Mass Culture Before Adorno: The US Theater Industry in the 1870s

In February 1822, the British actor Tyrone Power made an unprecedented request to a Philadelphia theater. Frustrated by the roles and stages available in the UK, Power wanted “by a rather novel effort (the only way to insure success in this age of novelties) to do something more than I can under the existing system of the Theatres Royal.” He was not interested in a salary; instead, he proposed two weeks of employment and, if his audience materialized, a percentage of the windfall. This arrangement was a key turning point in the history of the transatlantic culture industries, as the primary model of employment shifted from theater’s artisan workshop—a cooperative, profit-sharing model—to its factory, the speculative tour. The motor of this story is the rise of the star system, which was far more than just individual fame or charisma. It was a speculative model of production in which a featured performer was paid for short-term engagements meant to supplement a salary earned elsewhere as a part of an ensemble. In conjunction with the dispersed geography of the American theater and the explosion of cheap thrills created by and for a diverse population of amusement seekers, the star system remade the Atlantic show trade into the transnational entertainment industry. In tandem with the rise of a decentralized but coordinated theatrical infrastructure—such as show printing, route guides, and talent agents—the star system established the conditions for a new model of show business built around the touring attraction instead of the theatrical stock company. Fifty years after Power, the hundreds of attractions touring the United States no longer required a bona fide star to book their way into the growing national circuits. This did not matter; the star system was here to stay.