- Rogue Performances: Staging the Underclasses in Early American Theatre Culture
In his well-researched and discerning book Rogue Performances, Peter Reed traces how racial and economic underclasses contributed to and were represented by American and British theatrical performances of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The influence of Joseph Roach and W. T. Lhamon Jr. here is clear and acknowledged; Reed fruitfully builds upon Roach's description of the performative cultures of the circum-Atlantic world and Lhamon's emphasis on the African diasporic contribution to blackface by detailing how a wide range of performances of "the stage low" (7) inevitably influenced theatre proper. According to Reed, a low-inflected theatre embodied and shaped an inherently theatrical modern culture.
Reed does not seek to catalog the types of the stage low, but to examine the complex ways in which the performance practices of the underclasses were transformed into theatre, despite the danger such practices posed to those in positions of power. Karl Marx's 1852 analysis of a "lumpenproletariat"—"vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters" (qtd. on 6)—serves as Reed's inspiration and target. Reed points out that Marx's lumpenproletariat was essentially "a theatrical class, a cast of masked, costumed, and artificed characters" (6) whose lack of affiliation with a single class made them untrustworthy. To Reed, the slippery, performative underclass prompted not just class anxiety, but also an intense attraction—as seen in the ubiquity of the low onstage.
Reed details some common characteristics of the stage low's central figure, the rogue: an innate charisma, a dandy aesthetic, and a loyalty divided between the self and the gang or mob. The subject of chapter 2, and Reed's primary point of reference throughout the book, is Macheath from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), which was tremendously popular across the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. The Macheath figure implicated the viewer in his resistance to established law and hierarchies, aligning the audience with the onstage mob's power to grant reprieve from the hangman's rope. According to Reed, the Macheath figure is seen not just in other plays, but also in accounts of actual public executions, which readily became theatrical events.
Chapter 3 focuses on Susanna Haswell Rowson's Slaves in Algiers (1794), which links the metaphorical "American family" (54), so newly formed, to the subversive activities of an underclass that ultimately has no place in the national vision. Indeed, the drama's conclusion suggests that underclass theatricality—including the captive's strategic adoption of Algerian practices—must be expunged. Yet in a low comedy like William Dunlap's The Glory of Columbia (1803), the subject of chapter 4, theatrical rogues appear on US soil as Dunlap adapts actual street performances (namely, effigy parades) into his patriotic pastiche. More lucrative than André (1798)—Dunlap's prior, tragic treatment of Benedict Arnold's co-conspirator—The Glory of Columbia is not popular patriotic pabulum, Reed argues, but a demonstration of how the desires of the "people," potentially an unruly mob, could be at once entertained and controlled through the theatre.
Throughout Rogue Performances, but particularly in the final three chapters, Reed expands our sense of blackface minstrelsy's origins by situating the racialized rebel within a broader theatrical low culture that was subject to (in the words of Eric Lott) love and theft. Reed's treatment in chapter 5 of John Fawcett's Obi, or Three-Finger'd Jack (1800), which appeared on London and US stages, colors the titular rogue black, while raising the specter of rebellion across all sectors of the underclass. It does so, in part, by staging the Caribbean carnival figure of "Jonkanoo," whose masked performance of inversion signals through mimicry both slave resistance to the master and the preordained failure of rebellion. Chapter 6 considers W. T. Moncrieff's Tom and Jerry, or Life in London (1821), a play popular in the United States that touted the...