Folger Shakespeare Library
Stage and Screen Education and Inspiration The American Identity



A Night at the Theater

A Night at the Theater
James Cook, associate professor of history and American culture, University of Michigan

JAMES COOK: An evening in the theater in a place like New York City in the 1830s or 1840s would have consisted of a kind of eclectic mixture of different kinds of performance genres, different kinds of entertainments.

So you might see a bit of Shakespeare—a soliloquy or a full play—but often mixed with other kinds of things, like magicians doing sleight of hand, acrobats doing tumbling and gymnastics, juggling, animal acts, really a kind of grab bag of different kinds of popular culture and different kinds of performance mixed together in different bits and pieces over the course of an evening.

There's more of a kind of edgy quality to some of the acts, especially satirical acts. Blackface minstrel shows, the kind of hard-edged satire that pokes fun at middle-class moralists.