The Yellow Kid on the Paper Stage
Introduction Origins of the Kid Class Warfare on the Urban Stage Race and Ethnicity Selling the Kid The Death of the Kid
Bowery Theatre
Concert Saloon audience at Harry Hill's on Houston Street, ca. 1870
Mose from A Glance at New York
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Class Warfare on the Urban Stage

LOW ART: The WORKINg class theater scene develops

While high cultural institutions strove to keep the poor and unruly out, other entertainments were finding an audience with the working class. Many minstrel shows, which often featured blackface entertainers and were a precursor to vaudeville, attacked iniquities in wealth during the 1870s and 1880s. Historian Robert C. Toll writes: "Beginning in the 1850's minstrels, speaking to urban audiences, protested a wide range of urban problems: stage coaches that drove too fast and knocked women and babies down, filthy streets that were never cleaned, policemen who demanded bribes, people selling votes and buying wives, manipulating politicians, high taxes, and continual robberies."1

Theaters for the working class also developed during this period. The New York theater audience had been split by the Astor Place Riot of 1849; in an argument over whether an American or British man should perform Shakespeare, troops fired into a crowd of immigrants, workingmen, and nationalists who were attacking the theater.2 Historian Richard Stott has written that the split began forming as early as the 1830s; concert saloons and the Bowery Street theater in New York, with its rough crowd, came to define working-class entertainment.3 Workers also identified with the urban hero "Mose" in A Glance at New York, produced in 1848. Mose was so popular he was shown in other plays visiting Philadelphia, California, and France, which were performed throughout the 1850s.4 Popular in part because of his working-class accent, Mose offered an early Yellow Kid fantasy of the working class hero encountering cultural and upper-class habits and environments. Stott notes that in the 1840s New Yorkers became aware that workers spoke with different accents from middle-class New Yorkers; early attempts to portray the speech came across as Irish or "common" speech.5 Working-class dialects also began appearing in literature, growing to be a minor genre in the late 1840s.6 But "at the heart of working-class speech was profanity and coarse humor," Stott noted. "One surprised Irish immigrant described American cities in the 1860s as 'the most wicked place[s] I ever saw for Cursing Blasphemy.'"7 He adds, "When genteel Victorian culture was at its height in America, profanity and humor were weapons to attack gentility and aggressively assert equality; as in ethnic humor, any assertion of superiority was ridiculed."8
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1 Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. London/Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. 181.

2 Snyder, Robert W. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. 4-5.

3 Snyder, see chapter 1.

4 Stott, Richard B. Workers in the Metropolis: Class, Ethnicity, and Youth in Antebellum New York City. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. 223, 225.

5 Stott 257.

6 Stott 259.

7 Stott 261.

8 Stott 262.