- Childhood and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre: The Work of the Marsh Troupe of Juvenile Actors by Shauna Vey
Written with clear affection for her subjects and delight in the forensic work of historical research, Shauna Vey's book tells us the story of a company of child actors, the Marsh Troupe. Four children stand at the heart of her investigation. They are the core members of this some thirty-strong company of juvenile actors that was founded and managed by Robert Guerineau Marsh in 1855. Two of this central quartet were his own children: Mary Marsh (born 1847) and Georgie Marsh (born 1850); they were joined by Alfred Stewart (born 1843) and Louise Arnot (born 1844). For five years, the troupe enthralled audiences across North America—from Boston to New Orleans to Quebec to San Francisco—before embarking for Australia and New Zealand, where they remained until 1863. The company finally disbanded in 1867, their original members grown up, married, or dead. Vey articulates the vicissitudes of the Marsh Troupe with larger questions about the working lives of juvenile performers in America during the antebellum period. She uses her findings to interrogate cultural constructions of childhood that dominated in the nineteenth-century and that intersect with our own contemporary understandings of childhood.
Nowhere are the collisions between child and childhood, lived experience and Romantic construction, brought into focus more vividly by Vey than in her account of the horrific onstage death of Little Mary Marsh. The accident happened on January 28, 1859, in Ralston Hall, Macon, Georgia. The Marsh Company were performing one of their signature dramas, The Naiad Queen, and Mary was as usual in the role of the Fairy Idex when she simply stepped too close to a candle. Her dress caught fire and she was engulfed in flame. She died the following day. Vey documents how this dreadful event became a spectacle that was managed by her father in such a way as to overlay it with Mary's first and most adored stage role, Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Vey observes that in the fusion of Fairy Idex with Eva, the child performer and her roles became one, to represent "a character whose tragic death only enhanced her purity. Before and after her own tragic death, Mary, too, would be an angel" (66). In her analysis of this horrific spectacle, Vey expertly draws out the way in which it captures the conflict between child as worker in a risky profession and child as embodiment of innocence, a protected being transfigured by purity. The binaries of mortality and immortality, transience and permanence, memorializing and forgetting that were traditionally evoked by the juvenile actor were intensified by the conflagration into literal questions of life and death. [End Page 243]
Vey gives a comprehensive account of the kaleidoscopic formations and reformations of the Marsh Troupe over the twelve years of their existence. Her account is driven by the compelling biographies of the central figures. At the same time, it would have been fascinating to discover more about the content, stage set, and performance elements for some items in the Marsh repertoire that today are not so well known. The fantasy The Naiad Queen is a case in point; this drama between immortals and mortals set on the River Rhine was performed by the Marsh Troupe from their earliest beginnings, and it was still in performance in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1863, yet further details about the play or their production are tantalizingly sparse. Some further investigation of the balance or conflict between work and education of the Marsh children would also have been welcome: only when describing the company of children travelling across Australia and having to leave their train because of a derailment does Vey mention that the children were accompanied by teachers, but the significance of this is not developed. Equally interestingly, Vey observes that the wages of theatre children compared favourably with those of factory children; she explains...