- Slavery and Sentiment on the American Stage, 1787–1861: Lifting the Veil of Black
Ambitious in scope, Heather Nathans’s Slavery and Sentiment on the American Stage shows how public debates over slavery and black equality were represented in the theater during the decades before emancipation. Nathans considers in passing some familiar works, such as Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859), but she is mainly interested in recovering and closely describing lesser known or wholly unknown plays, [End Page 321] as well as other types of performance such as Henry Ward Beecher’s simulated slave auctions. Nathans’s research is impressive. Working from scripts and published plays as well as from playbills, reviews, advertisements, diaries and notes kept by theater managers, newspapers, novels, political cartoons, proslavery and antislavery propaganda, speeches, and pamphlets, she addresses both the plays themselves and their informing backgrounds, reconstructing details of plot and character from ancillary materials in cases where there is no primary source available. Nathans’s argument is squarely focused on the representation of slavery as a theme in plays written, produced, and acted by whites, but it does contain new and important research on African American amateur theater companies, notably Boston’s Histrionic Club, offering a useful counterpoint to recent cultural histories of institutions like New York’s African Theatre.
Although Nathans frequently looks forward to the consolidation of interest around Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the 1850s, she does not give her own account of Stowe’s novel or its many and diverse stage adaptations. Slavery and Sentiment, for this reason, makes a useful companion to Sarah Meer’s excellent Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s (2005), in that Nathans fills important gaps in the early theatrical history of sentimental antislavery. There are many fascinating cases examined here—from The Triumphs of Love (1794), a play that includes the first scene of slave emancipation performed on stage in the United States, to A. B. Lindsley’s Love and Friendship (1809), a farce that features an impassioned complaint against the Middle Passage delivered by a cross-dressing white female actor in black-face, to The Black Schooner (1839), a hugely popular melodrama inspired by the Amistad case, to Harry Seymour’s Aunt Dinah’s Pledge (1850), an adaptation of a temperance novel that emphasized its African American heroine’s refined sensibility and capacity for moral commitment even as it also invoked the rhetoric of antislavery reformers who associated the slaveholder’s unchecked authority with the carnal excess of the inebriate. Much of Nathans’s discussion is organized around character types—Mungo, Jim Crow, Spartacus—with special attention paid to the frequently dramatized question of the slave’s capacity for participation in democracy. In some of its best moments, the book shows us not only how theater was made meaningful by political controversy but also how theater influenced the strategies of the debate over slavery, explaining, for instance, how the stump performances of abolitionist agent Parker Pillsbury borrowed from the always-evolving “Yankee and Sambo” pieces enacted in the antebellum playhouse.
The book is less compelling when it comes to analysis. Particularly troubling is its application of its central concept of sentimentality. Nathans proposes to follow the “transformation” of the concept of sentimentality over the decades under consideration, while also attending to its “multiple resonances” at each point in this transformation, but her application of the concept lacks both historical and conceptual precision, preferring the citation of multiple, and often competing definitions from other critics to the rigorous conceptualization that might lead to convincing interpretation (3). The book also lacks the narrative cohesion that might compensate for its analytical shortcomings. Nathans starts chronologically in the opening two chapters, before circling back and around in the next four, making it hard to evaluate, in any cumulative sense, the important “shifts” that the book claims to examine, or to correlate the broad “parallels” that are asserted between and the practice of the theater and the language of politics.
Though readers may find...