- The Dawning of American Drama: American Dramatic Criticism, 1746–1915
Until recently, serious exploration of American dramatic criticism prior to the twentieth century has eluded the attention of theatre scholars. The inferior quality of scripts and the absence of incisive contemporary criticism prior to the advent of the realist movement are among the reasons given by Jürgen Wolter, editor of this compendium of dramatic criticism and commentary, for such neglect. Wolter systematically has investigated American theatrical and literary popular journals to provide scholars and students a resource guide to “the most representative and illuminating texts from 170 years of dramatic criticism in America” (2). This includes almost 500 firsthand accounts and “heated debates” marking the direction of the American theatre; these are narrative artifacts that Wolter regards not only as a “treasure house of cultural memorabilia” but, more importantly, as a first step in the reclamation of early American dramatic criticism (2).
Representative voices articulating the merits and defects of the early American stage are compiled into five sections. Chapters 4 and 5 document Wolter’s exhaustive search for commentary on the theatre arts recovered from a wide variety of American periodicals between 1746 and 1915. He also provides a meticulous, chronological list of dramatic criticism that will serve as an indispensable resource guide for the further study of nineteenth-century American theatre.
The third chapter represents the bulk of the publication; it is here that Wolter offers representative “jeremiads and eulogies” of the dramatic arts in America spanning some six generations of theatre practice. Wolter subdivides this section of developing dramatic criticism prior to 1915 into three chronological categories: the nascent period of American theatre, 1746–1789; the utility of dramatic expression as a tool for defining American character and morality from 1790 to 1860; and, lastly, the advent of realism, 1860–1915. These “mirrors of public taste” (2) reflect the developing voices of early dramatic criticism, largely a chorus of lamentation either bemoaning the poor artistic state of the theatrical institution or its threat to religious and cultural morality in colonial America. The chronology of selected “dramatic criticism” reveals the formation of the emerging national character and the discourses of topical social issues—from women’s enfranchisement through economic empowerment, to the social plays of Ibsen. More importantly, the compilation in this section brings to light the then-ubiquitous concerns regarding the proper role of the theatre within the newly formed democratic nation, particularly as a tool for shaping a national identity and value system reflective of “American follies” and “American virtues” (11).
On the whole, the collection becomes something more than a narrative of the shifting theatrical scene or of the economic dynamics of entertainment. Both critics and crusaders deal with significant issues—among them, the emergence of native playwrights from the shadow of European dramatists, the rise of melodrama, the decline of touring companies, the ascendance of the star system and its debilitating effect on the dramatic maturity of the writer’s craft, and the emergence and eventual domination of first “spectacle” and later realism. Often-lengthy passages become quite striking when intersected with the polemics of national ideology and contemporary social debate. Here, the theatre becomes a host for the immutable presence of both [End Page 252] the popular and the detested. When attacked, defenders of the theatrical institution aligned the issue of public performances to that of censorship and free assembly as a test of the underpinning principles of the fledgling democracy. If conservative moralists could indeed dictate “appropriate” forms of dramatic expression from above, as was their argument, what other forms of oppression might be impressed upon the people? When the role of theatre shifted away from one of social corruption to become an “instrument for the formation of national character” (13), it served to inculcate a strong sense of nationalism through its own peculiar representations of regional characteristics. American dramatists tapped into the young nation’s raw energy to create cultural icons of American folly as well as those...