- Childhood and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre: The Work of the Marsh Troupe of Juvenile Actors by Shauna Vey
Although the multidisciplinary field of childhood studies has burgeoned since the early 1990s, few theatre historians have investigated the achievements of US child actors in a book-length study until now. Rather than survey theatrical childhoods over the entire nineteenth century as the book’s unfortunate title suggests, Shauna Vey provides a comprehensive microhistory of the representative labors of the Marsh Troupe of Juvenile Actors, from its founding in 1855 through its dissolution in 1863, and the subsequent lives of its major players. She initiates theatre scholars into the theoretical frameworks of childhood studies by arguing why child actors should be conceptualized as wholly competent professionals capable of exercising their agency and rights. Notably, the Marsh Troupe exemplifies the normalcy of children’s contractual work before the disintegration of stock companies and the crusades to abolish their labors in the 1870s. Like other childhood scholars plagued with the lack of child-written records, Vey nevertheless plumbs every shred of archival evidence and relies upon classic secondary sources in childhood studies to document and situate the troupe’s extensive itinerant activities within its historical contexts in six well-organized chapters. [End Page 496]
Vey maintains that the troupe’s actor-manager, Robert Guerineau Marsh, deserves inclusion among other antebellum impresarios, particularly for his advanced publicity strategies (for example, souvenir photos in 1857) that established the troupe’s initial successes from 1855 to 1858 (chapter 1), and its subsequent tours across Australia and New Zealand during the US Civil War (chapter 4). Like the Fox, Aiken, and Howard children, Marsh built his foundations with Uncle Tom’s Cabin beginning in 1853 by casting his two children, 6-year-old Mary as Little Eva and 3-year-old Georgie as Little Harry, and relying upon his caretaking wife, Jane, as a utility player and costumer. Vey emphasizes Marsh’s unique innovation of foregrounding a child-centered company comprising over sixty children (ages 4–12), as well as aging adolescents and countless “little auxiliaries,” over the troupe’s nine-year existence (all listed in the appendix). These touted numbers populated Marsh’s spectacular stagings of fairy extravaganzas (for example, The Naiad Queen), romances (The Forty Thieves), melodramas (Black-Eyed Susan), processional marches (The Brigand), and dances, among other standard antebellum fare. Like other child performers who preceded them, these juvenile actors performed adult characters engaged in romantic courtships, swashbuckling battles, and other adult situations, notably with very few public criticisms against any age-inappropriate behaviors that might otherwise offend spectators today. Vey claims that “[t]hese special creatures, who were beginning to be seen as so different from adults, increasingly fascinated the public,” even though such small-bodied “differences” had fascinated spectators since the 1790s (22). She argues that Marsh utilized children as a “moral uplift,” based on his written intentions to “‘honor [and] benefit’ his chosen profession . . . with ‘something new and meritorious’ to offset ‘degenerate’ amusements,” even as she characterizes the Marsh Troupe as “[l]ess an exhibition of precocious phenomena than of fully staged spectacle” (22, 11).
Nevertheless, Vey successfully challenges romanticized tropes of childhood innocence by spotlighting the lived experiences of four leading players as exemplars of childhood during this era. Two compelling labor disputes confirm the economic utility of child actors as Marsh’s capitalist property (chapter 2). In the first case, Vey reads 1857 newspaper accounts as a melodrama in which a heroine, 13-year-old Louise Arnot, literally cried out for help during her abduction by villains (her mother and lawyer), until Marsh rescued her to satisfy her recorded desire to remain with him. In contrast, Vey characterizes Louise as a “fearless tomboy” who employed her contralto voice to play leading men in breeches roles before continuing a successful acting career through 1908 (chapter 5). In the second case, the author uses 1858 court records to read the wage-based contract of 14-year-old...