James Nelson Barker Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

James Nelson Barker must be considered a significant influence in the history of American drama because of his use of native material, together with his lifelong advocacy of a native American theater. His most creative period, from 1808 to 1824, coincided with a growing sense of U.S. literary nationalism, that sentiment by which American authors sought to produce a native literature that reflected the nation’s character, customs, manners, and ideals. The forceful preface to his Tears and Smiles, for example, condemns the reverent attitude of American critics toward European standards. Denouncing these reviewers as “mental colonists,” intellectually submissive to British opinion, Barker calls for a sort of declaration of literary independence, a repudiation of foreign models and an embracing of national cultural material.

Tears and Smiles

Barker’s earliest play, Tears and Smiles, succeeds on two counts. It is, first, a quickly moving, sprightly work, filled with the youthful exuberance of an author in his early twenties. Exuberance, indeed, is a crucial ingredient, for the recipe of plot and character is otherwise spoiled by convention and claptrap. Second, the piece has some genuine historical value as an early example of the portrayal of the stage Yankee, here named Nathan Yank.

Influenced by Tyler’s The Contrast, Tears and Smiles relies on traditional elements of melodrama. Louisa Campdon, the heroine, has been promised by her father to the delicate dandy, Mr. Fluttermore, whose very name is suggestive of characters from Restoration drama. Louisa, however, is in love with Sydney, a young man of recognized valor but uncertain parentage who has returned from Tripoli and the wars against the Turkish pirates to reclaim her love. The Turkish allusions show how alert Barker was to literary and theatrical trends. Tyler had used the motif in his novel The Algerine Captive (1797), and the Turkish or Oriental motif had been popular in the early gothic romances; in addition, operatic composers such as Christoph Gluck, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Gioacchino Rossini (Barker’s contemporary) had staged Turkish operas.

By the end of the comedy, thanks to the intercession of characters such as General Campdon (Louisa’s uncle) and the Widow Freegrace, the lovers are united and the fop appropriately chastened. Sydney is also reunited with his long-lost parents, who have been separated for years and suffered from pirates, slavery, and family disapproval. Such characters and situations were typical of the drama of the period, and Tears and Smiles is grievously weakened as art by its heavy reliance on them.

Still, the play is worthy of attention for its lively humor and satire as Barker pokes fun at Americans’ seduction by European modes and manners. The opening scene quickly clears the ground for satire when Louisa’s uncle protests her proposed marriage to Fluttermore, who, when he left America, was a clever, honest fellow but who has returned from his travels abroad “a puppy . . . with a pale face and a hearty contempt for everything this side of the water.” Meanwhile, Barker skillfully delays Fluttermore’s entrance until near the end of act 1, when Fluttermore saunters onstage with Monsieur Galliard, a combination companion and valet. The scene is humorous, with bluff Jack Rangely, the second lead, shaking hands so cordially that he knocks the powder from Fluttermore’s wig. By giving Fluttermore “Frenchified” rather than Anglicized affectations, Barker provides a variation on the standard portrayal of the British fop and makes a topical point about French influence on American fashion and theater at the time. “I can’t conceive what you possibly do in this corner of the globe,” says Fluttermore, disparaging American manners. “No opera; no masquerade, nor fête, nor conversazione.” Later, writers from Hawthorne to Henry James would seriously lament America’s lack of European refinement, that sense of history and rich cultural precedent, a lack that they saw as a limiting force on the American imagination. Yet here, at the dawn of American literary nationalism, foppish Fluttermore’s denigration of American culture is distinctly comic.

Of special comic interest in Tears and Smiles is Nathan Yank, the first stage Yankee of the nineteenth century. Introduced in Tyler’s The Contrast, this comic figure was to be one of the most popular and enduring types on the American stage. He was generally depicted as an honest, homespun bumpkin who very often was the butt as well as the perpetrator of jokes and whose comic antics were often dramatic set pieces, independent of the main action. Actors such as Joseph Jefferson, George Handel Hill, and Joshua Silsbee made their living playing Yankee characters. “Yankee” Hill was particularly notable for delivering Yankee monologues or yarns, a device that surely must have provided comic precedent for Mark Twain.

Barker’s Nathan Yank added little to the characterization already drawn by Tyler some twenty years before. Nathan retains his predecessor’s bumptiousness, for example, and holds the same status, that of servant, but whereas Tyler’s Jonathan is boorish, he is also his own man. Jonathan shows a Puritan reliance on biblical precept as well as a practical sense of getting on in the world. His love scenes with Jenny, his social equal, prove him to be a man as well as a clown, a man of independent temperament, despite his status as servant.

In contrast, Nathan Yank never goes beyond the range of low comedian. He misdirects his master, Rangely, for example, by mistaking one house for another, and he indulges in a series of puns at the expense of Rangely’s lover. To Rangely, who does not know her name, she is his “incognita,” but Nathan henceforth refers to her as “Cognita.” Inexplicably, Barker drops Nathan from the action by act 4, and Nathan is noticeably absent at the finale in act 5.

Although Nathan’s shallow, one-dimensional buffoonery and his rather...

(The entire section is 2507 words.)