- Street Scenes: Staging the Self in Immigrant New York, 1880–1924, and: The Immigrant Scene: Ethnic Amusements in New York, 1880–1920
Esther Romeyn's Street Scenes: Staging the Self in Immigrant New York, 1880–1924 and Sabine Haenni's The Immigrant Scene: Ethnic Amusements in New York, 1880–1920 offer richly interdisciplinary analyses of the contentious construction of American identity in the crucible of performance by, about, and (only sometimes) for New York city immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. While the two authors use some of the same evidence to make their cases, their approaches and their conclusions are significantly different. Both books, however, are worthy of attention from performance scholars working on ethnicity or popular entertainment during the period.
Romeyn is trained in American studies, and Street Scenes has a predictably literary bent. In her project, she addresses a variety of texts, including urban guidebooks, "mystery-and-misery" novels, the print coverage of the 1909 Chinatown murder of Elsie Sigel, and Italian, Irish, Yiddish, and blackface dialect comedy. Throughout, she argues that the native-born New York audience, drawn both to slumming tours of Chinatown, as well as to the clown Farfariello's vaudeville acts, saw (or thought they saw) authenticity in these theatricalized and mediated performances in the streets and on the stage. Thus for the immigrant—Romeyn uses the word broadly, to include African American migrants to the city—authenticity and theatricality were crucially at odds.
As her subtitle indicates, Romeyn asserts that the immigrant self was performed in anxious response to the knowledge that, in the maelstrom of [End Page 140] New York streets, surfaces mattered and judgments about one's ethnic heritage and social status were quickly made. Immigrant audiences could not help having a DuBoisian sense of double consciousness in response. But native-born audiences also were anxious—about cultural mobility, and about a growing awareness that what begins as Americanized quickly becomes, simply, American.
With eight chapters plus an introduction, Street Scenes is divided into two sections. Part 1, "The City as Theater: Performativity and Urban Space," focuses on the representation of immigrants in novels and guidebooks, such as Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) and Helen Campbell's Darkness and Daylight, or Shadows of New York Life (1895). Here, Romeyn is particularly interested in how immigrant neighborhoods were represented as dangerous and miserable and, at the same time, as potential sites for outsider adventure and thrill-seeking; that is, she examines how authors, tour operators, and journalists presented enclaves like Chinatown as available for native-born, middleclass leisure-time consumption.
While compelling, part 1 is probably of less use to the theatre scholar than part 2, "Stages of Identity: Performing Ethnic Subjects." Here, Romeyn moves gracefully through close readings of Italian, Yiddish, Irish, and blackface plays, musicals, and vaudeville acts. Her examination of the career of Eduardo Migliaccio (known onstage as Farfariello) in chapter 5 is an outstanding piece of archival work. Throughout, Romeyn emphasizes what she calls "grotesque realism" in these performances, envisioning caricature on the comic stage as a site for negotiating identity. She plays with notions of passing and masquerade, and deftly addresses the "cultural pastiche" of Irish performers in blackface doing Jewish acts (189). Invoking Ann Douglas's notion of a mongrel Manhattan, Romeyn proposes the possibility that these apparent slippages actually "questioned the idea of inherent racial character" (193).
Street Scenes is not a perfect book. There are a few factual bobbles and sweeping assumptions to be found in part 2. In addition, some of the examples Romeyn turns to—like Edward Harrigan—are already familiar and well-worn territory. Finally, the book would benefit from a conclusion to integrate the work that unfolds quite separately in the two parts. Nevertheless, the book is worth consulting. Her introduction, which...