The Most American Thing in America
Winner of the 2006 Barnard Hewitt Award for Excellence in Theatre History
"The Most American Thing in America is a smart, lively book that brings to life a slice of the past now mostly forgotten and the rest of the time fogged in myth. Canning reminds us of the significant meaning that Chautauquas had for middle-class Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. Everyone from the philosopher William James to the philosopher Elvis Presley had a take on this classic cultural institution, and they're all covered in this fine work."—Kenneth Cmiel, professor of history, University of Iowa
"Before radio and television transformed America, there was another medium of mass communication that broadcast live from coast to coast: Circuit Chautauqua. In The Most American Thing in America, Charlotte Canning tunes in on the remarkable variety of cultural performances that originated under the big tent of this nationally uplifting circus."—Joseph Roach, author, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance
Between 1904 and the Great Depression, Circuit Chautauquas toured the rural United States, reflecting and reinforcing its citizens' ideas, attitudes, and politics every summer through music (the Jubilee Singers, an African American group, were not always welcome in a time when millions of Americans belonged to the KKK), lectures ("Civic Revivalist" Charles Zueblin speaking on "Militancy and Morals"), elocutionary readers (Lucille Adams reading from Little Lord Fauntleroy), dramas (the Ben Greet Players' cleaned-up version of She Stoops to Conquer), orations (William Jennings Bryan speaking about the dangers of greed), and special programs for children (parades and mock weddings).
Theatre historians have largely ignored Circuit Chautauquas since they did not meet the conventional conditions of theatrical performance: they were not urban; they produced no innovative performance techniques, stage material, design effects, or dramatic literature. In this beautifully written and illustrated book, Charlotte Canning establishes an analytical framework to reveal the Circuit Chautauquas as unique performances that both created and unified small-town America.
One of the last strongholds of the American traditions of rhetoric and oratory, the Circuits created complex intersections of community, American democracy, and performance. Canning does not celebrate the Circuit Chautauquas wholeheartedly, nor does she describe them with the same cynicism offered by Sinclair Lewis. She acknowledges their goals of community support, informed public thinking, and popular education but also focuses on the reactionary and regressive ideals they sometimes embraced. In the true interdisciplinary spirit of Circuit Chautauquas, she reveals the Circuit platforms as places where Americans performed what it meant to be American.
280 pages 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
Introduction: Remembering the Platform
1. America on the Platform
2. Community on the Platform
3. The Platform in the Tent
4. Performances on the Platform: Oratory
5. Performances on the Platform: Theater
Conclusion: The Palimpsestic Platform