Theater (American History Through Literature)
Most American writers of the nineteenth century had an important stake in the theater. Edgar Allan Poe, whose parents were actors, wrote theater reviews, had a story adapted to the stage, and refers to himself in "The Philosophy of Composition" as a "literary histrio" (p. 530). Many others, including Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Louisa May Alcott, William Dean Howells, and Henry James were, at some point, professional drama critics or playwrights. Specific references to theater of their day may also be found in the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and James Fenimore Cooper. "I ought to acknowledge my debt to actors, singers, public speakers, conventions, and the Stage in New York," Whitman (1819992) confessed toward the end of his life, "and to plays and operas generally" (Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, p. 1289).
For Whitman the importance of the antebellum stage is wrapped up with all of the public culture of the 1830s and 1840s, the speeches and sermons, political rallies, circuses, songs, and parades. As Rosemarie Bank has written, for dignitaries and even presidents, visiting theaters to receive acclamations or to address the people was a common use of these places of assembly (p. 12). And Whitman did not hesitate to lump together performers as diverse as the actors Fanny Kemble and Junius Booth, the Quaker demagogue Elias Hicks, and the seaman-preacher Father Taylor, who was also the model for Melville's Father Mapple (Emerson called him "the Shakespeare of the sailor & the poor"). So in spite of Whitman's acknowledgment of "theatricals in literature" and his memory of the leading authors, poets, editors, and other important cultural figures of the times in the audiences, theater of this period can also seem unliterary. Theater was social in a sense that disappeared by the end of the century. The ability of the public to applaud at any time, to holler, and to throw fruits and nuts was regarded as a "right" not to be infringed. As theater riots in the first half of the nineteenth century attest, audiences felt licensed to give or withhold consent to a performance; such theater required charismatic performers more than subtle texts. For Whitman, the actors Junius Booth and Edwin Forrest were foremost among the "dramatic artists" of his youth (Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, pp. 1185192).
The playwrights of the mid-nineteenth centuryobert Montgomery Bird (1806854), Nathaniel Parker Willis, George Henry Boker, Anna Cora Mowatt, George Aiken, Augustin Daly, Dion Boucicault, and many othersre virtually unread in the early twenty-first century. As a drama critic for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1847, even Whitman derided the drama of his day in an article titled "Miserable State of the Stagehy Can't We Have Something Worth the Name of American Drama!" (Gathering of the Forces, pp. 31014). He complained of the vulgarity of audiences, the problems of a "starring system" of dominant actors, the timidity of American authors who produced derivative versions of English and French dramas, and the New York press who were "slaves of the paid puff system." Yet the drama and theater of the time are socially, politically, and at times aesthetically significant. Between 1820 and 1870 hundreds of Americans wrote plays for public and private (parlor) performances, and many more of all classes attended them. In The Guide to the Stage, a handbook for would-be actors first published in 1827, Leman T. Rede lists well over eighty permanent theaters scattered across America, not to mention the churches, steamboats, and homes in which plays were also performed.
However, dramatists commonly complained that it was impossible to make a living writing plays. Before new copyright protection pushed by Bird, Boker, and Boucicault passed Congress in 1856, no law protected the staging of any play. Moreover, a manager could translate or adapt a first-rate French or British comedy and be assured of success. An original piece by an American, on the other hand, could cost ten times the price of a translation. So most plays produced in America were translations of French and German texts or British plays. The sentimental domestic plays and spectacular, heroic dramas of the German August von Kotzebue (1761819) were among the most popular works on the American stage. The operas of the Italians Gioacchino Rossini (1792868) and Vincenzo Bellini (1801835) were also immensely popular. Ironically, one of the most successful Americans writing for the theater in this period was a Louisiana-born Creole of color, Victor Séjour (1817874), who expatriated himself to Paris where his acclaimed dramas, such as Diégarias (1844) and La tireuse de cartes (1859) were performed at the Théâtre Français and the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin respectively. The latter, based upon the recent kidnapping of a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, by the Vatican, was performed before an audience that included the emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie and generated considerable controversy in the Catholic press throughout Europe.
On the other hand, the Irish-born Dion Boucicault (1820890) adapted the plot of a French play, Les pauvres de Paris (1856), to create The Poor of New York (1857), which then became The Poor of Liverpool, The Poor of Leeds, The Poor of Manchester, The Streets of Islington, and The Streets of London. The originality of the plot was less important than the new standard Boucicault set for sensationalism, lighting a house on fire in the last act and bringing a real fire truck on stage to put it out. Perhaps Boucicault's most famous and controversial "American" play, The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana (1859), like Séjour's Diégarias, which is about Christians and Jews, depicts the tragic fate of a child of a racially mixed union. Boucicault's drama seeks to capture "local color" of a southern plantation while also employing a variety of racial, ethnic, and class stereotypes. Like all of Boucicault's plays, The Octoroon, aims at a mass audience and so takes an ambiguous position on the issue of slavery. The central female character, the beautiful "tragic mulatta," Zoe, is the child of a white plantation owner and his slave mistress. Like numerous novels and plays of the period concerned with miscegenation, The Octoroon presents a highly sympathetic heroine who is compelled to die rather than consummate a love that transgresses racial barriers.
In addition to probing the limits of racial identity, the drama proved to be a richly transnational commodity in the nineteenth century, one in and through which national identity might be both insisted on and questioned. Bird's 1834 play The Broker of Bogota exhibits the ambivalence of a society (urban, capitalist, American) in conflict with inherited forms of art, courtship, and of economy, but the play is set in New Grenada. South America is a space in which the concerns of nineteenth-century Americans are recognizable but defamiliarized. For Bird, as for President James Monroe in 1823, South America is a space always geographically continuous and politically aligned with the United States. Bird, who set numerous works south of the border, was not alone in having a deep interest in the Spanish colonies. One of the most popular plays of the 1820s was Kotzebue's Pizarro in Peru, and many other plays with noticeably American themes, including speeches about democracy and opposition to kings, were set in Europe (ancient and modern). Popular British and French novels were also a rich mine for theatrical productions. The works of Sir Walter Scott, the elder Alexandre Dumas, and Charles Dickens were quickly adapted to the stage, but so were many American works (often before they were finished being serialized), such as "Rip Van Winkle" and Uncle Tom's Cabin.
SHAKESPEARE AND BLACKFACE MINSTRELSY
By far the most popular playwright in America of this period was Shakespeare. Richard III was the most commonly performed of Shakespeare's plays in the nineteenth century and was lampooned frequently in such versions as Bad Dicky. The tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello went through countless productions, adaptations, and parodies (as can be seen in Twain's Huckleberry Finn), not to mention provoking a wide range of pseudo-Elizabethan verse tragedies, culminating in the Shakespearean scenes and characters of Melville's Moby-Dick. Contributing to Shakespeare's popularity was the flow of great British actors to North America. In 1846 Charles Kean brought his visually elaborate, historically "accurate" King John, Henry VIII, and Richard III to New York. King John alone cost an extraordinary $12,000 to stage and set a new standard for spectacular stagings in America (Odell 5:252). Edmund Kean, Junius Brutus Booth, Charles Kemble, Fanny Kemble, and William Charles Macready all had significant tours in the United States and some stayed. Junius Booth's sons Edmund and John Wilkes Booth were both actors whose names live on, the former becoming the greatest Hamlet of the nineteenth century and the latter assassinating President Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theater during a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin.
As Lawrence Levine has shown, Shakespeare was popular entertainment in nineteenth-century America, when an entire evening generally consisted of a long play, an afterpiece (usually a farce), and a variety of between-act specialties (p. 21). Shakespeare was presented with and in the same spirit as magicians, dancers, singers, acrobats, minstrels, and comics. And Shakespeare parodies, such as Julius Sneezer, Hamlet and Egglet, and Much Ado about a Merchant of Venice, frequently took the form of short skits and satirical songs performed by minstrels, white actors in blackface.
The relationship between American performances of Shakespeare and minstrelsy also indicates a central problem of theatrical practice in America, an underlying anxiety about the originality of American culture. Theater in America drew upon Old World dramatic models, most notably the plays of Shakespeare, while also acknowledging the importance of slavery and race in the New, specifically in complicated appropriations of African American music and dance by white actors in blackface. The origins of such racial representations do not reside solely with whites or blacks but in relationships between the two, and the fact that Shakespeare and minstrels occupied the same stages indicates the cultural melting pot that the mid-century stage had become. African Americans, however, did not perform in theaters for whites in this period, with the exception of productions at the short-lived but important African Grove Theater in New York founded by William Henry Brown (1808883) in 1821. The brilliant black actors James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge (who later moved to London) performed Shakespeare's Richard III there as well as Brown's Drama of King Shotaway (1823). Aldrich's influence was felt subsequently when, for instance, the African American author and abolitionist, William Wells Brown (1818884), who saw Aldrich in London, gave powerful and romantic readings of his antislavery melodrama The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom (1858). In 1823, however, the African Grove was closed by city authorities, and for most of the century blacks on stage were played or caricatured by whites.
Blackface minstrelsy originated with the white actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who began to perform his "Jim Crow" song and dance in 1830. Minstrel performances, the portrayal of generally happy slaves and supposed plantation culture through songs, farces, skits, mock oratory, and satire, became one of the most popular cultural forms of the century, preeminently in Stephen Foster's "Plantation Melodies." George Aiken's (1830876) 1852 adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the period's greatest financial success, also drew on blackface performance and, in the character of the slave girl Topsy, on minstrel humor. In the play, unlike Stowe's novel, Topsy sings and "dances a breakdown" (Richards, p. 391). Played by a white woman in burnt cork, she speaks in black dialect, "grins," and is the source of most of the play's stage business in addition to her musical bits. Like Jim Crow and the urban dandy Zip Coon, the characters of Topsy and Uncle Tom became stock figures in minstrel performances of the nineteenth century.
Representing old and new, indigenous and foreign, Shakespeare and slavery, American theater was a crucible for the young nation's most contentious issues. As Eric Lott points out, the moment of minstrelsy's greatest popularity (1846854) was also a time of bitter political controversies: labor struggles in New York and other major cities, debates over the extension of slavery, the Seneca Falls women's rights convention, and the Astor Place theater riot. In short, minstrelsy and Shakespeare spoke to aspirations and anxieties of the working-class public in the urban Northeast in the years between 1830 and 1850, especially in the large playhouses in the Bowery district of lower Manhattan.
THE ASTOR PLACE RIOT, THE BOWERY AUDIENCE, AND EDWIN FORREST
No single event reflected more deeply the complexity of the American public's relationship to topics of class and national identity than the Astor Place riot in 1849. Rival productions of Macbeth were being staged, one at the Astor Place Opera House featuring the Englishman William Charles Macready, known for his cerebral acting style, aristocratic demeanor, and allegedly anti-American comments; and one at the Broadway Theatre, featuring America's own flamboyantly patriotic Edwin Forrest. The venues themselves were weighted with ideological significance. The architecture and interior design of the two theaters reflected important class as well as artistic differences. The Astor Place, which had opened only two years earlier, was one of the most fashionable theaters in the city. It was capable of seating eighteen hundred people in the pit, dress circle, family circle, and gallery. The Broadway Theatre, on the other hand, could accommodate forty-five hundred people and had an immense pit to which only men and boys were admitted. Macready's second performance at the Astor Place Opera House (the first had been abortive) was disrupted by a large crowd of blue-collar workingmen, loafers, and "Bowery b'hoys," many allegedly supporters of Forrest. The Astor Place riot climaxed as the militia fired into a crowd that had thrown paving stones at the theater. More than twenty died, and over one hundred were injured. Aspects of the Astor Place riot inform Melville's (1819891) novels White-Jacket and Moby-Dick, both of which Melville wrote later that year. In White-Jacket, theatricals are actually staged on deck by the crew, and a riot ensues.
Edwin Forrest (1806872), generally considered the first great tragedian of the American stage, was not only a popular favorite in the United States among the working people but also was himself deeply patriotic and frequently made extravagant expressions of love for the American people. Unlike
The comic actor and pantomimist George Lafayette Fox (1825877) also appealed to male audiences of the Bowery, and his performances were considered to be among the greatest of his time. Unlike the performances of Forrest, Fox's generally were not interpretations of scripts. Earlier in the nineteenth century, theaters had featured spectacular pantomimes and acrobatics generally as afterpieces to more serious productions. However, in the 1830s, the Ravels, a highly acclaimed troupe of pantomimists, arrived from France to revolutionize pantomime in America, transforming it into a popular form of entertainment in its own right. In 1850 Fox, whose early roles included phrenological lecturer, hypnotist, and a proliferation of comic Irishmen, made his way to the Bowery theaters, which were gradually becoming more proletarian as the Broadway venues were becoming increasingly upscale. According to Laurence Senelick, Fox's greatest success and most lasting fame came as Humpty Dumpty. Supposed by many to be the funniest man of his day, his violent physical humor represented the brutal street life of the Bowery. His face painted with a white lead makeup that later led to his insanity and death, Fox's staging of the pantomime Humpty Dumpty at the Olympic Theatre in 1867 especially excited its audience by familiar representations of the neighborhood; the scenes included the new, as yet unfinished, courthouse in City Hall Park and even a view of the Olympic Theatre itself by night. The blend of topical humor, patriotism (the orchestra playing "Independence Day Has Come" and an old-fashioned Yankee dance, among other things), spectacular scenery, violent slapstick comedy, and ballet ensured the play's success. As Senelick remarks, "Thus was the English harlequinade assimilated to the mores of Boss Tweed's New York" (p. 141).
WOMEN OF THE AMERICAN THEATER
If Forrest and Fox sought through their acting styles and choice of plays to portray America through an overdetermined masculine ethos, there were also important women performing and writing American plays. Charlotte Cushman (1816876), who had originally trained as an opera singer, was generally regarded as the first great tragic actress of the American stage, often playing opposite Forrest. Cushman was well known for roles ranging from Lady Macbeth to a cross-dressed Romeo and other male parts. A different kind of actress, the sensationalistic Adah Isaacs Menken (1835869) was internationally famous for her starring role in the equestrian melodrama Mazeppa, which she first performed in 1861. Menken was stripped onstage to a flesh-colored body stocking, lashed to the back of the "wild horse of Tartary," and sent flying up a narrow ramp to the peak of a papier-mâché mountain. Mark Twain (1835910), a young newspaper reporter in the audience at one of those performances, later described how "the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens like a vast spray of gas-jets" (p. 153). One of the most glamorous celebrities of the 1860s, Menken also wrote poetry and cultivated a literary following, befriending Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Algernon Swinburne, and the elder Alexandre Dumas, with whom she was rumored to have had an affair.
Most "respectable" women stayed away from the theater in the first half of the nineteenth century, unless escorted by men. Anna Cora Mowatt (1819870), who was born in France to a wealthy family, first attended the theater in 1831 when she saw the great English actress Fanny Kemble touring the United States. Like many young women of her class, Mowatt wrote and performed plays for her family. Private theatricals increased in popularity over the next few decades. The March family in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868869) entertain themselves at home with an Operatic Tragedy, and many such plays were published, one example being a collection titled Amateur Theatricals and Fairy-Tale Dramas: A Collection of Original Plays, Expressly Designed for Drawing-Room Performance (1868) by Sarah Annie Frost. As Karen Halttunen has written: "Nowhere was the new direction of middle-class culture more evident than in the vogue of private theatricals that swept the parlors of America in the 1850s and 1860s. But this cultural transformation was already underway by 1845, when middle-class audiences began to gather at the Park Theatre to enjoy an evening of laughing at themselves and at each other for their increasingly fashionable social lives" (p. 153). In 1841, when her husband was financially ruined and became almost completely blind, Mowatt was convinced to read Shakespeare in public for money. She wrote and produced her most enduring work in 1845, Fashion, a comedy of manners and satire of the nouveau riche Tiffany family in New York, which also presented
Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, went veiled, and with her book agent as guardian, to see a performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The theater was regarded as a dangerous place of seduction for women and men alike, and, in the minds of many, there was a relationship between the profession of the actress and that of the prostitute. It was, therefore, especially remarkable when Mowatt herself later turned to acting and became for nearly a decade one of America's foremost and highly respected actresses.
Between 1850 and 1870 new museum theaters built in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia cultivated an aura of "respectable" theatergoing. In particular they aimed to attract women and children with plays designed to inform and instruct. As Bruce McConachie writes, the American Museum of P. T. Barnum in New York and the Boston Museum of Moses Kimball appealed to the middle class, banning liquor and prostitution and presenting plays in lecture halls that eliminated the hierarchical arrangement of the pit, boxes, and gallery (pp. 16276). The moral dramas performed in these venues ranged from temperance plays, such as William H. Smith's wildly popular melodrama The Drunkard (1844) to the abolitionist vehicle Uncle Tom's Cabin, both of which Barnum first produced. In his memoir A Small Boy and Others, Henry James (1843916) reflects on the excitement he experienced at Barnum's museum in New York, where he watched an early production of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1853. The pleasant boyhood memories include the deep aromas of peppermint and orange peel and the crowded hall in which lights were now dimmed.
MELODRAMA AND AMERICAN LITERATURE
Most dramatic literature written before 1870, from romantic "tragedy" to moral reform drama to nationalistic comedy, has some marks of what in the early twenty-first century is thought of as melodrama, a dramatic form imported from postrevolutionary France. Peter Brooks has argued that melodrama be understood in the context of the collapse of a hierarchically cohesive society, the liquidation of the traditional sacred in France (p. 15). In the world of melodrama, traditional truths have been thrown into question and thus become personalized. Many American plays are concerned with the failure of the visible world to reflect a predictable and stable "reality." The problem of trust or the ability to know others, which resonates throughout Boker's Francesca da Rimini and Bird's Broker of Bogota, finds its fullest expression in Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Melville makes use of theatrical forms, from highly ostentatious Shakespearean acting to blackface, to represent the social and economic uncertainties of his market-driven age. Central chapters of Moby-Dick are written in dramatic form, with dialogue and stage directions, and the nature of Ahab's dramatic excess is better understood when read in the context of contemporary acting and writing for the stage.
The hyperbolic rhetoric of melodrama indicates not only the tenuous relationship between appearance and reality but also the inadequacy of language itself to express emotional or moral truths. Melodrama privileges stage effect, grand gesture, powerful vocal utterance, and scenic display over text and, consequently, over the psychological coherence of character. As David Grimsted notes, melodrama "made light of rationality" and replaced it with "a concept of feeling or intuition" (p. 20). In Stone's Metamora tears and sighs "speak more than language could relate." This kind of theater was not so much antiliterary as it was at odds with traditional literary forms. The authors of the nineteenth century, though often ambivalent about contemporary audiences and plays, recognized in the popular theater their own chaotic world and often saw their world as theater. Whitman's close friendships with actors (he felt "almost one of their kind") and his passionate love of theater culminated in his appreciation of the great Shakespearean actor Junius Booth. Booth's "genius was to me one of the grandest revelations of my life, a lesson of artistic expression," he wrote. Nearly every American author of the nineteenth century thought deeply about theater and represented aspects of it in other literary forms. American theater was a barometer of the culture's concerns and a microcosm of American democracy.
See also Circuses and Spectacles; Cross-Dressing; English Literature; Humor; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody; Sensational Fiction; Taste; Uncle Tom's Cabin
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