- Childhood and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre: The Work of the Marsh Troupe of Juvenile Actors by Shauna Vey
In Childhood and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre: The Work of the Marsh Troupe of Juvenile Actors, Shauna Vey offers an engaging chronicle of a journeyman group of child actors, providing valuable insights into the changing status of children and theater in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Vey’s project focuses on a group of young actors whose careers were successful but presumably fairly typical. In this respect it is a response to an existing tendency to study the most exceptional child performers and to assess their talents on the basis of current, rather than historical, constructions of childhood. Her method is to produce a microhistory of the Marsh children, culled from historical documents and enlivened by a narrative journalistic style gesturing at mystery and melodrama. Following the tenet of microhistorical research that particular lives are emblematic of their historical moment, Vey asserts that the Marsh children’s story is important precisely because, although successful, they were not huge stars. As Vey notes, the children “encountered the deep influence of melodrama, the shift to a wage-based economy, and the need for workplace reform. Their particular experiences illuminate the lives of nineteenth-century players” (3).
What emerges is a portrait of a group of child subjects whose lives and careers reveal the ambivalent circumstances of the shift from economic to emotional value invested in children, fed by the same middle class sensibility that prompted some theater producers, including the troupe’s founder Robert Marsh, to make the form appear more respectable by both representing childhood on stage and appealing to family audiences. Vey’s perspective on the Marsh Troupe is grounded in the prevailing paradigms of these changes, most notably the ideas presented by Viviana Zelizer in Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (Basic Books, 1985). As Vey demonstrates, child actors occupied a complex position with regard to issues of labor and sentiment, because they were wage-earning workers—regarded and evaluated as professionals by audiences and critics—even as their on-stage personae satisfied the public’s desire for the new, romantic image of innocent childhood.
Vey’s extensive archival research—culled from newspapers, contracts, advertisements, grave markers, and census records—is the starting point for insightful contextualization and interpretation. The early chapters give an overview of the troupe’s history under the leadership of Robert Marsh, who founded the company starting with his own two children. Along the way, Vey offers detailed profiles of Marsh and four of the children. Each of these subjects figures a different manifestation of social, theatrical, and economic change. For example, Alfred Stewart, the troupe’s fourteen-year-old [End Page 124] specialist in Irish songs and sketches, had a contract with Marsh that reads like a hybrid of a traditional apprenticeship and the newer wage labor practices, revealing the complex relationship between freedom and protection in nineteenth-century childhood.
This is no dry accounting of archival findings, however. In a typically vivid analysis, Vey describes an incident in which Louise Arnot refused, against her mother’s wishes, to leave the troupe. When her mother and a lawyer attempted to take her away, she resisted, putting up a fight in the street and attracting a crowd. Whereas Alfred Stewart had little agency in contractual battles between his mother and Marsh, Louise Arnot was able to assert her professional preference to stay with the troupe by drawing on her melodramatic acting skills. The newspapers cooperated by reporting the incident as an attempted abduction, yet they did not sentimentalize either the child or the mother, reflecting the attitude that Louise was property in an economic transaction.
The element of melodrama illustrated in this episode is a running motif in the book. The most memorably narrated passages are of a piece with Little Mary Marsh’s melodramatic life and death; she was fatally burned onstage when her gossamer costume caught fire in the footlights. No...