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Lawrence W. Levine

Related: nobrow - Shakespeare

"Culture is a process, not a fixed condition," writes Lawrence W. Levine in Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988). Exactly. Control of that process is what America's "culture wars" have always been about. Levine's anti-canonical book describes the 19th-century cultural struggle, in which a moneyed and educated class took control of such once-popular forms as Shakespeare and opera, embalming them and arrogating to itself the arbitration of Taste. --Charles Paul Freund via http://www.reason.com/9712/fe.books.html [May 2006]

Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988) - Lawrence W. Levine

  • Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988) - Lawrence W. Levine [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Levine contends that early 19th-century America was characterized by no rigid cultural divisions between elite and mass culture. By the later part of the century, however, a clear line had been drawn; Shakespearean plays, classical music, and art of the old masters increasingly became the property of the elite only. The pendulum has swung back now, he observes, as there is a lessening of cultural divisions in contemporary America. A well-written contribution to the history of American culture. Without hestitation, this book is recommended highly to all academic American studies and popular culture collections as well as to large public libraries. Susan A. Stussy, St. Norbert Coll., De Pere, Wis. --Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc, Amazon.com

    Using Shakespeare as a model

    Lawrence W. Levine uses Shakespeare’s plays as a model for the evolution of American popular culture. Specifically, Levine traces The Bard’s transition from a form of mass entertainment to a recreation reserved for the cultural elite. Levine points out that in the nineteenth century, all segments of American society knew Shakespeare’s plays. The plays themselves were open to ridicule, subject to farces, and minstrel shows, but were central to a night’s entertainment. Levine clearly documents that theater advertisements for the common people clearly featured Shakespearian plays as part of the main attraction. The audiences attending the plays were a “microcosm” of American society. All facets of society attended one theater and as a result, the theater catered to a “shared public culture” during performances. (30) The “honest folk” audiences even dominated the scenes, interacting with the players and sharing their knowledge of The Bard with the performers. In contrast, Shakespeare today is respected, but belongs exclusively to high-brow socialites and intellectuals.

    To explain this change, Levine theorizes that Shakespeare’s appeal to the audience underwent a transformation. Nineteenth century audiences understood that Shakespeare’s plays were more than mere surface readings and physical appearances. Instead, Shakespeare’s “values and tastes…seemed real and came to matter with the audience.” (36) Such values included various characters’ long-winded and colorful monologues that paralleled nineteenth century American oration and eloquent use of language. Overly emotional acting and characters’ struggles between good and evil also appealed to Victorian Americans. Similarly, audiences appreciated Shakespeare’s clear-cut definitions of morality. This emphasis on morality even induced writers to modify Shakespeare’s plays to ensure that the hero always won. At times, audiences even preferred these adaptations to the original works. Levine notes that Shakespeare’s “larger-than-life” dilemmas that forced characters to choose their own destinies rather than rely on fate especially found favor among nineteenth century audiences. Shakespeare struck at the very heart of American values, for the masses found in The Bard the very essence of American identity.

    However, this American melting pot audience did not last. Levine points out that theater patrons segregated themselves as theaters began catering to different audiences: low-down laymen or the refined elite. Incidents like the Astor Opera House Riot in 1849 further divided theatergoers into a class hierarchy. Shakespeare, with its “immortal” plays, “sublime” poetry and “archaic” language, slowly fell out of favor with the everyday theater mongers. (68) The end effect was society elevating Shakespeare to such a level of genius that any attempt to bring The Bard back to the masses, as Mark Twain attempted, was seen as akin to blasphemy.

    Shakespeare became even more remote from the masses in the twentieth century, because many of the values that nineteenth century Americans cherished had declined. Oration and flowery language became obsolete in American discourse. In addition, the emotional acting that drove many nineteenth century audiences to tears became old-hat. Levine believes that Shakespeare could have easily survived in radio and movies but the heads of these consolidated entertainment media believed Shakespeare was unprofitable and suitable only for critical acclaim. Shakespearean farces that abounded in the nineteenth century limited themselves to satires on high society rather than poking fun at the plays themselves. Levine concludes that Shakespeare was so removed from the people that even drivel that sounded archaic was food enough for today’s audiences, whereas a century ago, theater patrons would have pelted such a performer with putrid peaches for passing such “poetry” as serious Shakespeare. --http://www.csun.edu/~twd61312/week1precis.htm [May 2006]

    Shakespeare has spent a century as cultural spinach; some cultists have even thought his works too sacred to be performed. Yet he was once American pop. In the 19th century, Lawrence W. Levine points out in Highbrow/Lowbrow, the plays appealed to all classes for their melodrama and oratory. Singers, dancers, and comics even appeared between the (often edited) acts. Shakespeare's later capture by the polite classes was a turning point in establishing class-based cultural authority. --Charles Paul Freund via http://reason.com/9904/ci.cf.loves.shtml [May 2006]

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