Capital Entertainment: Stage Work and the Origins of the U.S. Creative Economy, 1830 – 1920

We are told on a daily basis that the future of work is creative. The 4.7 million employees in the arts generate more than $698 billion annually for the U.S. economy, while creativity has become a virtue celebrated far beyond the concert hall or artist’s studio.[1] At the same time, we hear that what once counted as creative labor—music, theater, even journalism—no longer operates in a sustainable fashion. We’re thus faced with an apparent contradiction: creativity as a psychological process or social status is valued, while the work itself—particularly when done outside the spotlight of celebrity—is not. This condition has intensified in our alleged “post-industrial” moment, but culture workers have in fact long labored in a world of large profits, fluctuating social value, and marginal working conditions. My dissertation, “Capital Entertainment: Stage Work and the Origins of the Creative Economy, 1830 – 1920,” makes sense of this incongruity by excavating a labor history of the creative economy and locating the roots of our current situation in the formative period of the US entertainment industry. Far from a niche interest or obscure curiosity, show business was fully global by century’s close, employing hundreds of thousands of people both on stage and off, and circulating among millions of consumers as one of the largest and earliest forms of export-oriented corporate consolidation. In historicizing and politicizing this early “creative class,” I demonstrate how labor struggles in the first era of continuous entertainment shaped the conceptions of artistry and work that continue to define our working lives.

In my manuscript, I argue that the transition from a craft to an industrial mode of cultural production fundamentally redefined both how a person worked and what this meant in one of the modern era’s most significant economic sectors. Scholars have long studied the transition from artisan workshop to factory production, but they rarely include culture work in this narrative. Yet the shift from a barebones six-person theater company drifting down the Ohio River in 1830 to the thousands of vaudeville palaces across the country attended by at least two million patrons a day in 1920 had profound consequences. The new creative worker was most closely associated with vaudeville but appeared on every kind of stage, from the burlesque chorus line to Macbeth. She was defined not by a particular skill but by her position in a labor market that demanded mobility, fungibility, and self-promotion. Workers in other industries also experienced deskilling and interchangeability, but most underwent these changes in private. Creative work was loaded with cultural and social meaning and it was highly visible; its transformation thus generated extensive commentary from those on stage and in the audience. In short, the shift from craft to industrial production radically altered the lives of performers but also served as the grounds for debate about industrialization as a whole.

My project accounts for both the material infrastructure of mass commercial culture (trade unions, touring circuits, and entertainment journalism), as well as the relational categories it produced (artist/worker, amateur/professional, and intellectual/manual labor). I apply cultural and labor history methods to a wide range of sources, including correspondence, diaries, play scripts and songbooks, trade newspapers, memoirs, playbills, posters, organizational records, and theater receipts and account books. I analyze how performers were recruited, trained, compensated, and valued, as well as the significance of changes in this process as performance was defined alternately as a trade, a profession, an occupation, or a passion.

This range of archival materials enables me to study creative labor from a variety of perspectives, opening up the structural and personal dimensions of industrial transformation. The effects of this shift were particularly visible in the growing number of spectacles that required large quantities of performers, and made the coordination and display of these performers part of the show. My dissertation identifies the groups of performers whose strengths and weaknesses were in their numbers— the opera chorus, theater orchestra, agent’s office, tent company, and vaudeville circuit —and the moments when their labor became an object of debate. These players attempted to scale and reform the hierarchies of an industry that epitomized the modernizing workplace in its strict rules, complex managerial techniques, and expansion into other forms of capital accumulation and investment. In a gamble for creative and financial control, these performers strategically positioned themselves as workers, artists, or professionals to varying degrees of success.

In linking histories of representation with industry, my project engages a vigorous current in historical scholarship: the renewed attention to capitalism, labor movements, and economic inequality. I demonstrate how commercial performance illuminates political economic processes in ways that other commodities and workplaces cannot. Unlike the familiar examples of early modern capitalism such as cotton or cod, stage spectacle traded in both tangible and figurative goods, a mode of production more commonly associated with the twenty-first century. Furthermore, unlike other workplaces where changes in production are invisible to consumers, stage work requires an audience. When the opera chorus refused to sing, they were criticized for breaking their contract with the public, whose tickets made them investors authorized to critique workplace performance. And yet it remains a challenge for both the opera scholar and the operagoer to see stage work as labor. Moving across the disciplinary boundaries that divide the evaluation of aesthetics from the analysis of production, I not only make art visible as labor but also explain why this remains a challenge.

The dissertation is structured around key performance genres in which creative labor was executed, contested, and defined. Chapter One locates the first instantiation of the unruly mass—“a muss among the flunkies”—in the New York opera chorus. Fundamentally transnational, opera was the first capital and labor-intensive culture industry to take root in the United States. Opera’s non-star performers used the genre’s contested social significance and the rapt attention of New York’s narrating class to make visible what they felt were unfair working conditions. They were successful in the short term, but also activated a more stringent managerial presence. This chapter establishes musicians as the first commercial performers treated as interchangeable and anonymous.

Chapter Two moves from the opera to the New York theater orchestra, where musicians responded to managerial control and consolidation in ownership by forming the Musicians’ Mutual Protective Union. We rarely consider musicians as key nineteenth-century union members, but they are in fact some of the most enduring: how many cordwainers do you know? This chapter analyzes the union’s founding in 1863 and its highly publicized subsequent strike, which shut down several New York theaters for two weeks. Although the strike was considered a success at the time, it had several long-term consequences. The union rarely moved publicly against theaters managers again out of fear of backlash, and instead attempted to enforce key mechanisms—the price list and the closed-shop—by applying pressure through its members. As a result, audiences were not used to thinking of the musicians who played at dances and on steamboats as laborers, let alone organized ones. Furthermore, practices like the substitute system—in which players with long-term but low-paying positions in orchestras could find their own replacements if they were hired for a one-time higher paying engagement—made rank and file players vulnerable to the argument that they were interchangeable.

Chapter Three takes up a third site where performers negotiated the terms of their employment: the agent’s office. Although we often associate talent agents with the management of celebrities, the agency in fact emerged to coordinate the movement of low-paid performers through the burgeoning national circuit of variety theaters. Agents did not work with the Anglo-American stage actors who dominate theater histories of this period, but with the Japanese acrobats, trick ropists, and balladeers who marginal artistic position belied their central role in the industry’s structural formation. Over time, as the working conditions of those on the “legitimate” stage came to resemble variety players, everyone seeking work on the commercial stage—from playwright-actress Go-Won-Go Mohawk to Irish utility player Marcus Moriarty—had to work through agents. Although primarily located in New York and Chicago, talent bureaus were both possible and necessary because of the growing coordinated network of theaters spreading across waterways and railroads. Drawing on over three hundred letters written to prominent agent Colonel James Milliken, this chapter identifies the new working conditions and criteria for hirable stage performers at the century’s end.

Chapter Four begins with the case of Leroy Bland, an African American female impersonator who played the Midwest and Western minstrel circuits at the height of Jim Crow, and whose arrest and subsequent relief fund galvanized his peers to agitate for mutual aid and better working conditions. I detail the evolution of the Indianapolis Freeman into the primary hub for African American commercial performance at the turn of the century, and analyze the limits and possibilities of the various organizing strategies that emerged through the Freeman. I read the Freeman and the networks it helped form from two vantage points and culture concepts: as a business tool created by a black professional-managerial class, epitomized by the paper’s long-time proprietor George Knox, and its appropriation and uses as a resource by workers within its networks. The bit player’s use of the Freeman mass communication form resembles similar efforts by groups as diverse as the Populists, Wal-Mart employees, and Garveyites, all of whom appropriated the tools of corporate capitalism while understanding themselves as well outside its strongholds.

Chapter Five focuses on vaudeville, the culminating form of commercial entertainment that relied on the versatile, freelance performer who could move easily within and across national circuits facilitated by an elaborate system of booking agents. Like the modes of theatrical production that predated vaudeville, this form offered performers new opportunities for advancement and exploitation. The major difference for culture workers in this period was the organized opposition they faced, and the very real challenge of working outside a system built to serve not simply the agent or manager but investors who now saw art as big business. This chapter also looks ahead to key changes in working conditions brought about by Hollywood and the recording industry, which have been well-documented from star and managerial perspectives but not from the standpoint of the rank-and-file performer.

[1] This number constituted 4.32% of GDP, a larger share than expected sectors such as construction or transportation. Department of Commerce and the NEA, 2012, (