The Minstrel Show

The following pages were originally written attending a class on the American Drama of the nineteenth century at the university of Stuttgart, Germany. I left it the way I wrote it in 1994 and hope you'll enjoy reading about this strange art form that is quite unknown in Germany. If you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to contact me. I must say, though, that I'm not really an expert on this subject. Please cite if quoting.

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.

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.


  © 2022 by Jochen Scheytt

Jochen Scheytt
is a teacher, pianist, composer, arranger and author. He teaches at the State University of Music and the Performing Arts Stuttgart and at the Schlossgymnasium in Kirchheim unter Teck.