Theses Doctoral

Playing the Crowd: Mass Pageantry in Europe and the United States, 1905-1935

Stokes, Shilarna

This dissertation brings to light a theatrical and political genre I call "mass pageantry," which emerged in England, the United States, Russia and Germany during the early twentieth century. Performed out-of-doors, often with thousands of amateur local performers in costume, these vast mytho-historical spectacles emerged from unusual alliances between playwrights and directors seeking to transform theater as a cultural practice, and political organizations seeking new ways to gain the allegiance of the working classes. Because mass pageants arose in significantly different political contexts, they have been primarily discussed in single-nation studies by historians of culture and politics. This trend has inadvertently led to a general neglect of their status as theatrical events and to a false distinction between American and British "pageants," which are frequently dismissed as nostalgia, and Soviet and German "spectacles," which are often reduced to propaganda.

This dissertation demonstrates that despite significant differences in the political impulses behind these events, they together represent a complex and imaginative transnational theatrical genre defined by shared techniques and a common purpose. It argues that the emergence of mass pageantry points to a shared cultural goal--to reinvent theater as an art form created for and by "the people"--as well to a common social problem for which pageants were seen as a promising solution: how to reconstitute "peoples" from the "crowds" produced by mass culture, industrialization and political upheaval.

Chapter One locates the emergence of mass pageantry at the intersection of two nineteenth-century intellectual currents: the development of "crowd theory" and the growth of people's theater movements. Chapters Two, Three and Four each focus on a single pageant: The Sherborne Pageant (England, 1908), written and directed by Louis Napoleon Parker; The Masque of St. Louis (US, 1914), written by Percy MacKaye; and Towards a World Commune (RSFSR, 1920), created by a team of five directors. To demonstrate the ways in which mass pageants competed with one another for the attention of audiences, as well as how theories and techniques of mass pageantry were adapted for a new medium, Chapter Five surveys mass pageants of the Weimar period in Germany and examines Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 film, Triumph of the Will, through the lens of mass pageantry.

This dissertation demonstrates that pageant-devisers, influenced as often by transnational artistic movements and socio-theatrical reform efforts as by the political agenda of pageant sponsors, generated their own visions of collective life through the mass pageants they created. Although their ideas were in varying degrees informed by theories emerging from the burgeoning field of "crowd theory," I argue that pageants are best understood as contributing performative ideas of their own making to an ongoing debate rather than as stagings of crowd theories already in existence. Together they articulate a consensus about the role theater can and should play in the representation and transformation of actual crowds, and by extension, in the transformation of social life and culture more broadly.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Aronson, Arnold P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2013