Medicine Shows, or, the Promiscuity of Popular Theatrical Forms

18 Jul

Before encountering the Wizard Oil Prince in the archives, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a medicine show. Now I’ve got hold of a copy of Ann Anderson’s Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2000) and know vaguely more. The general gist: a bloke rocks up on a street corner with a cartload of bottles labelled ‘Panacea’ or ‘Miracle Cure’ or something like it. He commences to treat the passers-by to a show. Perhaps he sings to a small guitar, tells jokes, has a monkey with an accordion, a parrot screeching at his ear. At the end of his performance, he extols the virtues of his product and sells them to those gathered round. (Or not as the case may be: Augustus Baker Peirce said he tried his own medicine show after witnessing Weston do his thing on the Victorian goldfields. He hired a theatre, treated the crowd to his antics, but no one wanted to fork out cash for his cure).

What interests me about the medicine show is what it shows about the promiscuity of popular theatrical forms. As Anderson says, ‘medicine showfolk borrowed from any and all popular entertainment forms’ : banjo-picking, mesmerist displays, magic tricks, ventriloquism, comedy, melodrama, and more (pp. 11-12). That promiscuity makes this historical field both fascinating and difficult to think about clearly. So far I have this idea of writing about ‘mystic theatre’ as a catch-all term for the kinds of shows I’m interested in: mental telepathy displays, mesmerist exhibitions, levitation stunts, public seances, lectures on spiritualism, etc. But those shows all overlap profusely with a range of other performances. Fred Nadis has written about the American ‘wonder show’, for example, a sort of gee-whiz exhibition of popular scientific phenomena. Variations of so-called wonder shows were performed by ‘medicine showfolk’ , by impresarios doing stupid things with electricity, by the entrepreneurs of exhibition venues,  and also by exactly the people I’m interested in: the practitioners of mystic phenomena on stage. The same sorts of performances also appeared in the second acts of minstrel shows and the variety/vaudeville formats which eventually overtook them. And they also appeared in circuses and related freak shows. Coming up with a definition to cope with all that incorrigible overlapping of forms is proving a tricksy thing.

Other books from Anderson’s bibliography:

David Armstrong and E M Armstrong, The Great American Medicine Show (NY: Prentice Hall, 1991).

David Cohen and Ben Greenwood, The Buskers: A History of Street Entertainment (North Pomfret, Vermont: David and Charles, 1981).

Grete de Francesco, The Power of the Charlatan (New Haven: Yale UP, 1939).

Brooks McNamara, Step Right Up (NY: Doubleday, 1976).

Roy Porter, Health for Sale: Quackery in England, 1660-1850 (Manchester, Manchester UP, 1989).

Owen Stratton, Medicine Man (Norman: Uni of Oklahoma Press, 1989).

C J S Thompson, The Quacks of Old London (London: Bretano’s Ltd, 1928).

Bim Mason, Street Theatre and Other Outdoor Performances (New York: Routledge, 1992).

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