Performing the Progressive Era

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 31 May 2019

Member Reviews

This book contains so much useful and interesting information that it would be easy to write a full review on each of the chapters. Even in today’s world, the arts reflect current events, and the Progressive Era (1890 to 1920) is no exception. I chose to read this book with some trepidation, believing it might be more about lauding the Progressive Era. To their credit, the authors and editors maintained a steady course, targeting the issues that were addressed in performances.

The chapter essays (each on different subjects) were extremely accessible, capturing the essence of the times as it affected the slice of performance being addressed. I thoroughly enjoyed the opening chapters on the theater. Social mores are examined through the eyes of yesterday, and those who find Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker offensive in today’s world will discover a veritable minefield of content in these plays. And no, I am not condemning them…history is history, and you can’t learn from it if it is ripped into tiny pieces and swept under the rug. That’s an Orwellian technique, one in which the authors steer clear of by exhibiting the good and the bad and relating it to the attitudes of that era. As essayist J. Chris Westgate points out, “…it is important to understand that these scenes elicited laughter rather than indignation from early-twentieth-century audiences.” However, as with Archie Bunker, the playwrights were not going for cheap laughs, but many times were making a point by lampooning the thoughts and actions of the populace.

Other chapters covered different areas, ranging from the scandalous nature of the Tango (it was inferred by some to be a “gateway” to further indecent behavior) to the attempts to keep children from the vaudevillian stage (imagine the world without Buster Keaton, who was involved in his parents’ act at three and began learning how to safely fall at the age of five). 

The Progressive Era was a time of reform, and some of those attitudes did not match the realities of middle- and lower-class Americans. Artists seem to have a knack for capturing the prevailing mood of the country, and the struggles throughout those years were on display.

One may question the viewpoints of the individual authors. Do the essays capture the original intention of the playwrights, or are the plays viewed through the veils of today’s world, with many veiled layers of intervening years hampering interpretations? In the spirit of the book, I found myself walking in the world of the playwrights, where scathing commentary would walk the stages rather than troll their way through social media.

Overall, I found the book to be an entertaining way to experience history. Theatrical history is rich and contains much that most will miss. This is a book that should not be passed by. Five stars.

My thanks to NetGalley and The University of Iowa Press for a complimentary electronic version of this book.
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