‘America’ is not an overarching synthesis, e pluribus unum, but a rhetorical battleground, a symbol that has been made to stand for diverse and sometimes mutually antagonistic outlooks.—Sacvan Berkovitch
‘Myths’ may be . . . used to bad ends—but they cannot be dispensed with. In the last analysis they are our basic . . . tools for living together.—Kenneth Burke
To perform is to bring something about, . . . to ‘carry out’ a play, order, or project.—Victor Turner
I began my comment on the March issue of Theatre Journal by suggesting that “performance . . . marks the threshold between the ordinary and the extraordinary, fact and Þction, or between the indicative mood of social living and the subjunctive mood of utopian presentiment.” I begin this special issue on “enacting Americans” by delineating the multiple meanings of “enactment,” which range from legislation to play. As a predicate to “enactment,” “America” appears as an object and an objective, a tool and a target, a product of labor and the law, and as a mise-en-scène in which the national community is imagined and disputed.
Laura Rigal’s essay on the Grand Federal Procession of 1788 opens this special issue. Following the procession of republican craftsmen and federalist spokesmen, Rigal traces the enactment of the United States and its citizens in the “extended pun on political representation as craft production and on the newly written Constitution [of 1787] as a well-constructed frame” or “roof.” Congregated under this roof in celebration of federation and Rousseauist “civic love” is a predominantly male gathering of craftsmen and spokesmen, artisans and “assembly-men.” While the Federal Republic of 1788 is, in Rigal’s account, the enactment of independent men of skill and property (as well as the staging of the tensions between these groups), the Progressive Era America featured in the closing article of this issue, Shannon Jackson’s essay on “gender, theatre, and American reform,” is at least in part the production of women-led institutions like Hull-House, whose “civic play-housekeeping” created Americans (if not yet legal citizens) out of working-class immigrants, especially women. If the role of the republican artisan is to make the nation, that of the immigrant woman so schooled is to be the nation. Feminine conduct in the house—or on the stage—rather than masculine construction of the roof, characterizes and perhaps therefore limits this enactment and this America. Jackson’s restoration of Dorothy Mittelman Sigel’s Hull-House curtsey unearths a whole history of performance as reformance, as not merely the discipline of class but also the reformation of foreign bodies as autonomous Americans.
Laying out the theoretical terrain on which enactment can be seen to incorporate public and private roles, national and local scenes, legislation and conduct, momentous and everyday acts, the essays by Rigal and Jackson provide the ground for the other articles in this special issue. Moving from the Federal Procession of 1788 to the Sioux War Panorama of the 1860s, we move also from the Republic-under-one-roof to the expanding, quasi-imperial state. Despite the differences of tone and scale, however, James Wilson’s dramatic interpretation of the united state of property-holders in 1788 has its echo several generations later in John Stevens’s populist recreation of manifest destiny as the inheritance of aspiring homesteaders on the frontier. John Bell’s discussion of the text and images of Stevens’s “moving panorama” suggest the manifold and contradictory representation of the nation as family farm and as manufactory, settled homestead and endless prairie. Likewise, Jackson’s reþections on the relationships between the conduct of women and the reformance of national character in turn-of-the-century Chicago provide an illuminating frame around the debates about the conduct of immigrants, particularly women, on stage and in the houses of the Yiddish music halls in contemporary New York in Nina Warnke’s article. Although the taste-makers and moral improvers in Warnke’s narrative are immigrant intellectuals rather than established American reformers, Abraham Cahan and his cohorts share with Edith de Nancrede and hers the conviction that theatre art rather than commercial amusement should be recreating and reforming immigrants into Americans. [End...