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[Detail] Filipino Varsity Four.

The materials in Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, provide an opportunity to explore several lines of study in the arts and humanities disciplines. Topics include the transition of popular theater presented to traditionally conservative rural America, the diversity of musical taste in the early twentieth century United States, early methods of presenting literary figures to the general public, the role of oratory in the formation of American culture; and advertising techniques in graphic design.


The early twentieth-century United States was, by and large, a conservative culture, and Chautauqua organizers were careful not to include any material that might offend the delicate sensibilities of their rural audiences. Concomitant with its founding mission of uplift and education, early Chautauqua drama featured readings of morally sound excerpts from dramatic works.

In Chautauqua's early days, Shakespeare was considered too risque and high-brow for rural audiences, but individual speeches and edited versions of the Bard's plays were presented by dramatic interpreters. Once audiences became more accepting of full-length plays, several Shakespearean companies toured on the Chautauqua circuits. A search on keyword Shakespeare yields 100 documents including promotional materials for Bob Jones, Jr.:

Profoundly interested in Shakespeare and thoroughly cognizant of the literary and scholastic value of his works, Mr. Jones realizes that Shakespeare was himself an actor and a dramatist who wrote for the stage and not for the library. With this in mind, Mr. Jones has brought enthusiasm and youth to the interpretation of his characters and has combined the mind of the scholar with the temperament and heart of the actor.

  • What qualities does the promotion promise that Mr. Jones brings to his presentation of Shakespeare? What does this suggest about the expectations of the audience and the role of drama in Chautauqua?
  • What advantages does a program such as Mr. Jones's offer to promoters that a full production does not?
  • Why might a Chautauqua agency be criticized for presenting edited or partial versions of plays?
  • How could someone use the collection for research on Shakespearean drama?

Over time, dramatic readings expanded to include character impersonations. The Subject Index headings, Impersonators and Dramatists yield hundreds of documents including those for one of the masters of the genre: Gay Zenola MacLaren. Ms. MacLaren's popularity made her a mainstay through three decades of Chautauqua performances. In the promotional literature, her abilities are credited to natural talent:

Gay Zenola MacLaren attends the production of a modern play five times, and then, without ever having read the original book or dramatization, or, in fact, any of the lines in any way, can go upon the Lyceum or Chautauqua platform and give an imitative recital of the entire production, impersonating every character . . . In preparing for her recitals she attends only the great productions, sees the interpretations only by the best actors, and in the leading playhouses of her home city, New York.

  • Why might Ms. MacLaren's method of learning a play have impressed her audience?
  • What questions of authenticity does the excerpt raise?
  • How might performances such as Ms. MacLaren's have bridged the divide between straight readings and full-scale productions?
  • In what other art forms does dramatic monologue and character impersonation play an important role?

Following the World War I, the mood of the country changed and Chautauqua organizers began presenting full Broadway productions. Indeed, one of the chief claims of many postwar Chautauqua programs was that audiences could enjoy Broadway plays at discount prices without leaving their own Main Street. A search on keyword Broadway yields 100 pertinent documents.

  • What does the popularity of Broadway productions following the World War I suggest about the needs of Americans at that time?
  • How would a career on the Chatauqua circuit differ from other kinds of performance careers, such as on Broadway?