The Elias String Quartet performs in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. Photo by Hikari Mine
On Thursday, Feb. 2, Professor Gillian Rodger held a lecture in Harper Hall entitled “Negotiating the Unfamiliar World of Nineteenth Century American Popular Theatre.” An ethnomusicologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Rodger lectured on this obscure yet highly intriguing topic. The audience was mesmerized by the passion and knowledge that she displayed toward this subject.
While categorizing the numerous types of 19th century theatre, Rodger also went into great detail about the roles that gender, race and class played in entertainment during this time period. The lecture included a PowerPoint presentation containing many black and white photos of a bygone era. Rodger, engrossed by this period of theatre, has spent hours researching the stories of specific performers, ballerinas and novelty acts; the accumulation of these accounts is impactful.
Starting with the social stratum of each theatre, Rodger explained the different types of acts found at each location, and the level of respect they received. A low-class theatre in a poverty-stricken neighborhood could not achieve the success of one in a rich neighborhood. This fact was partly because low-class theatres catered to mostly working-class men; therefore, the content was highly sexualized. A professional ballerina performing the same production—in an identical outfit, nonetheless—in a low-class versus high-class theatre would be highly scrutinized when booked at the working man’s theatre.
The cunning and quick wit of Rodger was especially displayed in the discussion of gender roles; her comically spiteful one-liners against sexism were amusing. At the time, there was a lot of comedic cross-dressing in Burlesque performance. Men often played the “Dame” role of an ugly and unwanted woman. The audiences did not like to see women look ugly on the stage, so cross-dressed men were cast to play this unattractive role. Women, on the other hand, could rarely perform any type of comedy. Male impersonation was popular for a brief time, but gradually became feminized. As women were gaining the right to vote, men decided that the “dangers of manly women” were too risky, and this form of comedy subsequently declined.
Similarly, male variety performers could possess very little vocal talent and still be successful. At most, they had to be able to decently hold a melody. Oppositely, female variety performers were required to have a tuneful and pretty voice. Landing a job was very difficult, and it was not a rewarding line of work. After only a few years of singing or dancing, the women were past their physical prime and would no longer get booked for shows.
Rodger ended her lecture with a warning about how these flaws of 19th century theatre are still prevalent in modern musicals and movies. For example, Disney movies contain many examples of minstrelsy, which Rodger briefly touched upon in her lecture. Overall, Professor Gillian Rodger presented a fascinating lecture on a topic that would never have caught my attention before, but which was utterly intriguing and well-presented.