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  • Wartime CollaborationTheatrical Space and Power in Conquered Los Angeles
  • Andrew Gibb (bio)

In April and May of 1855, a San Francisco weekly, The Golden Era, printed a three-part serial entitled “The Drama on the Pacific: First Theatricals in California,” providing future theatre scholars with the first published history of theatre in the Golden State.1 That journalistic chronicle contains a description of the first recorded theatrical production in what is now the city of Los Angeles: a series of performances mounted during the occupation of that city by US soldiers near the end of the US-Mexico War of 1846–48.2 For the theatre historian, J. E. Lawrence’s account is maddeningly uneven—by turns painstaking and imprecise, chauvinistic and culturally aware, and frequently contradictory. But if the text is closely read through the context of subsequent scholarship on nineteenth-century Californio (Mexican Californian) society, a remarkable tale emerges from the confusion: one of power, class, resistance, and collaboration (in both the theatrical and wartime senses). Bringing this story to light requires challenging the assumptions about theatrical space that lie at the heart of Lawrence’s account. That this should prove necessary serves as a reminder to theatre historians that spaces of performance are not only a reflection of how a given culture defines performance, but also of how it perceives power.

Lawrence’s serialized history begins with the assertion that “theatrical representation in California commenced with the first unfurling of the American Flag on the Western border of our Continent,” a statement revealing an unabashed Anglo-centric bias. And yet, Lawrence’s nationalist fervor led the author to extensively document the theatrical activities of the US soldiers who came to California during the US-Mexico War, inadvertently contributing to the history of theatre in Los Angeles.3 [End Page 64]

In the second installment, Lawrence tells of an entire theatrical season offered in Los Angeles by the soldier-actors of a unit known as the New York Volunteers, beginning in June of 1848 and lasting until September of that year. In a three-hundred-seat theatre apparently built for the occasion, the Volunteers gave performances of The Golden Farmer, The Idiot Witness, Bombastes Furioso, and “several more dramas and farces,” together with The Marble Statue and “other pantomimes.” Lawrence goes on to identify eleven “members of the Thespian corps” by name, and details the warm reception the Volunteers received from the populace of occupied Los Angeles.4 Given Lawrence’s patriotic tone, these details paint a picture of industrious and talented New York boys, sharing the theatrical blessings of liberty with the art-starved inhabitants of “a distant and almost unknown dependency of a semi-barbarous Mexico,” and in so doing winning the hearts and minds of the locals.5

In the very next installment of the history, however, appearing only two weeks later, this tale of Los Angeles theatrical genesis is revised. Lawrence admits to “performances in Spanish which preceded the advent of the Volunteers,” productions that “alternated” with those of the Volunteers, once they arrived. These plays were apparently mounted in a theatre that “cost between five and six thousand dollars,” a structure financed by “a gentleman from Mexico.”6 In order to incorporate this new information, the narrative must expand from a tale of magnanimous victors proffering the gift of art to a story of a bicultural rotating repertoire, or maybe even a multicultural theatre district.

In either of those scenarios, the story of the first theatrical performance in Los Angeles appears to demonstrate the power of art as an intercultural bridge, even when the cultures in question are separated by the great gulf of war. Theatre may indeed have that power, and a bridging of Anglo American and Mexican Californian cultures may well have been at work with these productions. However, the contradictions apparent in Lawrence’s two accounts, particularly as they involve the performance space, suggest that the shows reflected a more ambiguous reality: one of the powerful forces engaged in the complex intercultural negotiation of California’s future. In short, the performances spatially represented a microcosm of events playing out beyond the theatre’s walls.

Precisely locating these wartime productions...


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pp. 64-75
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