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Chicago 1894

By Shane Valenzi

This production of Romeo and Juliet has been set in Chicago, Illinois, in 1894.  In 1893 Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, a international spectacle held every few years celebrating state-of-the-art technology, architecture, and culture from all over the world (sort of like the Olympics, but focusing on inventions and architecture rather than sports).  The fair (dubbed the “World’s Columbian Exposition” in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus discovering America) featured scores of innovations never seen before: the first Ferris Wheel, the first postcard, the first junk food (Cracker Jacks), and the first glimpse for many visitors of inventions and cultural phenomena like fluorescent lighting, hula dancing, ragtime music, and Egyptian belly dancing.

Following the World’s Columbian Exposition, however, the city of Chicago fell into a deep depression.  Hundreds of thousands of people who had come to the city looking for work during the construction of the numerous ornate buildings and pavilions that were built to house the exhibits at the fair found themselves out of work and homeless; well-meaning but destitute “tramps” would wander the streets, finding comfort and shelter only in the various bars and saloons of the city, where the saloon owners would give away free lunches in the hopes that many would also purchase drinks.  

At the same time, politics in Chicago was run by the Democratic “machine.”  Local politicians would garner votes for election not through campaign platforms and promises, but by bribing large portions of the lower class immigrants to register and vote for their candidate in exchange for money, food, or both.  Politicians were notoriously corrupt; indeed, the most powerful political figure in the city was a man named Mike MacDonald, who wasn’t a politician at all – he was a high profile gambler who owned most of the illegal gambling houses in Chicago.  Much like today, Republicans and Democrats fought bitterly and often resorted to personal attacks during an election season; because Chicago, like most major cities, was predominantly Democratic, however, rival Democratic politicians and their supporters fought amongst themselves during primary season with as much nastiness and illegal tactics as if they were warring political parties (just like the Montagues and Capulets!).  The main political issue at the time was whether the United States should adopt a silver standard or a gold standard; the Republicans, backed by special interest groups and the robber barons of the 1880s, supported the continuation of the gold standard, while the Democratic party was hopelessly split on the issue, some supporting the status quo to protect from inflation, others preferring the silver standard to give relief to low-income farmers and workers from the deep economic depression.  In 1896 William Jennings Bryan united the Democratic Party in support of the silver standard, but as of 1894, even the least educated Democratic supporters fought constantly over whether the gold or silver standard was the best solution to their problems.


Romeo & Juliet

Educator's Guidebook

Synopsis of Romeo and Juliet

Chicago 1894:

Dramaturg's Note

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