Book Review: Broadway and Corporate Capitalism

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The subtitle of this slender, vigorously analytical academic volume by Michael Schwartz, adjunct professor at Widener University and Neumann College, is “The Rise of the Professional-Managerial Class, 1900-1920.” What is — or what was — the professional-managerial class and what was its relationship to the Broadway of a century ago?

Broadway and Corporate Capitalism is part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History, edited by my colleague and mentor Don Wilmeth, Brown University professor emeritus as well as one of the very finest scholar of American theater history. Two other books in the series have come across my desk — Arthur Frank Wertheim’s Vaudeville Wars: How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big-Time and Its Performers and Julius Novick’s Beyond the Golden Door: Jewish-American Drama and Jewish-American Experience — but Broadway and Corporate Capitalism is the only one, thus far, I’ve elected to read more than once.

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Schwartz, of course, did not coin the term professional-managerial class, or PMC. In the 1970s, it was defined by John and Barbara Ehrenreich this way: “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.” In his introduction, Schwartz analyzes the term PMC through various sociological lenses, including the inevitable detour into Karl Marx. Much of this is situated well beyond my pay grade, but at length Schwartz relates the idea of the PMC to three general types of characters regularly portrayed on the Broadway stage of yore. He calls them Mr. Nervous, Mr. Grind and Mr. Can-Do.

Mr. Nervous, Schwartz writes, “is closely related to the ‘tired businessman’ so often written about in the reviews of the frivolous Broadway fare of the period.” Mr. Nervous also has a singular physicality: “usually stooped, embodying the cliche of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He speaks quickly, and often haltingly or jerkily, with bodily movements to match….A mere laborer was not smart enough to have nerves, but a mental worker was particularly susceptible to nervousness.” Then there is Mr. Grind, “a figure of the Broadway college campus” that is “never in step with the gentlemanly athletic heroes of the college plays”; Mr. Grind’s “intelligence, wealth of information and advanced vocabulary are all fodder for jokes perpetrated by the athletes….the grind has been leaning too intensely over his schoolbooks.” Mr. Can-Do, finally, “comes closest…to resembling the Victorian gentleman who exuded confidence in his carriage and bearing…he would always move with grace and with purpose.” Today, Mr. Can-Do is what we might far more crassly call the alpha male, though not, it would seem, necessarily a hyper-sexual being, but rather a man “who has the time to wait for what he wants,” whose “speech is peppered with up-t0-the-minute references and slang,” and in most instances “a handsome, ‘leading man’ type.”

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A second smartly articulated element of the book is the way Schwartz both ties together and finds distinctions between the steady growth of corporate industry in early 20th century America with monumental shifts that the theater world, a a business, was undergoing at the same time:

The business of theatre was growing more “corporate” across the board, as an examination of “executive staffs” for producers reveals… George M. Cohan and his partner Sam Harris, for example, listed an “executive staff” for Little Johnny Jones that included the stage manager, master machinist, master of properties, chief electrician and wardrobe mistress. Such people did “manage,” of course, in the sense that they were responsible for crews, but their clear-cut identification with a “managerial class” as such did not occur.

Other “executive” positions, on the other hand, jibed fairly well with the “salaried mental worker” element of the burgeoning PMC. …the theatergoer enjoying [Rida Johnson Young’s] Brown of Harvard could take the time to notice in the program the “executive staff” for the Princess Theatre: Lee Shubert and Chas. E. Evans, lessees; Thomas L. Nelson, business manager and treasurer; and Chas. E. Evans, Jr., assistant treasurer…

…the key figure in the evolving theatre business was the press agent… Colorful (and often tasteless) stunts and promotions, and exaggerated (or downright false) claims were among the tools of the press agents’ trade. …generally speaking, a press agent could seldom go wrong with well-executed outrageousness.

Having furnished a sense of Broadway as a business for craftspeople to secure employment, Schwartz next considers Broadway as a business marketing to, and feeding off of, the aspirations and disposable income of the rising PMC class. Ticket and meal prices, clothing costs, means and accessibility of transportation, approaches to both advertising and marketing — not to mention the way audiences tended to size each other up, to go to the theater in order to see and be seen — all come in for reexamination. A probable salary for a member of the PMC could be $1,040 — except teachers, lo and behold, were paid far less. There is the eye-opening fact that the “PMC man…worked harder, or at least longer hours, than his present-day counterpart.” Apropros of Arizona’s recent legalization of xenophobia, there is Schwartz’s observation that Jews and Catholics “could conceivably rise into the PMC if they practiced assimilation strategies such as changing their names or even rejecting their religion outright.”

In due course, Schwartz turns anew to the Broadway plays on the boards, demonstrating how the three PMC character types cited earlier were sometimes stark, sometimes subtle reflections of the tastes, fears, bigotries, convictions and even confusions of the genteel Broadway audience. The plays and playwrights tumble forth: William Gillette (Sherlock Holmes, although that is technically 19th century); Charles Klein (The Lion and the Mouse); George Ade (The College Widow, The Sultan of Sulu); Eugene Walter (The Easiest Way); Edward Sheldon (The Boss); Roi Cooper Megrue (It Pays to Advertise); Booth Tarkington (Clarence) and, of course, Clyde Fitch (The Moth and the Flame, The Climbers, The City). Plus there is a particularly insightful glance into the American musical, then ricocheting from the conventions of operetta to revue to burlesque to farce and back again on a quest for what would become a distinctive national genre. A genre, that is, as distinctive as the neurasthenic members of the PMC, witnessing their lives tossed and tangled on the Broadway stage, exhausted from a long day at the office.

http://www.amazon.com/Broadway-Corporate-Capitalism-Professional-Managerial-Performance/dp/0230616577