This dissertation examines theater in nineteenth-century Mexico City, using it as a lens to better understand the city’s history, its culture, and the development of public life. Through an analysis of municipal records, account ledgers, notaries’ books, correspondence, playbills, newspapers, and civil court proceedings, it shows how theater formed a pillar of early republican statecraft, provided subsistence and investment opportunities in a flagging economy, and offered a language and a place for individuals to engage in politics and public life. Between 1830 and 1901, it argues that an age of theater emerged in Mexico City—a seventy-year period of unprecedented activity and energy around the performing arts. Elites supported a theatergoing culture, wealthy investors and middling entrepreneurs financed new playhouses, journalists re-imagined stage characters and content, and city residents flocked to playhouses.
The study conceives of theater broadly as a cultural production, physical space, political practice, and business. In so doing, it illuminates theater’s ties to the economic, political, social, and cultural life of the city. Theatergoing was not simply an elite leisure activity tangential to what really mattered, as the literature has treated it. Rather, theater sat at the heart of city life, and theatergoing became a regular aspect of life for a broad cross-section of urban dwellers, especially during the second half of the century. Its production and consumption inside and outside playhouses offered city residents opportunities to participate in public life.
By moving theater center stage, where contemporaries understood it to be, the dissertation sheds new light on the city’s development, its emergence as a hub in global performance networks, and its deepening integration into circum-Atlantic circulations of goods, people, and culture. It also recasts Mexico’s nineteenth-century history, often characterized as an age of caudillos and chaos. Theater endured amidst political turmoil and economic uncertainty. More importantly, as this study shows, theater became a central referent and metaphor for the ways city residents experienced and reacted to that century’s challenges. Put differently, it offered the script and stage directions for the performance of nineteenth-century urban life.