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



Rowdy Times and Mixed Classes

"Rowdy Times and Mixed Classes
James Cook, associate professor of history and American culture, University of Michigan

JAMES COOK: Well, an evening in the theater before the Civil War is generally going to involve a kind of volatile mixture of different classes, ethnicities, religions, nationalities, and they're all there with very different ideas of what they want that evening in the theater to be.

And if you're a rowdy artisan, a Bowery boy in New York City in the 1830s, early 1840s, if you don't like what you see onstage you're going to hurl rotten vegetables at the performer. You're going to stomp your feet, you're going to shout and demand that certain kinds of things will take place on the stage. There's a certain sense of ownership that the crowd, especially working-class crowds really control what's going to take place onstage, and they're going to demand that their own preferences are obliged and that they're going to see the kinds of things that they especially like and prefer.

But of course, social elites, who are also there in the more expensive boxes, have their ideas of what an evening at the theater should be and they don't like the rowdy behavior, they don't like the rotten vegetables or the things thrown down onto the stage from the so-called gallery gods up in the third tier. And what you have is a kind of class, a set of class tensions that begin to harden, begin to erupt around the question of behavior within the theater and the question of what kinds of things an audience will get to see on stage.