This essay contends that young Americans were so omnipresent as performers and audience members during the nineteenth century that virtually all forms of popular theater from this period—including the pantomime, the extravaganza, the melodrama, and the minstrel show—can profitably be considered children’s theater. Humpty Dumpty, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Rip Van Winkle: many of the century’s biggest theatrical hits were enacted by mixed-age casts for mixed-age audiences, because the general population was not yet convinced that children needed to be shielded from paid labor and provided with their own separate and specially sanitized leisure activities. Too often, we presume that nineteenth-century children were so strongly associated with innocence, dependency, and vulnerability that no significant conflict over this bourgeois ideal took place. Yet as the controversies that swirled around all-child troupes such as the Viennoise Children in the 1840s and child stars such as Buster Keaton at century’s end attest, the nineteenth-century stage was a site of struggle over how to define the categories child and adult. Just as conflicting attitudes about women and African Americans were on display in burlesques and minstrel shows, so too deep uncertainties about what it meant to be a child played themselves out in nineteenth-century productions aimed at “children of all ages.”


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pp. 1-34
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