- The Theatre of Empire: Frontier Performances in America, 1750–1860
Theatre, Culture, Empire, Anglo-American
In The Theatre of Empire, Douglas S. Harvey examines the ways that theatre reflected and even helped produce the mythologies of New World empire. The study’s argument is forcefully grounded in what seems an impeccably progressive argument—that European cultural practices were complicit in environmental exploitation and oppression of nonwestern peoples. Eurocentric theatre, in particular, reveals the profound differences between Euro American empire and the indigenous peoples that it would encounter in its westward spread. This contrast of western and nonwestern cultures, for better or worse, animates the study.
Harvey tracks a succession of imperial mythologies through the theatre. The analysis follows performances of British mercantile empire, emergent nationalism, and eventually an expansionist United States empire based on slave labor and increasingly globalized resource extraction. Theatre, he argues, bolstered imperial expansion, first transforming Old World dramas into newly vital instruments of European expansion in the New World. The earliest Anglo American theatre troupes, likewise, appear in the study as tools in the consolidation of imperial interests. New forms of social organization were reinforced and energized by evolving forms of Euro American performance, and evolving acts continued to adapt older ideologies to the new contexts of the imperial frontier. Character types such as the stage Yankee, the noble savage, the provincial burgher, the frontiersman, and even minstrelsy’s black trickster Jim Crow all do their turns as grist and grindstone in the vast unstoppable ideology mill of early American performance.
There is some merit to this characterization; theatre, after all, was not simply a diverting pastime, but a part of the economy—a material and embodied manifestation of new transnational forms of resource and labor management. A range of American theatre scholars, from Odai Johnson, Heather Nathans, and Jeffrey Richards, to Eric Lott, James Cook, and W. T. Lhamon, Jr., have shown that theatre camped down in the heart of emergent social networks, feeding off of and reinforcing the economic practices and lines of social demarcation characteristic of Atlantic empire. Likewise, it is surely important to acknowledge, as Harvey does, [End Page 172] that when Europeans encountered indigenous culture, the meeting was often enough characterized by misunderstanding, stereotyping, and oppression, despite the occasional open-minded western observer. And it seems reasonable enough to claim that indigenous cultures maintained radically different relationships with the land, its resources, and the forces of nature that Harvey refers to as “other-than-human” actors. Such contrasting performances limn the clash of civilizations throughout the study, leaving readers with little more than an apocalyptic sense of Euro American culture’s ability to sweep all before it in an overwhelming tide of oppression. The result is not only a romanticized and oversimplified view of indigenous culture, but a puzzling, almost triumphalist, variation on the American Jeremiad.
Theatre of Empire seems centered on a commendable interest in inter-cultural acts, but largely fails to pursue intercultural analysis. Performance studies theorists continue to grapple with defining intercultural performances, but it seems safe to say that such analysis might attend not only to the competition of opposing worldviews, but also to the interpenetration and cross-pollination of cultural paradigms. The uncanny mixing of cultural registers and the unpredictable emergence of new forms, moreover, happens not only in the cultural peripheries and borderlands, but also in the allegedly untainted hearts of cultural purity.
The material in this study can certainly yield such insights, but Theatre of Empire generally does not. That said, the performances Harvey discusses are frequently compelling and his pairings provocative (circuses and Native American animal performances, for example). The study’s handling of blackface minstrelsy, informed by the insightful scholarship of the last decade, might count as one of its more nuanced moments, and Harvey’s notion that imperial performances advanced their interests by adapting folk performances also seems astute, although a more thorough historicizing might draw out the ways in which “folk culture” was far from monolithic, and often enough actively...