- The Arts of War and PeaceTheatricality and Sexuality in the Early Republic
The Meschianza, early U.S. Theater, Royall Tyler, Performance
If David Shields and Fredrika Teute have illuminated the theatrical quality of elite social interaction during the Revolutionary and Federalist eras, they have also offered a more than credible job analyzing an actual theatrical performance: the Meschianza, a mixed-media extra-vanganza performed by British troops and colonial ladies at Philadelphia in 1779. By now, the importance of the theatre and theatricality for the study of early America must be clear to anyone following the field for the last several decades.1 From Kenneth Silverman’s attention to theatrical events in his encyclopedic Cultural History of the American Revolution to recent work by Heather Nathans, Odai Johnson, and myself, the history of the early American theatre has become a subject meriting serious [End Page 279] academic inquiry.2 Shields and Teute’s study of the vexed national and gender identities on display at Lord Howe’s legendary farewell bash stands out for its simultaneous analyses of the performance text, the participants, and the audience.
They refer to the Meschianza as “the sum of all fêtes, a performance that encompassed the entirety of the theater of British civility”—a pageant, a dance, a feast, a fête champetre. Their patient explication of the event places the Meschianza amidst the slovenly wilderness of American history, where it is encapsulated by the complexities of life in a revolutionary society and the history of the Revolution itself. Shields and Teute explicated the complex cultural work performed in Philadelphia in what was, when they presented their research, unique detail. The gentility of the British soldiers dressed in feudal garments, for instance, spoke directly to the British caricature of the Continentals as “an army in which officers were not gentlemen, but merchants with swords—in which soldiering was zealous butchery performed by armed farmers and mechanics.” Even more critical to our understanding of the event’s importance to the history of the revolution is their assessment of the Meschianza’s purpose and its dramaturgy:
The richness of metropolitan manners and the potency of the British empire’s arts of peace must be shown—to the colonials as an education about all that would be forfeit if independence were achieved—to loyalists as a rite of confirmation in imperial identity—to his army as a warrant for their actions. The theater—Britain’s great [End Page 280] school of manners and the engine of fashion—would be the primary vehicle of Howe’s demonstration.
Shields and Teute’s themes of upheaval—in manners, gender norms, traditional communal identities, and economic cohesion owing to the uneven distribution of suffering due to the war—seem as inextricably intertwined as the cultural forms on display at the Meschianza.
All of these themes add up to a form of male performance anxiety that is equal parts theatrical and sexual. The Yankees attacking Breed’s Hill and disturbing General Burgoyne’s production of The Blockade of Boston or firing the woods during the Meschianza were self-consciously, one might say theatrically, plain republican commoners who ran into an officer corps “campaigning on behalf of some more atavistic scheme, renovating the old ethic of valor, masculine prerogative, and elite familiarity,” as Shields and Teute contend. This conflict of masculinities naturally drew sneers from the rebels, as in the case of Anthony Wayne’s conflation of masculine weakness, urbanity, and romance relating to the British officer corps and the ladies of Philadelphia (ironic given Wayne’s own love of theatre). Meanwhile, despite set and costume designer Major John André’s best efforts to move the ladies and the slaves of the Mechianza off to a sideboard like so many bourgeois nibbles of Turkish delight, Shields and Teute capture the dangerous allure of romance and femininity in revolutionary culture: “In this colonial contest, male power was rendered impotent by sexual desire. Imperial officers were possessed by Anglo–American women, rather than possessing them. If opponents could present military might entrapped by female lures, feminine attractions also could overcome the source of conflict.”3 [End Page 281]