In the first half of the 19th century after the war, the average American people felt liberated and recognized their ability to influencing the American culture. A “common man’s culture” that would incorporate American democracy and celebrate the achievements of the average white man was instituted. This was a stark contrast to the culture fronted by the “elitist gentlemen” who wanted to propagate European aristocracy. The demands of both groups were addressed in entertainment shows, literature and newspapers. The minstrel show is an example of an entertainment show that fused the culture of the elite and average Americans (Lewis, 2003).
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The rural folk who moved to the cities were subjected to the mayhem of city life. They experienced a “culture shock” due to the high cost of living, machines and poor living conditions. Gone was the country tranquility and the rural verbal arts like folk tales, jokes, songs and stories were no longer relevant. They needed entertainment that related to their newfound status. Entertainment was supposed to affirm their self worth and dignity. With the advent of transportation and communication, these needs and ideas spread to the cities. Evidently, it was the “age of the common man”. The middling Americans embraced free opportunity and democracy. Consequently, an egalitarian consciousness emerged that challenged special privilege groups and aristocratic elements.
Stage shows were strongly influenced by popular tastes and not artistic criteria. The influence of the traditional elites was quickly fading. In its place was that of the urban middling and lower classes. This style was critiqued, and actor William Davidge said that American stage shows did not allow for the cultivation of the arts. The middling classes sat in the pits and galleries in theatres. They greatly participated in the performance and would aggressively display dislike if a performance was not entertaining. Actors learnt to accommodate this particular audience by incorporating broad comedy and humor, exaggerated sentimentality, and ad libs bearing local allusions in their performance.
The evolution of the Minstrel Show
The show emerged in the 1840s and was the show of the middling masses in America. It had humble characters and the performance was dominated by vital, earthy song, humor and dance. The minstrel show exhibited entertaining interaction between the performers and the highly vocal audience. Producers sought to put up a show that would appeal to the masses as it would be fruitless to force theatre on crowds (Lewis, 2003).
The Black man was highly celebrated in the minstrel show. Initially black characters were played by White men covered in black. The minstrels were 4 black-faced men who capitalized n the Southern culture increase their box office rating. The group dissolved in late 1843, but due to their success, they left a legacy of minstrelsy. Innumerable minstrel troupes emerged due to public demand.
This Show is credited in restructuring popular stage entertainment in America by acting on the desires, needs and concerns of the huge audiences. The article also shows the transition of Negroes in theatre. Negroes had been cast as subjects of ridicule or “happy servants”. Later playwrights learnt to incorporate Negro dialects in theatre. Black characters had been lacking in authenticity as they used British dialects and Negro songs were modified to sound like English songs. In theatres, there was the emergence of crafty and even differential Negro servants who could poke fun at the masters. However anti-slave playwrights continued to depict slaves as passive victims and Christ-like martyrs who loved their masters. These slaves loved their master and could not leave him even when they were offered freedom.
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