Current Research

Boxing and the Variety Theatre: Containment and Constraint - current project for An Anthology of Performance, Sport, and Physical Culture, ed. Shannon Walsh, under contract with Routledge.


In post-Civil War America, the variety theatre and the sport of boxing had a complex symbiotic relationship. Both were pursuing wider audiences and respectability--variety was moving out of saloons and into theatres, and boxing donned gloves and rules. The conjunctions of the two entertainments took many forms, from burlesque boxing sketches, to pugilists' turns as variety performers, to animal boxing acts, to the restaging of famous boxing matches. Considering the differing goals of violence in the two arenas, their frequent pairing appears counterintuitive. Violence and athleticism on the stage was intended to be humorous and/or “scientific.” Realism and risk were demonstrated, but there was a tacit agreement between spectators and performers that the metaphoric containment of the stage would never be crossed -- violence would always end in bows by uninjured performers. In the boxing ring, the opposite was the case. Spectators clamored for more violence, and threatened riots when fighters were self-protective. When the two entertainments met on the variety stage they challenged spectators’ assumptions about violence and realism; the variety stage contained boxing’s violence within its own world of fiction, even as it exploited the sport’s excitement to entice audiences.

            This paper will focus on actual pugilists on the variety stage in sparring matches and in restagings of their own actual prize fights. These sketches and special events began in the infancy of vaudeville in the 1860s, and continued through the end of the century. This period covers both the rise of respectability of the vaudeville stage (and its audience) and the rise of public interest in pugilism, both as a “science” of athleticism and as an amateur healthy pursuit for men and women. The boxing on the variety stage was not brutal prize-fighting, but rather sparring, which was considered more contained and “scientific” and “artful.” The Queensbury rules of 1865 had added gloves and rules to the old bare-fisted fighting style, and sparring, in which fighters were supposed to be using their skill and creativity to earn points rather than knockouts, had further contained the violence and made the sport accessible to the morals of the upper classes and women. On the stage, the violence was further contained by sketch narratives, the proscenium space, and the expectations of spectators and management.

            I want to consider the sparring of actual fighters on the vaudeville stage in terms of its containment, both in the cognitive sense and in the hoplological sense. As described by Lakoff and Johnson, the container schema in the brain, which orders our perceptions of physical spaces, is the source of our metaphors about personal containment such as self-control and the repression of violence. Together with Lewandowski’s  theory of “constrained maximization” (which follows on Elster’s analysis of constraints and creativity in the arts and articulates how the physical and mental constraints of rules and circumstances contribute to the acquisition and demonstration of creativity and skills in boxing), these theories describe boxing on the vaudeville stage as a nesting doll-like series of physical and metaphorical containments that allowed audiences to taste the thrill and violence of a real boxing match within the safe, framed fictionality of the expectations of the vaudeville stage .

            Examples of this multi-faceted practice of containment include the restagings by Jem Mace and Tom Allen, and Sam Collyer and Barney Allen, of their own famous fights. Both pairs of men toured variety stages after their actual fights, replaying them both as simple sparring matches and as part of boxing-themed sketches. Sometimes plays were written to incorporate the restagings, and other times existing plays such as Tom and Jerry and even Hamlet were used. Other examples are the reproductions of fights that attracted great public interest as they were being fought in other cities. Local boxers would recreate the actions of prize fights in theatres, based on the telegraphs that were received from ringside after each round. Finally, sketches were also occasionally used to display open-ended sparring by boxers who were in training for upcoming prize fights. The levels of containment were fewer and the realism was higher in these moments, providing additional thrills for variety spectators and genuine preparation information for boxing fans.

These sibling theories of container schema and constrained maximization adhere in both aesthetics and sports, and are compounded when the two metanarratives are combined in these acts of pugilism in 19th century American variety. Together they can help us understand how such an unrestrained sport became so popular in a space that relies so heavily on assumptions of constraint.

 Read this again for how to connect it to the characterization part.

Incubator baby shows - "Incubator Babies and Progressive Era Medical Politics." In Performing the Progressive Era, edited by Max Schulman and J. Christopher Westgate, University of Iowa Press, 2019. In this article I looked at how the phenomenon of incubator baby shows between the 1890s and 1930s aided in the development of neonatal care and healthy baby parenting. The cultural anxiety over the machines as substitute parents existed alongside the valorization of the new technology and the doctors and nurses who cared for the infants and encapsulated the contradictions of the Progressive Era.

            Baby incubators were a part of multiple elements of American popular culture. Most shows were in Worlds Fairs or Exhibitions and appeared in the midways next to acts that were considered freak acts or entertainment. Like most interesting current events, incubator baby shows found their way onto the vaudeville stage as the subject of sketches, parodies, and jokes. My current work on the topic involves an examination of how vaudeville presented the idea of incubator babies, and what that reveals about contemporary anxieties over the technology.

Irish Music Hall Performers and American Vaudeville

           Irish performers were extremely popular in 19th century vaudeville in New York City.  From Pat Rooney and Kitty O'Neil to Bessie Bellwood, Irish-American performers and Irish performers brought over from British music halls were very popular, even with a largely Irish-American audience in New York's early variety theatres.  Often, these performers played directly to their kinsmen in the American audiences, referencing both Irish and Irish-American politics. Even non-Irish performers who took Irish names and personas in order to capitalize on the popularity of "the wearing of the green" succeeded on New York's vaudeville stages, and occasionally took their "faux Irish" acts to the music halls of Dublin.

            This research looks at individual performers, particularly those who traveled across from careers in British Music Halls, and their appeals to Irish and Irish-American nationalism. While many comedic bits and plays focused on issues of assimilation, poking gentle fun at new immigrants to the delight of their more savvy New York relatives, other songs and sketches appealed to different versions of Irish patriotism, highlighting allegiances to both the home country and their new nation. As part of this research, I am looking at individual acts in Great Britain to compare them to their American acts to speculate on changes made to accommodate American audiences.  These performers served as embodied memory of the old country, reaffirming national character and carrying Irish approval of the audience's expansion of patriotism to include the United States.

The transitory and intangible nature of tourist shows and the problems they present to scholars - ongoing research being presented at International Federation for Theatre Research Conference in Shanghai, China, July 2019.


            "Cultural" or "heritage" performances that present traditional performance practices, of the type recognized by UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage project, have received little scholarly attention by either the disciplines of Performance or Tourism Studies. Scholars in both fields have examined the intersections of tourism and modern commercial theatre (see Susan Bennett's article "Theatre/Tourism" and Howard L. Hughes' article "Culture and Tourism: a framework for further analysis"), but "cultural shows" (as they are often called on the tourism brochures) are yet to be theorized as their own theatrical form.

            Tourist theatre changes rapidly, due to a variety of factors. How do we talk about a form that not only isn’t archived in any traditional sense, but which changes continuously? Nevertheless, it is tourist theatre that often is what tourists leave with as their enduring picture of a nation’s or people’s culture. It is recognized as important (re: UNESCO) for that reason. The forms are important as embodiments and intangible archives of a culture, but also as the image that many travelers take home with them. Especially for tourists who visit a city or region only once, the theatre that their tour guide takes them to often provides the indelible image of that culture that goes home with them.  

             In this paper I will examine how tourist theatre is used as an archive of cultural practice by its practitioners and those who market it. I will also look at how the transitory nature of much cultural performance, as well as the conditions of its presentation, problematize its use as a cultural archive or as a holder of cultural identity. I will focus particularly on tourist theatre in the Shanghai/Hangzhou region and in southern Myanmar