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  • Performing Patriotism: National Identity in the Colonial and Revolutionary American Theater
  • Kenneth Cohen (bio)
Performing Patriotism: National Identity in the Colonial and Revolutionary American Theater. By Jason Shaffer. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. 230. Cloth, $45.00.)

Over the last decade, historians such as Simon Newman, Len Travers, and David Waldstreicher have reconfigured our vision of early American [End Page 500] political culture by exploring the festive roots of American national identity. At the same time, scholars of early American theater have directed their attention toward similar inquiries. Unfortunately, intellectual exchange between the two fields has been uneven. While scholars of early American drama incorporate the historiography of political culture into their work, historians interested in political “street theater” largely neglect its relationship to formal theater.

Jason Shaffer’s Performing Patriotism continues this trend, applying the extensive literature on republicanism to explain the “American identities” forged on stages during the Imperial Crisis and Revolutionary War (10). Performing Patriotism identifies stock republican characters and narratives at the heart of a politically minded theater in the British mainland colonies. The popular plays Shaffer inspects feature “tyrants,” their “sacrificial victims,” and their “patriot” foes locked in a violent struggle that culminates in civic renewal: Either the tyrant is overthrown by a patriot or a martyred patriot inspires mobilization to dethrone him.

But Shaffer does more than merely illustrate how republicanism played out on the stage. He rightly complicates his texts by emphasizing their pliability. “One man’s tyrant is another man’s patriot,” Shaffer points out, and he argues that characters and narratives were contested and appropriated in contradictory ways within a versatile rubric of republican “patriotism” (26). Drawing on period commentary, altered scripts, and relatively unstudied “occasional prologues” written to relate a performance to its local audience, Shaffer shows how Tories and Whigs each laid claim to patriotic heroes and associated the other with despotic villains. More significantly, his approach also uncovers ambiguities that challenge standard interpretations of which characters are patriots and which are tyrants. For example, the title character in Joseph Addison’s Cato served Whigs as an example of self-sacrifice in the face of a tyrannical Caesar. Tories, of course, identified the power-hungry Caesar—not Cato—with the Whig cause. But Shaffer also shows moderates and conservatives referring to Cato as a deranged Whig demagogue, contesting the playwright’s attempt to fashion his protagonist as a hero.

Using prologues and secondary sources, Shaffer also goes beyond textual analysis to map the performance of specific plays onto local political contexts. This second analytic thrust seeks to explain why amateur and professional performers chose particular plays and interpretations, and underscores the theater’s value to political historians as a reflection of local political climates.

Shaffer’s two-pronged commitment to explicating both competing [End Page 501] interpretations and the selection of plays deepens his interpretation, both to its benefit and its detriment. On one hand, the approach allows Shaffer to note persistently contested readings without suggesting that Tory and Revolutionary outlooks carried equal weight. For instance, the colonies’ leading theater troupe returned to conservative plays when radical New Yorkers abandoned the theater in the wake of the Townshend Act, but they drifted toward more Whiggish productions as Charleston’s population rallied to the resistance movement without abandoning the playhouse during the 1773–74 theater season. On the other hand, Shaffer still posits an ultimate and predictable replacement of British patriots opposed to French tyrants with American patriots opposed to British tyranny. So, in spite of contested readings, colonial Americans increasingly “used British culture against itself ” to define themselves in opposition to Britain, even as their definition continued to proclaim an ideological (republican) and cultural (theatrical) heritage shared with their political oppressors (7).

In order to show an emerging “American” identity both derivative and opposed to “British” identity, Shaffer must downplay the contested nature of characters and plays as the book progresses. He mentions but does not propose multiple or competing American identities, so continued contested interpretations would only minimize and detract from the valence of the flowering “American” identity he describes. Indeed, after a richly ambiguous analysis of Cato in an early chapter, Shaffer’s...


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pp. 500-503
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