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Race and the Yankee: Woodworth's The Forest Rose Jeffrey H. Richards Samuel Woodworth's musical play, TTie Forest Rose (1825), was one of the most successful American dramas on stage before Uncle Tom's Cabin, ana, according to Richard Moody,the country's first"hit."1 For at least forty years, TheForestRose held the boards and provided a number of actors with a star vehicle for its Yankee part, Jonathan Ploughboy. So popular did it prove, in fact,that a run ofover 100 performances in London was recorded with the famed American Yankee actor, Joshua Silsbee.2 Based on a type exploited successfully by Royall Tyler in The Contrast (1787) and used in other works, Jonathan in Woodworth's play would seem to be constructed ofthe same elements that make Tyler's Jonathan a loveable character: naivete, countrydialect, ineptitude, and a good heart. The stage success of The Forest Rose helped revitalize the male Yankee type, and the play's continued appearance in theaters coincided with the reign ofYankee characters in England and the United States.3 Unfortunately, however, some change has occurred between Tyler and Woodworth—or some latent tendencies brought forward—that reorients the familiar features into what seems now a less lovable character than Colonel Manly's waiter in The Contrast. Jonathan Ploughboy is an inept lover, but he is also a shrewd shopkeeper; a blunderer, yet a clever plotter. For David Grimsted, these post-Coriírasí developments of the type only confirm the Yankee's "essential pure-heartedness and his innate good sense."4 Like later Yankees, Ploughboy escapes opprobrium 33 34Comparative Drama on stage for his foibles by the "geniality" of his "calculating acquisitiveness ."5 Yet one development cannot be explained easily away in the notion of a simple, ultimately harmless, if "sharp" rustic. For above all, Woodworth's Jonathan is an out-and-out racist, whose signature comic line,"I would not serve a negro so,"has grim consequences for the literal Negro he does "serve so," Lid Rose. Indeed, Woodworth's comedy ofinnocent rural lovers threatened by the schemes of a low-minded urban aristocrat is built on a racial conception that illustrates how, only a few years after its premiere, minstrel shows would find a welcome home on the American stage. Although minstrel shows have received significant scholarly attention ,6 the presence of black characters in other pre-twentieth century American drama has not. When discussed at all, early drama is seen to exemplify some generic type, establish a character, or serve a national theme. The "stage darky" is, ofcourse, a recognized stereotype, but little has been done to examine the complexities of interaction the presence of such a character sometimes calls forth.7 The problem is stated most eloquentlybyToni Morrison in Playingin the Dark. Not content simply to mark texts by white writers as racist, she queries the whole literary critical enterprise for the way itlooks at—that is, does not see—what she calls "Africanism" in American works. As she defines the term, Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny .8 In other words,Africanism, the marked but usually unnoted presence of a dark other, serves often to define whiteness in its desired characteristics . At the same time, however, as Morrison shows with works such as Willa Cather's Sapphira and theSlave Girlor Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, the narrative attempt to elide black characters often has unintended or surprising consequences. As Mark Twain recounts the process of writing Pudd'nhead Wilson, another troubled book on race, the mulatto character Roxy, a minor presence in the extended joke tale, "Those Extraordinary Twins," forced her way into the story so far as to JeffreyH. Richards35 compel the author to start over with a "tragedy," Pudd'nhead Wilson.9 Given Morrison's challenge, it seems well worth visiting a source ofmany Africanist characters, earlyAmerican drama, in order to explore the formation of a key white type, the stage...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 33-51
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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