Christopher Grobe

Assistant Professor, Amherst College

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Every Nerve Keyed Up: 'Telegraph Plays' and the Networked Theater of the 19th Century

Working session on "Theater in the Global Nineteenth Century" (ASTR 2013; Dallas, TX)

William Gillette’s Civil War melodrama Secret Service (1896) is best known for its sensational third act in which a Northern spy, having infiltrated a Southern telegraph office, attempts to send sabotaged marching orders to the Confederate front. This scene was marketed as the play’s greatest novelty, but it also placed Secret Service in a long tradition of plays “that had to do with telegraph operators” or “in which a telegrapher’s key figures.” Drawing on the recently opened archives of the Samuel French company, which published and licensed many such plays, I will give a history of this peculiar genre. The “telegraph play” not only constitutes the theater’s clearest reaction to the birth of electronic media, but also demonstrates how theater-makers made use of the novel sensations those media afforded: feelings of simultaneity, instantaneousness, and sheer global presence.

In a way, all 19th century theater travelled along the telegraph wire—at least insofar as those wires in turn followed the railroads and shipping lanes on which an ever-more-mobile theater depended. Within this network, productions toured more widely, splintered into more touring companies, and, in contrast to the ghostly wires they followed, became “live” in the way we now know them to be. In other words, the theater became like the telegraph: live yet mediated, palpably local yet breathtakingly global.

It is tempting to take this electrified network as a metaphor for a global theater, but we mustn’t take for granted the perspective of a complete and rationalized network. “Telegraph plays” show us instead how it feels to tap into the telegraphic relay. They teach what it means to be nodes in the network, coursing with the chatter of an emergent global conversation.

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe