Popular entertainment and constructions of Southern identity : how burlesques, medicine shows, and musical theatre made meaning and money in the South, 1854-1980
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Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, popular entertainments thrilled audiences throughout the United States, using a variety of techniques to encourage their potential audiences to part with their hard earned money. Rather than simply being a commercial exchange, attendance at a popular entertainment such as melodrama, circus, burlesque, or musical theatre often placed that individual in the midst of an active site of meaning making. This dissertation uses Modernity as a guiding historical, social, and cultural context to examine three specific performance events in three different Southern cities at three different historical periods to examine how popular theatricals provided a space for the discussion of what it means to be Southern. Looking at burlesques of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in New Orleans in the Summer of 1854, Medicine Shows in rural Appalachia in the 1920s and 30s, and the Atlanta stop on the first national tour of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in January of 1980, illustrates how performance spaces staged debates, documenting and contributing to changing notions of Southern identity. These show offered depictions of Southern life that often placed older, stereotypical characterizations alongside increasingly nuanced or modern ones. In each of my three theatrical examples, Southern identity becomes a critical strategy or construct for audience members to use to navigate the space between the realities of their own existence in the South, the ever more modern world around them, and the mythic images of the South presented both onstage and in the popular media. The time frame extends from 1854, the summer of three prominent burlesques of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in New Orleans that directly responded to the increasingly nation phenomenon of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, to the 1920s and 30s, when Medicine Shows traveled throughout rural Appalachia trying to transforms mountaineers into consumers using live performance and fake medicinal products, to 1980, when Whorehouse staged a debate between the Old and New South at The Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. I conclude with an examination of the career trajectory of the Dixie Chicks and their recent troubles with identifying themselves as Southern.