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American Literary History 14.1 (2002) 149-159

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Performing Culture

Mary Chapman

Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture By William J. Mahar University of Illinois Press, 1999
Sentiment and Celebrity: Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame By Thomas Baker Oxford University Press, 1999
Oscar Wilde's America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age By Mary Warner Blanchard Yale University Press, 1998

To students of nineteenth-century American culture, the 1849 Astor Place Riot has come to be understood as a flash point in the history of class feeling in the US. When Bowery b'hoys hurled eggs, lemons, potatoes, apples, and later chairs at the aristocratic British tragedian William Macready, who was performing Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House, these working-class New Yorkers were protesting what they perceived as the foreclosure of the long-promised but never achieved egalitarianism of the American social body.

Taking place in a theater, and prompted by long-standing enmity between American-born rough-and-ready actor Edwin Forrest and his higher-class British rival Macready, the riot is also a revealing example of how theater can be considered a governing metaphor for the emerging cultures of identity in nineteenth-century America. For an innocent bystander, it was probably quite difficult to determine the true spectacle: Macready's heroic attempt to perform Macbeth while being pelted in the face by rotting fruit, or the audience's performance of their own identities by hissing at what they perceived as an affront to their national, class, and gender identities? Each was engaged in social performance: while Macready, according to his detractors, epitomized a "prancing" British acting style that Americans associated with pretension, effeminacy, decadence, and anti-Yankee snobbery, the Bowery b'hoys modeled what had come to be recognized as the signature qualities of Jacksonian American manhood--sincerity, patriotism, commitment to American opportunity, and "four-square virtue" (Baker 111). And, as historian Peter Buckley has claimed, their participation in this spectacle effected a metamorphosis, transforming them from a mob into a class (20).

Analyses of this particular event and other aspects of nineteenth-century popular culture--from minstrel shows, parlor plays, tableaux vivants, etc., to self-styled celebrity to the presentation of cultural and national identities--as "performance" have been made possible in part by interplay between the discipline of "performance studies" and poststructural theories of identity as performative in the last decade. In the late 1970s, anthropologist [End Page 149] Victor Turner and theater professor Richard Schechner began collaborating, taking note of the persistent theatricality in human culture--not only in drama, dance, and vocal performances, but also in rituals, pageants, parades, storytelling, sporting events, and everyday life. 1 In addition to dismantling the boundaries between "high" and "low" forms of performance, performance studies has fruitfully deconstructed the proscenium-induced divide between audience and performer by examining what Schechner calls the "feedback loop" (37): how an audience's behavior of class, race, sexuality, gender, and nationality is inspired by the behavior it observes onstage, which in turn has been informed by "performances" actors witness in everyday life. It is easy to imagine how this approach might productively apply assertions, initiated in the late 1980s by theorists such as Judith Butler, that identity categories such as gender, race, and class are performed rather than essential.

Efforts to combine the anthropological detail--the "thick description"--encouraged in performance studies with the theoretical musings about how somatic categories of identity are constituted are apparent in three recently published books that examine the centrality of theatricality in nineteenth-century American popular culture: William J. Mahar's Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture, Thomas Baker's Sentiment and Celebrity: Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame, and Mary Warner Blanchard's Oscar Wilde's America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age. Whether they locate this theatricality in the literal theatrical spaces of urban theaters, the metaphorical theatrical space of public life, or the hybrid space of the parlor whose residents frequently performed--both literally and metaphorically--for their guests...


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