The Lost Museum Archive

"American Museum," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 11, 1850

After 1850, Barnum’s Lecture Room stage hosted a series of productions explicitly designed to elevate virtue and stamp out vice. This review describes a performance of The Drunkard, the most successful "moral drama" ever run in the Lecture Room. The temperance play presented the protagonist’s descent into the depths of depravity and alcoholism, and his eventual recovery and rebirth. The review also discusses one of the more interesting features of theatre presented in the Lecture Room; the exhibition of human oddities between the acts (and even within the play). The combination highlights Barnum’s efforts throughout the decade to attract an upper-class audience with polite, female-friendly moral drama, while continuing to cater to a working-class Bowery crowd with the inclusion of the bawdy “freak” show. The “nigger chap who is turning himself white,” is an early example of Barnum’s penchant for blurring the accepted racial binary, later manifested in attractions such as the “What Is It?”

AMERICAN MUSEUM -- This place of amusement was last night crowded from pit to dome with an assemblage of beauty and fashion. We were altogether unprepared for a sight so brilliant. The ladies in point of numbers predominated three to one. The moral drama of the Drunkard was admirably performed, and presented a fearful picture of the inebriate's course. The tendency of such representations cannot but be productive of beneficial effects, not only on the young, but on the practiced Bacchanalian. The mass of the public journals sneer at the idea of teaching virtue through such a medium as that of a museum theatre, but for our own part, so that the good result is attained, we do not object to the means employed, even though it be a Spartan one. Barnum may be called the modern Lycurgus, for he causes to be exhibited nightly (if not a drunken slave,) a fearful slave to drunkeness. The fat boy, 18 years of age, is introduced in one of the scenes, and such an obese mass we have never seen equalled; and dressed as he is in a child's nankin suit, is without a parallel as to the comicality of his appearance. His entree was the signal for one universal guffaw from all parts of the house, and 'twas some time ere the audience was straightened up. Major Cameron, 21 years old, was also introduced. He is one of the dwarf genus, and an elegant little man he is. His form is symmetrical, and his address that of a polished gentleman. The dwarf queen, Titania, caused much amusement. She is a cheerful little creature, but by no means prepossessing. That nigger chap that is turning himself white, we don't know what to make of. He seems to be a white man, artificially and partially made black, rather than a black man gradually turning white. We may be wrong, but we rather think Barnum has been humbugged!!! An evening may be very pleasantly passed in the American museum.

Source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 11, 1850, p. 2.