america bans the theater -- 5/19/16

Today's encore selection -- from Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story by Evan I. Schwartz. In the 1880's, L. Frank Baum, a young man who later gained fame and fortune as the author of The Wizard of Oz, was trying to establish himself as a playwright, actor, and theater manager in the small oil patch towns of western New York and Pennsylvania. For much of early American history, the theatrical profession had not been been considered respectable, and after the Revolution, some states had gone so far as to ban theatrical performances. Baum had been born to a family of means, and since his new profession was held in low regard, he used pen names to avoid bringing shame to the family name:

"As a profession, the business of acting and staging plays was not something that would win [Baum] much admiration in polite society, as theater was not then considered respectable. Theater on Broadway was a movable feast, relocating over the years from seedy downtown districts up to Herald Square. There had been various forms of theater in America going back to the 1750s, but the outcome of the Revolutionary War had given the Puritans the chance to rise up and start closing theaters. Church leaders saw theaters as competition with the kind of indoctrination they provided. Laws were passed in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island banning the performance of plays. Preachers spoke of theaters as 'the Devil's Synagogues,' places where fabricated human emotions were on display. The contempt continued into the nineteenth century, a time in which many religious leaders forbade dancing in public. Acting was considered an even viler form of expression, one step down from public drunkenness.

Astor Place Riot

"Most anti-theater ordinances were gradually relaxed, but events didn't help the cause. In 1849, during a performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House in New York, a dispute between rival actors may have instigated tensions between different classes of people in the audience. Gunfire erupted and the militia was called in to quell what became known as the Astor Place Riot, pure bedlam that resulted in twenty-five deaths and injuries to more than a hundred other audience members. Worse, President Lincoln was shot in a theater, by an actor no less. The most popular forms of theater in the decades after the war were minstrel shows, burlesque, and vaudeville, all considered among the lowest forms of entertainment. Clergy continued to warn against 'hotbeds of hedonism.' In 1873 a theater in Brooklyn burned down, killing three hundred, prompting a preacher to proclaim that this was evidence of 'God punishing them for being in an evil place.' In the eyes of many churchgoers, actors were con men, and actresses were prostitutes. In this light it isn't so surprising to learn that Frank Baum would have been deemed undesirable for marriage. He probably took on the pen name Louis E. Baum for this very reason. Sometimes he performed under the name George Brooks, to avoid bringing shame to the Baum family name."


Evan I. Schwartz


Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2009 by Evan I. Schwartz


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