First Minstrel Shows Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A form of musical theater, minstrelsy is one of the earliest examples of authentic American popular culture. It mirrored that culture’s conflicting attitudes toward race, social class, and gender.

Summary of Event

“Blacking up” was a theatrical practice in which a white actor painted his face black (usually using burnt cork mixed with water or oil) to masquerade as an African American on stage. This was common American theatrical practice long before the minstrel shows. In legitimate theater productions of Othello, the Moor of Venice Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) Shakespeare, William [p]Shakespeare, William;in nineteenth century theater[Nineteenth century theater] (pr. 1604, rev. 1623), for example, the title role was usually played by a white actor in so-called blackface. In mid-nineteenth century America, actors who had blacked up as individual entertainers joined forces to create a new form of entertainment. These early “minstrel shows” became immensely popular, appealing to all segments of the public as family entertainment. Minstrel shows Theater;musical Theater;American Music;minstrel African Americans;and minstrelsy[Minstrelsy] [kw]First Minstrel Shows (Feb. 6, 1843) [kw]Minstrel Shows, First (Feb. 6, 1843) [kw]Shows, First Minstrel (Feb. 6, 1843) Minstrel shows Theater;musical Theater;American Music;minstrel African Americans;and minstrelsy[Minstrelsy] [g]United States;Feb. 6, 1843: First Minstrel Shows[2290] [c]Theater;Feb. 6, 1843: First Minstrel Shows[2290] [c]Music;Feb. 6, 1843: First Minstrel Shows[2290] Rice, Thomas Dartmouth "Jim Crow"[Jim Crow] Emmett, Dan Christy, Edwin Pearce Dixon, George Washington Brower, Frank Whitlock, William Pelham, Richard Ward

Late nineteenth century minstrel troupe dressed in mock African costumes that had little to do with real Africans.

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The United States at mid-century had yet to produce authentic American entertainment, relying on British and European plays and opera Opera;in United States[United States] s to fill its theaters. Social class was rigidly defined by seating spaces in the theater, with the educated, upper-class audience in the more expensive tiers and the commoners in the cheaper seats in the pit or the upper gallery. Rowdiness, even at times rioting, was not unusual. The gallery audience might yell and throw garbage at the actors to express disapproval.

Theater was a profitable business, however, and theater owners, managers, and actors had a strong incentive to give the audience what it wanted. White performers who blacked up billed themselves as “Ethiopian Delineators.” One of themes then popular with audiences was the mythical representation of the lives of “happy darkies” on a southern plantation. Individual entertainers presented their routines in variety shows, circuses, or between acts of both comedies and serious dramas, performing songs and dances representing stereotypes of southern African Americans. Parodies of other ethnic groups, especially German and Irish immigrants, were also common. Demeaning characterizations of women were also presented by the male entertainers. Characterizations of African Americans were the most frequently performed.

Some of these routines were probably authentic imitations of the speech and physical characteristics of African Americans by actors who had studied their material. Others were grotesque caricatures of popular stereotypes with no direct basis in reality. Still others were a mixture of songs or dances of European origin with black folk material.

The first minstrel show was performed in New York City New York City;minstrel shows in February, 1843. Four performers calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels—Frank Brower Brower, Frank , Dan Emmett Emmett, Dan , Richard Ward Pelham Pelham, Richard Ward , and William Whitlock Whitlock, William —originated this popular form of entertainment that would create an insatiable demand for minstrel shows. The choice of the term “minstrel” was meant to indicate that the show was respectable family entertainment, with an emphasis on the musical quality of the performance. Although the Virginia Minstrels disbanded after a tour of Europe later that year, other actors were quick to pick up on the public’s interest in the new form, and they organized themselves into minstrel troupes. The Christy Minstrels Christy Minstrels , founded by Edwin Pearce Christy Christy, Edwin Pearce , were originally from Buffalo, New York. They later became one of the most popular minstrel troupes and owned their own theater in New York City.

The format of these early shows was a loose compilation of variety acts including sentimental ballads and love songs, sometimes in whiteface; instrumental selections on violin and banjo; parodies of operas Opera;parodies of , lectures, and sermons; and rapid-fire comic dialogues. All performers were male. There was constant motion on stage, with quick changes between acts, and audiences responded enthusiastically to the spontaneity and variety of the performances. Although the minstrel show would become standardized in a three-act formula later in the century, these early shows were highly improvisational

One of the most popular performers during the late 1820’s, Thomas Dartmouth Rice Rice, Thomas Dartmouth , originated the “Ethiopian Opera,” a series of farcical scripts that featured imitations of “Negro” songs. He created the character of Jim Crow "Jim Crow"[Jim Crow] , claiming to have observed an elderly, physically deformed black man dancing in a peculiar jumping motion while singing a song. After his “Jump Jim Crow” was first performed in New York City at the Bowery Theater in 1832, Rice enjoyed a long career performing this Segregation;and “Jim Crow”[Jim Crow] routine. “Jim Crow” was widely imitated and became a popular inclusion in many minstrel shows. This song-and-dance routine was probably the source of the name later given to southern segregation laws.

Another character, Zip Coon "Zip Coon"[Zip Coon] , the sly, deceptive, urban black man, was popularized by George Washington Dixon Dixon, George Washington , who himself had a long criminal record. In another, more common form, the character of Dandy Jim lampooned the urban African American male, with his dandified clothing and his pretensions to social class and education beyond his means. It is possible that Dandy Jim satirized both black and white men who made a ridiculous spectacle of themselves with their foppish clothes and foolish speeches.

The origin and interpretation of the minstrel material is controversial. Social critics of the early twentieth century, especially African Americans, condemned minstrel shows as grossly prejudiced caricatures of black people. In this view, the popularity of blackface represented the psychological need of white people to reinforce racist stereotypes that supported their feelings of superiority. Late twentieth century historians, while acknowledging the racism embedded in minstrelsy, offered more complex theories as to the source and meaning of that racism and of other elements of minstrelsy.

Playbills, newspapers, and other public records from contemporary sources suggest the beginnings of a popular culture that united working-class Americans against the wealthy elite. The satire of upper-class lectures and sermons given by prominent public figures, as well as the homegrown parodies of European operas Opera that could only be enjoyed by those who could afford expensive theater seats, appealed to working-class audiences, both black and white. In a related interpretation, blacking up could be seen to represent the folk ritual of masquerading as a figure different from one’s usual self, a fact that did not eliminate but certainly complicated the racism of the practice.

The popularity of minstrel shows declined toward the end of the nineteenth century. Some critics find a significant difference between the early and later shows. Mid-century minstrelsy showed some sympathy for the evils of slavery, Slavery;and minstrelsy[Minstrelsy] particularly in dramatizing its cruel destruction of family life. However, as the nation moved toward civil war, African Americans, considered a threat to the stability of the white society, were less favorably depicted. After the U.S. Civil War, black performers began to appear on stage in their own minstrel shows, some, strangely enough, in blackface. Arguably demeaning to the performer, this practice nevertheless offered employment for African American entertainers who had until then been barred from white theaters.

Significance

The story of American minstrelsy is riddled with controversy. The white entertainers who blacked up to masquerade as African Americans undeniably presented exaggerated physical and mental caricatures of “darkies” that appealed to the lowest instincts of white audiences. Paradoxically, however, since some authentic elements of black culture reached the stage, the minstrel shows marked the beginnings of what would continue to be the immense contribution of African Americans to the popular culture of the nation. These entertainments may also have represented class distinctions that complicated the meanings of their racial stereotypes, beginning another tradition in American popular culture that continues into the present: the confusion of race with class.

Minstrel shows, with their controversial content, represented the first uniquely American musical theater to break away from European-dominated culture. If, as the evidence suggests, both black and white audiences enjoyed minstrel shows, they might have found a common bond in mocking the pretensions of wealthy and powerful Americans, creating the beginnings of a distinctive popular culture.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Finds that that early minstrelsy was rooted in folk traditions, not primarily racist in intention. Argues that working-class people, both black and white, enjoyed minstrel shows as a form of self-expression and mockery of the upper classes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leonard, William Torbert. Masquerade in Black. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1986. Facts about Thomas Rice and the origin of Jim Crow; brief biographies of the four original Virginia Minstrels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Features many musical scores; notes the exchange between African American and white cultures. Argues that minstrelsy was important in establishing an American popular culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. London: Oxford University Press, 1974. Informative introduction to the history of minstrelsy. Analyzes a wealth of primary materials to explain how minstrel shows reflected the complex attitudes of Americans about race.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wittke, Carl. Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage. Reprint. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968. Acknowledges the racist elements of minstrelsy; admires its theatrical artistry. Contains useful anecdotal material about actors and programs.

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