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Pioneer Performances: Staging the Frontier (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 560-562 | 10.1353/cdr.2012.0045

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A commonly held idea about theater in the United States is that it somewhat miraculously emerged fully formed in the twentieth century with the arrival of works by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, among others. All that had come before was merely prologue. A similar idea holds in the popular imagination regarding westward expansion, that only after the frontier had ostensibly ceased to exist at the end of the nineteenth century did the United States fully emerge as a modern entity. While it may be said that each of these overgeneralizations is informed by certain elements of truth, they both have long served to obscure or render irrelevant the many complexities and complications of cultural history in what was in fact a radically transformative century. Both the history of nineteenth-century American theater and the history of nineteenth-century American expansionism are best understood as processes and events marked by often contradictory engagements with dominant ideologies. And in the contradictions, according to Matthew Rebhorn, may be found the keys to appreciating cultural history not as a single path toward inevitability but rather as a constant and vexed negotiation between differently empowered entities. Tracking the performance and reception histories of a variety of widely popular and highly influential theatrical events—including Edwin Forrest’s career-defining performance as the title character in Metamora; the long-standing influence of James Kirke Paulding’s The Lion of the West; the connection between blackface minstrelsy and clichés about the frontier; and frontier-themed works by Dion Boucicault, Joaquin Miller, and Augustin Daly—Rebhorn’s Pioneer Performance offers a much-needed analysis of how the twin paths of frontier and theatrical history intersected over the course of the nineteenth century. Overall, this book makes it abundantly clear that far from being a mere prologue to the twentieth century, theatrical productions in the United States prior to 1900 that focused on the so-called frontier proved vital to the interrogation and articulation of ideas about identity based on race, gender, and nation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will mention that in 2006 I edited a special issue of this journal in which I included an essay by Matthew Rebhorn about the vocal innovations that defined Edwin Forrest’s performances of an Indian chief in Metamora.1 Now expanded and further developed as the opening chapter of Pioneer Performances, Rebhorn’s explication of Forrest’s challenge to classical, prevailing forms of vocal performance very nicely establishes the grounds upon which to read performances of the frontier as something other than mere reiterations of dominant ideology. Of particular note in this regard is the elegantly simple but frequently overlooked idea that attention to the material evidence of actual performance would almost certainly affect how one reads the extant text of a play. Responding to critics who have read the text with which Forrest worked as a fairly unambiguous endorsement of expansionist ideology, Rebhorn avers that “[b]y exploring the way Forrest constructed his ‘savage’ voice, we see that in performance the play had a much more qualified and resistant relationship to the juggernaut of American imperialism” (28). In short, Rebhorn argues persuasively that Forrest deserves credit for radically reconfiguring through his theatrical presentation of a Native American that which may be called a quintessentially American voice.

Equally compelling is Rebhorn’s argument that the foundational precepts of both frontier rhetoric and melodramatic form are subjected to scrutiny and criticism in the blackface minstrelsy of T. D. Rice’s farce The Virginia Mummy. Tracing a series of comparisons between Rice’s performances and those called for by the text of the widely popular Lion of the West, which tells the tale of a prototypically Davy Crockett-like frontiersman’s triumphs over elite society, Rebhorn suggests a tantalizing redefinition of nineteenth-century melodrama that emphasizes the political engagement common to both racial satire and the earnest performance of frontier heroism. Another chapter, a comparison of representative postbellum works by Joaquin Miller and Augustin Daly, picks up the thread of ideological challenge embedded within the framework of mainstream popular entertainment by suggesting that in the post-Civil War period, representations of the...

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