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



Who Wasn't in the Audience

Who Wasn't in the Audience
James Cook, associate professor of history and American culture, University of Michigan

JAMES COOK: There's still a strong anti-theatrical prejudice that carries over from older suspicions about the theater from the Puritans and from Quakers, and so the people who go to the theater in the 1830s-1840s in places like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, tended to be men.

Women were allowed in the theater, but usually only with male escorts. Children are largely excluded from the theater, it's not as much of a family kind of entertainment. And so, you would get young apprentices and journeymen, these teenage boys who work in artisan workshops, showing up in the cheap seats in the upper galleries of the theater, but not fully respectable middle-class families.

When women go to the theater in the 1830s-1840s, it's usually only accompanied by respectable men, and when women show up on their own, they're viewed with a great deal of suspicion, as if they're probably prostitutes. And prostitution was really an accepted part of theater in urban settings in the 1830s-1840s, confined usually to the so-called guilty third tier, the upper balcony of the theater, which is a kind of segregated space that's cordoned off for vice, for solicitation. And that's also the place where free African Americans, to the extent that they were even allowed in a theater in the first half of the nineteenth century, were generally confined and segregated.