Staging Modern Society: Theaters in the United States, Brazil, and Egypt at the Turn of the 20th Century
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 6
In the era before radio, theaters were critical sites for entertainment, sociability, and the production and dissemination of anxieties and ideas. Writers, performers, theater personnel, and a wide array of audiences imagined and engaged in conversations about was appropriate and desired not only on but also off of the stage. By the turn of the twentieth century, theaters had emerged as powerful tools for defining and shaping modern society.
Our panel will explore the ways in which different groups perceived and wielded this tool during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in three regions: the United States, Brazil, and Egypt. While separated by thousands of miles, these regions had in common the profound impact of colonialism on the ways in which residents experienced and perceived their cultural place in a rapidly modernizing world. Within such a context, theaters were particularly important nodes in which ideas about politics, morality, and aesthetics circulated within the region and throughout the world. What were these ideas? How were they and their methods of diffusion similar or different across regional and cultural boundaries? In a medium in which the categories of performer and audience were deceptively delineated but often blurred, who held the power in deciding which ideas to stage?
Amy Arbogast will start off the panel by exploring how theaters were used as arenas for defining and contesting national identity in the United States from 1870 to the turn of the century. She will look specifically at the role of American playwrights in establishing theaters as sites of contestation as they worked to establish their profession and promote their drama as distinctly American. If European drama and dramatists’ near monopoly frustrated US playwrights, many Brazilians had a different response. Through an examination of legislators and anarchists in the city of São Paulo, Aiala Levy will explain how both groups envisioned and used theaters as schools in which to forge the minds, manners, and tastes of an urban public. Finally, Carmen Gitre will discuss the ways in which Egyptian theater functioned as a tool to debate, hone, and propagate notions of modern identity being debated fervently by a new, Western-educated but locally-rooted social group, the effendiyya. This group’s version of modern Egyptianness would become hegemonic in the post-WWI period. Kristen McCleary, whose work analyzes theaters and society in Argentina during the same period, will string the panel together and add a fourth perspective as commentator.
This panel will be of interest not only to theater historians of various regions and time periods, but also to historians of cultural institutions, political culture, and ideas of modernity.