Brief historical survey
Text samples
Music and lyrics
Social aspects



The Minstrel Show


This paper deals with the complex form of the minstrel show that was a major attraction all through the northern part of the United States between 1840 and 1870. The centre of each minstrel show was the typical minstrel clown with his blackened face, his wooly hair, his thick white lips, his ear-to-ear grin and the banjo on his knees. Around him a show consisting of music, dance and comedy was arranged and formed an entertainment program for a white audience.

This paper does not attempt to be a special study on those comedy parts that are compiled in Richard Moody`s selection "Minstrel Show".(1)  The comic principles they are made of will be analyzed, but because of the limited scope of this paper not all of them are dealt with extensively. Furthermore it is more useful to regard them and the other aspects of the minstrel show in connection with the social functions they had for the American society. Jürgen Wolter writes: "Wer das amerikanische Drama vor dem Bürgerkrieg mit den Kriterien literarischer Qualität wie Komplexität, Universalität, Originalität, Aktualität und Geschlossenheit der formalen Gestaltung angeht, wird in den meisten Fällen zu einem vernichtenden Urteil kommen müssen. Betrachtet man aber das frühe amerikanische Drama als kulturelles Phänomen, als literarische Reaktion auf soziokulturelle und historische Bedingungszusammenhänge, erweist es sich als ergiebiges und interessantes Forschungsgebiet."(2)

So I think that in this case a more general approach - dealing with non-literary aspects with the same intensity is justified and helps to fit the minstrel show as a whole into the diverse picture of the American stage of the last century. Furthermore it not only shows how popular theatre was a means for the American public to cope with their social problems, but also how a basically racist idea could become a national craze.

(1) "Minstrel Show" , in: Richard Moody (ed.), Dramas from the American Theatre 1762-1909. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1966, pp. 475-500.
(2) Wolter, Jürgen. Die Suche nach nationaler Identität. Entwicklungstendenzen des amerikanischen Dramas vor dem Bürgerkrieg. Bonn: Bouvier, 1983, S.6


©2000 by Jochen Scheytt
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