Street Scenes: Staging the Self in Immigrant New York, 1880-1924

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The turn of the twentieth century in New York City was characterized by radical transformation as the advent of consumer capitalism confronted established social hierarchies, culture, and conceptions of selfhood. The popular stage existed in a symbiotic relationship with the city and uniquely captured the contested terms of immigrant identity of the time.

Street Scenes focuses on the intersection of modern city life and stage performance. From street life and slumming to vaudeville and early cinema, to Yiddish theater and blackface comedy, Esther Romeyn discloses racial comedy, passing, and masquerade as gestures of cultural translation. In these performances she detects an obsession with the idea of the city as theater and the self as actor, which was fueled by the challenges that consumer capitalism presented to notions of an authentic self.

It was exactly this idea of authentic immigrant selfhood that was at stake in many performances on the popular stage, and Romeyn ultimately demonstrates how these diverse and potent immigrant works influenced the emergence of a modern metropolitan culture.