Abstract: Selling Secrets: Agents, Telegrams, and “Insider Information” in the Transnational Trade in Theatrical Commodities

Marlis Schweitzer


In the pre-World War I period, many American theatre impresarios traveled annually to Europe in a bid to bring the brightest talent, the latest novelties, and the hottest—and therefore most profitable—theatrical properties to North America. Aided by innovations in transportation and communication and a complex network of administrators and agents, these men sought everything from serious dramas, musical comedies, and operettas, to sheet music, scenery, and stage costumes. Gathering "insider information" from friends, agents, critics, and other cultural intermediaries was a critical step in the acquisition process and often necessitated using code words in telegrams, issuing false press releases, and outright lying to business rivals. In this paper, I will analyze the ethically dubious business tactics used by Broadway impresarios and their agents to acquire knowledge about the most commercially viable theatrical commodities on the market. Drawing inspiration from Actor-Network-Theory, which treats human and non-human actors as equal partners in the production of network relationships, I will analyze the role of wireless telegraphy in the transmission of "insider information" as well as the subsequent production of theatrical knowledge.