into pandemonium. Yet that is what happened late one summer evening in 1901, as the Wild West approached the dramatic conclusion of its grand finale. That year's finale was unusual in two respects: it was based not on the mythic past but on a more recent event, and it was set not in the American West but in the Far East—China. In the late 1890s, the Boxer Movement emerged in response to the increasingly intrusive presence of foreigners in China. Western Europeans and Americans viewed the Boxers as barbaric because the latter sought the eradication through violent means of the very things that signified "progress" in the West—telegraph systems, railroads, mining projects, and Christian missions. The movement culminated in the summer of 1900, when the Boxers laid siege to the foreign legations inside the walls of Peking (Beijing). Had they succeeded in penetrating the barriers to the legations, as they were precariously close to doing, a bloody slaughter would have ensued. Yet in response to the crisis, foreign nations with interests in China hastily assembled a relief force. Upon reaching Peking, this international army scaled the city walls, routed the Boxers, and rescued the legations.1
In 1901, William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, produced an elaborate reenactment of this overseas military victory called "The Rescue at Pekin." [End Page 5] Though this performance always succeeded in arousing audiences, the spectators in Pittsburgh were especially excited as they stood throughout the entire program. As the mock battle reached its climax with the daring attempt by American soldiers to scale the massive Chinese wall, the evening's entertainment took an unexpected turn. The crowd, enraptured by the display of martial valor, surged en masse out of the stands and spilled onto the arena's dirt floor. As the audience flowed to the base of the wall, the soldier-performers standing on one another's shoulders and dangling on ropes could only look down in stunned amazement. A battle reenactment intended to inspire patriotism had, it seems, succeeded too well.2
Though the reenactment did not trigger a rolling tide of humanity at every venue, it always inspired audiences to connect emotionally with the drama in a way that found physical expression: people stomped their feet, shouted at the top of their lungs, shook their fists in the air, and wailed empathetically for fallen American soldiers. Why did this specific reenactment compel people to reject merely seeing in favor of doing? To answer this question, one could point to the ideological rhetoric surrounding the show. Both Wild West promoters and the press framed the reenactment as a contest between "civilization" and "savagery." Given this simplistic dichotomy, one might argue that most Americans proudly embraced their own civilization and welcomed opportunities to cheer exuberantly for it. In other words, one could attribute the fanatical enthusiasm of crowds to the popularity of the civilizing narrative used to justify foreign colonies and imperial wars: the noble Euro-American Prospero must subjugate the recalcitrant Boxer Caliban in order to plant the seeds of civilization in a distant and savage land.
However, this explanation of audience behavior requires one to take at face value white Americans' own rhetoric about "civilization" and "savagery," rhetoric which is emphatic in its insistence that a given group of people can be easily categorized as one or the other. Yet unambiguous language like this often flows not from true believers but rather from the truly ambivalent—from individuals who must constantly profess their faith in their own rigid classification system in order to keep the troubling doubts they harbor. If Americans were truly comfortable with the modern industrial state their nation was rapidly becoming, why would they flock to a form of entertainment that celebrated its antithesis—the violence, wildness, and even savagery of the frontier? American society's pressing need to impose order on the world with a simplistic binary nomenclature perhaps reflects that society's unspoken fear that the boundary is at best blurry—that residual...