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  • Performing Remediation:The Minstrel, The Camera, and The Octoroon
  • Adam Sonstegard

On the eve of the first conflict America would wage in part with photographic images, the first actor to play a photographer debuted on the American stage. He took his place alongside the antebellum era's minstrels, Shakespearian actors, and imitators of Jenny Lind, and enticed the play's other characters to pose for their portraits. His camera recorded one character's murder of a character in blackface; his apparatus got smashed to pieces by a character dressed as an Indian brave; and a photograph, found within his apparatus, came to "prove" the murderer's guilt. With the opening of Dion Boucicault's drama The Octoroon at New York City's Winter Garden Theater in December 1859, photography made a remarkable American theatrical debut.

During that debut, one medium, a stage performance, including minstrelsy and playing out before an audience, participated in constructing another medium, photography. As the play dramatized it, photography could ascertain the identities of individuals otherwise understood to be ambiguous, as both guilty and innocent, black as well as white, one of "us" and yet one of "them." Photography could help establish some of these identities, like tragic mulattos, as essential and biological; and other identities, like blackface minstrels, as superficial and performative. It could document the performance of criminal acts, subsequently identify or incriminate the performers of those acts, and establish "the truth" behind the criminals' false claims or pretenses. The Octoroon included photography as a dimension of theatrical illusion, as it made photography coextensive with the conventions of minstrel performance, and had it accord with the identities that players assumed onstage as theatrical roles. And yet the play understood photography to dispel illusions, as it constructed photography's capacity to expose facts beyond staged performances, and relied on its supposed ability to reveal criminals' "true" selves, beyond their assumed identities. Photography could form a part of this [End Page 375] staged performance, and yet reveal "truths" that lay beyond the merely apparent and consciously performed.

The Octoroon in fact explores what aspects of photography can and cannot be staged, and in turn, what aspects of the stage can and cannot be photographed. This drama and its audiences thereby bring about a fascinating moment in the unfolding history of the representation of evidence and "truth" in these two representational media. One can use such a moment to judge the capacity of a new, developing medium to produce and circulate truths, relative to the capacity of an older medium to present and maintain them. One can understand such a moment as an instance of what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have termed "remediation," "the representation of one medium in another." The Octoroon constitutes one of the earliest instances of remediating photography, representing it, as a medium, within the already established media of stage performance and minstrel comedy. "Our culture conceives of each medium or constellation of media as it responds to, redeploys, competes with, and reforms other media," explain Bolton and Grusin, who are, in their words, "offering a genealogy of affiliations, not a linear history, and in this genealogy, older media can also remediate newer ones."1 The drama in these respects pits the performed pretenses of the stage, with its conventions of minstrel comedy, against photography, with its claims to naturalized, authenticated truth. The media compete as one represents the other, with theater testing photography's capacities and claims, relative to its own. The Octoroon even has the remediated medium resolve the dramatic conflict of the play, "proving" the murderer's guilt, which the primary, performative media cannot resolve by itself. In this play, then, theatrical performance looks to the "truths" photography can establish, beyond what theatrical performance can.

Noted by theater historians but omitted from critical histories of American photography,2 taken up by performance theorists, but neglected in theories of visuality,3 The Octoroon "stages" and performs one of photography's first remediations in American theatrical history. As such, it portends the eventual ascendance of mechanical media, such as photography, over performative media, such as theater and minstrelsy. It anticipates audiences who will come to prefer photography's and cinematography's...


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