The “Grecian urn” ladies in the movie, The Music Man (1962)
Meredith Willson’s Broadway musical, The Music Man, has been staged many times since 1957. A revival staring Hugh Jackman recently finished its New York run. Audiences enjoy the story of con-man Professor Harold Hill selling instruments to the town of River City, Iowa. Hill promises to start a boys’ band, even though he doesn’t know anything about music. Willson’s tuneful songs help create the world of small-town America. His show was inspired by his childhood in Mason City, Iowa. “I didn’t have to make anything up for The Music Man,” the composer claimed. “All I had to do was remember.”
In one comical scene, the mayor’s wife and her friends practice artistic poses. They later perform them for town members. Today the ladies’ poses seem strange and unfamiliar to audiences. But the poses are based on real performances from the 1890s and early 1900s.
In the late nineteenth century, many American women put on white gowns and learned to create poses. Unlike tight Victorian clothing, the gowns allowed women to move from pose to pose to flowing piano music. They believed that these movements would give them grace, beauty, and health. The practice was called the Delsarte method, named for a famous French acting teacher.
Seniors in Oratory, Upper Iowa University, Fayette, Iowa (1919)
These poses were not just for exercise. Women also wanted to portray important historic art from Western culture. They pretended to be Greek statues, wearing white makeup to look like marble. Performers also posed to express emotions: anger, sorrow, joy, fear. Delsarte became a part of popular entertainment across America. Posing was seen at concerts, church and civic events. College students and school children also participated. Women sold tickets to their Delsarte programs and used the money to support their local libraries or hospitals.
Sometimes audiences found Delsarte confusing. Familiar music helped to suggest the poses’ meanings and create the mood. Poses could also express the lyrics of well-known songs. Performers often used hymn tunes like “Nearer my God to Thee” and “Rock of Ages.” In this time, some people thought that dancing was dangerous and sinful. Posing to religious music made women’s motions seem more moral and wholesome. Although Delsarte did not last, it influenced modern dance and acting.
Posing was popular in Iowa. Before 1920 Delsarte performances took place in at least fifty different Iowa communities. In 1904, the Des Moines Women’s Club presented seventeen scenes from Greek art. The local newspaper was more interested in the pretty girls posing than in art history: “Dangerous as simple American girls, they will be deadly as nymphs, naiads and graces.” Smaller Iowa towns with only a few hundred residents also had Delsarte. Mason City had three Delsarte teachers, so Meredith Willson probably saw posing when he was young. In 1898, Willson’s mother Rosalie went to Chicago to learn Delsarte to teach to her kindergarten students. Those experiences helped Willson set the scene for Iowa culture in The Music Man.
“Nearer My God to Thee,” Leander Clark College, Toledo, Iowa (1911)
Not everyone enjoyed Delsarte. Much of the criticism of it was sexist. F. Townsend Southwick complained about women “gushing over” Delsarte in their “dreamful” costumes, which he hoped would “never be seen again.” The 1889 play, 40 Minutes with a Crank, or the Seldarte Craze, featured an ambitious student, Minnie Moneybags, to mock the Delsarte fad. The press suggested that women could get better exercise by cleaning the house. Iowa newspaper men reprinted these criticisms. However, when their own wives and daughters gave performances, they called them delightful.
The Music Man also makes fun of Delsarte performers. Harold Hill convinces Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn to start the ladies’ Delsarte group by flattering her. Shinn and the other women of River City do not pose as powerful Greek goddesses. Instead, they are “Grecian urns”—little empty pots. Their movements are awkward, not graceful. The Music Man is set in 1912, just as Delsarte was fading from Iowa. Willson’s use of posing for comic effect suggests that the ladies’ posing is silly and old-fashioned. Knowing the history behind Delsarte makes the posing in The Music Man even funnier.
Poses with musical accompaniment from Emma Griffith Lumm’s book, The Twentieth-Century Speaker (1899)
Marian Wilson Kimber, Professor of Musicology at the University of Iowa, has written about the composers Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and American women’s musical activities. As a member of the duo Red Vespa, she performs comic spoken word compositions by women composers. Learn more…