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Communication Studies course takes a look at the performance of social class

What makes a performance highbrow or lowbrow art? It’s a question that students in one School of Communication course spent last quarter exploring.

“The course really focuses on the rise of mass media, through the rise of big city newspapers and then radio, and ultimately television,” said Jan Radway, professor in the Department of Communication Studies, who teaches the course, called “Media and the Making of Social Class.” “We really explore the categories of highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow art. We ask how these cultural categories developed in the first place and how have they been blurred and changed over time.”

Scene from Show Boat at the Chicago Lyric Opera

Photo by Robert Kusel and Dan Rest
courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

The course focuses in part on Show Boat, originally a bestselling novel written by Edna Ferber in 1926, which was turned into a musical in 1929. The story, which chronicles the lives of three generations of performers on board the Mississippi Show Boat, the Cotton Blossom, has seen many incarnations on the stage and on the silver screen. In Comm Studies 334, students read the novel, watched the 1929 and 1951 Technicolor versions and attended a special Show Boat production currently being performed by the Chicago Lyric Opera.

“What’s interesting is that Show Boat is considered an American musical, and it’s been made into several films, but it’s not often treated as an opera,” Radway said. “Students will get to see Show Boat in the Lyric Opera House, considered one of the major high cultural institutions. They will look at the breakdown of the divisions between highbrow and lowbrow culture, and ask themselves what that means and how the nature of the culture industry is changing.”

Department of Theatre associate professor Cindy Gold, who plays Parthy Ann, the wife of the Show Boat’s captain, in the Lyric Opera production, said she feels Show Boat transcends labels.

“I suppose there are opera aficionados who might consider the musical a lowbrow form of entertainment, but I think Show Boat is an exception piece, and the musical itself, I think poses an interesting question about art,” she said. “There’s a play within the play in Show Boat, where the performers perform a sort of melodrama, and I think it does raise interesting points about what is highbrow or lowbrow culture.”

In the class, Radway said students also examine the power of mass media and popular culture in today’s society.

“Think about the controversy involving Oprah and Jonathan Franzen, whose novel The Corrections was picked to be her selection for her book-of-the-month,” Radway said. “He had mixed feelings about that, because he aimed at a conventionally highbrow audience, and he worried that being selected by Oprah would devalue his text, so there was a go-around with Oprah. It was a powerful conflict, and eventually, he had to apologize. That’s in part because cultural authority has changed. Where once it was dictated by highbrow culture and critics, now the power really has shifted to the mass media.”

Lauren Wiefels, a student in Radway’s class, said she would recommend the course to anyone.

“One of the most interesting parts of the class has been analyzing the history of the classes and distinctions that resulted,” Wiefels said. “The middle class, and accordingly, middlebrow culture, formed in response to new class formations that date back as far as the 1830s. Many people do not consider the huge changes that had to occur to both the lowbrow and the highbrow in order for the middlebrow to form. This is the best part of Jan’s teaching¬†– she helps us consider perspectives and texts that we might never have been exposed to otherwise…My favorite part of coming to class every day is knowing that I will learn something that day that I didn’t know before.”

Show Boat at the Chicago Lyric Opera runs through March 17.

-Cara Lockwood