Date of Degree
James F. Wilson
American Popular Culture | American Studies | Arts and Humanities | United States History
animal, capital, children, performance, race, vaudeville
Animal vaudevillians have been neglected by academic accounts of vaudeville. Drawing on the rapidly proliferating and highly interdisciplinary field of animal studies, this dissertation combines archival research and cultural theory to fill an important gap in our understanding of how animal bodies and images circulated during the vaudeville era. Taking up Nicole Shukin’s notion of animal capital as both animal “signs and substances” circulating in cultures of capital, I argue that vaudeville animal acts theatricalized animal capital for US citizen-consumers and often circulated animalized capital via racist ideologies and performance modes.
Theatre bookers balanced their reliance on animal acts with fears of diminishing vaudeville’s ambitions for refinement and this tension is clear in the marketing materials for the animal acts.Vaudeville’s animal acts both destabilized and reified important categories of child/adult and lowbrow/middlebrow. Contemporary ethical debates about animal welfare resonate with critiques from animal activists who wanted performing animals removed from vaudeville. These acts influenced and were influenced by circus, melodrama, and even newly forming fields of scientific inquiry. Primate and canine acts mobilized associations with evolution and coevolution, theatricalizing the mysteries of human origins.
Animal vaudevillians were much more than diverting novelties shoved at the end of shows for audience members who chose to stay in their seats. Animal vaudevillians’ fur, feathers, and anthropomorphic antics created discourses of animality that mediated audience members’ own humanity and embodied a simultaneous ambivalence and nostalgia for nature in the increasingly urban and industrial United States.
Young, Catherine M., "Animal Performance in Big-Time Vaudeville" (2016). CUNY Academic Works.