- Performing Patriotism: National Identity in the Colonial and Revolutionary American Theater
Jason Shaffer’s subject in Performing Patriotism is professional and amateur theatre, print culture, and para-theatrical activity in North America before, during, and immediately after the American Revolution. In particular, he explores the common themes of guarding public liberty, sacrificing life for public good, patriotism, and what Shaffer calls “grandly wicked tyranny” (5). The majority of the plays Shaffer examines are British texts, and he is especially interested in how these British plays were eventually deployed against the very culture from which they came, invoking “both the cultural affinity between two nations and their irreconcilable political differences” (7).
In his first chapter, Shaffer outlines much of the recent scholarship in the field of early American theatre, including works by Jeffrey Richards, Heather Nathans, and Odai Johnson. He also positions his work in relation to Joseph Roach (particularly Roach’s work on effigies and surrogation), David Waldstreicher (on fetes and parades), Julie Stone Peters (on print culture), and Benedict Anderson (imagined communities). In doing so, Shaffer’s work is thoroughly contextualized and furthers the work of these scholars in relation to the formation of national identity through theatre and performance.
Much of the ensuing discussion rests on the three character types that Shaffer identifies as central to early American drama in relation to the ongoing development of national identity: the tyrant, the sacrificial victim, and the patriot. Shaffer identifies the tyrant as being ambitious, hypocritical, and bloodthirsty; the sacrificial victim, as a politically active man killed either by trying to fight the tyrant or on the tyrant’s orders (though typically the ultimate descent into tyranny is marked by the tyrant making women or children the sacrificial victims, as in Richard III and Macbeth); and the patriot is identified as dedicated to the common good and flawless in his behavior. While aspects of these characters remained fixed, Shaffer notes that as shifts occurred in the political climate, so too did the figures with whom dramatic characters were associated: George Washington, for example, replacing George III as the epitome of patriotism. These changes reflected the emergence of an American political identity separate from that of England.
In chapter 2, which focuses on the use of Joseph Addison’s Cato in the construction of this political identity, Shaffer notes that while all three character types are present in the play, they were deployed both onstage and off to support apparently contradictory patriotic identities (Loyalist or Republican); for instance, both Captain Nathan Hale and King George III cited Cato directly in asserting their patriotism. Shaffer argues persuasively that the progression from one form of patriotism to another was not simple; he asserts that, as understandings of American independence changed over time, different audiences interpreted this text and these roles differently.
Focusing next on the relationship between the character of Cato and the executed American spy Nathan Hale, Shaffer explores the resonance of his [End Page 154] (alleged) dying words (“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”) in relation to a similar line spoken by Cato (“what pity is it / That we can die but once to serve our country!”) (31). Shaffer contends that Cato provided audience members with a role to “try on,” and that Hale also provided opportunities for mimesis; students mimicked the pose of the statue of Hale at Yale University while it was taken for cleaning in 1969, effectively standing in for Hale himself. Stamp Act riots, parades on the street, popular orations, and the development of the “liberty funeral” are all cited as further examples of the influence of Cato on the exploration and evolution of American identity in symbolically marked ritualized performances.
In the third chapter, Shaffer turns his attention to touring companies, noting the overwhelming popularity of both Cato and Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Both of these plays, he suggests, offered the audience “an opportunity to acquire the prestige of the patriot” (74) or of the sacrificial victim through...