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The minstrel show, also called minstrelsy, was an American form of racist theatrical entertainment developed in the early 19th century.Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that depicted people specifically of African descent. The shows were performed by mostly white people wearing blackface make-up for the purpose of playing the role of black people. There were also some African-American performers and black-only minstrel groups that formed and toured. Minstrel shows caricatured black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, cowardly, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky.
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Blackface minstrelsy was the first uniquely American form of theater. Minstrel shows emerged as brief burlesques and comic entr'actes in the early 1830s in the Northeastern states. They were developed into full-fledged form in the next decade. By 1848, blackface minstrel shows were the national artform, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience.
By the turn of the 20th century, the minstrel show enjoyed but a shadow of its former popularity, having been replaced for the most part by vaudeville. The form survived as professional entertainment until about 1910; amateur performances continued until the 1960s in high schools and local theaters.
Although the minstrel shows were extremely popular, being "consistently packed with families from all walks of life and every ethnic group", they were also controversial. Integrationists decried them as falsely showing happy slaves while at the same time making fun of them; segregationists thought such shows were "disrespectful" of social norms as they portrayed runaway slaves with sympathy and would undermine slavery.
Minstrel shows were popular before slavery was abolished, sufficiently so that Frederick Douglass described blackface performers as "...the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens." Although white theatrical portrayals of black characters date back to as early as 1604, the minstrel show as such has later origins. By the late 18th century, blackface characters began appearing on the American stage, usually as "servant" types whose roles did little more than provide some element of comic relief. Eventually, similar performers appeared in entr'actes in New York theaters and other venues such as taverns and circuses. As a result, the blackface "Sambo" character came to supplant the "tall-tale-telling Yankee" and "frontiersman" character-types in popularity, and white actors such as Charles Mathews, George Washington Dixon, and Edwin Forrest began to build reputations as blackface performers. Author Constance Rourke even claimed that Forrest's impression was so good he could fool blacks when he mingled with them in the streets.
With the Panic of 1837, theater attendance suffered, and concerts were one of the few attractions that could still make money. In 1843, four blackface performers led by Dan Emmett combined to stage just such a concert at the New York Bowery Amphitheatre, calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels. The minstrel show as a complete evening's entertainment was born. The show had little structure. The four sat in a semicircle, played songs, and traded wisecracks. One gave a stump speech in dialect, and they ended with a lively plantation song. The term minstrel had previously been reserved for traveling white singing groups, but Emmett and company made it synonymous with blackface performance, and by using it, signalled that they were reaching out to a new, middle-class audience.
The Herald wrote that the production was "entirely exempt from the vulgarities and other objectionable features, which have hitherto characterized negro extravaganzas." In 1845, the Ethiopian Serenaders purged their show of low humor and surpassed the Virginia Minstrels in popularity. Shortly thereafter, Edwin Pearce Christy founded Christy's Minstrels, combining the refined singing of the Ethiopian Serenaders (epitomized by the work of Christy's composer Stephen Foster) with the Virginia Minstrels' bawdy schtick. Christy's company established the three-act template into which minstrel shows would fall for the next few decades. This change to respectability prompted theater owners to enforce new rules to make playhouses calmer and quieter.
Minstrels toured the same circuits as opera companies, circuses, and European itinerant entertainers, with venues ranging from lavish opera houses to makeshift tavern stages. Life on the road entailed an "endless series of one-nighters, travel on accident-prone railroads, in poor housing subject to fires, in empty rooms that they had to convert into theaters, arrest on trumped up charges, exposed to deadly diseases, and managers and agents who skipped out with all the troupe's money." The more popular groups stuck to the main circuit that ran through the Northeast; some even went to Europe, which allowed their competitors to establish themselves in their absence. By the late 1840s, a Southern tour had opened from Baltimore to New Orleans. Circuits through the Midwest and as far as California followed by the 1860s. As its popularity increased, theaters sprang up specifically for minstrel performance, often with names such as the Ethiopian Opera House and the like. Many amateur troupes performed only a few local shows before disbanding. Meanwhile, celebrities like Emmett continued to perform solo.
The rise of the minstrel show coincided with the growth of the abolitionist movement. Many Northerners were concerned for the oppressed blacks of the South, but most had no idea how these slaves lived day-to-day. Blackface performance had been inconsistent on this subject; some slaves were happy, others victims of a cruel and inhuman institution. However, in the 1850s, minstrelsy became decidedly mean-spirited and pro-slavery as race replaced class as its main focus. Most minstrels projected a greatly romanticized and exaggerated image of black life with cheerful, simple slaves always ready to sing and dance and to please their masters. (Less frequently, the masters cruelly split up black lovers or sexually assaulted black women.) The lyrics and dialogue were generally racist, satiric, and largely white in origin. Songs about slaves yearning to return to their masters were plentiful. The message was clear: do not worry about the slaves; they are happy with their lot in life. Figures like the Northern dandy and the homesick ex-slave reinforced the idea that blacks did not belong, nor did they want to belong, in Northern society.
Minstrelsy's reaction to Uncle Tom's Cabin is indicative of plantation content at the time. Tom acts largely came to replace other plantation narratives, particularly in the third act. These sketches sometimes supported Stowe's novel, but just as often they turned it on its head or attacked the author. Whatever the intended message, it was usually lost in the joyous, slapstick atmosphere of the piece. Characters such as Simon Legree sometimes disappeared, and the title was frequently changed to something more cheerful like "Happy Uncle Tom" or "Uncle Dad's Cabin". Uncle Tom himself was frequently portrayed as a harmless bootlicker to be ridiculed. Troupes known as Tommer companies specialized in such burlesques, and theatrical Tom shows integrated elements of the minstrel show and competed with it for a time.
Minstrelsy's racism (and sexism) could be rather vicious. There were comic songs in which blacks were "roasted, fished for, smoked like tobacco, peeled like potatoes, planted in the soil, or dried up and hung as advertisements", and there were multiple songs in which a black man accidentally put out a black woman's eyes. On the other hand, the fact that the minstrel show broached the subjects of slavery and race at all is perhaps more significant than the racist manner in which it did so. Despite these pro-plantation attitudes, minstrelsy was banned in many Southern cities. Its association with the North was such that as secessionist attitudes grew stronger, minstrels on Southern tours became convenient targets of anti-Yankee sentiment.
Non-race-related humor came from lampoons of other subjects, including aristocratic whites such as politicians, doctors, and lawyers. Women's rights was another serious subject that appeared with some regularity in antebellum minstrelsy, almost always to ridicule the notion. The women's rights lecture became common in stump speeches. When one character joked, "Jim, I tink de ladies oughter vote", another replied, "No, Mr. Johnson, ladies am supposed to care berry little about polytick, and yet de majority ob em am strongly tached to parties." Minstrel humor was simple and relied heavily on slapstick and wordplay. Performers told nonsense riddles: "The difference between a schoolmaster and an engineer is that one trains the mind and the other minds the train."
With the advent of the American Civil War, minstrels remained mostly neutral and satirized both sides. However, as the war reached Northern soil, troupes turned their loyalties to the Union. Sad songs and sketches came to dominate in reflection of the mood of a bereaved nation. Troupes performed skits about dying soldiers and their weeping widows, and about mourning white mothers. "When This Cruel War Is Over" became the hit of the period, selling over a million copies of sheet music. To balance the somber mood, minstrels put on patriotic numbers like "The Star-Spangled Banner", accompanied by depictions of scenes from American history that lionized figures like George Washington and Andrew Jackson. Social commentary grew increasingly important to the show. Performers criticized Northern society and those they felt responsible for the breakup of the country, who opposed reunification, or who profited from a nation at war. Emancipation was either opposed through "happy plantation" material, or mildly supported with pieces that depicted slavery in a negative light. Eventually, direct criticism of the South became more biting.