Performing the Progressive Era:
Immigration, Urbanism, and Nationalism on Stage, 1890-1920
In The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909), reformer and settlement house director Jane Addams laments the temptations and travails of modern urban life, especially the lack of access for working class and immigrant families to institutions that promote the “conception of life higher than that which the actual world offers them.” Integral to Addams’s argument is the institution of theater, which she describes in terms of character-building and national-development by quoting from an anonymous English playwright: “The theater is literally making the minds of our urban populations today. It is a huge factory of sentiment, of character, of points of honor, of conceptions of conduct, of everything that finally determines the destiny of a nation. The theater is not only a place of amusement, it is a place of culture, a place where people learn how to think, act, and feel.” Accepting this premise uncritically, Addams nevertheless warns against those entertainments that constituted a “debased form of dramatic art,” which could only corrupt the innocence and morality of the youth by promoting unethical assumptions and behaviors, a common complaint among theater and social critics of the Progressive Era. Addams yearned for an appropriate theater that could show “life lived in efflorescence;” a theatre that would ennoble the youth of working-class and immigrant families, and therein, the country. In effect, Addams sought the high/low binary that David Savran has shown developed during the 1920s, with high-culture theater of Eugene O’Neill and the subsequent Little Theatre Movement, sermons, and settlement-house plays correcting the troubling influence of melodramas, musical halls, and burlesque.
Addams’s conception evinces a disorganized and overlapping theatrical landscape that was specific to the Progressive Era. A commingling of genre, aesthetic, and ideological trappings that produced a theatre that defined (and was defined by) the nation’s emergent urban life. This is perhaps best encapsulated by Frederic Jameson’s definition of modernism as “the co-existence of realities from radically different moments in history.” The Progressive Era was, for the most part, a confluence of new and old, high and low. At the same time, perhaps fortunately for Addams, the Progressive Era represented what Dorothy Chansky has called a “sea change in social behavior enabled not only by the innovations of self-proclaimed rebels, but by widespread, systematic shifts allowing a broad based accommodation of the new rhetoric by many Americans.” This anthology examines the theatre’s role in promulgating and legitimizing these changes. In what ways did theatre—high and low— instigate changes in local and national identities as they relate to questions of class, ethnicity, sexuality, temperance, etc.? In what ways did theater—high and low—work in conjunction to influence how theatergoers thought, acted, and felt? By taking up Addams’s claim about the competition and comingling of Broadway, working-class, immigrant, settlement house, and variety theatres, this anthology examines the ways that thinkers, artists, reformers, and entrepreneurs willed a new chapter of modernity into existence out of the raw material of this decidedly chaotic period of U.S. history.
We welcome submissions that examine the theatre’s role as a “factory” of modernity, both locally and nationally. This might include consideration of social concerns such as the Settlement House Movement, the Social Purity Movement, Temperance Societies, Immigration, Nativism, etc. This might also include exploration of the many theatrical genres discussed here as they relate to the larger project of modernism.
Editors – J. Chris Westgate, CSU Fullerton & Max Shulman, Tufts University
- Final essays will be between 8,000-10,000 words.
- Please send abstracts of 250 words to J. Chris Westgate at jcwestgate@Exchange.fullerton.edu.
- Please include a short bio with abstracts.
- Abstract Submission Deadline: December 1st, 2015