- Transatlantic Broadway: The Infrastructural Politics of Global Performance by Marlis Schweitzer
This finely wrought book significantly expands the fields of US theatre history and performance studies by mapping a new historiographical framework for understanding Broadway’s formation. Marlis Schweitzer advances a “new materialist” argument that “Broadway, the street itself and the fantasy it inspired, was produced through the transatlantic flow of goods, ideas, performers, agents, impresarios, and photographs via ocean liners, telegraph cables, and the like” (6). Building on the work of other performance historians who have traced transatlantic connections (for example, James Harding, John Rouse, Joseph Roach, Shannon Steen, and Jayna Brown) and/or focused on the relationship between art and commerce (Tracy Davis), she provocatively deploys actor-network theory (ANT) from the sociology of science to emphasize the interplay of human and nonhuman actors. In ANT she finds “a useful model for thinking about how objects both facilitated the expanding transnational trade in theatrical commodities at the turn into the twentieth century and functioned as actors themselves” (11). Postcolonial as well as posthumanist, the book also considers the implication of these developments in wider US imperial projects. The temporal scope is narrow—primarily the decade before World War I—in order to illuminate the often unseen “infrastructural acts” (5) of “breathing, sweating, desiring human bodies alongside the movement of vibrant theatrical objects” in a concentrated moment of modern technological transformation (36).
A substantive introduction elegantly elaborates the book’s complex theoretical framework and explains theatre managers’ aggressive turn toward Europe in search of more profitable material in the early 1900s. Schweitzer usefully summarizes a “perfect storm” of inhibiting factors at home, including mergers, anti-trust activism, financial panic, copyright debates, and rising immigration. Each of the book’s four chapters then focuses on particular new technologies that accelerated transnational exchange and impacted managerial approaches and everyday business practices. Schweitzer begins with the ocean liner as mediator (following Bruno Latour), “an actor endowed with the capacity to translate [that is, change or transform] what they transport, to redefine it, redeploy it, and also to betray it” (39). Grand vehicles of imperial circulation, the sister ships Lusitania and Mauretania, both launched in 1907, dramatically cut the time of Atlantic crossings, which made it more feasible for managers and agents to travel overseas several times a year to recruit performers and plays. The materiality of these vessels comes further into view when Schweitzer analyzes their launchings as spectacles, and highlights the performative aspects of passengers embarking and disembarking at the docks after each arrival. She notes that impresarios in search of new talent presented themselves as “skilled hunters of foreign game” (63). The ships also became stages for entertainments during the crossings. These vessels turned Charles Frohman, whom Schweitzer aptly dubs “the archetypal transatlantic subject” (192), into a theatrical titan by facilitating the expansion of his enterprise, yet, as she poignantly notes, they also inflicted the ultimate technological betrayal when he went down with the Lusitania in 1915.
If ocean liners moved goods and bodies between Europe and the United States, the telegraph, via a vast network of cables, and by 1899 wireless transmission, facilitated the transatlantic circulation of ideas and information that transformed Broadway. Influencing human movements and interactions, the telegraph, for Schweitzer (borrowing Robin Bernstein’s term), “stands as a striking example of a ‘scriptive thing,’” which “activated new modes of participation and spectatorship” (78–81). As she details in her second chapter, managers could [End Page 685] rapidly convey their wishes and responses and direct operations in multiple locations without being physically present. Schweitzer unearths hundreds of pink, yellow, and blue telegram slips from the archives documenting how impresarios and their agents used this medium to extend their imperialistic global reach. Armed with the code book used by producers Lee and J. J. Shubert, she deciphers these cryptic messages to reveal how secrecy and rapidity of communication bested competition. She draws fascinating connections between Shubert-rival Frohman’s famously epigrammatic wit and his mastery of the telegram. Along the way, she shows...