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  • The Drama of History in Francophone New Orleans
  • Juliane Braun (bio)

On January 1, 1824, the English-speaking population of New Orleans celebrated the grand opening of the American Theatre, lauding the advent of “Bards our own” and the rise of “our Drama” in the Crescent City (qtd. in Smither 41). For the city’s francophone residents, this event marked a new stage in the ongoing battle for cultural survival. Until the opening of the American Theatre, French drama and opera had dominated the city. Beginning in 1792, when Louisiana was still under Spanish rule, French theatricals were regularly performed at the Théâtre de la Rue St. Pierre, the Théâtre St. Philippe, and the Théâtre d’Orléans. After the Louisiana Purchase, more and more Anglo-Americans settled permanently in New Orleans and began to compete with the city’s established French-speaking population for political, economic, and cultural sway. The growing influence of the anglophone newcomers alarmed the francophone residents, who feared for the continued existence of their community. Over time, the tensions between the two populations turned into open hostility and came, according to historian Joseph Tregle, “perilously close to armed violence” (153). In 1836, the city of New Orleans was formally divided along ethnic lines to prevent such an escalation.

This article examines how the anglophone and francophone struggles for political influence and cultural sovereignty in New Orleans were transported into the local playhouses. Following Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s conceptualization of the early American playhouse as a “cultural site at which the dynamics of political belonging, modern sovereignty, and aesthetics [were] coarticulated” (21), I consider how drama native to the Crescent City and performed at local theaters at once reflected and helped negotiate continuing tensions between the city’s multiple linguistic communities. I focus in particular on how Louisiana’s French-speaking community used the theater as a powerful weapon in the battle for cultural [End Page 763] survival. On the stage and in the auditorium, Louisiana’s francophone population defined, defended, and disseminated its French identity while simultaneously negotiating its place in the city of New Orleans and the broader American nation. Conceiving of the French-language theater as a site of cultural affirmation, this article explores the relationship between the institution of theater, written drama, and ethnic identity in antebellum Louisiana.

The correlation between theater and identity formation has been studied extensively in recent scholarship on early American theater. Jeffrey H. Richards, for example, has described theater as “[o]ne of the registers and molders of identity” (17). Heather S. Nathans, Jason Shaffer, and S. E. Wilmer, among others, have specifically linked the emergence of theater as an institution to the formation of a national “American” identity (1, 13, 1). In her most recent study, Dillon has pointed to the limitations of using “the familiar narrative of cultural nationalism” to examine early American theater. Instead, she proposes “the study of theatre in Atlantic rather than national terms” as a way to throw “into relief the vitality of theatre as a cultural form in the colonial Americas and the early national United States” (20). While fully agreeing with the necessity to expand any investigation of early American theater beyond the national boundaries of the United States, I turn to a multilingual rather than an Atlantic paradigm in order to tease out the complexities and multifaceted relations of the early American stage.1

Taking as an example the theatrical scene of antebellum New Orleans, this article focuses on the ways in which the drama native to Louisiana and its production in the local theater expressed and shaped the local concerns of the Crescent City’s transnational, polyglot communities. In doing so, I build on the work of scholars such as Werner Sollors, who has highlighted the importance of multilingual sources to the creation of American literature and culture.2 Sollors’s work reveals “how multilingual American literature is part of a transnational world,” as American authors who write in languages other than English “complicate the fit of authorship, citizenship, and language” (introduction 7). Recovering the archive of francophone drama from Louisiana and juxtaposing it to an English-language play, I investigate how a multilingual...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-147X
Print ISSN
0012-8163
Pages
pp. 763-795
Launched on MUSE
2015-11-18
Open Access
No
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