Clayton Funk

An upswing to something better: Social space and the upward climb in vaudeville theatre

  • Modeling and Simulation

Vaudeville theatre was an important visual form of popular culture and entertainment that featured such specialty acts as comedy and song and dance, as well as lectures, lantern slide shows and motion pictures with subject matter from faraway lands, and themes of American patriotism. American vaudeville began in nineteenth-century saloons as floorshows and burlesque, but it was eventually upgraded to family entertainment, which appealed to middle- and upper-class audiences, before individual theatres were subsumed by franchised theatre chains. Vaudeville theatre directors, who were known as impresarios, programmed an innovative spectrum of acts that ranged from classical music and art to folk songs, and to acrobats, which appealed to a wide range of social classes. Following the theories of Henri Lefebvre, the social space of the theatre became a conceptually dynamic space, where class distinctions blurred and audience members could then dream of life in a higher social station, or what American Mid Victorians knew as ‘self-improvement’. A conundrum emerges, however, when we see that most of the programmes were plentiful with racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes, which were entertaining to White audience members. The vertical social climb of the gilded age in the 1900s was complicated with the social relations of uneasy, decadent consumerism. Individuals driven by desire thought their ‘un-comfort’ might be remedied by entertainment, as they looked for an upswing to something better.

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