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Reviewed by:
  • Gothic Plays and American Society, 1794–1830
  • Maura L. Jortner
Gothic Plays and American Society, 1794–1830. By M. Susan Anthony. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008; pp. 203. $39.95 paper.

M. Susan Anthony’s Gothic Plays and American Society fills an academic void: studies have been made of English gothic melodrama, but not of its American counterpart. To this end, Anthony offers her readers a full analysis of gothic melodrama, outlines of popular plays, and biographical sketches of actors in order to show how these components reflected American society at the turn of the nineteenth century. Anthony tackles a wide range of subjects. She begins by establishing the cultural situation in the United States after the Revolutionary War and situating gothic melodrama within this milieu. Noting America’s “ambivalent . . . efforts at cultural independence” (155), she explains American ties to English cultural tastes and illustrates how this environment of cultural/national insecurity affected many aspects of theatre at the time. [End Page 496]

In chapter 2, Anthony takes a regional approach. She outlines the plots of the five most popular gothic melodramas and provides information on the four major early nineteenth-century cities in which they were produced (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston). She suggests that one may examine trends in taste in order to speculate about regional differences from city to city. Thus Bostonians’ penchant for spectacle can be discerned through their frequent patronage of spectacle-filled plays such as Bluebeard, The Castle Spectre, and Adelmorn; Philadelphians, on the other hand, preferred plays with less of the supernatural and enjoyed works such as A Tale of Mystery, Bertram, and Marmion, which relied primarily on language for their effect.

Chapter 3 is a study of behavior: that of the audience within different sections of the theatre building; that of the actor, whose personal reputation (perceived behavior) was tied to the character he or she portrayed onstage; and that of society by looking at managers’ efforts to portray gothic melodramas as tools for instructing audiences in moral behavior. The next two chapters continue the same theme. Anthony outlines in great detail the various types of characters in gothic melodrama (males in chapter 4, females in chapter 5—not unlike David Grimsted’s treatment of character types in Melodrama Unveiled), and compares the characters’ actions to contemporary prescriptive literature. The author considers the careers of four gothic actresses in chapter 6, giving readers in-depth accounts of Mrs. Melmoth, Mrs. Whilock, Mrs. Oldmixon, and Mrs. Snelling Powell. While a few actresses of this era (namely, Anne Brunton Merry and Mary Ann Duff) have received sustained critical attention, the former have been overlooked by the scholarly community, according to Anthony, and her account seeks to remedy this academic neglect. Chapter 7 examines mise en scènes. Anthony digs into texts, prompt books, reviews, and Toy Theatre plates in hopes of reconstructing what the audience actually saw when they looked at the stage. Her methodology—to look at English sources, since most American ones have been lost—is risky, but it seems reasonable: one does get a better sense of what the spectacle, lighting, and scenery probably looked like.

Chapters 8 through 11 cover various small subjects, which at times seem too small to be full chapters. Chapter 8, for example, explains how after 1810, the gothic heroine’s dramaturgical situation changed: the heroine was suddenly no longer safe anywhere in the gothic landscape, whereas previously, home had been a safe haven. Chapter 9 details minute changes in texts as they moved across the Atlantic from England to America, and speculates about how these textual changes reflect differences between the societal values of the two countries. Chapter 10 discusses critics’ dislike of gothic melodrama despite the form’s popularity with the general public. Chapter 11 traces the emergence, by 1830, of an autonomous American identity in gothic texts. This chapter is only eight pages long; while it offers (in a roundabout way) a justification for Anthony’s 1830 end date, one has to question if such a small chapter warrants inclusion within the work.

Selected chapters of Gothic Plays and American Society would work well for a theatre history survey class...


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pp. 496-497
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