Today in theatre history (May 9) is the anniversary of the collapse of the Vienna Stock Market in 1873. What does this have to do with theatre? Quite a bit, actually. But the connections are a bit extended for such an abbreviated blog. So in short: when the Prussians defeated the French at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a new united Germany emerged. European investors flocked to the new nation’s economic potential by buying up everything and anything German. The explosion of investments spilled over into the U.S., where new railroads were springing up across the continent during and after the Civil War. (Remember the transcontinental railroad? The Union Pacific and Central Pacific? Leland Stanford? The Gold Spike? And Promontory Point in 1869?) All of that money rushing into Germany and the U.S. created a massive bubble–like any other financial bubble. As prices soared, investors rushed to invest more–until it all fell apart on this day, May 9, 1873. The first sign of trouble was at the Vienna Stock Market, which collapsed under the weight of over-investment and rampant speculation. Within a few weeks other world stock markets began to tank.
The U.S. held out until September when Wall Street finally succumbed and had its worst day ever, putting much of the industrialized world into a deep and long-lasting depression. Unemployment was felt across all industries, but the entertainment industry was particularly hard hit. Producers and theatre companies failed. Actors and theatre professionals were out of work. The old stock company system, that had dominated the American theatre scene for decades, fell apart. Those few theatre professionals that survived had to find new ways to make money. And a few clever entrepreneurs discovered a couple of ways to utilize out-of-work actors. First, with the collapse of stock markets, the railroads found themselves in serious trouble. They cut prices, suddenly making rail travel much more affordable. A few producers cobbled together what were called “combination companies”–an assemblage of actors with a few sets and a handful of rehearsed plays–that would tour a massive national circuit. The overhead was cheap, moving from whistle stop to whistle stop across the country, performing for a night or two before moving on. The second innovation was what became known as “Vaudeville”–short, quick variety acts assembled from unemployed actors willing to do anything to make a few bucks. Like the combinations, the Vaudeville actors worked on one or two night contracts, shifting jobs as fast a they could. As the economy slowly recovered during the 1870s, these innovations remained and became in integral part of the American theatre.