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  • Making "an Excellent Die":Death, Mourning, and Patriotism in the Propaganda Plays of the American Revolution
  • Jason Shaffer (bio)

On 20 October 1774, the Continental Congress passed a broad non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement that discouraged "every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments" (qtd. in Bryan 29). This legislative condemnation of public performance effectively ended the growth during the colonial era of a remarkably vibrant and mature professional theater.1 By February 1775, David Douglass's American Company of Comedians, the most successful theater company in colonial North America and by then the dominant professional troupe on the continent, decamped for Jamaica, where they would remain until the early 1780s. The disbanding of the professional theater, however, did not eliminate the drama, or even live theater, from North America during the Revolutionary era. As William Bradford Jr. wrote to his sister Rachel in May 1778 from Washington's encampment at Valley Forge:

[T]he camp could now afford you some entertainment. The manoeuvering of the Army itself is a sight that would charm you. —Besides these, the Theatre is opened —Last Monday Cato was performed before a very numerous and splendid audience. . . . The scenery was in Taste —& the performance admirable —Col. George did his part to admiration—he made an excellent die (as they say) —. . . If the Enemy does not retire from [Philadelphia] soon, our Theatrical Amusements will continue —. . .

I hope however we shall be disappointed in all these by the more agreeable entertainment of taking possession of [Philadelphia].

(qtd. in Ford 25–26)2 [End Page 1]

Bradford was indeed happily disappointed by the brevity of this theatrical interlude. Upon receiving news of the French alliance with the rebels, the British evacuated Philadelphia. The Continentals put off their theatricals and retook the city in June 1778 (Brown 61–62).

The army's defiance of the Congressional ban on theatrical performance —an event that celebrated the news that the French had agreed to enter the war—is a significant moment in the history of American theater. More interesting still for a historian of performance, however, is Bradford's play on the words "Amusement" and "Entertainment," a quibble that binds together dramatic spectatorship, theatrical performance, and military maneuver. Bradford brackets his account of an amateur theatrical with, as Ginger Strand notes, "acknowledgments of the much more serious theatrics at hand in the war" (Strand 5), a choice of metaphor that illustrates Jeffrey H. Richards's observation in Theater Enough that the trope of the theatrum mundi echoes throughout early American culture. Yet Bradford's definition of military maneuvers—whether in drill or in the field—as entertainment moves beyond metaphor. The "charming" entertainment that Bradford believes the sight of the army could afford his sister is due in part no doubt to the increasing field discipline developed among Washington's troops at Valley Forge by the imposition of Baron Friedrich von Steuben's new drill routine. Bradford thus reveals the inherent similarities between military maneuver and theatrical performance, each a carefully orchestrated sequence of actions made possible by extensive, repetitive rehearsal.3 Bradford's observations also highlight the importance of theatrical performance and dramatic texts in the propaganda of the Revolution —in this case, Colonel George's inspirational "excellent die" in the role of Addison's Cato, the virtuous, stoic republican who commits suicide rather than submit to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, marking with his death the end of the Roman republic.

As Jared Brown's History of the Theater in America During the Revolution documents, both the British and the American armies sustained their spirits throughout the American Revolution by performing plays. Indeed, Terence M. Freeman avers that the tradition of amateur theatricals was so important to the British armed forces that strong performances could lead to preferment (34). On the American side,Washington's troops at Valley Forge opted at the end of their bitter winter's encampment to entertain themselves with a performance of Addison's Cato. This play became enmeshed [End Page 2] (despite, it seems, its author's intentions) in the partisan...


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