WHILE THE THEATRE CONTINUED TO BROADEN ITS POPULAR appeal, it faced the increasing competition of other forms of commercial entertainment. By the 1850's almost every city had a museum with a jumbled collection of curiosities, dead and alive, and a program of concerts and variety acts which could be seen for twenty-five or fifty cents. At scores of music-halls bands of black-faced comedians broke happily into the "Lucy Long Walk Around" or plaintively sang "Old Black Joe" as a phenomenal rage for minstrelsy swept the land. And into towns and villages from Maine to Georgia, westward to the Mississippi, rolled the red and gold wagons housing the properties of what was to become one of America's great institutions-the circus.
Phineas T. Barnum stands out as the leading figure of this period in amusing the populace. No struggle between dramatic standards and popular taste ever troubled the master showman of them all. He was not one whit interested in art; he was interested in entertainment. He recognized the potential market in the restless urban masses. With uncanny prescience he sensed what they wanted, or could be made to want, and gave it to them. He gave it enthusiastically, generously, lavishly -- whether Jenny Lind, the country's pioneer baby show, or his Grand Colossal Museum and Menagerie. Nor did Mr. Barnum ever wait for his public to become bored; he believed in infinite variety. The Feejee mermaid gave way to General Tom Thumb, General Tom Thumb to the Bearded Lady, the Bearded Lady to Campagnolian Bell Ringers. His American Museum took in everything from trained fleas to panoramas of the Holy Land. James Gordon Bennett called him the Napoleon of Public Caterers: he always provided a good show, and the eager, unsophisticated, amusement-hungry public of his day loved it.
Barnum represented democracy in public entertainment much as Andrew Jackson had represented it in politics. Government in the interests of the common man, amusements in the interests of the common man. No one did more to promote the leveling influence of popular recreation. The theatre had tried to compromise. It staged its equestrian dramas, its burlesques, its extravaganzas, but it was always trying to get back to Shakespeare, looking a little down its nose at the raucous taste of the lower half-million. Mr. Barnum was out to take the lower half-million into camp, and he succeeded because his methods were direct and simple. The democratic masses followed his lead as docilely as the Irish visitors at his Museum followed the sign "to the Egress" -- and found themselves in the street. For though sometimes he outrageously fooled his public, put over elaborate hoaxes, they enjoyed it hugely.
It was all highly educational and strictly moral-the exhibitions in his museum, the strange curiosities touring the country under his sponsorship, the variety acts staged in his sumptuous lecture-room. When the old lady from Dubuque asked him when the service began, the great showman soberly told her that the congregation were already taking their seats. Spellbound country folk who delighted in his presentations of The Drunkard and Uncle Tom's Cabin would have been horrified at the suggestion that they had attended the theatre.
This skilful exploitation of the prejudices of his day was one of the secrets of Barnum's success. The gospel of work, the urge for self-education, religious disapproval of amusements, never hampered his activities. The theatre struggled against the spirit of the times. Barnum capitalized it. The "chaste scenic entertainments" of his lecture-room were generously staged for "all those who disapprove of the dissipations, debaucheries, profanity, vulgarity, and other abominations, which characterize our modern theatres." Not a thought would be breathed in his museum, let alone act performed or word uttered, that could bring a blush to the cheek of modesty. The Puritan in entertainment, Barnum proudly recorded that "even Shakespeare's dramas were shorn of their objectionable features when placed upon my stage." He saw sermons in circus elephants and preached them to the discomfiture of rival managers. No one better understood the temper of the Victorian era.