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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > The American Variety Stage

[Detail] Harry Houdini performs the great milk can escape. 1908.

Chronological Thinking

By studying items in this collection, students can begin to explore historical issues of the period from 1870-1920.

1) Students might examine the theater playbills, playscripts, and motion pictures in order to look at how history was presented in theatrical productions. Search on history and tableaux to find items such as Spirit of '76, which shows a living version of the popular painting by Archibald Willard. (Visit the American Memory Viewer Information page if you need assistance viewing these films.)

2) Immigration was a defining event at the turn of the century. Throughout American Variety Stage, 1870-1920, items refer to the different ethnic groups. The collection can help students understand events in the history of immigration. Students can use these playscripts and films as a jumping off point to explore who was coming to the U.S. and when.

Search on Irish, Italian, German, English, and Russian. For example, search on German to find these song lyrics in The Man from Germany.

Immigration in American Memory, a Presentation of the Teachers Page, highlights items in the American Memory collections which tell the story of newcomers to the United States throughout the country's history.

Ven I goes from de beerhouse,
I meet a little lady, don't you know,
She says to me "Hello Hans Pumpernickel"
Come mit and let us go
To a caffe on the Broadway,
Dot is the place where you can blow
De pipe you brought from Schermany
And also your Scherman dough.

Ve vill have some sport,
Ven you follow my advice,
And go vit me
I vill take you all over
Some funny tings you vill see
You will see tings dot vill set you crazy
Tings you can only see in New York
You shall see Sapho ven you have lots of dough
So come on and be a sport.

The Man from Germany, 1900, p. 5, (image 4)

Historical Comprehension

The Brazilians treated me beautifully.
They thought I was the greatest man on
earth. They don't read the newspapers.
Down there I was greeted everywhere by my first
name. You know Theodore -- in Spanish is pronounced --
Toreador -- means -- a bull thrower.
I shall never forget my first night in Brazil.
We camped in a magnificent lemon grove.
It was a superb sight.
There I stood -- surrounded by nothing but lemons --
tears came to my eyes -- I felt as if I was back in the
Republican party again.
I was so disconcerted that I fell down -- and hurt
my leg -- I was rather alarmed -- as I thought I would never
be able to

My Policies, 1915, p. 3, (image 5)

The items in the collection point to historical issues of the day. Using word play and puns, the playscripts refer indirectly to a wide variety of political and social topics. Students can investigate these references to find out more about the period.

For example, by searching on politics students will find the monologue My Policies, performed by an actor playing the part of Theodore Roosevelt. Look for historical references in the text, such as Roosevelt's trip to Brazil and his desire to run again for the presidency.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

In American Variety Stage, 1870-1920, different values and themes are explored, often in caricature and excess. Most playscripts provide monologue or dialogue, often from characters that are representative of social types - either by ethnicity, social class, or occupation. For example, in the playscript Twenty Minutes at Coffee Dan's, students will find in the cast of characters College Boy, Old Man, and Shop Girl. In the course of the play, Shop Girl and College Boy meet, fall in love, and marry, much to the chagrin of the Old Man, who is College Boy's father. Shop Girl, speaking to the Old Man, defends the marriage:

Shop girl

Let him make his own decision. What right have you to try and separate
us. I may not be a society girl but I'm a good girl. My family, though
poor, are as good as your own. I may not dress as well as your society
ladies, but I have to earn my clothes, and I will have you to know that
clean rags on a good woman is a medal of honor.

Twenty Minutes at Coffee Dan's, 1916, p.8, (image 10)

Search on class distinctions to find this and other playscripts dealing with issues of class and social status.

Historical Research Capabilities

The materials in the collection can help students formulate questions that lead to further research. For example, students can extract clues from the playscripts, such as a topical references, ethnic vocabulary words, or cultural practices, and then investigate these themes in other sources.

For example, advertisements in the playbills contain a wealth of information on material culture of the day. These advertisements can be used as a springboard for further research.

Students can browse the Title List for Theater Playbills and Programs, select a playbill, and view the pages. The playbill for The Supreme Monarch of Conjurors, Herrmann the Great advertises a variety of goods including "The Popular S.C. Corsets." Students might answer questions including, What is a corset? Who used them? Why?