Theodore Dreiser’s naturalist novel, Sister Carrie, is chocked full of references to American theater, the famous venues of the time, the human ability to captivate an audience on stage, and the experience of the spectator. The novel is a Künstlerroman through the heroine, Carrie, as she progresses as a stage actress, all the while her dependence on others diminishes. She gains independence and freedom through her ability to act, a mixture of discipline and intuition, and through her experience we are exposed to the culture of American theater in a defining moment in American history. In the first decade of the twentieth century, America had beaten England in the volume of shows produced, and although this is argued as a quantity over quality mentality, at the very least it expresses the blockbuster appeal of theater as a means of entertainment.
Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is an invaluable resource in examining the explosive triumph of theaters and although the wild success of stage theater was short, since moving picture theaters were on the brink of a success that would overshadow the art of stage acting, the influence of such emotional expression pushed the boundaries of what could be accomplished through a single character, in a single moment, on the stage, in front of red curtains or white canvas.
There are three exhibits provided for users to explore the trinity of theater: The stage, the actor, and the spectator. These exhibits are in tandem with one another as a means to compliment a broader sense of American theater in the first decade of the twentieth century. When these three parts come together a kind of escapist captivation infects everyone present and the language spoken between actor and spectator is much older than the English language, there is an “emotional greatness” that resonates from the actor and grips the audience. Dreiser is critical of his character Hurstwood in chapter 37 for not realizing Carrie's worth, "Strangely, he had not conceived well of her mental ability. That was because he did not understand the nature of emotional greatness. He had never learned that a person might be emotionally—instead of intellectually—great."
Through the décor of the theater, the technique and fame of the actor, and the interpretations of the spectator, one may begin to understand how theater facilitates this “emotional greatness.” The images are all complete with information connecting them to Sister Carrie, which anchors itself in first-hand knowledge of the time. These exhibits work as a visual companion to Dreiser’s novel or as a resource for anyone who is interested in early American theater. Every citation is linked to a “snapshot” of its exact location within the novel.
Americans increasingly sought fulfillment in their leisure activities instead of the humdrum manual labor jobs at the start of the...