- Drama, Theatre, and Identity in the American New Republic
In the introduction to his compelling new work, Drama, Theatre, and Identity in the American New Republic, Jeffrey H. Richards notes that "with the exception of Royall Tyler's The Contrast, relatively little has been said in detail about the particular plays and performances that graced—or disgraced—the stages and pages of American theatre . . . in the early republic" (1). Richards's book proposes to address this long-standing gap in scholarship, and does so in a way that historians of early American history, American literature, and American theatre will find invaluable.
As Richards observes, scholars have paid considerable attention to Tyler's 1787 comedy The Contrast in a bid to claim a uniquely "American" identity for theatre in the post-Revolutionary period. For many, the paucity of American plays in the early Republican era underscored the need to discover native geniuses and new voices. Richards's study proposes to leave the search for "American-ness" behind, focusing instead on how the concept of "identity" itself shaped what Americans saw both inside and outside the playhouse. Rather than struggling to distinguish the "American" from the "non-American" aspects of the postwar theatre, Richards undertakes an investigation of popular plays and performances that can help scholars unlock the complex process of identity formation in both a larger transatlantic context, as well as a narrowly local one. Richards states, "What I entertain in these pages is the interpretive problem of how to read plays and performances in terms of a world where identity is volatile and where the oppositions that create identity themselves often shift or mushroom or wither in a relatively short time" (7).
The book is divided into three parts, each of which examines a different aspect of identity formation in the playhouse. Richards also incorporates a discussion of the popular literature and travel narratives of the period, adding both depth and breadth to his study.
In Part I, "Staging Revolution on the Margins of Celebration," Richards maps a broad cultural history for the "staging" of new identities in [End Page 505] the young nation. Part I is divided into six short chapters. Chapters 3 and 4 work particularly well together: one explores how British authors created "American" texts, while the other investigates how difficult it was for American authors to develop a dramatic form that diverged from British models. In Chapter 3, Richards investigates the popular comic opera, The Poor Soldier, which in the 1790s became fodder for Federalist/Republican debates because of its French character Bagatelle, and later became a mainstay at the short-lived African Grove Theatre in the 1820s. Richards questions how a play about an Irish soldier returning to his native village could be accepted by so many diverse American audiences, all of whom seemed to "recognize" themselves in the work. Chapter 4 examines Judith Sargent Murray's The Traveler Returned, a play which Richards argues is essentially a warmed-over version of Richard Cumberland's The West Indian. If Murray eliminates "bawdiness . . . for the affirmation of ideological themes linked to Revolutionary stoicism and republican virtues," her "American" ventriloquism does not wholly conceal that the puppet and its master are of British origin (101).
In Part II, "Coloring Ideas: Race, Religion, and the Exotic," Richards studies the complex process of synthesizing identity in a nation already fractured along lines of racial and ethnic tensions. Part II includes four chapters that explore Muslim, Native American, Irish, and African American identity on the national stage. Each uncovers a genealogy of stereotypes, linking the four characters listed above to their transatlantic ancestors. For example, Richards traces Susanna Haswell Rowson's Muslim characters in Slaves in Algiers back to their French and British sources (most notably Voltaire's tragedy Zaire, adapted for the British stage as Zara). Yet he also demonstrates how Rowson "Americanized" her Muslim villain—making Muley Moloc an example of tyranny that "must be combated through a rigorous assertion of virtue" (165). Similarly, Richards exposes James Nelson...