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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 427-428
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The Cambridge History of American Theatre,
Vol. I: Beginnings to 1870
The Cambridge History of American Theatre, Vol. I: Beginnings to 1870. Edited by Don B. Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; pp. xvi and 506. $74.95.
It is unlikely that people who read this volume (other than reviewers) will do so from cover to cover, and that is a shame because The Cambridge History of American Theatre clearly charts the campaigns won, those still waging, and those largely unattempted in scholarship covering the history of the American (US) theatre before 1870. What is striking about this history is the new and old historiography that characterizes it. The editors' introduction, for example, reads in two directions, one emphasizing adjudicatory texts, the other innovative ones. Chapters follow suit, juxtaposing commonplaces from received traditions with more self-conscious and theatricalizing analyses, leaving some prominent incompatibilities uninterrogated.
The body of The Cambridge History of American Theatre begins with its longest essay, Bruce McConachie's seventy-page "American Theatre in Context, from the Beginnings to 1870," which contextualizes American theatre in terms of reception theory. Three paradigms govern the analysis--patriarchy and gentility; paternalism, sentimentality, and republicanism; and rationality and respectability--which assist a focus on race, class, and gender. While McConachie's essay would, I think, do more if it undertook less, it certainly addresses the editorial focus on the diffused social and cultural content of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American theatre.
Douglas McDermott's essay challenges the received wisdom that tells eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American theatre history in terms of a "principal player" idea (197f) and the development and ascendance of the single, long-touring play. McDermott forces the rethinking of the star system at the level of its material production and presents an alternative view of diversified, rather than unitary, American management practices.
In his study of plays and playwrights to 1800, Peter Davis provides a stunning reassessment of the view (present elsewhere in this volume) that contextualizes American theatre in terms of a consistent anti-theatrical prejudice. Davis invites us to assess what "the anti-theatrical prejudice" tradition contributes to "progressive" historical readings, while his own contextualized (rather than developmental) analysis invites research into fairs, markets, and other forms of indigenous theatre bespeaking "a distinct American aesthetic" (248).
Gary Richardson's long essay offers conventional literary analysis of several melodramas, including their sociocultural historical context. Richardson takes up few of the organizing constructs of these dramas, while eschewing the developmental historiographies of positivism (periodization, continuity, and typologies). The discussion of melodrama remains literary, not surprising in an analysis indebted to Peter Brooks and Robert Heilman and resistant to the dismissive rhetoric of David Grimsted and Garff Wilson, who characterize melodrama as an "affliction" or "blight." Paragraphs of generalized summary do little to contextualize plays and playwrights, and leave uncritiqued the globalizing assumptions of positivist histories.
Both Richardson's account of plays and playwrights from 1800 to 1865, and Simon Williams's discussion of European actors and the starring system in America from 1752 to 1870 are comprehensive and gracefully written, but both would profit from cross-talking with the essays by McConachie, McDermott, and Davis. Williams's foreign stars are overwhelmingly English and chiefly male, and, as with Richardson's proffering of melodrama as a popular "repudiation of patrician poetic drama" (273), focused upon a paradigm [End Page 427] shift--the movement away from formal acting styles toward a socially contextualized personality/psychological style. Attention is paid to the economics of starring, but there is little other American sociocultural context.
Joseph Roach gracefully locates creative analogies from which memorably phrased relational analyses of performance can be crafted. In "The Emergence of the American Actor," Roach uses Twain's Huckleberry Finn to chart the course of American acting. He moves fluidly from, for example, the aesthetics of actors and acting into the shift of acting lines toward ethnic specialties, and from these specialties as markers of the ebb and flow of cultural liminality to...